On our recent trip, Blair and I spent a few days in Florence, Italy. I had seen pictures of the famous church, “TheDuomo” (more formally known as the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore). I knew I would be impressed. But I wasn’t ready for it. When I approached this magnificent building, I gasped. I was dumbstruck by its beauty and its height. It was built in the 1400’s before heavy construction equipment. It was the largest and tallest church in the world at the time. It took over 100 years to build. Block by block God’s people stacked this church into being. They understood that height appealed to our understandings of the grandeur of God. What is it about height?
We marvel at our own ability to build something high. Often, we associate height with the divine. We think of passages from the Bible like Jacob’s ladder from Genesis 28 on which angels ascend and descend from the heavens. And so to build a structure high has a way of making us feel like we can ascend to the heights of God’s domain. But the Bible is not always keen on tall buildings.
In Genesis 11, there’s a curious story about God’s people building a tower, often referred to as the tower of Babel. God’s people said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves. Otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4). The people want a structure with its top in the heavens.
Why? They had two motivations. The first was pride. They wanted to make a name for themselves. What better way to make a name for yourself than to have a tall building to show your importance? Notice, they didn’t say, “Let’s build a building to glorify God and God can make a name for us.” They want the credit. But secondly, they don’t want to be scattered. They reason that if they make a name in this new city, they can bunker down and settle in without having to move. They can mingle with people who think, eat and act like them. But God had different plans. God doesn’t want the people to settle. God wants them to scatter them across the earth.
God desired that his covenant for creation spread to all people. God wanted them to encounter different nations and cultures of people, new races. God breaks up their establishment. At this time, they had one language. God decides to confuse their languages. They could no longer understand each other. They called the place “Babel” because of the confusion of language. In doing so, God scattered the people from their homogenous environment.
Scattering the people wasn’t God’s way of punishing them. It was God’s way of fulfilling God’s will. God was trying to teach them that different places and different kinds of people weren’t bad. They needed to be amongst other nations to witness to God’s covenant, joy, freedom and care. Scattering is not a bad thing. Diversity is to be celebrated in God’s creation.
God calls us to build our lives outward instead of upward. Our faith is outward, not upward. When we try to build our lives upward, the focus tends to be on us and trying to build a name for ourselves. We become a homogenous group of people who hang out with people who think, act and look like us. That’s not God’s design for the world. God has designed us to scatter, to be among people who are different than us. God needs us to move outside the echo chambers of our life where people simply agree with us.
Just the other day I was with my family. My sister was asking me how I like living in Atlanta. I said, “I love it. In fact, on most weeks, I don’t travel more than 2 miles from our home. Everything’s right here. Church, school, parks. It’s hard to imagine going outside the perimeter to the burbs.”
My sister laughed, “Will, you’re such a snob! How terrible it would be if you had to come all the way to Madison.” I didn’t mean it like she took it. But that has become the joke in our family. I sort of get it. We live in a world full of diversity. God celebrates the diversity of creation. There’s the diversity of language, food and culture. To live a life outward means to live in community with people who are different than us and to appreciate them. And crazy as it sounds, we learn that these differences enrich our lives.
As I mentioned earlier, our family traveled to Italy. It was a chance to get out and see the world. My mother is good about making family trips a priority. In fact, she makes sure we put dates on the calendar a year in advance so we won’t miss it.
Blair and I decided we would venture off by ourselves for two days in Florence without the rest of the family. They suffered by themselves in the Tuscan city of Sienna. Without the kids, we took our time. If we learned anything from the Italian culture it was to slow down. Restaurants didn’t open for dinner until 8p.m. We strolled through the piazzas at dusk and ate rich Italian food at cafes with outdoor seatings under large umbrellas with the pigeons around our feet and the bells of churches ringing. I can understand why God asks us to celebrate the diversity of culture.
Blair and I love the arts. There was plenty of it in Florence. Inside one Cathedral, I told Blair, “I don’t understand why the Catholic Church sculpted so many bust of their priests and painted so much art about their popes.” She said, “Will, they didn’t have photography. This was their way of remembering their leaders. Think about the churches you have served. They all have pictures of their pastors somewhere in the church.” It gave me a little more perspective and understanding about the Catholic Church. We visited the Uffizzi museum with a guided tour and then headed to the Acdadamia to see Michaelangelo’s David.
As our group headed into the main hall, I turned my head right and there he was. He was perfect and made you want to start working out and cut out the gelato. People are right. It’s a religious experience. I’m still amazed that an artist could have such a perfect idea in their head and could make it come to life by chipping away at stone.
Our group of ten was standing next to the David in awe with our earphones listening to every word of our tour guide. After she had finished with an excellent historical perspective about the David, she asked, “Are there any questions?” This one man, an American, says, “What was wrong with the air conditioning in the other museum? They need to get their act together.” The moment was so pregnant with beauty and awe. How could anyone ask a question like that?
Equally as inspiring were these unfinished works of Michealangelo just before you arrived at the statue of David. They were pieces that Popes and Cardinals had commissioned him to do. As soon as he would start on them, they would change their minds and send him to a different project. It was a relief to know that bosses priorities changed back then too.
The images in the stone felt trapped. One was of a slave pushing his arm in the air. You could see the dots from where the artist had been chiseling away at the stone, but left it undone. I was inspired by the creative process, even considering my own acts of creation in sermons I had started but never finished. The figures were stuck, unable to escape from the marble. Our guide then told us about Michelangelo’s unique gift to see the image in the marble. Michaelangelo once said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it. I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
As I looked at the statues, enslaved in the marble, I thought of our human condition. We are a people stuck inside the marble begging God to set us free. We are a people struggling with our own unique circumstances of marriage, raising kids, caring for aging parents. We are a people of different countries struggling to understand each other and live peaceably. We are a people of different races struggling over our hostile histories. We long to be set free.
Here’s the good news for us. Jesus Christ can set us free. Jesus Christ has come in grace to forgive sins. Jesus has come to forgive us of pride that cares more about ourselves than what God would have us be. There are people of different backgrounds. They are not in Italy. They are right around the corner. They are people who speak Spanish. People with no documentation. People with big homes. People with no homes. People who can draw, sing and dance. People who play baseball. People who like to fish. People who like to rap. The diversity of this world is to be celebrated and to enhance our awareness of God’s goodness. How might we live our life outward instead of upward?