Nov 19 2014

The Roofless Church

_DSC2921This past weekend my wife and I went over to New Harmony, Indiana, to spend the night.  I had visited this historic community once before but was glad for the chance to go back.  New Harmony was the site for two utopian experiments in the nineteenth century.  Although those experiments failed today New Harmony is one of the most spiritual places I’ve ever visited.  I would use the Celtic phrase “thin place” to describe it as the veil separating earth and heaven seems especially thin there.

_CES2121One of the reasons I was looking forward to going back was the fact that I had learned a good bit more about New Harmony, and especially the Roofless Church, in John Philip Newell’s latest book, The Rebirthing of God.  In an early chapter of that book Newell deals at length with the spiritual significance of the Roofless Church and also a particular sculpture found there by the sculptor Jacob Lipchitz called “The Virgin” or “The Descent of the Holy Spirit.”  The Roofless Church, as the name implies, is a church without a roof. It was built by the Robert Lee Blaffer Trust and was dedicated in 1960.  A brochure on the site says the building was created “for an interdenominational church with the concept of one roof, the sky, to embrace all worshipping humanity.” As far as I know no regular services are held in the Roofless Church but it certainly provides a worshipful experience for those who choose to visit it.  It also offers a needed reminder that not all churches or places of worship can be found under a roof.

_CES2074In many ways Creation itself serves as a “roofless church,” or at least it does for me.  I often sense God’s presence when out in the open watching the clouds float by or gazing up into the starry heavens.  Viewing Creation as The Roofless Church reminds us that God cannot be put in a box.  It, better than any building, points to the transcendence of God.

_CES2050Over the years I have been blessed to visit many of the most beautiful churches ever constructed.  I’ve been to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, St. Peter’s in Rome, Notre Dame in Paris, St. Stephen’s in Vienna and the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.  All are majestic and awe-inspiring structures but none compare to the majesty and beauty of Creation.  No ecclesiastical building I have visited or worshiped in draws me into God’s presence the way nature does.  I am certainly grateful for nice roofed churches to worship in but it is the “roofless church” of Creation that I find most conducive for worship.

I wish more people would begin to look at Creation as The Roofless Church.  It might just lead them to worship more often.  It might also motivate them to take better care of this “church.”  In most churches I’ve served the members take great pride in their buildings and go to great length to keep them clean and operable.  If we viewed the earth as The Roofless Church I’d like to think we would offer it more respect and do all we can to keep it clean and healthy.

If you’ve never visited the Roofless Church in New Harmony I hope you get the chance to do so someday.  Even more so, I hope you will begin to view the world around you as The Roofless Church and take advantage of the opportunities it affords you to offer the Creator your worship and praise.


(I took the pictures used above at New Harmony last weekend.)

Oct 2 2013

Tillich’s Tears

CA-5546When I was in graduate school I took a seminar on Paul Tillich.  Tillich, who died in 1965, was a German-American Christian theologian and existential philosopher.  Most consider him one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century.  I remember that when I studied Tillich I found reading his books difficult but also intellectually stimulating.  He talked about God in a way far different than most people do but what he said made sense to me.

Earlier this week I was reading a selection of writings by Frederick Buechner in a book called Beyond Words.  In this collection Buechner offers brief thoughts or meditations on a wide variety of subjects.  I came to the place where the subject was “ocean.”  I was anxious to see what Buechner would do with this subject.  When I began reading, however, I was amused to see that he focused on Paul Tillich in this entry.  I thought, “How strange.”  When I finished I found myself saying, “How wonderful!”  What Buechner writes is too beautiful not to share with you.

_CES7283“They say that whenever the great Protestant theologian Paul Tillich went to the beach, he would pile up a mound of sand and sit on it gazing out at the ocean with tears running down his cheeks.  One wonders what there was about it that moved him so.   The beauty and power of it?  The inexpressible mystery of it?  The futility of all those waves endlessly flowing in and ebbing out again?  The sense that it was out of the ocean that life originally came and that when life finally ends, it is the ocean that will still remain?  Who knows?  In his theology Tillich avoided using the word God because it seemed to him too small, denoting only another being among beings.  He preferred to speak instead of the Ground of Being, of God as that which makes being itself possible, as that because of which existence itself exists.  His critics complain that he is too metaphysical.  They say they can’t imagine praying to anything so abstract and remote.  Maybe Tillich himself shared their difficulty.  Maybe it was when he looked at the ocean that he caught a glimpse of the One he was praying to.  Maybe what made him weep was how vast and overwhelming it was and yet at the same time as near as the breath of it in his nostrils, as salty as his own tears.”

_CES7289My new place of residence is not very far from the location where Paul Tillich’s body rests, New Harmony, Indiana.  A couple of months ago two friends and I took a trip to New Harmony and visited Tillich’s gravesite.  I remember that it was in a small wooded area and that scattered on a trail nearby were sayings of Tillich etched in stone.  I went back and looked at the pictures I took that day and discovered that on one of the stones the following words were inscribed: “Man and nature belong together in their created glory—in their tragedy and in their salvation.”  It is clear that Tillich did, in fact, feel a close connection to nature and to God’s presence in Creation.  He felt it at the ocean’s edge, the gentle hills of New Harmony, and likely everywhere he went.  I like to think that Buechner got it right—that Tillich’s experience of God in nature led him to see “how vast and overwhelming it was and yet at the same time as near as the breath in his nostrils, as salty as his own tears.”  I want to think this because that has been my experience too.


(I took the top image of the Pacific Ocean in California.   I took the bottom two images at Tillich’s gravesite in New Harmony, Indiana.)