Once, while two friends and I walked the coast of Maine, through tall sea grasses and rock walls on a November day where the wind is more foe than friend, we turned a corner in the path and ran into an older couple enjoying the view too. “It’s a shame it’s all going to burn,” one of my friends quipped to them. He intended to shock them, I think, and not to begin a theological discussion, but I have never forgotten the shock in my own spirit upon hearing those words.
A Church on Fire
I remembered it again as I watched, along with the rest of the world who has Internet access, as the grand Notre Dame cathedral in Paris burned. Flames licked the darkening sky above, smoke rose from the ancient beams below. “Is it all going to burn?” I thought to myself.
The hot takes (no pun intended) were many from the Christians in the following week. We love a good illustration, don’t we? And what an illustration this one was. “Good reminder that we’ve never seen a U-Haul on a hearse,” said one. “The church is the people, not the building,” said another. “More pithy, pious words,” said more.
Even as I write this, I’m aware that I’m using Notre Dame as an illustration myself. I’m just as powerless against a good illustration as the next person. All I know is how I lamented as I watched those flames steal, kill, and destroy a man-made structure that’s stood almost a millennium. There aren’t many things in our world today that have stood that long. I think even of the rocks on the coast of Maine, how the wind, weather, and waves have battered and broken them back over centuries. Nothing stands forever. Or does it?
That’s a question for theologians far more studied than I (though, between us, I’m of the belief that some of it will stand forever). All I know is I can’t live today and tomorrow and the next day, with one foot in front of another, knowing it’s all going to burn. I have to believe God isn’t simply scourging, but He’s renewing and that He’s using me.
How Our God Refines
I have to believe that grand cathedrals have been used to renew the spirit of some saints, just as the coast and seagrass. Just like the Grand Canyon and the sight of Mount Rainier as I’ve flown over it have renewed mine. Just like taking communion with my brothers and sisters week after week after week, and reading a poem for the first time, knowing I will read it hundreds more because it’s that beautiful—all of this has been used to renew me so I can participate in the renewal of the earth because I don’t believe God is going to burn it all. I believe He’s going to renew it all (1 Peter 1:7) and sometimes He uses fire to refine (2 Peter 3:10), but He also uses His breath to bring to life. Sometimes He uses His people just going about their days being astonished at His common grace around every corner. And sometimes He uses the collective lament of His creation when beauty is burned.