Across our country, in every suburb, town and village there are buildings with high, pointy roofs dedicated to the ‘Glory of God”or words to that effect. These buildings have different brand names, Presbyterian, Baptist, Anglican but they are all ‘Dedicated to the glory of God’. Over the years, most of them have been locked for most of the time. These days many of them are no longer churches. They are op-shops, restaurants, cafes, bars and private homes. In most of these cases the ‘Glory to God’ plaque has been removed.
What does does Dedicated to the glory of God’ actually mean?
It is supposed to mean that these buildings and what happens within them enable people to give glory to God. And not just any God, the purpose of these buildings is to glorify the God who revealed himself in Jesus Christ.
I am an admirer of beautiful buildings and architecture is one of my interests. However, it is not possible for bricks and stone and glass to praise the divine presence, the friend of sinners, the prince of peace.
There is nothing in the words and works of Jesus that even hints that buildings, furniture or ancient objects can be holy. Nowhere in the New Testament are readers encouraged to honour buildings, or furnishings or bones. All of this has now become an accepted part of the Christian world. None of it has any basis in the words of Jesus or in the rest of the New Testament. In fact, it is a form of ‘idolatry’. The plaque may read “To the Glory of God”. In actuality, the building, the furnishings, the glass, etc. is to the glory of the creators, the builders, and/or those who paid for it.
Nor does any New Testament speak about ‘holy’ sites, localities, countries. Pilgrimages, so loved by tour operators can find no justification in the New Testament. Jesus talks of the whole world as ‘holy’ and the New Testament writers speak of God’s presence in all of creation. In fact persons are as close to God in the check-out que in PaknSave (a cavernous cut-price supermarket) as they are walking the streets of old Jerusalem.
Speaking for most of us, I note that our children and grandchildren find little if any inspiration in our ‘Glory To God’ buildings and the ceremonies that take place on Sunday mornings. When to please us they do attend these so called holy spaces, they mostly don’t comment. However, their body language tells us they see our attempts to give glory to God as something tedious and irrelevant. The only times when they express appreciation and enjoyment is when their children are in costume for a pageant or a special dress-up occasion.
I was nurtured in ‘Glory to God’ buildings. Consequently, I have always had heightened expectation around what happens in these buildings. I understand ceremonies. I get the code. At times I have had an intense experience of inspiration and occasionally have heightened sense of awareness of the divine presence. For these times I am grateful and I hope for more. But for most of my contemporaries this is not the case. For them it is just a boring ceremony in another building.
I believe the glory of God moves –like the wind (John 3.8). In the New Testament the glory of God is seen in the night sky by shepherds, in a gathering hall at Pentecost. The glory of God is seen when Christians love one another, when Christians perseveres in the face of hardship, when they serve others and love their enemies. All of this is to the glory of God and is the glory of God. In the New Testament, the glory of God reveals himself/herself in surprising and unpredictable ways. No mention there of buildings or objects.
I sometimes experience being swept up by the glory of God.
To give you an idea of what I am talking about, here are two recent examples.
I attended a retirement function for a member of our church Judith Nel. For 26 years Judith was principal of Parkside Special School. During this time she developed many innovative and ground breaking programmes which were noted around New Zealand and around the world. In every sense Judith was a leader in her chosen profession.
The formal speeches were warm and full of praise and thankfully short. When they ended the chairperson announced they still had 20 minutes before the refreshments. He invited anyone who would like to say something to Judith to come forward and take the microphone – in effect he announced ‘Open Mike’.
Over the next 20 minutes out they came, students – current and from previous years, parents, relatives of students. Some stumbled to the mike, others ran, others had to be supported. Some were hard to understand, a couple just wept and hugged Judith. The stories that were told would melt a heart of iron. Through caring for one disabled child the school had rehabilitated whole families. Addictions had been confronted, illegal behaviour challenged, hopelessness turned into hopefulness. There was not a dry eye I the crowded hall – certainly not mine.
What possessed that gathering? What was this extraordinary atmosphere that filled the hall. I believe it was the glory of God. Not a religious word was spoken but here was the freedom of the spirit. In that place at that time the healing balm of hope touched everyone of us. This was to the glory of God.
I am very fond of a young couple and their family of three small children. To visit them I dropped into a pre-school children’s play time at the Clevedon Presbyterian Church. What I thought would be a short visit finished up occupying most of the morning.
Thirty or so parents, mostly mums, and perhaps 40 small children were accommodated in a mid size hall with a large adjoining verandah. For the parents there was tea and coffee and for the children all kinds of toys, ride-ons and dress-ups. I sat alone by the wall observing. I did not see any discernible programme. I gathered the space was open for the morning, five mornings a week. It seemed parents with children come and leave at whatever time suit them. There was something in the atmosphere of that place that impacted me. A feeling of welcome and friendship filled the room.
I had often heard about this parish so I was curious to see the ‘church’, the official space where the people gathered for the Sunday worship service. However, I could not find it. I went outside and there was the familiar pointy roof shape of a church but inside I could not locate it. However, there was another large space, open to the hall with the tea and coffee. In this all seating had been stacked against the walls. In the central space children were playing around activity tables and a large plastic slide. Finally, looking carefully, I could see at one end of the space, behind the stacked forms a pulpit and some musical instruments. Then it dawned on me. This children’s activity space actually occupied the whole of the space in which Sunday church took place. The children were playing in the church.
Later I talked about this long established programme with the minister, Martin Baker. He told me that few of the parents and children were known to him. Only the volunteer helpers came from his church. He said that most of the mums and dads and their children had traveled from the surrounding countryside and other towns.
I returned to the hall and sat and watched the children and parents. I began to feel that here was something special. I guessed that some of the parents were facing problems, problems with relationships, problems with finances, problems with addictions, problems with health, etc.. However, in this relaxed, non-judgmental atmosphere they felt accepted and welcomed. For a brief respite they could relax, they could smile and laugh. They were safe. Their children were safe. Then it hit me. it reminded me of the healing, welcoming love of the Jesus I read about in the gospels. I thought to myself, what is happening in this space at this time is to the glory of God.
Some of my friends tell me they find the glory of God in large gatherings in windowless buildings. It seems that through repetitive lyrics and strong rhythms they have the sense that the glory of God surrounds them and is within them. I am happy for them to have this experience but it doesn’t work for me.
I refer back to my two examples. The glory of God becomes real to me when the spirit of Jesus envelopes an occasion. When healing, hope and welcome are present without preconditions or restrictions.
I am a committed church person. As I minister, I will keep attempting to create services which are to the glory of God. But I no longer believe that formal worship services is the only place, or even the principal place that the glory of God will be revealed. The glory of God is like the wind and it cannot be confined or his/her’ presence cannot be controlled. Praise be to God.