Saturday, June 7, 2008

Sitting in Church Looking Around

Other little boys wanted to be firemen or astronauts or rock stars. But my first memory of a career preference was when I was about eleven or twelve and wanted to be a Lutheran pastor. I'm fortunate now to realize that I have the secular version of that job. I get to read and to write, and to speak in public. I get to counsel young people, and organize difficult discussions about doctrine and belief.

But aside from the fact that I really liked our pastor and our interns from seminary, I think that I was just drawn to the physical space of church. Our church was nothing special; it was a kind of rectangular ranch-style church, one story with offices on Waalkes Street and the sanctuary itself running down Summit and a gravel parking lot out back. But within the sanctuary, a different kind of feeling took hold. The high space, the three stairs to the altar, the pulpits on each side, the organ music, and the stained-glass windows all meant that this was a space that we collectively cared for. Most of our families were no great economic players — lots of folks who worked for the phone company or an insurance office or the school district — but they'd come together to build something more intentional, something more dedicated, than any of us had at home.

There was an Altar committee, ladies whose job it was to polish the brass candelabra and vases, to arrange flowers at each end of the altar, and to choose and lay out the altar cloths appropriate to the ecclesiastical calendar (pink for Advent, purple for Lent, white for Easter). The hymnals were in their racks on the rear of each pew. The acolytes entering from both sides of the altar to light the candles at the beginning of the service.

I'm reminiscing about all this because we had our commencement ceremonies a week ago today, in Boston's Old South Church. And while I was listening to Board members and honorary degree recipients speaking, I was also taken back to that time when I was sitting in church looking around.

In terms of space, the sanctuary of Old South is really no great shakes. A great big rectangle, with two galleries off to the sides at the front half. There's a big open cupola at the top, but it's square as well. What makes this place come alive, become something important, is all the stuff inside it. The carving, the massive hammer beams, the stenciled-paint patterns on the walls, the glass, the organ pipes. It's all materials and surfaces, and has very little to do with unique spatial characteristics.

Maybe I should have gone into interior design.

Anyway, it made me think again about my conviction that people appreciate familiar form with rich fill. That's exactly what Old South Church has to offer, and what makes it fabulous. And that's exactly what Bethlehem Lutheran Church offered me forty years ago.

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