Yesterday, I experienced a glimpse of heaven on earth–which prompted me to seriously ponder my faith, the spiritual state of our world, and the future of Christianity.
And no, this wasn’t because I successfully survived wearing high heels for over twelve hours without my toenails falling off in sheer protest.
I took two of my musical students to the Cathedral Basilica in downtown St. Louis, a breathtakingly beautiful monument created entirely out of mosaics. If you live anywhere in the Midwest and want to see something that rivals the grandeurs of Europe, this is the place to check out. I’ve been inside nearly a dozen times, and each time I’m stunned into reverent contemplation. It’s incredible.
We went to enjoy “Christmas at the Cathedral”, a two-hour concert extravaganza featuring two choirs, a handbell team, an organ, and an orchestra. I had been wanting to go to this concert for two years, and couldn’t convince any of my friends to go until I finally found some fellow (albeit young) music-lovers this year who are just as captivated by music as I am.
I was swept away by the beauty of the music, the strings and brass echoing hauntingly through the massive stone walls. I marveled, with tears in my eyes, as the choir sang an a cappella version of “Silent Night” from the transepts. And, when the entire crowd stood at the very end of the concert to sing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” together with the organ, orchestra, choirs, and handbells triumphantly blasting, I literally choked up and couldn’t even utter a sound.
Listening to the pure voices resound through the crowds as they sang classical Latin and Italian hymns and simultaneously seeing the lights shimmer and glint off the magnificent and intricate mosaics transported me back to the medieval times–a time when God wasn’t my “homeboy” or a plastic action figure on my desk, but the Creator who imbued man with the ability to create, dream, and act in ways that couldn’t help but glorify Him.
Back then, the Bible wasn’t an application on our phones–it was a life-giving message of hope in an otherwise dark and dangerous world. And back then–without the myriad of useful objects that have cluttered our lives and distracted us to the point that we can’t have a meaningful conversation with anyone for even a few minutes–people had time to contemplate how grand God actually is.
In our present day and age, I think we’ve become too familiar with God–too comfortable with treating Him like He’s just another buddy. We paste Him on shirts, erasers, and lunch boxes. Athletes and celebrities occasionally throw Him an obligatory ”shout out” and a generic, politically correct (and thus totally bland and meaningless) statement about how they “believe in Him”. We create nicknames and fan clubs of Him on Facebook, and mock Him on South Park.
More than anything, I am stunned that the God who inspires people–no, who designed people to rise up and sing, paint, dance, speak, live and love beyond their own limits–that He could possibly care about someone as insignificant as me.
It’s an ignorant and shameful idea that we can mock Him and treat Him so condescendingly and lightly. He’s not my “homeboy”–He’s beyond comprehension.
It’s an unspeakable privilege that I am even blessed to pray to God, let alone claim to be His follower.
English pastor F. W. Robertson once said, “One thing, and only one, in this world has eternity stamped upon it. Feelings pass; resolves and thoughts pass; opinions change. What you have done lasts–lasts in you. Through ages, through eternity, what you have done for Christ, that, and only that, you are.”
Lately, nearly everything I’ve read and heard about is pulling up obscure passages from the book of Nehemiah. It’s uncanny, actually–that so many unrelated sources and people are all pointing me back to this simple book.
In short, Nehemiah’s fellow countrymen, the Jews, were living in the rubble of the once-powerful city of Jerusalem. This broke Nehemiah’s heart, and he began praying for God to work mightily on the Jew’s behalf. He started planning for rebuilding the city, and as he served King Xerxes as a cup-bearer (a trusted position), the king asked him why he was so downcast. Nehemiah jumped at the opportunity to share his thoughts, offering a well-planned solution for rebuilding Jerusalem. Xerxes agreed to supply him with the materials he needed, and eventually Nehemiah inspired the people to rebuild the city–despite plenty of opposition. The gates were completed in an incredible 52 days.
Nehemiah left the city and returned after 12 years to find the walls sound, but the people in moral decay. I was thrilled to highlight Nehemiah 13:25 in my Bible: “I argued with those people, put curses on them, hit some of them and pulled out their hair” (boy, I guess I’m doing just fine with how I handle those rowdy high school boys!) Eventually, Nehemiah reestablished true worship and sincere prayer, and encouraged a cultural revival which led to the people actually reading and listening to the Word of God.
Maybe this is where God is leading His church today–another revival, a step away from the shallow, technology-obsessed, discontent world we’ve let take over our lives. Maybe the future of our faith is a return to the simple majesty and wonder that the early Christians had for their Savior.
I’m currently reading Mark Batterson’s book, Primal. In his opening chapters, Batterson says he took a trip to Rome and embarked on an underground tour into the catacombs of an ancient church, which were hidden under layers of church buildings that were topped off by a cathedral–as was the Roman habit, to build on top of preexisting buildings, century after century.
He writes, “As I tried to absorb the significance of where I was, I couldn’t help but wonder if our generation has conveniently forgotten how inconvenient it can be to follow in the footsteps of Christ. I couldn’t help but wonder if we have diluted the truths of Christianity and settled for superficialities. I couldn’t help but wonder if we have accepted a form of Christianity that is more educated but less powerful, more civilized but less compassionate, more acceptable but less authentic than that which our spiritual ancestors practiced.
Over the last two thousand years, Christianity has evolved in lots of ways. We’ve come out of the catacombs and built majestic cathedrals with all the bells and steeples. Theologians have given us creeds and canons. Churches have added pews and pulpits, hymnals and organs, committees and liturgies. And the IRS has given us 501(c)(3) status. And there is nothing inherently wrong with any of those things. But none of those things is primal. And I wonder, almost like the Roman effect of building things on top of things, if the accumulated layers of Christian traditions and institutions have unintentionally obscured what lies beneath.”
I’ve talked to a lot of unchurched people about Christ in the last several years–probably upwards of 100. And when I really think about it, their opposition to Christianity usually isn’t Christ–it seems to be an opposition to what Batterson aptly described, “the accumulated layers of Christian traditions and institutions”.
Maybe our best hope for the future is to strip away these layers and reveal the raw majesty of God, the Almighty Creator who fashioned neurons and cells in the tiniest of organisms. To show people the passionate love of Jesus, who didn’t worry about being inoffensive and politically correct, but who truly embraced everyone. To share the power and creativity of the Holy Spirit, which equips and empowers average people in incomprehensible ways.
Maybe our generation needs its own Nehemiah…