Word For The Week - 6/7/18

Word For The Week

June 3, 2018:
2 Corinthians 4:5-12

Forgive a bit of a travelogue. I have been a tourist this week, taking what is most likely a once-in-a-lifetime Swiss vacation with 5 friends, celebrating our collective good fortune in turning 50.

Rest assured: we all had a good time.

The boys indulged my professional curiosity, shall we say. Like many pastors, I’m a sucker for an old church, and I don’t mean the ones built at the turn of the last century. Whitewash and a certain must signal congregations gathered across centuries and even millennia. Or, as in the case of many of the sanctuaries we visited, stone floors worn smooth, granite columns, arches, and an extended choir.

While I appreciate holy places, they seldom move me. So I was not prepared for what I found in Switzerland.

In the baroque, gold-and-white Jesuit church in Lucerne, we chatted with a couple traveling from Portage, Wisconsin, and I sat in a Marian chapel praying and holding back tears.

The Franciscan church a few blocks away was older, cooler, darker, humbler, as you might guess. In a chapel there, I encountered the preserved body of St. Coelestini Martyris in a niche just above the altar, the first time I ever met a saint behind glass.

The mountain resort chapel in Bürgenstock had the stink of an old church. Like many of its kind, it could barely hold twenty worshipers, yet it was important enough that someone felt the need to drag it up the side of a hill.

On the inside of a Protestant church in the very Catholic canton of Obwalden, the sense ran less to the past than a forward-looking simplicity. The sanctuary featured plain blond wood floors, chairs, a font, lectern and communion table made of hardly more than a few rough boards. Light flooded the space through clear glass windows covered with a Sunday-school project: tissue-paper representations of the four evangelists. There wasn’t a flag, a banner, not even an image of Jesus in sight. All had been reduced to the hieratic church gathered before water, word and table, the most basic elements of Christian worship.

The big daddy of them all, as it were, was the Grossmünster in Zurich, the seat of Huldrych Zwingli, who founded the Swiss reformation with a flair by attending and defending a sausage party in the midst of Lent. This is not a euphemism: the Swiss Reformation began over plates of Landjäger and pancakes.

Paradoxically, I most enjoyed things in the Grossmünster Zwingli himself did his best to be rid of: stained glass windows by Giacometti and Polke, the miraculously surviving fresco Madonna and child, so touching and full of love one has to assume it was fashioned as a tribute to the artist’s mother.

Simply to stand for a few minutes in the same space as the reformer, the founder of my branch of the Christian tree, lost in wonder and beauty, was a miracle in its own right. I took home no souvenirs for myself, beyond this experience and the many photos I snapped. Oh, and audio recordings of church bells, including funeral tolls recorded at the Grossmünster.

I have spent a lot of time working up to what in the end is a fairly simple point. Whether through visiting cathedrals or standing in a mountain meadow contemplating the wonders of creation, at some point, one goes from being a tourist to a pilgrim.

My heart broke open in these churches not for their beauty in itself, though beautiful they were, but for the mystery that accompanied it. In beauty, we are invited to love God. We come with our ugliness and brokenness into places that carry us in deepening currents to the divine.

That same experience can be had in black gospel music. The cathedrals of Europe—including the Grossmünster—brought the raw history, the hopes and the sorrows of the people into classical perfections of stone and glass. African-American religious music, with one foot in raw field hollers and one in the polished, symphonic harmonies of the Jubilee choirs, has wrought the same triumphs in pitch, rhythm, and groans so unfiltered they could only have originated in the Holy Spirit.

Even a casual acquaintance with the likes of—just to name a few—Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, the Soul Stirrers (with or without Sam Cooke in front), or, yes, Aretha Franklin can have the dangerous side effect of drawing one into deep and holy, water. It’s not just that these artists are able to name the troubles they and by extension we have seen. Gospel artists at their best have always been able to transform their experience and the experiences of their community into something profound, something that points directly at God.

The great stone churches and the powerful vocals of black gospel music lift us beyond ourselves. They have the power to take a superficial encounter and turn it into an ongoing journey of spiritual discovery.

In these forms of art, we are reminded that God loves us and invites us to return that love. Beauty is the fuel that takes us there, to paraphrase Mavis Staples. It is not beside the point that Europe’s architectural genius has often found expression alongside war, poverty, and plague, nor that gospel music finds its roots in slavery, oppression, and humiliation. Through their transformation of pain and sorrow into beauty, they announce the coming of Jesus to heal and restore the world.

There is no purer expression of that proclamation than the music of Curtis Mayfield. Though in his long career Mayfield seldom felt the need to express his faith directly, it was implicit in all his music. There is no listening to Curtis without recognizing the kind of confident joy that only comes from a deep faith in the redemptive power of love. And there is no listening, particularly to his later work, without hearing pain transmogrified into beauty.

It is no secret to those who know me that I have had tough times recently. It’s one of those midlife crossroads where one is called to leave safety behind in favor of an uncertain path. My faith has been tested, honestly. But faith has this way of coming alive again. As Paul understood, once wounds and brokenness are admitted to, once the devil is dealt with, then the move on up can begin. So you sit with old friends, drinking Swiss beer and rehearsing life’s ups and downs. Or you open yourself to the surprising, moving esthetics of an ancient church calling you home. Sometimes, you just throw an mp3 on the computer speakers and listen to Curtis Mayfield name with utter and exquisite beauty the longing you can’t express for yourself.

However it is, dear listener, I hope you encounter it too. It is the gospel.


God our strength in times of affliction, help us not to proclaim ourselves, but to serve one another in Jesus’ sake. In your mercy, hear our prayer.

God who let the light shine out of darkness, shine your light in our hearts, and allow us to see Jesus’ face. In your mercy, hear our prayer.

God who knows our weaknesses, give us the grace to embrace them. Help us to be weak, that your power may shine through our imperfection. In your mercy, hear our prayer.

God of the sabbath, give us rest. In your mercy, hear our prayer.

God of the persecuted, let them never be forsaken. May we, the fortunate ones, always stand in solidarity with them. In your mercy, hear our prayer.

God of the living and the dead, show your mercy on those approaching the end of their lives, and those we must give up to death. Bring them into eternal life in Jesus and show through them his life in the midst of our death. In your mercy, hear our prayer.