Reclaiming Beauty

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If you follow me on any social media platform, you’ll know that I recently went to Rome. If you’ve known me for any period of time, you’ll know that I have always wanted to visit Rome. Why? One word: Vatican. I may not be a part of the Roman Catholic Church, but I have always longed to see the Vatican. Who wouldn’t? It’s full of art, architecture, and beauty. IMG_4236

While visiting Rome, I kept thinking to myself, “we need to reclaim beauty.” Here is what I mean:

I am a part of the American Evangelical Church. I have been my entire life. While walking through the beautiful cathedrals, all I could think about was how much the church used to appreciate beauty. It was sculpted in their structures, painted on their ceilings, and even engraved in their floors. Every single place you looked was beautiful. The American Evangelical church does not appear to appreciate beauty like the Roman Catholic Church. Now, before you get all angry and start saying, “we want to use our money to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and give shelter to the homeless,” let’s analyze this a minute.

When it comes to mission, I am 100% in favor of giving all that we have to help those in need. We should be using our resources to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and give shelter to the homeless. That is what Christ commands us to do. Looking through the beautiful churches, one might suppose that the Roman Catholic Church is not about those things. But they are. In fact, they do more than most. Just take a look at Catholic Charities, one of the largest charities in America.

IMG_4400As they help, they appreciate beauty, as well. It’s intriguing to me that evangelical churches are so concerned with helping the poor and criticize monumental cathedrals when they are willing to spend millions on buildings that won’t stand the test of time. This is what I am getting at. Millions are spent on new buildings but are these buildings beautiful? They may be modern, but I would argue that they do not contain the beauty that is found in the structures of several cathedrals (both Roman and other high-church denominations).

The church can be criticized for spending as much money as they do on buildings and I will listen to those critiques. But when you’re walking through the cathedrals of Rome, you cannot help but think, “they appreciated beauty in all aspects and they wanted to glorify God with these buildings.” And glorify Him they did.

Oftentimes, I wonder if people will visit the latest megachurch building 100 years down the road. My guess is, probably not. There isn’t really too much to see. The cathedrals in Rome are admired for their art and architecture. They are studied in classes. I am not for certain that many evangelical megachurches will be studied in classes.

Beauty needs to be reclaimed in the evangelical movement. We are so focused on being modern and contemporary that we have forgotten beauty. Popes would hire the best artists, architects, and musicians of their day to create works that would stand the test of time. If heaven is not a beautiful cathedral with incredible art, ornate ceilings, and a stunning choir singing in perfect harmony, then I’m not sure what it will be like. IMG_4186

Hire artists.

Why? Because they create things that stand the test of time. Their works give us a taste of what is to come. While visiting San Paolo fuori le Mura in Rome, I was able to hear a choir perform and watch mass. I didn’t understand a single word that was said or sung. But I didn’t have to to know that what was taking place was beauty. The liturgy compelled me to listen and participate. It drew me in. This is the thing about beauty. We might not understand it or even follow it, but we are compelled to it. Why else does the church still sing some ancient hymns and yet they do not sing many of the praise choruses that were created in the 80s (well, some churches still insist on singing “Blessed Be the Name of the Lord” over and over again)? There’s a difference between timeless beauty and modern creations. Timeless beauty can still be created but it may not appear to be modern at the time.IMG_4538

I believe that one of the most compelling thing the evangelical church needs to do is to reclaim beauty. Craft songs that have depth in both lyrics and melody. Hire artists to sculpt and paint. Seek out architects that see in the past. Perhaps I am sounding old-fashioned in my age. I will admit that early 20 year-old Caleb would scoff at what I have evolved into.

We are so careful to create environments that are welcoming that we neglect to have beauty. I think we overanalyze the environment and it causes us to miss important points. People won’t be scared of high ceilings, beautiful sculptures, and divine liturgy. It compels us to enter and participate.

We can do both/and. We can be charitable and beautiful. We have done it in the past and we can do it in the future. Life was not meant to be bland and boring. Church wasn’t either. Let me tell you, there was nothing bland or boring about the aroma, music, art, and structure of the cathedrals in Rome. In fact, to me, that was what church was always meant to be: a little taste of God’s coming Kingdom.

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What I Learned While Sitting in Irish Pubs

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Recently, I went on vacation to Ireland. My knowledge of the country was very limited. I knew of some things because of films, books, or vague memories of Social Studies in Junior High. Overall, however, I went in without much of an idea as to what I was going to do and see.

To some people, this freaks them out. They need a plan that tells them minute by minute what they are going to do and see. To me, however, I don’t view that as a vacation. When I go on vacation, I want the locals to tell me where to go and what to see. It’s how I found out that the view from the Rockefeller in NYC was a far superior view than the Empire State Building. It is how I found little hole in the wall restaurants on a strip filled with KFCs, Taco Bells, and McDonalds. I have always believed that for the best vacations, one needs to find out where the locals gather.

In Ireland, that was in pubs.IMG_3168

Pubs are much different than American bars. Bars are filled with overly loud electronic dance music. Pubs are filled with conversations, laughter, and whatever music they feel like playing. Bars are filled with overpriced cocktails, pubs keep drinks simple and relatively inexpensive. Bars are where people go to get drunk to forget their problems, pubs are where people go to drink (and yes, sometimes they get drunk) and converse about their problems.

In pubs, I learned that we, as Americans, have little knowledge about our history. It seemed like everyone in Ireland spoke about their history as a nation. And in their speech, there wasn’t a tone of entitlement, but a tone of appreciation and pride. Not only did they know about their country, they knew about my country, as well.

In pubs, I learned that storytelling is the best remedy for anything. People love to tell stories there. They will tell you about stories of the country, stories of their lives, stories of famous people, stories of Guinness, and stories of the town. As I sat and listened to these stories, I lost track of time and for a moment, I forgot about worries and troubles in my own life.

In pubs, I learned that they take pride in what they produce. Every single pint of Guinness was poured the exact same way. They would grab a Guinness pint glass, tilt it at a 45 degree angle, pull the tap handle until the Guinness reached a certain level, straighten out the pint glass and continue pouring until the Guinness reached a certain level, let the Guinness settle for about 109 seconds, push the tap handle and top off the Guinness, and serve. Every single pint was poured the same way. They took pride in their product. They knew that good things come to those who wait.

In pubs, I learned that no one is a stranger. People were excited to get to know you. Once they heard my American accent, they asked from where I came and then proceeded to try and make a connection with me to make me feel welcome (everyone there kept saying, “you are very welcome here”). They wanted to know what I thought of their beautiful country. People truly listened to you because you weren’t a stranger in a strange land there.

IMG_3200Ultimately, I learned that God is present in pubs. I had the chance to attend Evensong at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. It was one of the most beautiful experiences in my life. The music, the architecture, the carefully crafted liturgies, the eloquent reading of the Scripture, it all came together to show a piece of the Kingdom. But that wasn’t the first time I experienced a piece of the Kingdom in Ireland.

Shockingly enough, I experienced a piece of the Kingdom in the pub. There were musicians in the corner playing songs everyone knew. People were lifting up their pints of Guinness and singing along. Strangers were becoming friends over a pint or over a cigarette outside. Stories were being shared, laughter could be heard, and embraces could be seen. In pubs, like churches, people might come in pretending to be someone else. But after a few drinks, they tear away the facade they created. People walk into churches all the time pretending to be someone else. After a while, though, they hopefully drop the facade.

God is as much present in the local pubs as He is in the cathedrals. The Kingdom could be experienced through a pint and through the Eucharist. Worship was in the Gaelic tunes and in the hymns. Truth was told in conversations and in the reading of the Scripture.

There are a lot of similarities between pubs and churches. And I think there is a need for both. Pubs remind us that the Kingdom is messy because we are messy. We are drunks stumbling outside trying to remember where we live. But churches remind us to try and create beauty. We are called to create beautiful liturgies, gardens, parks, and art. Both the pub and the church collide to create a picture of the Kingdom that is sloppy and beautiful. But isn’t that what Jesus talked about? The world being in labor pains. It is messy and ugly, but something beautiful is coming.

Pubs reminded me that this world is messy and ugly but that something much more beautiful is coming.