Week of July 3, 2013

Todd JonesMy Dear Friends,

One of my favorite life activities is to visit churches, which has caused both joy and aggravation for my family over the years. I am drawn to churches like our own that reflect the work of outstanding architects. It was Byron who said, “Beauty is the handmaiden of truth,” and churches enshrine the truth of his maxim as well as anything does. Whether we are thinking of the chaste and simple beauty of a New England meetinghouse or the delicate, soaring arches of a gothic cathedral, good church architecture has always spoken powerfully of the partnership of beauty and truth. There is something about churches, especially old churches, which moves and lifts the soul and causes one to reflect more deeply upon life. Perhaps this is why I have always loved the poem written by the English poet, Philip Larkin, called “Church Going.” Larkin, who lived from 1922-1985 in England, where he worked as a librarian at the University of Hull, meant the title of his masterful poem to hold both meanings. He reflects upon visiting an old church:

Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle clips in awkward reverence.

Larkin wonders why he visits such places, as they seem more like museums than houses of living faith to him, and yet, he admits that there is something that draws him again and again into these holy places. “Yet stop I did: in fact, I often do…” Larkin is not at all sure that such places will even survive. He lived after World War II in Great Britain, during an era that Dietrich Bonhoeffer said prophetically had become a “post-Christian” culture and world. Larkin shares this struggle with faith and his own agnosticism. “A shape less recognizable each week, a purpose more obscure,” he writes in his poem of these old churches. I am drawn to the poem because I have such a passion for the Gospel and a deep love for the mission of the Church of Jesus Christ wherever it lives. Yet the existence of old, often empty buildings, built once to house large and vibrant congregations, but now almost museums of sorts, challenges me. I found our visit to Haggia Sophia in Istanbul both one of the most inspiring churches I have ever seen and at the same time one of the saddest places through which I have ever walked. Haggia Sophia was the grandest church in Christendom, yet in 1453 ceased to be a church at all and became for the next five hundred years a mosque, as Constantinople was overrun by the Ottomans and became the largely Muslim city of Istanbul. You can feel the presence of Christ in the cruciform-shaped building, yet it has been centuries since Christian worship has been practiced in this exquisite building. There are so many challenges to Christian faith that exist in the world today, and yet Christianity remains the largest and fastest-growing religion in the world, all the while experiencing a kind of languor in Europe and North America, where it once was strongest. Larkin noted that decline of the Church, and he could not help but to ask, “I wonder who will be the last, the very last, to seek this place for what it was?” Yet even this doubt-filled poet could not dismiss the Church, and all that it has stood for in the world. I love the conclusion of his poem:

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much can never be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which he once heard was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie around.

Our job, our calling, of course, is to keep the Church alive, to continue to worship the living God, and to remember why the Church exists, and why the world needs it so.

With Love and Prayers,

Todd Jones

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