Residing in an area nestled in southwestern Germany, with France and Switzerland less than an hour away, I have traveled around SW Germany, some parts of France (Alsace region), and Switzerland (Basel, Geneva, Lausanne, Zurich)–as well as Istanbul, Turkey and Liverpool and Manchester, England. I (honestly) do not consider myself “well-traveled,” but I feel adequately traveled to have a bit of an opinion.
Space forbids me from elaborating too much on multiple aspects of my adventures, but I would like to share a snapshot of my thoughts that came together during my attendance at a live performance of Handel’s Messiah this evening.
A vast majority of the cities/towns that I have traveled to (Istanbul is notably an exception, but perhaps a note on that adventure could be saved for another day) boasts a majestic church building–and at first,
it’s like, “WHOA!”
Yet I couldn’t help my growing frustration as I visited dozens of such churches, proudly clothed in beautiful stained glass windows, awe-inspiring ceilings, Gothic, Romantic, and/or Neoclassical architecture, ancient paintings, intricate mosaics, etc. I felt cheated as I stood in front of “yet another church” and was expected to follow suit with the others’ actions: snap photos, take a postcard, and check it off the list-of-things-to-see. But if this is the approach that one takes to travel, or even to life, it is bound to be unsatisfying (if not the first time, definitely the tenth).
But the correct response is not, either, to turn away from artistic beauty and dismiss it as lacking “true meaning.”
Take these two, perhaps dissimilar experiences for example:
This morning, some friends and I got lost trying to get to a church that is, to be blunt, in-the-middle-of-nowhere. A building with makeshift black-curtain divisions serving as walls. No stained glass. No exquisite molding. No high ceilings. No postcards. and no tourists. But there was something beautiful and alive in that room–
Last month, a friend and I were in Lausanne, Switzerland, and as we were making our way to the train station, we stopped by St. Francis Church. To our surprise, they were having a time of prayer and worship. As we sang a hymnal or two in French and simply prayed with them, there was something tangibly powerful and awe-inspiring in that beautiful, Gothic-style, sanctuary with chandeliers, delicate, dancing patterns on the ceiling, multicolored stained glass, and warm-tone wooden pews–something that set this church apart from the many others previously visited–
The presence of God. It is the presence of God that brings life, power, beauty, and awe. Moreover, when beauty and art reflect His glory, it comes alive. Indeed, the psalmist was wise to ask,
Who is like the Lord our God,
who is seated on high,
who looks far down
on the heavens and the earth?
-Psalm 113:5-6 ESV
The secret to travel in Europe is not to pursue the one-dimensional allure of beauty (of which there is an abundance, right along with indescribably amazing breads, pastries, chocolate, ahh…). Stopping at “beauty” is a scandalous mistake. To what/whom does the beauty point?
And perhaps the secret to travel in Europe that has become more and more apparent to me is also the secret to the journey of life. Beauty lacks basis and meaning apart from the ultimate Creator God. Indeed apart from God, who is unchanging in his goodness, glory, and greatness, none of those things can exist. And just as a sanctuary clothed in artistic array wilts when the presence of God is absent, we as a living sanctuary wilt when God is not within our hearts. We can clothe ourselves with everything from fashionable clothing to impressive achievements, from flawless theology to a running list of “good” deeds–but ultimately we are incapable of shining on our own. We must “love the LORD [our] God with all [our] heart(s) and with all [our] soul(s) and with all [our] might” (Deut. 6:5, ESV) so that God’s presence can dwell in us and He can shine through us. What privilege it is for us to be able to have right relationship with God through Jesus Christ! Only then can we love others as ourselves. Only then can we truly experience this journey.