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Cathedral Think

A sermon delivered by Howard Batson, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Amarillo, Tx., on November 7, 2010.
If you listen carefully, you can still hear the pounding of the chisel against the limestone.  Builders of the medieval cathedrals.  During the cold months, when no mortar could be set, the masons, the craftsmen, spent the winter chiseling out the stones, the square blocks and the decorative capitals that would be set in the warmth of spring.  Sometimes this ancient mortar, itself, would take 100 years to fully set. 

These great cathedral builders had a deeper approach to life.  They were never tempted by the tyranny of the urgent.  They gave themselves to the abiding, the enduring.

There is the master mason now.  Watch him as the bishop comes over and helps, at least for ceremonial appearances, lay the cornerstone, the foundation stone.  But in reality, both the bishop and the chief mason know that they will never live to see the end of the construction of the great cathedral.

The mason’s great-grandson or his great-great-grandson will eventually lay the capstone almost a century after the mason laid the foundation stone.  These master craftsmen were building edifices that would stand for thousands of years.

Incredible.  No cranes, of course, to move the stones.  No lifts to carry the mortar.

People rightly marvel at the pyramids of Egypt – but they are dwarfed by the great cathedrals of Europe.  Even the Statue of Liberty could be housed within these man-made marvels, which each contain 100 million pounds of stone – making them as heavy as the Empire State Building.

These sacred spaces of worship could never have been created by the efforts of a single generation.  Therefore, no architect ever lived long enough to see his cathedral completed.  Each successive generation of masons passed down their passion for creating a sacred space in which to worship the God worthy of their best.

No longer.  With all of our resources, machinery, and financial power today, churches are,  ironically,  constructed out of prefab metal structures with only the slightest brick veneer on the exterior.  Nothing permanent about them. 

Yet in a day when life expectancy was short and a plague might wipe out half the village population, when people had nothing for themselves, they gave everything they had to build glory to the house of God.  These ancient worshipers didn’t live in gated communities.   Rather, they wanted God to have the cathedral, the courts, the finest of all facilities.  And though they knew they would never see their  handiwork finished, their reward came from imagining that one day their sons, their daughters, their grandsons, their granddaughters would worship in a building that they had given their best to create.

If you’ve ever been in one of these cathedrals, you’ll never forget it.  I remember walking into St. Paul’s and the effect it had on me.  Or Westminster Abbey.  But most of all, I remember the day I walked into St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia.  I can’t really describe the grandeur and the glory that inhabits that room.  A transcending space, soaring 333 feet upward, that takes you to another realm. 

I remember experiencing emotions that I never planned to experience.  As I walked in –  for the sake of the public, I didn’t fall to my knees, though that was what I wanted to do – I quietly wept.  “Daddy, are you crying?” my teenage daughter, Ryan, asked.  “Yes, I’m crying.”  “Why?”  “Because someone gave their very best to God.”  Perfect, marble columns, towering stories into the air.  How did they ever carve them without chipping them?  How did they ever hoist them up?  How many horses did it take to pull the wench?  And how many men gave their lives in the building of the sacred space?

As Patrick Poole has described, when you enter a sacred space of worship, it’s not really even an experience.  It’s an encounter with God.  Because of the permanence, the perspective, and the purpose of this place, you quickly understand that this encounter is more than just about you.  The enormity of the room and structure dwarfs you, and the stones, themselves, seem to cry, “Look higher.  Look higher.”  (www.patrickpoole.com, 11/19/05)

As we enter these grand, sacred spaces of old, all of our haughty pretensions and all of our pride disappears as we realize that we have overstated our importance and we have, likewise, overstated our problems.  These cathedrals were intentionally designed by the master architects of old to make us look beyond ourselves and turn our thoughts to God.  Like Solomon’s Temple, designed by the hand and mind of the greatest architect of all – God – they call us to the holy, to the mystical, to the sacred.

When you enter a cathedral, you realize you may have a place in this world, but your significance can only be found as you have relation to the infinite Creator and His people, the great cloud of witnesses.

Some of these churches took over 500 years to build.  Five hundred years.  A Gothic-style church in Ulm, Germany was begun in 1377 and not completed until 1890.  Seventeen generations of stone masons followed the plan scribbled out on 14th century manuscripts.  Today the cathedral stands as the tallest in the world, rising to 528 feet – even impressive compared to our modern structures.

These great cathedrals were, of course, the tallest and grandest buildings of their time.  It’s true – in every culture and in every place – the houses of worship ought to be, and must be the grandest structures in the city. 

One ancient visitor describes boating down the river and being overcome by this German church standing 528 feet tall.  He said the whole time he walked around the city, he got his bearings, his moorings, by following the steeple of the church. The ancient churches stood as the anchor of perspective for the entire community.  You knew where you were only if you looked to the church and knew where it stood – the tallest building on the tallest hill in the city (ancient GPS?)

And these great cathedral builders weren’t trying to bring any glory to themselves.  They were going to be gone before the ribbon was cut or the dedication was uttered.  They all died and were buried with the church unfinished.  They were building a soaring testimony to the majesty and transcendence of the Almighty.

Like the makers of the ancient cathedrals, through 120 years of building the members of First Baptist Church have created sacred space – something transcendent has happened at 12th and Tyler that really can’t be described.  Two stories come immediately to mind.

One of my Methodist friends here in Amarillo walked through Master Plan, through the arcades, the pavilions, the rotunda.  And this is the email I got the next day:  “Howie, I got way more from the tour than I expected.  There is a strong presence of the Holy Spirit at every step, maybe because I experienced the Spirit through beautiful, tranquil spaces.  Regardless, your congregation has done more than just stack some bricks over there.  Your congregation has made a big, bold statement about the power of God that will draw in many people who need that power in their lives.”

Just last weekend, one of our contractors was bringing his wife downtown to see the newly installed fountain.  It was about 10:45 p.m., as they had just left the Tascosa-Amarillo High ball game.  Though they didn’t notice him, the contractor did notice a young man and a young lady standing in the rotunda, beneath the illuminated stained glass and the enormous chandelier.  He watched curiously as the two young lovers were holding hands.  Still undetected by the young couple, the contractor just watched as the young man took a knee in the center of the rotunda.  Of course, his immediate thought was “I’m about to witness the first proposal to take place in our new gardens.”  It would have been a sacred moment, indeed.

But instead, the young man gently tugged, inviting the young lady to join him in kneeling.  The moment was more sacred than the contractor could ever have imagined, as he witnessed the young couple praying in the new outdoor sanctuary.  Though they didn’t know it, the young man and woman were kneeling directly on top of the dedicatory seal – it had been covered with plywood.  But beneath their knees these words were inscribed:  “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts.  The whole earth is full of His glory.”

What captures me most is that these cathedral builders thought beyond themselves.  They moved beyond the tyranny of the urgent. Standing almost a thousand years after they began to appear, it is safe to say they are the antithesis to our fast food, disposable culture.  They took forever to build and, when finished, they were impossible to get rid of.  (www.patrickpoole.com , 7/7/2006)

You see, what I have discovered is something called “cathedral think,” the psychology of building sacred spaces for and with the next generation.  The cathedral builders had to have a dramatic impact upon their city so as to propel the project into the future with such a force that successive generations would pick up the ball and run.  Or should I say pick up the chisel and hammer – hammer away at building the sacred space? 

They wanted to build something that would last – really, really last.  And if you’re going to do that, you can’t be consumed with the here and now.  You have to have an eye on the future, even while you’re tempted to give into the pressure of the present.

Scientists are even talking about “cathedral think” these days.  Maybe they can take the new formula just so far, and then the next generation of scientists will be able to discover the cure.  Don’t work on only what you can complete today.  But work on what your successor might be able to finish building on your foundation.

Cathedral thinking is the opposite of revolutionary thinking.  Revolutionaries want big changes really fast.  The cathedral builders didn’t think of life that way at all.  When you and I bring cathedral thinking to our own lives, we realize we must live strategically, rather than just simply day to day. We must leave an inheritance for the next generation.  We just get ready to pass the baton from ourselves  to our children.

Chuck Lynch, the architect of our present Master Plan, said the problem with the present generation is that we don’t believe in things that last longer than we do.  We think that we, ourselves, are the most important generation, whereas medieval builders thought of themselves as small and God and the future of their children as great. 

Paul says to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:2, “The things which you heard from me, give these to faithful men who will be able to pass it down to others as well.” 

The cathedral builders reminded me of those who have gone before us here at First Baptist Church of Amarillo.  Our church structures began more than 120 years ago.  We find ourselves  having inherited one of the grandest of all spaces of worship in Baptist life.  Let us remember those 16 members who organized the First Baptist Church of Amarillo in 1889? 

Mrs. H. T. Cornelius

Dr. W. C. Mathews

Mrs. Ellen B. Moore

Mr. and Mrs. J. C. Peterson

Mr. and Mrs. James L. Smith

Mr. and Mrs. Thomas J. Stratton

Mrs. and Mrs. W. T. Trigg

Dr. and Mrs. White

Possibly Mrs. David Akin and Mrs. Joyce Womble  And one unknown. 

The early years brought the first building to First Baptist Church, the original rectangular structure of 36 feet by 60 feet with a high ceiling and double doors.  That first structure, I am delighted to say, built by our forefathers of the faith in 1890, has been an integral part of Master Plan, now with the adornment of a rose garden and new handicap accessibility.  Like fourth generation cathedral builders, we honored our forefathers by protecting and enhancing their gift to us.

Even in those days, in the dirt streets, they built a beautiful edifice that stands with pride more than a century hence.

We are also grateful today for our forebears who built our beautiful sanctuary.  They had a vision beyond themselves.  Like European cathedral builders, they thought about us and not about the easiest, quickest, or least expensive way to construct God’s house.  They left us a legacy, giving sacrificially for years after the construction. 

Dr. G. L. Yates stood on that glorious first Sunday morning in the sanctuary, and proclaimed:

“Humbled by a profound sense of God’s infinite goodness toward us and chastened, we trust, by the difficulties which have been met by us, our hearts thrill with joy unspeakable as we stand in this epochal hour and behold the fulfillment of our dreams. [T]he glorious building, which has been pronounced by many competent judges to be a miracle of beauty and marvel in architectural design and execution, has a meaning and significance for us who have toiled and prayed and sacrificed for it that no human tongue could tell….

“I grant you that this is an expensive church, a marvel of beauty.  It cost some of us far more than the world will ever know…. This building, for some of us is our box of spikenard.  Many complained in Mary’s time that her gift to the Lord was too extravagant.  But some how, as she did, we want Him to have the best.  Love is always extravagant.  The most expensive building in the world was Solomon’s temple to the Lord.  When men pass [our church], may they say how those Baptists loved their Lord.  We want this building to speak of our devotion and loyalty to the faith, our belief in the freedom of the human soul, the right for each to approach his salvation through faith….”

He continued,

“Our prayer today is that this church may be the birthplace of thousands, and from it will go the light of salvation till all shadows and darkness are gone and the world is flooded with the light of the perfect day.”

Of course, the most grand space of worship was Solomon’s Temple, which would dwarf, at least in beauty, the medieval cathedrals and our own sacred space of worship.  But even Solomon, himself, knew that God could not be contained in any one space.  He declared, “But will God, indeed, dwell on the earth?  Behold, the heaven and highest heaven cannot contain Thee.  How much less this house which I have built?”  (1 Kings 8:27)

Cathedral thinking for First Baptist Church of Amarillo transcends buildings and architecture. Solomon realized that however glorious the space of worship constructed, that God could not be managed or manipulated to stay in one space.  Even the place built for his own habitation, the place of His dwelling, was inadequate to contain the One who had created the whole earth. 

Cathedral thinking, for us, is not just about giving sacred spaces to the next generation.  It’s about giving a passion and a vision for the gospel of God.  Christianity is not an institution.  It’s the movement of the followers of Jesus.  We do not have Master Plan to say to the community, “Come and see.”  We build Master Plan to equip our saints to “go and do.” 

You see, the forefathers of our faith at First Baptist Church of Amarillo never envisioned building a structure as an architectural marvel alone.  They built as a base for missions.  You make Jerusalem strong, and then you can go to the uttermost parts of the earth.  First Baptist Church will do more with a missions mindset because we’ve taken care of a crumbling infrastructure and set up the next generation to move forward on mission. 

Leaky basements, handicap accessibility issues, needed elevators and failing parking lots have brought us to the point where we are today.  But Master Plan exceeded all of the repairs, however important they were to a healthy future. As we worship in a sanctuary for which we did not pay, we now leave our children with a sacred space of worship from which they can govern their own lives and be sent forth on mission.

In fact, even as Dr. Yates spoke of the glory of God found in this beautiful sanctuary, he said, “This church was erected as a missionary church.  God grant that that it may never disgrace its name.  It must speak to our children of our missionary zeal.”

Even our forebears who constructed this sanctuary could not imagine sending, as we do, 200 of our own members each year to foreign soil to share the gospel of Christ Jesus with all peoples.  Of building an educational and AIDs caring clinic in Kenya.  In going these 5 years to Russia to minister to Russian orphans who have been literally abandoned by their families.  Of an ESL ministry which has brought hundreds from around the globe through our doors, even in recent years alone.  A church that reaches out to all nations in such a way that when the First Baptist Church of Amarillo bus arrives at children’s camp, the children who file out are as likely to be from Africa or Asia as they are to be from Amarillo.

In fact, with Master Plan behind us, we’re going to reach out with a whole new emphasis to our community, declaring that First Baptist Church is many faces, but one faith.  Our faces are Sudanese, Burundian, Burmese, Korean, Japanese, Laotian, Vietnamese, Hispanic, European, Middle Eastern, Texan, and many more – maybe even an Okie or two.  But despite the many faces, there is a unity of faith.  This church has done the incomparable.  We have brought together men and women from many nations into one body of Christ.  And sometimes the only thing we have in common is our love for the Lord.

We are going to declare to this community, “Many faces, one faith.  We are First Baptist, and we want to change the world.”

So today we leave our children with a glorious, sacred space. Within these walls and courts, we will both celebrate and mourn the joys and sorrows of life.  Here we will dedicate our children, give our daughters’ hands in marriage, and bid a temporary farewell to those who die in our midst. 

But more importantly, we continue to leave our children with a passion for the story of Jesus, a center for missions.  Together, we declare that the Creator has redeemed His creation through the death of His Son and the glorious resurrection.  And we’re all called to go and tell. As our forefathers have given us a passion for the Great Commission, we must pass that passion to our children.

Christ has died.

Christ has risen.

Christ will come again.

Glory to God who deserves all that we have given and done and yet myriads more.