A few days ago, June 29 to be exact, the liturgical calendar celebrated the Feast Day for Saints Peter and Paul, patron saints of our neighbor, Washington National Cathedral. In Sam Portaro’s brilliant book of reflections on lesser feasts and fasts, Brightest and Best, he writes about Saints Peter and Paul and the trouble their ministries faced. Not the kind of trouble you might expect. These were ministries that didn’t so much battle darkness, but were carried out in a world of “dazzling brilliance,” a time of vibrant culture and commerce in the Roman Empire, he says. Portaro writes: The far greater threat to the gospel, and to our faith in God, is not evil cloaked in darkness, but evil decked in light”… The hardest work of ministry is not in that obvious place of deepest, darkest contrast, but in that dazzling firmament of power that threatens to charm us out of our convictions.
In our own corner of affluence here in Northwest Washington D.C. , we live in a world of competing avenues of entertainment, education, culture, and community where ministry does indeed seem very difficult sometimes. Experts toss around statistics suggesting that Christian denominations are mostly shrinking (at this point I must remind you of a quote attributed to Mark Twain…say it with me…there are “lies, damn lies, and statistics.”), but as church leaders of all kinds come up with new plans and philosophies for luring people back into the pew I do wonder if we too quickly forget to hold on to what is good. Things like the liturgies and buildings that exist to support and demonstrate Christian faith. Experiences in church are among the most “real” ones we have every week. Real music, real conversation and real community. Not Facebook friends, but friends with flesh and warm embraces and genuine concern. People ultimately see beyond dazzling brilliance and gravitate towards what is real, authentic, heartfelt.
A choir from St. Alban’s will be traveling soon to France, where it will sing in some of the most magnificent, dazzling cathedrals in the world. It will be impossible to ignore the influence that wealth and power have played in the church there. Historians and theologians can sort out whether leaders of the past were charmed out of their convictions, but, based on previous experiences, I predict this group of pilgrims will come home with a greater sense of individual and corporate spirituality. The French cathedrals we will visit, Washington National Cathedral and our own beautiful St. Alban’s Parish, for that matter, are not the sum of our convictions, but simply places to gather strength for deeper and more real ministry. They may have begun as monuments to dazzling brilliance, but they endure as visible signs of faith that can speak across time to many generations.