London is dead asleep at 7:00 AM on a Saturday morning. I know because that was when I left our lodging in order to make the 8:00 AM celebration of the Eucharist at St. Paul’s Cathedral yesterday.
It is a strange thing to find yourself walking up to the imposing cathedral dome completely alone. The experience baffles the brain, and it tries to rationalize by telling you that it is a dream. Visionary would be an appropriate word. The surreal has a way of becoming real, however, and I proceeded to search for a way into the building. This task consumed close to 20 minutes of my time. Someone mentioned to me once that the towering churches constructed during the Middle Ages were meant to resemble castles, since they were strongholds of the faith, defending against its enemies. Perhaps one of the downsides of a fortress, however, is that it can be so successfully impenetrable that not even the children of God can breach the walls.
I circled the church once and began to wonder if I would have to repeat the trek six more times in order to bring the Jericho-like walls of the garrison down. Halfway through the second walk, I spotted a tiny opening on the right of the eastern face of the building. I slowly entered, hushed and nervous, certain I was trespassing. A kind security guard pointed me to where the Eucharist would be celebrated. Upon seating myself, an unsmiling priest silently handed me an order of service and glided away.
The gravity of the place was suffocating. But where two or three are gathered…
An Englishman in a full suit with a hat, cane and bushy beard politely walked past me and sat down nearby. Glancing at him, I became convinced that it seemed I would be worshiping with George MacDonald.
When passing the peace, this gentleman gave me a hearty handshake, covering my hand with his other hand in a loving way. He then left his seat to pass the peace to other people. During the celebration of the Eucharist, he responded with heart and raised his hands. He allowed me to go before him when receiving the sacrament. He sighed gravely when the bread was broken, as if he was standing before the actual crucifixion. I was reminded of a verse:
“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)
David told God he would build Him a house. You can almost hear God laugh, “Would you build me a house to dwell in?” (2 Samuel 7:5). David offered to build God a house, but God designed the quantum mechanics that govern the atoms which compose all houses. God needed David to build him a house like a father needs the imaginary tea his 5 year-old daughter pours into plastic teacups for her dolls. And so it is with St. Paul’s. God didn’t choose a cathedral to dwell in. He chose humans, like you and me. Like the George MacDonald lookalike who truly worshiped Saturday morning.
This morning we worshiped in King’s Cross Baptist, a church just north of central London and located near the railway station that shares its name.
The neighborhood around the church looks tired, as does the church building itself. Inside, the paint is peeling, and water damage is visible across the ceiling. The only “decoration” consisted of a sole, austere, wooden cross at the back of the chancel. Laura and I both agreed later that the immediate appearance of the church building had unconsciously shaped our assumptions about what the congregation would be like. The walls were in disrepair; we assumed the souls inside would be also. We couldn’t have been more wrong.
The congregation was 80% African, and the pastor was white. The deacons were composed of both races. The English pastor seemed completely at home with the call-and-response nature of the congregation’s worship. In a distinct English accent, he admonished the church to continue to pray for Zimbabwe and Zambia, along with other countries of Africa represented by the members present. He passionately preached a biblical, Christ-centered sermon. The worship was free and natural. As the music died down, two members (one after the other, an orderliness Paul would have appreciated – 1 Cor. 14:40) broke out into spontaneous praise, letting what was in their hearts flow from their mouths (Luke 6:45). The first member voiced praised with a strong Irish brogue; the second man with an African accent. I was deeply blessed.
We shared in the Lord’s Supper, which consisted of bits of a bread loaf you might buy from a grocery store and small cups of sparkling grape juice. The body and blood of our Lord.
The walls were old, but God doesn’t ask for walls. He asks for you, for me.
Backtracking a bit, on Saturday we visited the Tower of London.
One of the strangest of London’s historical landmarks, the Tower is basically a large monument to the royal history of torture, imprisonment, and execution (the gift shop was stocked by, among other things, paper toys for children depicting some unlucky soul on the rack and another of someone being beheaded). I imagine the US giving similar tours of Guantanamo Bay in a thousand years.
Of course, we saw…
No photos were allowed, but I can assure you the sight was easily worth the queue/line and the price of the tickets. Wherever you are on the socioeconomic ladder, diamonds are still beautiful things. Especially when they’re the size of a baseball and framed in gold. I was relieved that Laura left her engagement ring home for safe keeping because royalty has some serious bling.
We were able to visit the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula (Latin for “in chains”), where some of the most infamous have been buried, including Anne Boleyn and Sir Thomas More (whose story is dramatized in A Man for All Seasons). As we toured these and other sites in the Tower, it became more and more apparent that Henry VIII was a bit trigger-happy with the old axe and chopping block (the execution of Lady Jane Grey was especially tragic; it is recounted here and artistically interpreted by Paul Delaroche in this painting – which I saw at the National Gallery! But I digress…).
During the tour of the chapel, our guide, a Yeoman Warder (or “Beefeater” – so nicknamed because apparently they used to be paid with the king’s beef), explained to us that individuals are only eligible to take on the occupation he holds after 22 years of military service (our guide had served in the Royal Marines for 4 decades), for they are, officially, the Queen’s personal bodyguards (basically the monarchy’s version of the Swiss Guards). If they are taken on, they are provided with a residence within the Tower’s premises. Here’s Laura with one of the yeomen:
We also wandered into the White Tower and its extensive armor exhibit.
Some really interesting stuff here. I found that monarchs throughout the ages were really keening on installing guns in traditional weapons, like a mace, shield, or an axe…
They also had a dragon constructed from ancient weaponry.
Saturday ended with a gorgeous, unforgettable bike ride through Hyde Park.
On Sunday, I stopped by Trafalgar Square on my way to the National Gallery…
…where I encountered some interesting folk…
For the incredulous, check out how the trick works here.
As you might expect, I wasn’t allowed to snap photos of priceless masterpieces in the National Gallery, but I will mention one painting in particular that struck me as I raced back and forth to look at the works of Michelangelo, Raphael, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh before closing time. It was Christ Blessing the Children by Nicolaes Maes.
Maes studied in Rembrant’s studio, and that influence is apparent in this work. What really drew me in, however, had nothing to do with Maes himself. It had to do with the truth revealed through the work. In the painting, the child Christ is blessing looks away, distracted and uninterested, sucking on her finger. An infant in the background drools, while another child is clearly resisting his parent as he is being offered up to Christ. A man looks on eagerly from behind, reminding me of Christ’s address in John 6:
” Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.'”
The men look opportunistic, the women seem exhausted, and the children are restless and fidgety. But the look on Christ’s face is the purest concern, absolute compassion; a holy concentration on the child He is blessing. Clothed in red, we think of the sacrifice that will come later, the sacrifice Christ was already aware of. But here He sits, blessing the children, ignorant and undeserving as they are.
We are these children. Missing so much, making such slow progress, forgetting what is most important, straining towards what will not last. But Christ remains, His pierced hand on our feverish brow, praying a blessing.
“And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)
The peace of our Lord,