The Usefulness of Beauty
“Worship the Lord in holy splendor.” – Psalm 29:2
The roof in our sanctuary leaked. The repair required an architect, a structural engineer, three bids, ten meetings, four sub-contractors and a small fortune.
The leaks are gone. The water damage remains. You only see it if you’re facing the pews, which means that most members of our congregation haven’t seen it. I haven’t mentioned it. I’d rather spend the money in Haiti or on our gun protest. The sanctuary makes us prioritize splendor over justice. That’s how I feel.
But God does not subscribe to our dichotomies. The One who defines justice demands to be worshiped in splendor. Of course splendor doesn’t require architecture, but for those who don’t live on mountaintops, sanctuaries fit the bill.
The call to worship God in beauty is about more than aesthetics. Or perhaps aesthetics are about more than beauty. William Kitt* was homeless for more than 30 years. He was addicted. He was haunted by dreams of violence. He slept in boxes.
On Christmas Eve of 2003 he went to worship. Sitting under an arched wooden ceiling, something happened to him. “I looked around the church and saw the faces of the congregation, from the kids up to the adults. I wanted what they had.” He saw peace and “the sanity of living under a roof.” The splendor of worship changed him.
He left church determined to escape. Weeks later he moved into transitional housing. Today he is sober. He makes a living selling oil paintings that he creates in his sun-lit apartment.
Splendor or justice? Beauty or good work? Worship or action? These aren’t real choices. God does not subscribe to our dichotomies. The next time I’m sitting in a Church Council meeting I’m going to mention the sanctuary ceiling. And I’m going to think of William Kitt.
Oh God, surprise us with the usefulness of beauty. Amen.
*You can hear William Kitt’s story on the “Mr. Kitt” episode of the podcast “Invisibilia.”
Matt Fitzgerald is the Senior Pastor of St. Pauls United Church of Christ in Chicago. He is the host of “Preachers on Preaching,” a weekly podcast sponsored by The Christian Century.