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Buildings (and Lives) that Breathe!

Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.

“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”

Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” (Jn. 11:38-40, NIV).

There seems to be a lot of angst in the church about the effects of COVID-19 on our ability to worship within the four walls of our buildings. Last week, here in in Colorado, the Governor’s COVID-19 advisor basically said that being able to return to regular “inside” worship is a long ways off … This is largely because our buildings (and especially church buildings) are unable to effectively dissipate the airborne transmissions from our breathing and talking that have been identified as the carriers of the virus. Apparently our buildings simply don’t “Breathe” well enough.

I can identify with this ...

From 1998 to 20003, I served as Senior Pastor of FBC-Ottawa, KS. It was a great church that worshipped in a historic building that was over 100 years old. When the building was built, the stained-glass windows that surround the sanctuary were designed to be opened to allow a breeze to come into the building. On the ceiling of the cavernous sanctuary was a huge rosette that was actually the decorative cover of a vent designed to draw the hot air out of the sanctuary while drawing in cooler outside air through the windows below. It worked like the cupolas on old barns to help keep worshippers comfortable. That building was designed to breathe!

Over the years, though, several structural changes took place. At some point the stained-glass windows were sealed shut and outside panes of glass were installed to “protect” the glass out of fear we would be unable to replace these beautiful works of art. And then as energy prices soared, especially those for heating a large area like that of a sanctuary, the venting was closed and eventually air-conditioning added. But all of this sealed up the building’s ability to “breathe.”

As a result, it caused the building to hold in some of the natural odors that occur from time to time. While it didn’t exactly stink, it had a distinctive piquant that my daughter came to associate with “church”! You probably know the scent I’m talking about … it is in many of our church buildings!

Architects like to tell us “form follows function,” or in other words, how we plan to use a building will usually determine how it is designed. While the design of the ventilation systems of that old church building (that is still being used today) weren’t intended to reflect the character of “church in culture”, oddly, there does seem to be some correlation.

You see, in the 1800’s (when the building was built) and even into the mid-1900’s, the church was considered a central part of the culture. And, don’t get me wrong, despite the church being a central part of the culture and industry back then, a lot of atrocities still occurred – racism was widespread, and “greed” and “avarice” still raised their heads – but there was a cultural, social and economic expectation that “church” in some form was important. Because of this belief, the attitudes and opinions of the church were “aired” in the community and the church was able to breathe into the life of culture.

But over the years, for better and for worse, those expectations began to change. There began to grow a separation of what was said and lived on Sunday and how we conducted our business, our politics and our social lives. It is as if the various considerations that caused us to seal up our sacred buildings – our fears that things we value could become damaged, that the cost to maintain our comfort was becoming too high or that we might even have to worship in a setting that is uncomfortable – also have caused us to seal up our Christian commitment.

And when things get sealed up, odors develop.

We would be lying if we didn’t say that some things about the modern church stinks. But we have become used to it and just assume that this is a part of “being church.”

And so, we get back to the text.

Jesus was about to do something great, but Martha didn’t want the grave to be opened. Why? Because according to the King James Version … “He stinketh!”

I wonder if that relates to some of our reluctance about seeing the work and worship of our churches being moved into our communities? We’re afraid people will discover that something stinks in the church, just like it does in the world.

But Jesus was planning to do something great with Lazarus – to resuscitate him to new life!

I believe that our churches are being forced “to be the church differently” – and to move out into the streets. By doing so, God is planning to do something miraculously similar for us (as with Lazarus)! I believe God will resuscitate the church and cause it to be intimately involved in all aspects of our “life and culture” … not by mandate, but by our own desires and commitment.

I believe Christ is using this period of COVID-19 to return His church from inside the walls of its buildings and into the community in order that people will see the Glory of God! And while that is fearful for some of us, it offers the opportunity for new and renewed life!

Prayer: Lord, help me to overcome my fears that people will discover the stink in my life as I live out my faith more fully in this world. Instead let me know that as the stones that seal in those odors are rolled away, new life is possible. Amen.

Rev. Dr. Steve Van Ostran

Executive Minister

American Baptist Churches of the Rocky Mountains

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