Hope in dark times

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In times like these, I often turn to the hymn “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” Isaac Watts’ paraphrase of Psalm 90 from 1719. Today I turned to it again for solace and hope. All the singers are white, but, hey, so am I, and there is hope even for the likes of I.

Psalm 90 in its entirety is a song of lament, but hope — and a call to personal responsibility — rise from despair.

Years ago I was given a copy of The Book of Psalms and Scottish Hymnal (1879) with the cursive signature of the man who used it: “John Campbell, Blair Mill, 1886.” (My middle name is Campbell.) I dusted it off this morning to read it through. The rendition of Psalm 90 John Campbell sang in 1886 ends with a prayer that recognizes our own responsibility for “the works of our hands”:

“And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us: Our handy-work establish Thou, establish them each one” (Psalm 90:17).

  • Gordon Campbell Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 7, 2018.

Sermon: The Estate Sale and a Thousand Years

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This sermon, inspired by a visit to an estate sale and Via Lucis’ photographs of Gothic and Romanesque architecture, was preached at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, MN.

The Estate Sale and a Thousand Years

Last Saturday I bit my tongue and went to an estate sale in hopes of buying a patio set. It was sold by the time I got there. Here and gone in a heartbeat.The rest of the stuff, except for the men’s suits (wrong size) was junk.

The memory that lasts is the house itself. Highland Park is a lovely neighborhood in Saint Paul. Beautifully constructed old Tudor homes on a tree-lined street…except for…the house with the estate sale…a lavishly done white retro Art Deco house…plopped down like a fly on top of a French Soufflé.

I blurted out to another shopper, “This place is really strange.”  “Yes!” she said. “What were they thinking?”

Right then I thought of the ongoing conversation with Dennis Aubrey of Via Lucis Photography about the Romanesque and Gothic churches that still inspire reverence and awe eight centuries after they were built.

Dennis: “One of the wonderful things about these [Gothic and Romanesque] churches was that they took so long to construct and design that the intellectual currents that drove the builders were deep and powerful, not short, erratic eddies of fashion.”

Dennis had posted a question about a contemporary artistic installation at the Church of Saint Hilaire in France.  Would the newly created installation at the Church of St. Hilaire stand the test of  time. Might it also come from sources that are “deep and powerful, not short, erratic eddies of fashion”? Would it stand the test of time as compared with Gothic and Romanesque structures with their high vault ceilings that lift our eyes and hearts to something else for which we human beings long?  I had shared with Dennis that I find most contemporary church architecture banal and uninspiring.

I wrote to Dennis: “The culture of individualism is NOT Romanesque or Gothic where the glory is directed away from the individual, where the individual gets to feel…well…very small, humble, rather insignificant in the best way. I, too, see wonderful works of contemporary architecture, and I hope I’m not just being a cranky old man here. The comment about banality is not about those magnificent creations but rather about what I believe is the prevailing dumbing down of our time that leaves us bereft of awe, the sense of grandeur, wonder, or humility [one feels in Gothic and Romanesque spaces]. There’s a flattening, a leveling of existence itself to human proportions. The belief in species superiority displaces everything that suggests otherwise. My comments, I think you know, are not so much about the new installation at St. Hilaire – which, in and of itself, strikes me as quite lovely – but more about the age in which we live where nothing much seems to be of lasting value.”

Dennis: “Gordon, I think it was a form of this ‘prevailing dumbing down’ that inspired us to these churches in the first place. I became increasingly disturbed by rampant      commercialism, when the point of commerce is to create obsolescence so that goods can be replaced whether necessary or not. Fashion and styling is substituted for value. PJ and I wanted to concentrate on something that had intrinsic value, and when we began exploring these churches in  2006, we found that something.

“One of my favorite books of all time is Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye [published in 1953]. In it, there is a speech by the wealthy Harlan Potter:

“’You can’t expect quality from people whose lives are a subjection to a lack of quality. You can’t have quality with mass production. You don’t want it because it lasts too long. So you substitute styling, which is a commercial swindle intended to produce artificial obsolescence. Mass production couldn’t sell its goods next year unless it made what it sold this year look unfashionable a year from now. We have the whitest kitchens and the most shining bathrooms in the world. But in the lovely white kitchen the average American housewife can’t produce a meal fit to eat, and the lovely shining bathroom is mostly a receptacle for deodorants, laxatives, sleeping pills, and the products of that confidence racket called the cosmetic industry. We make the finest packages in the world, Mr. Marlowe. The stuff inside is mostly junk.’”

Well, the kitchens today aren’t just for the “housewives,” thank goodness, but the rest hit too close to home.

I think of the height of the Gothic arches and the things that will last when someone says at my departure “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes” and holds an estate sale.

I sit down with the Scriptures for something longer lasting than deodorants, laxatives, sleeping pills, or a plastic patio set.  I want something like the lasting value of the Gothic and Romanesque architecture “took so long to construct and design,” where “the intellectual currents that drove the builders were deep and powerful, not short, erratic eddies of fashion.”

I’m drawn to the English translation that preserves the clear distinction between the Divine and the human – the use of the archaic word “thou” for God. Like the vaults of St. Hilaire, the language lifts up my heart from the flat banality of our self-preoccupations and species grandiosity.

Basilique Saint Hilaire, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey
Basilique Saint Hilaire, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

“O Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!

When I look at the work of thy heavens, the work of thy fingers,

The moon and the stars which thou hast established;

What is man that thou art mindful of him…?

 

O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8)

 

“Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.

Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world,

From everlasting to everlasting thou art God.

Thou turnest man back to the dust, and sayest, ‘Turn back, O children of men!’

For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.” (Psalm 90:1-4)