Last weekend we visited St Alban's cathedral. There have been churches in St Albans going right back to before the time of the Anglo-Saxons - the city itself is named after a second-century soldier called Albanus who was martyred after sheltering a Christian priest from persecution - and the present building goes back nearly a thousand years to the Normans.
It is such a stunningly beautiful building. Like most Cathedrals it had cavernous high painted ceilings and radiant stained glass windows. There was choral music echoing hauntingly throughout the space. At first, as I walked my way up through the nave of the cathedral, I thought it was piped music from a CD, but then I realised with a sudden start that it was a real, live choir practising for evensong.
As I wandered through the building, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the sights and sounds and found myself thinking about the amazing things humans can imagine and produce, and how easy (and ironic) it would be to forget God, distracted by so much human-made beauty in the Cathedral.
But then I got to a very different part of the cathedral. Tucked in a corner, there was a very ordinary bulletin board with one of my favourite Bible verses pinned to the middle of it - Jesus' words from the gospel of Matthew: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest." Under the Bible verse was an invitation for people to write things they'd like someone from the church to pray for, with the promise that they would do it during the week.
The prayer requests told a different story from the glory of the Cathedral. In the middle of the power and vastness of the stone pillars and buttresses and the purity and beauty of the music, light and glass, the prayers hinted at stories of smallness, confusion, brokenness and fear. People were concerned for loved ones who were sick or dying; others were lonely, puzzled or doubting.
As I read the words of Jesus and those of the prayers, I was struck by the paradox of how God chooses to work.
For all the splendour of the building, the place that reminded me most clearly of where God has promised to meet with people and draw close to them was not the glory of the stone and the singing, but the invitation of Jesus and the small, broken responses of the prayers that people had written in response.
The building was beautiful and magnificent; it did express something of a reflection of God's beauty and magnificence; and it was a delightful experience to stand in the middle of it, looking and listening, drinking it in and giving him thanks. But I need to be closer to God than just standing at a distance, admiring. And because I'm small and sinful, I need God to be not just big and beautiful but also kind and merciful. More than that - his kindness and mercy are what is most beautiful and and most magnificent about him.
Here's how the book of Isaiah puts it in the Old Testament:
This is what the Lord says:
“Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
Where is the house you will build for me?
Where will my resting place be?Has not my hand made all these things,
and so they came into being?”
declares the Lord.“These are the ones I look on with favor:
those who are humble and contrite in spirit,
and who tremble at my word."
And here's how the apostle Paul puts it in the New Testament:
God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.