Our mission team in Europe has been writing about their experience in a blog, and reading their posts has made me think about faith, religion, and our relationship with God. They are working right now in Turin, Italy, talking with people and playing music both in organized concerts and here and there out on the streets. There is an overwhelming sense of spiritual coldness there, and they are struggling with that.
I know the coldness they are encountering because I’ve seen it myself….even felt it myself at times, though I’ve never been to Italy. It’s a country full of beautiful cathedrals, centuries old and stunningly beautiful. The ceilings soar high into the air, the walls are built of stones so ancient they seem to speak of the years that have passed, the human hands that hewed them out of raw rock and fitted them together with care. The painstakingly carved frescoes, the flying buttresses, the marble pillars carved with bas-relief patterns. Rows of pews, their scrolled arms shiny and polished by years of passing hands. The statues, mute figures of saints, standing tall–their hands over their hearts, clutched around books, praying, reaching out. The infant Jesus rendered in marble, in plaster, in wood, gazes from his mother’s arms; carved by the skilled hands of artists centuries dead. All this splendor and majesty, the best efforts of artists and architects many generations past. And yet, what stands out most is the silence ringing through these open, splendid, cavernous spaces.
What happened? Why, in a country with such ties to the history of Christianity, is there such a pervasive spiritual coldness?
There is a lot that could be said in explanation, but here is what’s on my mind.
Religion is about trying to reach God. We catch a glimpse of the vast chasm that exists between mankind and God, and it stirs a kind of horror in our souls. A longing, a fear, a crushing realization that God is perfect and Holy and we are fallen and weak, that as humans and sinners we cannot hope to cross that chasm and reach the other side. God seems universes away, too far to touch, to distant to hear. We seem so small and insignificant, so helpless, and the cause seems so hopeless that we become desperate to find a way to cross over, to reach up. To reach up through the vast, unending universe, past the sorrow and sin and sickness of humanity to grasp the hand of God. Our arms stretch ever upward, straining for the divine touch.
Knowing the vastness of the space between us and the inadequacy of our human efforts to bridge it, we set our minds to building a scaffolding higher and higher upwards towards God. We build it with the stuff of this world, with the materials that we, as humans, are familiar with. The scaffold is a human construct meant to help us reach the heights of heaven, one stone at a time. We pour our hearts into it, we engage our minds with it, we lose our souls in it. It is a structure of rules, a hierarchy of regulations, a great spanning suspension bridge of bureaucracy that grows higher and higher off the ground with every year. We pour our greatest efforts into it, we make it breathtaking and amazing and shockingly beautiful with everything a human heart alone can contrive. We pour into it every attribute that humans hold dear…our toil, our creativity, our intelligence, our good works, our money. It is a beautiful, intricate, and dangerous structure.
And it’s a futile one. No matter how hard we work, no matter how intricate the structure becomes, it will never reach far enough or be good enough to get us to heaven. Somewhere in the building of it, we realize the futility of our efforts and we become disillusioned. In our dedication to building this complex structure, in our exhaustive efforts to reach farther and farther upward we begin to forget what it is we’re reaching towards. We spend our time examining the structure itself, busying ourselves with the intricate minutiae of the scaffold. We spend all our efforts in perfecting this earthly structure, in doing what we do as perfectly as possible, in running the gears and cogs that form the enormous bureaucracy that is necessary for such an endeavor. We concentrate on rank and file, on rules and regulations, on money and objects. We become part of the machine we are building.
Sooner or later, we realize that we no longer believe that this structure will work. We can’t remember what it was we believed in when we began. We start to question what we are doing and why we are doing it, and we lose our passion for it. We realize that no matter how hard we work, no matter how high we build our scaffold, and no matter how high we reach up toward heaven we will still fall frightfully short. It all becomes mechanical, it all becomes rote, it all becomes empty. Our hearts grow cold.
Those beautiful churches, resounding with the empty echoes of a people who have grown cold…my heart breaks to think of this! To know so intimately the man-made scaffolding and yet to be a stranger to the One that structure was meant to reach out to! I think of Luke 13:34, where Jesus laments: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! 35Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’
We are all, in one way or another, at risk of growing cold. Whenever religion becomes the focus over Christ himself, we begin to lose ourselves in the pursuit of the structure and in the effort of reaching up….struggling against all odds to reach up farther than our human hearts were ever meant to go. Oh, Christian! Don’t you know? God himself from the farthest reaches of heaven stands, his open hand extended….reaching down to us! If we but take our eyes off what we are trying so vainly to build, if we give up our relentless working and toiling and blind pursuit of height and remember to look up at what we are toiling for–then we will see! The God who loves us is reaching down to us. The bridge has already been built. God’s hand extends through the gap and waits with open palm for ours. Christ died to build that scaffold for us, his life and death and Resurrection form a bridge a thousand times more beautiful than any a human mind could imagine.
Look up, look up! Will you take His hand?