“Wanna piece of the sanctuary carpet?” my friend said, like a vendor selling bits of religious relics: this is a drop of martyr’s blood, look at this hair from the head of John the Baptist, or this shard of wood from the cross or the manger or the boat that sailed on the Sea of Galilee.
Beside him was a whole stack of ragged, stained carpet scraps. The end of an era from the church I grew up in.
At some point in the construction of our sanctuary in the 70s, a well-meaning person must have said, “Hey, orange is the new ‘in’ color. Let’s use it for the carpet in the sanctuary. Nothing holier than bright hunter orange!”
Despite the fact that it marred wedding pictures for decades, the orange carpet was a prominent feature of Pleasant View Bible Church, almost a tradition. When our church decided to remodel the sanctuary, I expected to hear mutterings after the service about the changes that were proposed.
And I did. But it wasn’t from the older folks, the ones who complained about using a screen to project lyrics to praise songs that formed half of our worship time, crowding out the old hymns. (They were tired of tripping on the slight wrinkles of the 40-year-old carpet.)
It was the youth group.
When I came back from college one week to my friend, I heard about the renovation plans from my friends, a few years younger than me. Some of them understood that it was necessary, but no one was particularly happy about it.
Why? Sentimentality, sure. When you grow up in a church, even the ugly becomes beautiful because it’s familiar.
But a few of my friends also talked about how it seemed selfish or excessive to replace our carpet when churches in China meet in blank, concrete warehouses. It was a waste of money we should be using for missions, many said. We don’t really need it.
The truth was, the carpet was ugly, stained, and nearly worn through in places. It wasn’t a frivolous waste of money.
And yet I understood the feelings. How selfish of us, to start a construction project, to spend money on perishable things like wood and stone and drywall. There are people dying out there! People without clean water, without access to medicine, without homes, without hope.
All of those statements could have a host of Bible verses tacked on to substantiate them. And, obviously, there are extremes on either side that we want to avoid.
But, still, I had to wonder…if a building is more expensive, more beautiful, does it mean it’s less spiritual?
The answer of my generation would probably be yes. But if you asked them what I think is a similar question, “If a song is simpler, more repetitive, does it mean it’s less spiritual?” their answer would probably be no.
My church’s carpet remodel reminded me that when God’s approval becomes synonymous with our personal preferences, we forget something very basic: grace.
The grace to choose an old hymn and listen to the words, even if they use out of date language to describe the love of God.
The grace to praise God for the special music that, to older ears, sounded a bit too much like noise.
The grace to admit that, while the old orange carpet is part of our past, it may be time to move on after all.
The grace to value both truth and beauty, both love and justice, without devaluing one to emphasize the other.
It also showed, in a strange way, a clash of values between two generations. My generation stresses the fact that God wants us to sacrifice, to accomplish great things, to live counter to our culture, to be uncomfortable. Our Jesus overturns tables in the temple, challenges the pompous Pharisees, refuses to throw a stone at the woman caught in adultery.
The generation before us tends to emphasize concepts like truth and justice. Their Jesus astounds everyone with the depth of his teaching, presents the gospel to Nicodemus on the roof, and tells the woman caught in adultery to go and sin no more.
Jesus, of course, was both. But it’s hard for us to hold onto both at the same time, just like it’s hard to appreciate both new and old music, both change and tradition. (I wrote about this in more detail in a post on Hipster Christianity.)
And sometimes, instead of looking up at the screens—three of them now instead of one—I picked up that hymnal. The “Old Rugged Cross” hasn’t changed much over the past 100 years. It’s still beautiful. And, somewhere in China, in a church meeting in a warehouse, they might be singing about the old rugged cross too.