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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Built On The Ruins

 I stood and stared at the expansive ceiling. Light streamed through the windows; the organist played softly in the background. It was a cloudy, gray day and we had decided to visit the stately St. James Cathedral in the heart of downtown Seattle, Washington. Medical treatment for my dad had landed us in the fall of 2008 in this busy city, far away from the serene life of Alaska I so dearly loved. It seemed hard to sense God in the fast-paced rush of Seattle life: night after night, ambulances screamed by our hotel on their way to one of the three hospitals in our area; early in the morning, construction crews began their work on the new hospital wing being built next door. It was far from peaceful. Now, in this moment, I tried to regain my sense of calm, to slow my breathing, ease the constant pounding of my heart. 

 I looked around at the cathedral. People came in silently, reverently, hushed by the quietness of the church within. I somehow felt as though I should be worshipping too...but I couldn't. The dreary weather outside reflected the cold of my aching heart. I had yet to open the door at that time and was deeply hidden in the darkness. We had not been to church in weeks but, perhaps more importantly, I had distanced myself from God to such an extent that a moment like this almost frightened me. My mom and I sat down in one of the hard, wooden pews. Closing her eyes, my mom soaked up the tranquility. This place of peace was just a host walk down the street from our hotel, yet it seemed removed from the chaos of Seattle street life. But even the silence of that quiet weekday afternoon seemed to unsettle me. 

"Can we go soon?" I asked my mom.

I couldn't calm the restlessness inside of me. I couldn't see through to God. Not at my small church in Alaska; not here either.
 As we left the cathedral and walked back out into the cool, windy day, there was  part of me that was glad to get away. However, the questions remained: why was I so afraid to worship? Why did I fear the God who had tried so hard to reach my wandering heart? How come all those people who were in St. James at the same time (whether they were Catholic, or Protestant like me) appeared more in touch with the spiritual than I was? 
 It would be years before those questions would be answered. And the answers wouldn't make any sense until I opened the door. Upon receiving the Light of the World into my darkness, what happened that day in St. James suddenly became clear to me. The answers still had to do with a cathedral, just a different one. 
 About four years after this experience in Seattle, I was watching a program on tv titled Their Finest Hour, a documentary about the British people and what they endured during the horrors of WWII. There were extensive interviews with people who experienced first-hand the cruelty of the Nazis. IT was fascinating to listen to the memories they had of that terrible time in their country's history. But the story that stood out the most to me was that of the community of particular, its church in the center of town. 
When the German army air-raided the area, Coventry was devastated. The loss of life and property was unfathomable. The cathedral in the center of town was almost completely demolished; that is, except for the one church spire with the cross on top. The townspeople saw it as a reminder that God had not forgotten them and would see them through the hardships of the war. When the war had ended, they sought to rebuild their church but decided that, rather than repair the old cathedral, they would build a new one next to it on the ruins of the destroyed one. They purposely left the charred spire of the previous church as a symbol of hope in the community and a reminder to the future generations of what Coventry had endured. To this day, the residents make their way to church each Sunday and pass by that weathered, broken spire whose cross still speaks of eternal peace many decades later. 

I contrasted this story with my experience at St. James. It gradually dawned on me why I had connected with this image of a bombed-out church in England and had failed to so with the other two cathedrals I'd visited in my life-time at that point. My life did not resemble St. James: built on new ground, clean and polished within. My soul identified with Coventry Cathedral. It had suffered the seemingly endless blows of life's adversity and wasn't much more than a shell of its former self. There was still a glimmer of hope left - just like the cross on top - but it was unfit for habitation and certainly not a welcoming place of worship. But there were also signs of a new beginning. Not that long before, I had asked myself if I thought my life could be rebuilt. Now, I was watching it happen, right before my very eyes...on the ruins of the old. I was brought back to the Scripture that my parents had chosen to bless me with upon my graduation from high school a few years earlier. It was Isaiah 58:12:

"And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste
places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many 
generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the 
breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in."

The New International Version puts it as, " will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings." At the time, I had little means by which to apply this verse but now it came to hold an entirely different significance. My walls were broken, just like the church. My life felt like the heaps of rubble strewn about Coventry after it was bombed. And yet, here God was promising to build the "waste places" and to make my life a place fit for Him to dwell in. And He would have to build it or else my labor would prove to be in vain (Psalm 127:1).
 Over time, I would watch as the Master Builder, Jesus Christ Himself, son of Joseph the Carpenter, would slowly erect wall after wall, wholeness beginning to take shape. All the while, He continually reminded me that He was not only doing this out of His love for me but also His desire for my life to be a symbol of hope to others, to guide them to the life-giving power of God Himself. My story would reflect that of Coventry: the new and the old, standing together, both testimonies to the grace of the Savior; one of preservation, the other of renewal. Life outside the door came to be one or restoration, of repairing what was broken and making it ready to be a place of worship.