The sacred vernacular

I am a pastor, and Saturday I had the honor of presiding over a funeral for one of the saints of our church who now rests from her labor. Yesterday, I had the pleasure of welcoming two young women into that same church through the sacrament of baptism. That’s the way it goes in the life of the church. Just like any family we are joined in the endless cycle of birth and death and re-birth; of beginnings and endings and new beginnings. Individuals within the church are bound to one another and the life that we live together is lived in situ – surrounded by the wood and plaster and stained glass that have been left to us by previous generations.

The church is not a building, the church is a people, but those people meet in a building and those buildings bear the marks of those who have come before. Especially in small churches.

A pastor friend of mine told me a story just today about how he was looking at one of the back pews in the sanctuary of the church where he serves and he realized that the name of a girl had been carved into the pew by some young man declaring his feelings for her. He was thereafter surprised to learn that those initials were at least 60 years old and that that woman is now one of the elder members of his congregation.

Anyway, back to yesterday’s baptism. One of the peculiar things about small country churches is that they often don’t have the money to purchase fine liturgical furniture from master craftspeople, and so very often you find pulpits, ambos, altar tables and chancel rails that have been made by the previous generations of the saints (and sinners) who have gone on before. Such is the case at the church where I serve. I can’t cast an eye anywhere in the building without seeing the marks of such work.

As I was locking the door the other day after services I noticed the scribe lines marked out for the mortice on the door locks:

And as I was preparing the baptismal font before the service I I took the time to study it’s construction. The exterior looks like it weighs a million pounds.

In truth it is heavy, but although it is a solid and sturdy oak construction I was surprised to look inside and see this:

Plywood panels? Glued? Tacked?

Certainly they were carefully chosen so that the veneer facing out matches very well with the scroll work and carving, but plywood? Really?

I don’t know why the plywood threw me off so much. Clearly the marks of a skilled craftsperson are still evident in the classic proportions, the careful mitres and the well fit moulding. Is it because I expected sacred furniture to some how be different? Is that fair? Isn’t it like expecting a person of faith to be perfect when truth is we’re all a mixed bag of brokenness and beauty?

I love that this font, like all vernacular furniture, tells a story. It reminds me of the community of saints that it has served. I love that it was locally made by some nameless saint of another generation, dedicated in honor of some other saints and then used to baptize others. I love that it realizes it’s purpose whenever I get to fill it up with water every so often and place my hands on the heads of those who have been called into the beloved community I serve.

I don’t mean to be overly theological about this, but when a thing finds use in the purpose for which it was created there is something beautiful and right about that.

Plywood or no plywood.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Norm Jennings says:

    I think all of use bits of plywood to shore up some of the voids in our lives. How much and how many tacks we use to hold it all together goes in hand with how much care we use to build in the first place. Sometime it turns out quite nice, sometimes not so much.
    I quite enjoy your comments,


    1. Thanks for the kind (and philosophical) words! When things like this catch my interest I love to share them.


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