I was blessed to have two church homes. While the church that is primary is the church of my hometown of Ennis, TX (near Dallas), the other church I claim … that claims me … is the church where my mother grew up. It is a church that my grandfather and grandmother called home for most of their married years. It is in a small, unincorporated community southeast of Waco. It is the community of Mooreville, and the United Methodist Church there is my other church home.
My grandparents raised my mother directly across the street from that church in a house my grandfather built. He built and owned the little store next to the house where he sold his own butchered beef. Following my grandfather’s tragic death when I was two, we spent many weekends with my grandmother … mowing the acreage behind the house, helping fix things that had broken during the week, and making sure she had everything she needed until we returned. She didn’t drive for 8 years following his death, and I was ten years old before she got behind the wheel of another car. That meant that my parents, my sister, and I usually spent three weekends out of four in Mooreville during my childhood and at least half the weekends through my teenage years.
The Mooreville church was key to my growing faith. It was the place I first learned about grief and mourning. It was the place where I met God … sometimes in simple … but always profound ways. In the days before we had to lock church buildings, the church was always open. Every weekend, whether on Friday evening or sometime on Saturday, I would go across the street to the church. I had learned early on that I could play the piano by ear, and the only songs I played were church hymns … the old, old hymns.
Before anybody in my current church gets excited, I only play in a couple of keys and not that well. As a kid, once … precisely once … I played for that little congregation because the pianist was sick, but they had to sing the three hymns I chose, and we sang them all in either C or F. I prayed all through the night that everyone would just sing loud.
But when I played alone in that old church, I did so as a form of prayer. Because I played by ear, I would often play with my eyes closed … or looking at the painting that the mom of one of our friends had painted … or looking at the other art and architecture of the building itself. It was just God and me in those moments, and my faith soared. It was there that my call to ministry was confirmed. I have preached there as a teenager, as a young seminarian, and the last time as a 40-something preacher during a revival there.
My parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, my mom’s brother (who died in infancy), along with a host of aunts, uncles, and cousins are buried in the Cottonwood Cemetery just down the hill from the Mooreville church. Each time we stood at the edge of the grave, the people of that church walked with us through our grief and loss. It felt like something more than community. It felt like family.
Temples and Icons
While many people know about temples and icons, not many of us think about them. A temple is sacred space … a space where, if we are fortunate, will become a place where we meet God. Icons are those things around us that teach, instruct, and remind us of the essentials of our faith. They are focal points of meditation intended, not as objects of our worship, but to connect us to the divine in ways that we might not otherwise be connected.
Many churches and cathedrals around the world use stained glass windows, art, and other icons for instruction, meditation, and prayer. Incense is often used to create an aroma that strikes the senses to evoke sacred memory. They are not the objects of our worship … or as we often say, the buildings and objects are not the church … but they contain and evoke for us sacred memories.
That little church in Mooreville was one of my temples. The painting of the woman praying in the field, the little altar, the pulpit, the pews themselves, and the sight of the old familiar guest registry in the small vestibule … those were my icons. The smell of 100-year-old wood throughout the building had a certain, wistful aroma that was my incense.
So what happens when those sacred spaces are no more?
Last Thursday night, my temple was destroyed by fire. I learned early Friday morning that the Mooreville church burned, along with all those icons of my faith. My heart sank. I called and talked to Ann, who was Mom’s maid of honor in 1958. They had grown up together. Ann confirmed it … the church building was gone. The people would still gather for worship … they were still the church, no matter what building they used … but the space so many of us called sacred … it was gone.
All the people working to put it out could not stop it. They could only protect the adjacent fellowship hall, itself the sacred space where people fed us and cared for our family when Dad and Mom had died. But the sacred space of my childhood was gone.
The tightrope I find myself on is strung between sentimentality and triviality. While I am grieved about the loss of sacred space, it is more of a reminder of the loss of those loved ones who lie at the bottom of the hill. It is a reminder of people whom I loved and for whom I grieve. It is more than just sentimentality.
But neither is it a trivial loss. Every time I have been by to visit the graves of my ancestors, I have immediately left the cemetery to drive back across the creek and up the hill. And there it was. The church on the hill … reminding me that our faith takes us beyond our death … that bell tower pointing ever upward toward the Source of life and hope.
Where We Meet God
As I have reflected on this, I am reminded of the many temples and icons that still remain. More than that, I am reminded of the legacy of faith that came … not just from a piano or paintings or windows or old wood … but from the people of Mooreville and other people of faith throughout my life … my parents … and my grandmother, who will forever be one of my patron saints.
Paul beckons us, in 1 Corinthians 6:19, to recall that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and that, finally, we are not our own. In other words, people of faith are challenged to be icons for others. We are challenged to let the Holy Spirit inhabit us in such a way that, no matter where we are, we create sacred space for people to encounter God.
The inanimate temples and icons will always have their place in my journey of faith. Ultimately, however, God creates a true temple in the bodies of the very people who inhabit those sacred spaces. Each person of faith is an icon. I am challenged to see the image of God … the face of Christ … in everyone and everything that God has created.
When I pause and reflect on the gift of God’s abiding presence in the face of the children of God all around me, I am in awe … I am in the temple! Life is still bigger than death, and my hope is restored.
I thank God daily for the temples and icons of my faith!