When I was 14, our high school band, the Largo Band of Gold, went to Europe to compete in the World Music Festival (we won two gold medals with distinction). After the competition, we toured continental Europe. Our first stop was Paris.
Nothing in my Southern boyhood prepared me for Paris. The first thing that caught my eye were the billboards with nude female models. I knew I was not supposed to lust, but no Sunday School lesson prepared me for that. We went to the Louvre. I saw the Mona Lisa, but more amazing to me were whole rooms covered with one work of art. The artist painted the walls and the ceilings. I'd never seen anything like it.
We played a concert underneath the Eiffel Tower and then went up to see the city in all its splendor. I did get lost on the Paris subway, where a kindly stranger speaking Portuguese responded to my ninth-grade Spanish enough to get back to the hotel.
But it was Notre Dame I remembered most. At 14, I already knew I was supposed to be a pastor, a "preacher" in our Southern Baptist lingo. I had seen my share of churches, of course, but nothing in Wauchula, Okeechobee, Kissimmee or Largo prepared me for Notre Dame.
Rural Baptists had a distrust of Catholics, probably because there weren't very many of them in our neck of the woods. Then again, we didn't even trust Methodists because they didn't have church on Sunday night (heathens!). Seeing the Cathedral of Notre Dame on the schedule made me apprehensive. Would I have to become Catholic to enter? Would they kidnap me and force me to be a priest instead of a preacher? Would I have to kiss a statue of the Pope? I had been warned about false prophets in many sermons, but I had no instructions about entering a strange house of worship.
The tour bus rounded the corner, and I saw Notre Dame up close. My eyes drifted up, my breathing stopped. I had never seen anything so massive. We walked off the bus and made our way to the cathedral. It loomed larger and larger; I felt smaller and smaller. Only much later in life would I learn this was intentional. A cathedral was supposed to make you realize the grandeur of God and make you aware of your own smallness in the world.
Since my offshoot of the Protestant Reformation has a distant kinship to the Puritans, our sanctuaries (this was before we called them "worship centers") are plain. At Notre Dame, there was not one inch of undecorated space. The entrances, the outside walls and the interior were covered with carvings. The stain glass sparkled colors throughout the interior. I couldn't read Latin, but I recognized enough to know some of the stories being told. I saw Jesus crucified and resurrected in the stone and in the glass. It began to slowly dawn on me that the people who built this worshiped the same Jesus I did.
It was not until I was in the middle of the cathedral that someone said, "Look behind you." Then I saw the famous South Rose Window. It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen, more amazing than the billboards. I was held in a spell of awe. In the vast cavern of the cathedral, I had a sense of something holy, someone bigger than myself. In that moment, a 14-year-old Southern Baptist boy felt the beauty of God.
Like you, I saw the picture of the Notre Dame Cathedral burning this week. Memories poured out of the deep corners of my brain. I could feel once more the majesty of the moment from four decades earlier. My first thought was "I pray the windows can be saved."
I'm not someone who thinks God caused the fire in the cathedral. God is much bigger than any building, no matter how beautiful. I do believe, however, that God invites me to look at the news and find where he is at work. There are more signs of the gospel in the world than you or I can see.
I saw the picture the next day, the picture of a beam of light shining into Notre Dame, showing the altar, showing the bright bronze cross still in place. That picture is the story of Good Friday and of Easter. It is the story of an evil world doing its best to burn down the work of God. It is the story of the fire of my sin, which burns within, causing me to do that which I know I should not do. It is the story of grace, the grace that rains down upon the fires of sin, grace inexhaustible, extinguishing the penalty and power of my sin. It is the story of resurrection, that nothing - not the power of the darkness, nor the fires of sin, nor the pitiful human efforts to make God small - nothing can take away God's love for me. Grace is a beautiful thing.
This is the story of Good Friday and of Easter - the light has come into the world, and nothing can put it out.
I hear they saved the South Window, the window that so long ago gifted me with a holy moment. It is just another sign of the gospel, that God can save anything, anyone. Even you. Even me.
Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter.
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