Tumbling in the Sand
Built on a rock, the church shall stand, even when steeples are falling;
crumbled have spires in every land, bells still are chiming and calling—
calling the young and old to rest, calling the souls of those distressed,
longing for life everlasting.
There are very few hymns that I dislike and I love most of them. In fact, if you were to ask me my favorite hymn, I’d be a little at a loss; but, if I were allowed to make a list of my favorite hymns, Built on a Rock would be in that list. I have always loved this hymn. Even as a kid, I remember getting goosebumps singing it with the organ blasting, shaking the building—particularly the awesome bass part. To me, this hymn has always been one of the most defiant pieces of music I’ve ever heard—a clarion response to the perpetual (in my life time anyway) questioning about whether the church would survive to the next generation.
Yes the Church will survive, the organ rumbles. Yes the Church will survive, the building vibrates. Yes the Church will survive the assembly sings. Yes the Church will survive the Spirit soars. The Church has survived the fury of the gates of hell and has not been overcome. The Church will survive. The Church will rise from the crumbling steeples, from the ashes, from the ruins and the Church will stand and proclaim grace and resurrection and life abundant. Built on Christ, built on the very foundation of God and the promise of God, the Church will always stand. So, do your damnedest, the hymn proclaims: like our very foundation, like Christ, we will rise from the grave.
Surely, in temples made with hands God the Most High is not dwelling—
high in the heav’ns his temple stands, all earthly temples excelling.
Yet God who dwells in heav’n above deigns to abide with us in love,
making our bodies his temple.
Christ builds a house of living stones: we are his own habitation;
he fills our hearts, his humble thrones, granting us life and salvation.
Where two or three will seek his face, he in their midst will show his grace,
blessings upon them bestowing.
Yet, one of the things that I’ve always loved about this hymn is that it does not presume that the Church is the building or that the Church will rise to look just like it always had—as if those crumbled spires and fallen steeples will ever look like the glory of the past. No, this hymn claims that the church is built with the lives of the saints—our very lives—our very bodies. This hymn makes it very clear that anywhere two or three gather in the name of Christ—the Church is there. Anywhere, no matter how beautiful or ugly. No matter how public or secretive. No matter the holiness or unholiness. No matter the space, when the people of God gather—there is the Church. There is the presence of God.
And by calling to mind the bells ringing through the ages, this hymn reminds us that the Church is more than the present. The Church is more than those who presently run the race of faith (to use a little Pauline language). The Church is the full cloud of witnesses, the saints of all times and places. The Church is all those we have loved who have gone before us and all those we do not know who have kept the faith.
When we gather as the Church—no matter how many gather or where they gather—that entire cloud of witnesses, that entire company of saints, that entire, beautiful, beloved, holy history stands with us and supports us. Sometimes I think it is easy to think that history dwells with things. And I know in the church it’s easy to do that. We think about our parents, our grandparents, our uncles and aunts, and all the others we love when we look at the buildings they helped to build. The tile they helped to lay. The altar they helped to construct. The walls they helped to paint. The stained glass windows they helped to design. We think about them as we stand in the spaces we remember them in and we know that they are with us in those spaces because our memories are held there. We remember them teaching us Sunday School or shushing us when we squirmed in the pew. We remember them singing in the choir and setting the table for communion. And so these places hold these memories, and we think that it holds these people too.
But the promise of this hymn (and the promise of God) is that those saints, those memories, those histories do not stick to crumbling buildings but gather with us where ever we go. We take them with us. The saints of God surround the living church and stand with us in faith.
Yet in this house, an earthly frame, Jesus the children is blessing;
hither we come to praise his name, faith in our Savior confessing.
Jesus to us his Spirit sent, making with us his covenant,
granting his children the kingdom.
But here’s this amazing promise: and part of the reason that we build buildings and raise steeples and gather together—we are blessed in these places. Jesus comes into our midsts and blesses community after community. And we need a place for that gathering to happen. We need a home big enough for the whole community. And so we build. Claiming that the church is not the building never denies the blessing that a building can be or how God works through that building. We are privileged stewards of property left by the past and it is our job to ensure that it is used to allow Jesus to bless the children. Sometimes, this involves maintaining the building. Sometimes this involves letting it go and doing something new. Always this involves faith and confession and the work of the kingdom of God and always, we know, the saints go with us.
Through all the passing years, O Lord, grant that, when church bells are ringing,
many may come to hear your Word, who here this promise is bringing:
“I know my own, my own know me; you, not the world, my face shall see;
my peace I leave with you. Amen.”
May you know that Christ and the whole company of saints goes with you. May you be granted peace. Amen.
Hear a beautiful rendition of the tune of Built on a Rock here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kxt9eKQpG4w&feature=related