Last week, I was in Boston conducting a workshop for one of our clients.
Normally, I would have just flown in, done the workshop, and left, but the hotel they wanted me to stay at wouldn’t let me book for just one night. So, I ended up having basically the morning free in Boston before my flight, and I headed downtown to see the two things everyone wants to see when they’re sightseeing: the public library and a very old church.
The Boston Public Library was unlike the public libraries in my own town, as was readily visible from the entrance.
The library was full of art, sculpture, secluded alcoves, and tranquil courtyards. I wandered aimlessly through both old and new sections. There was a gallery of maps, several meeting rooms that would be terribly distracting simply due to the art and architecture, and a gift shop that I could observe through windows but never figured out the right path through the labyrinth to get there.
As I wandered, I walked up a flight of stairs to see this:
I wasn’t really expecting this sort of thing in the library. This was the entrance into the Sargent Gallery, where I spent a very long time.
The entire hall (including the vaulted ceiling) is covered in murals depicting various biblical and theological scenes, broken up only by doors or cases of very rare books.
Even the arrangement was striking, as one wall is occupied by the oppression of the Israelites just prior to the Exodus, and the other wall is occupied by the crucified Jesus Christ.
My favorite mural, however, was the Church, where she is depicted as a woman taking up the robe of the crucified Jesus. What a striking visual representation of the Church and her mission.
All of this is probably due to the heavy, early Episcopalian influence on Boston, but you could also find traces of early American mysticism, such as the floor tiles with all the signs of the Zodiac or the occasional Masonic symbol.
The fusion of all these things struck me. To some extent, it was all a physical embodiment of something I tried to express some weeks ago. There is no reason a passionate pursuit of God and the refinement of the spirit in the way of Jesus Christ is antithetical to reason, knowledge, or inquiry. And should we discover truths that shake our dogmatic certainty (dogmatic slumbers?), then we press into them, integrating and re-envisioning and re-evaluating.
Being at the library was a profoundly religious experience for me, confronted with both art and writing around every corner proclaiming the “sacred” and the “secular” without any awareness that a distinction should be made. I spent a long time, there, just watching and thinking and praying and reading and meditating until I could no longer discern the difference. It was definitely my kind of temple.
Speaking of spiritual experiences, I then grabbed a cold brew from the coffee shop in the library (why don’t all libraries have this?) and hiked across the square to visit Trinity Church.
The church was like someone had magically taken the entirety of Episcopalian heritage and culture and made a building out of it. Everywhere you turned was stained glass, lofty vaulted ceilings, and minute carvings and designs too numerous for the brain to take in at once.
I had gotten a little device that was supposed to give me an audio tour of the building, but since a gentleman was playing the pipe organ the entire time, I quickly abandoned the thing and just wandered around the building, myself.
I was particularly drawn to this panel – the Good Samaritan opposite Dorcas.
As I left the building and was making my way around the outside to hike over to the Boston Common, I came across a statue of the church’s first rector, Phillips Brooks. He’s probably most famous as the lyricist for “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
The plaque below the statue reads:
Preacher of the Word of God
Lover of Mankind
I didn’t know who Phillips Brooks was at the time I saw this plaque, but all I could think of was what a wonderful way for people to remember you. I’m not a preacher by trade, but I hope people remember me this way. Someone who shared the Word of God with them and was known as someone who loved their fellow man – not loved in some generic feeling of beneficence, but someone who actually valued, pursued, and was committed to the welfare of their fellow human beings.
What an amazing way to be remembered. Surely, this is how we remember Jesus.
I was so stricken by the commemoration of this man in this way that I bought a couple of collections of sermons and letters by him. I wanted to know what this man was like such that the people of Boston remembered him in this way.
As I began to read his sermons, it became clear.
I should note that Brooks and I would probably not agree on much about how to write a sermon. He definitely comes from the “what does this verse make me think of” school of writing a sermon. But unlike the unfocused meanderings or fiery rants against culture that such sermons often produce, Brooks’ sermons reveal someone who has spent a lot of time grappling with the larger truths of God and bringing them directly to bear into the struggles of his parishoners.
For example, his sermon on John 8:12 compares Jesus to the light of the sun that wakes up the world. But he then presses on to drive the point home that Jesus, in his humanity, shows us the potential for what humans can be. Humans are good, preaches Brooks, and evil is an intruder that, if we are to be saved, must be fought so that the goodness God has built into humans can shine forth. Jesus is both our example and power that allows us to move closer to this, and we can see others moving closer to this as well, whether they are Christians or not.
In this way, Brooks says, all history is church history, because every advance humanity makes toward compassion and justice and away from selfishness and suffering is the advance of the victory of God in the world. We are called to this mission and are indwelt with the power of Christ, should we choose to take it up, to follow.
I could easily see how even the most skeptical of Brooks’ religion could not deny that here was a man who was for mankind. Here was a man who, by the Spirit, envisioned a world where mankind was ever reaching for its potential, and that potential was not just defined by technological advancement, but moral advancement in love for one another and ourselves.
Brooks didn’t see this humanism as eclipsing a love for God, but rather a very natural progression of it. For him, there was no division between spiritual and social salvation. The Jesus-ward life isn’t about escaping Hell, but embarking on a deliberate journey into a new way of life that results in a new world. If that isn’t biblical eschatology, I don’t know what is.
I am not much in the world, but I hope I can be a man who is remembered as someone who preached the Word of God and loved mankind.