Jacob’s Dream, Adam Elsheimer, 1600
In his dream Jacob is presented with a vision of a ladder. Its bottom rungs are set on the earth, and its top rungs reach right into heaven. Going up and down it freely are God’s messengers, the angels, who in the Bible often take human form, and who are as much at home here with us as they are in paradise with God.
Jacob is mesmerized by this commerce between heaven and earth, by the easy movement of messengers. He even speaks to God, and God speaks to him. In their conversation, they reaffirm the ancient covenants of love, obedience, territory and protection.
This is heady stuff. No wonder that when Jacob wakes up, the first thing he blurts out is the Hebrew equivalent of “Yikes!” He is astounded that “God was in this place,” and even more astounded that he didn’t know that God could be in such a place—astounded and perhaps a little afraid, since if God had indeed been there, in the place where he was sleeping, where else might God have been without his knowing it? Maybe Jacob is wondering now whether he’s been asleep all his life. Maybe now that it is dawning on him that God might be anyplace, and everyplace, he will never be able to sleep again.
“Yikes!” he says, and, overwhelmed with awe, he looks around for something tangible, something big and permanent to mark the place of this stupendous experience, the place where God was at home, which is roughly what the name “Bethel” means, and the name by which that spot eventually became known to later generations. Jacob sets up a stone, and that stone serves as a memorial and as a foundation for the pilgrimage shrine that subsequent generations will build there.
This ancient story about Jacob’s dream is often chosen as the text for dedications of new church buildings. You can see why. We refer, after all, to churches as “houses” of worship, a church is God’s house. As such, church buildings usually have a distinctive feel; the last thing church designers and builders want is to make them ugly and forbidding, such that congregations, upon beholding them, might say, “Surely, God is not in this place!” Rather, they hope people will come into these buildings, look around, and echo Jacob at Bethel, “Surely God was here, is here, could still be here!” Church buildings are like Jacob’s stone, set up for the awed remembrance of a vivid encounter, helping to return people to that experience time and again, and to create the conditions in which new encounters might take place.
As soon as the early Christians were permitted to build buildings for worship, they set out to make them awe-inspiring. They adorned them with marble, alabaster, and shimmering mosaics, all to show that the distance between heaven and earth is not so great; that up through high ceilings, more porous than they appear, angels easily come and go from the feet of God to our feet and back, transacting the business of divine mercy. In those early Roman basilicas, Christians attempted to capture their original experience of the majesty of Christ and the mercy of God, and to help others have it too.
Now, this sort of spiritual aesthetic can get out of hand. We humans tend to stop short of depth in almost everything we do, so that instead of falling in love with the God they point to and whose beauty they try to help us imagine and feel, we fall in love with the gorgeous things and the pleasing rituals with which we adorn our churches. We become preoccupied with the beauty of beauty, and forget its Source and End. And that’s partly why, centuries later, the Puritans decided that instead of aiming to find that necessary awe in church buildings, they would try a little harder to encourage it in church people. It was the people, after all, who were the Body, the congregation, the Spirit’s living temple – called, gathered, sanctified and sent.
For the Puritans, the angels of God came down and went up transacting the business of grace not so much on ladders, but via covenants of mutual affection and accountability, of unity and faithfulness to the gospel journey, covenants freely entered and assented to by free people. Their “ladder” ascended to heaven and descended to earth again not from a sacred piece of beautiful real estate, but from within the union of sincerely-converted hearts; from within consciences bound only to the Word of God and to each other in covenant; and from within a life in the world characterized by responsive, grateful and earnest duty.
So Puritans stripped their buildings and adorned their people – adorned their minds, souls and hearts with the Word of God, presenting to them an awesome vision of God’s otherness and sovereignty, the great and consoling beauty of God’s mysterious will, the “soul-ravishing” love of the Savior, and the transforming, sanctifying work of the Spirit.
This they tried to do through biblical preaching and teaching, the singing of psalms (mind you, no organ and a plain unvarnished melody line), devotional reading, persevering self-examination and frequent mutual counsel and admonition. They did not call the places of worship they constructed “churches,” they called them “meeting houses,” and they kept them plain.
Today, those of us in the Reformed tradition still call the spaces in which we gather ‘meeting houses,’ although many of our sanctuaries are far more ornate and colorful than our ancestors would have approved. We have traveled a long way from their aesthetic sensibilities, as well as from many of the tenets of their theology. Some of our 19th century buildings especially are so adorned that first-time visitors often ask whether they were originally Catholic churches. Those who built them were moved by aesthetic fashion more than theology—people at the time were fascinated with old things, especially medieval European remnants.
Given the ethos of rational moralism in which they lived, the builders of these fancy Protestant buildings may have been hoping, through their rich adornment and massive scale, to be moved, to recover some kind of awe, to elicit some kind of life-changing encounter with mystery, some kind of responsiveness and gratitude on which to draw for their religious lives.
And in the end, that’s the point, isn’t it? No matter whether our churchbuildings are aggressively plain or fine examples of the most ornate Gothic Revival, what matters is that there be people in them in whom God can induce Jacob’s visionary sleep, people who want to dream about strange ladders, transactions of mercy, easy commerce between God and creation, God and us; people who will awake with excitement to testify to the world, “Yikes!” God is in this place; and if in this one, then surely in that one too; and that one; and now I know it, and so can you!”
What matters most is that a church building, ornate or plain, doesn’t become just another stone monument we set up to remember someone else’s experience, while never experiencing anything fresh of our own. What matters is waking up awed ourselves, not enshrining someone else’s awakening. What matters is keeping the ladder up and operating, the access of heaven to us and the access of us to heaven in good working order now.
No matter their style, what matters is that our churches—and by this I mean our congregations—embrace a calling to be awestruck and awesome, that we shape churches in which each action, witness, decision, ministry, bold word and gesture of mutual caring begins in awe and ends in awe; begins in grateful adoration and surrender to God’s mystery and returns to that place where God is at home in beauty and delight.