When I see one of the magnificent historic temples or cathedrals, in all of its opulence and ornate craftsmanship, I am astonished, humbled and even thrilled by its, literally, transcendent beauty and sense of inherent sacrifice.
Some of the most remarkable monuments to our faith took hundreds, if not thousands, of masters of their crafts to design and build such glorious structures.
It is obvious that they gave their all; their skill, their labor, their creativity and concentration, and their time – and some, of course gave their lives.
I wonder some times, how these workers, their families and their neighbors fared during those long years, decades even, that each project absorbed.
Or would they even think of it as a project?
Did they even consider it ‘work’ as we would, day after day, year after year?
Did they get paid well? Did they get paid at all?
Were they proud, astounded even, at the fruits of their labor?
Did their handiwork, their sacrifice, inspire them and their families? Was it drudgery some days?
Were their children proud as yet another day, another year, another set of skills and another set of hands was dedicated and focused on this common and cherished goal?
At least I hope it was cherished. I hope, deeply, that the vision was kept alive, that each worker eagerly, hungrily even, met each day’s duties and the inevitable difficulties and frustrations of such a massive, seemingly unending task.
These cathedrals are monuments to those workers as much as to the faith they honored in such concrete form.
They must have been made of much sterner stuff than I am – or anyone I know.
I have only worked with vastly smaller projects, but the weariness and discouragement seems to creep in almost immediately.
I marvel at the scale, and determination, and yes, the unerring, detailed craftsmanship, but it all makes me wonder what they were trying to capture – or represent – or express to God, to their neighbors, themselves or even to those of us hundreds of years away, who still stare in open-mouthed wonder at the glory their hands constructed.
I marvel too, as an outsider, foreign to that era and culture, and even to some degree, as an heir, yet somehow a stranger to that expression of faith.
I think of that most familiar verse, John 3:16, “For God so loved the earth that He gave his only son…”.
It as God who gave; it was God whose love was so great that ‘giving it all’ for His people seemed reasonable.
These people, these workers, gave all – their alms, their skills, their time – their labor was, obviously, all consuming.
But is this what God; is this what that self-taught rabbi from a dusty Palestinian village had in mind?
I think of what was given, and why, and for whom.
I remember the words of Jesus as he spoke of how we give gifts to our children; we give them the best we can, we give them gifts for no particular reason except that we want to (Matthew 7:11).
Is that the spirit in which these magnificent cathedrals were built?
I like to sit in these hallowed spaces and imagine the nearly silent, almost reverential work going on around me.
There were no loud power tools back then, no raucous music, and I would guess very little talk; none of the coarse conversation that seems to accompany every current construction project.
I wonder if their stillness, and the immensity of their work, sunk deeply, perhaps permanently, into their bones.
Many of these projects took generations. Could we even begin to imagine children conceived, apprenticed, and then practicing their craft, and then maybe, just maybe, casting their eyes on the finished fruits of their labors?
Could any of us imagine generation after generation growing up in the (literal) shadows of these monumental tributes to a historic faith?
Many of them stand empty now – except for tourists who gaze in justifiable awe – but what has become of their original purpose – to be a home and inspiration for the faithful?
We find our inspiration in other places or activities now – or perhaps not at all.
Centuries from now, the faithful will search, in vain I am afraid, for the monuments of faith this generation will leave behind.
Will any of our mega-churches still stand?
Will our great speakers, writers and prophets stand the test of time?
Will our distant descendants marvel at what we did – or could have done?
Will our ‘monuments’ be architectural or philosophical or literary or musical?
Will we be seen as a generation that stood, and sacrificed for the good of those who will follow – those we will never see or know?
Will we, like those builders and designers of centuries ago, leave monuments that speak of our enduring faith, hope and even trust, that, whether appreciated or even noticed by future generations, will stand, as permanent as anything human can, as a tribute to something worth living – and giving – for – something far more than today – or even tomorrow.
Perhaps this is the human expression of the John 3:16 equations; we love God so much that we give Him all – not just our time and skill and labor, but that of our children, and their children and their children.
It is more than me, and more than us, it crosses time, and we enter a new place and become a new kind of people.
But somehow we have forgotten that the earth is the lord’s temple and that we ourselves are examples of God’s workmanship.
We, as a generation, will leave few monuments to the future – in fact many of us don’t even believe there will be a future.
Many of us hold to a theology that God will shortly burn up the earth – and if he doesn’t, we will.
Many of us are most proud, not of our towering spires, but of our ability to literally fracture and poison God’s creation.
Our ‘clean coal’ and tar sands refining facilities leave us toxic landscapes worse than Mordor.
Instead of leaving a breath-taking legacy of flying buttresses and iridescent stained-glass, we will be leaving breath-taking monuments of another kind; pools of smoldering toxic sludge and radioactive waste, an ice-free Artic and the resultant rise in seal level which will swallow most of the world’s cities.
In fact many cities which have stood for millennia, like London and Venice, will be lost forever.
And that generation, in the course of one human lifetime, would take pride in what is called the North Pacific Garbage Patch – a floating, coagulating mass of our waste – mostly plastic – the size of North America.
This is our creation, our legacy for future generations.
Many of us pray for Christ’s return – not because we long for his judgment (Luke 21:25-28, Matthew 25:30) but because we hope – and pray – that God will clean up after us, and that future generations will not have to scavenge through the smoldering wreckage we have left behind.
We have forgotten that one of God’s final acts will be to ‘destroy the destroyers of the earth’ (Revelation 11:18).
Lord have mercy on us all.
Morf Morford considers himself a free-range Christian who is convinced that God expects far more of us than we can ever imagine, but somehow thinks God knows more than we do. To pay his bills, he’s been a teacher for adults (including those in his local county jail) in a variety of setting including Tribal colleges, vocational schools and at the university level in the People’s Republic of China. Within an academic context, he also writes an irreverent ESL blog and for the Burnside Writers Collective. As he’s getting older, he finds himself less tolerant of pettiness and dairy products.