by the Rev. Timothy Shoup
During his sermon commemorating our 150th anniversary, the Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison, president of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, quipped, “I sure am glad I waited to come to St. Paul Bonduel until the fourth church was built! This is the nicest newly constructed church I have seen in the Missouri Synod. This church preaches such a wonderful sermon, I didn’t even need to show up.”
He suddenly changed his tone. With full-blast Law preaching he exposed our sinful hearts, but then pointed his way around the sanctuary to pour over us Jesus’ forgiving blood, the saving blood depicted in the symbols ranging from Abraham’s knife, to the crown and cross, to the chancel altar with angels hovering above. Before returning to the airport on our 150th anniversary weekend, President Harrison told me, “I’m calling Adriane (managing editor of The Lutheran Witness) to tell her we need a story on this church. People need to know it can be done.”
We pray others, in hearing what transpired at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Bonduel (a one stoplight town 25 miles northwest of Green Bay, Wisc., with 1500 people, a struggling main street, lots of cows and cold winters), may come to the same conclusion we did. To build a church that looks like a church is not unrealistic. It’s a lasting blessing.
During an earlier day, Mr. Fed Ex scrambled into our church and met me center aisle. “Sign here!” I signed. He looked. The trompe-l’oeil painted ceiling fooled his eye into thinking the canopy is three-dimensional with layered woodwork and trim molding. His eyes moved to the Risen Lord and Good Shepherd front wall murals. He walked closer to the altar, stopped and stood there staring at the two pastel angels. After a moment, still facing forward, with head tilted, he looked toward me. “Is this the old church renovated? Or a new church with the old furnishings or what?”
A short three minutes earlier, he’d entered frazzled, the day’s metered route applying the pressure. He didn’t come to chat but to drop a package and drive on. The church’s beauty took him on an unexpected detour. Our delivery man had been inside the 1916 brick clock-towered church with stained glass windows numerous times. In fact, it remained standing only a golfer’s wedge away, minus the windows now positioned in the new building.
We talked about the artists working six weeks atop scaffolding to complete the ceiling and the 150 hours it took to paint the 7/8 scale chancel angels. I explained how the ten foot tall murals–one of Christ and the women at the tomb and one of Jesus the Good Shepherd–were painted on canvas in the studio, rolled up, delivered, unrolled like a rug, lifted and glued to the wall. Likewise, the seven fifteen-inch diameter Old Testament symbols were also painted in studio and then glued to the arch’s face. Surrounded by biblical symbols and distinctive artwork, he said, “Whoever comes in sure won’t wonder where they are. This is a church.”
Emotion-filled voters meetings sharpened our focus upon design and cost. We knew we couldn’t raze the old building for sake of eliminating stairs, avoiding repair problems and gaining entry space if it meant giving up the existing church building along with the deep sense of worship and reverence the 90-year-old structure helped provide. We needed to recreate an “in the presence of God” atmosphere or turn back from building new and live with the old.
A brick structure with a steep roof and a 106 foot bell tower resting against our northern woods backdrop would create a postcard-like silhouette, but inside the church is where the God of the universe with His Son meets us each week through His chosen means. Could we afford an interior artistic design to distinguish this location from our other favorite gathering places? How do we not wind up with white-washed walls, leaving our loved, century-old quarter-sawn oak pulpit, font and altar feeling unappreciated? While many Christians of centuries ago, and still today in regions of persecution, are grateful to hear and taste God’s Word while at risk or in hiding, we knew ours is the privilege to construct the space itself to announce visually what we believe. The simple things God selected to deliver His grace–words, water, bread and wine–seem unspectacular, but if possible we desired to accentuate the actual magnificence of His real, saving presence by employing biblical artwork and symbols.
An important blessing was meeting the Affiliated Artist’s team from Milwaukee. Understanding our concern, they brought a stylistic eye to our problem spots, the blank faced 30-foot tall chancel arch, the plain sanctuary ceiling and a large, bare wall space behind the altar.
For the arch, we selected six Old Testament Bible stories. Dave, the artist, designed and painted a symbol or picture for each. The Abraham-Isaac symbol depicted by a threefold wood, knife-blade and firepot ensemble is my favorite. When gluing the circular canvas to the arch, Dave turned from the ladder’s top step and called back to me, “How’s it look?” I thought, but hesitated to say, “The fire in the pot isn’t hot enough; no one will know what it is.” Sensing concern, Dave smiled. “Pastor, it’s just paint!” he said. “Tell me what you think.” I did. By morning, reddish-orange flames were dancing above the brim. Three symbols on each side of the arch point to the victorious Lamb symbol at the peak.
The whole planning and building process lasted nearly eight years. We first struggled to determine whether to add on and renovate or build new and preserve the old furnishings. Second, we sought a reasonable financial base: 50 percent of the project cost committed or collected before groundbreaking. Our building committee became a key component. They researched, studied, interviewed, visited sites and pursued excellence and cost savings both. Furthermore, several members brought their trades, expertise and generosity to the project, while the congregation at large joined in support. We also employed an acoustical consultant. He directed us to build with twelve-inch-on-center studded walls and sidewall columns to break up sound waves and prevent echoing. He prescribed carpeted aisles and a tiled and hardwood floor combination to create a lively room with a two-second reverberation to accentuate children’s singing and all our church music.
The artist also painted architectural columns to frame the life-like angels hovering above the altar. The whole scene calls to mind the reality of worship, the very reason why He calls us to gather. God has not attached our assurance of His merciful presence and forgiveness to our own come-and-go feelings or inner thoughts. With Exodus 15 in hand, Luther preached:
In every age God has given a physical sign on this earth, a person, place, or location where he wanted to be found with certainty. For where we are not bound and our attention caught through a physical, outward sign, every person will seek God where it pleases him. Therefore the holy prophets wrote a great deal about the tabernacle, the dwelling and house, where he intended to be present. God acted this way again and again, and in the same way he has also built for us Christians a temple, where he intends to dwell, namely the oral Word, baptism, and the Lord’s supper, which are physical things. (Sermon on Exodus 15, March 26, 1525)
President Harrison proclaimed it to us like this. “God has not attached His forgiveness to the deer stand or golf cart.” John’s announcement of the Word becoming flesh means Jesus’ incarnation rendered obsolete the Jerusalem temple. Animal sacrifices in the stone temple are no longer needed. Jesus is the new place of atonement, the new Passover sacrifice. God does not play “hide-and-seek” with us. In the person of Jesus Christ, He came to dwell forever, and He comes to dwell among us through the Gospel: God enters our space and time through the Holy Supper, life-giving water and His living Word.
He comes to save us. He forgives us because it’s not “just paint.” Sharp thorns, spikes, but especially our sins caused Jesus’ real blood to trickle down. Abraham was prepared to slash open his son had God not spared him the unimaginable. Of the same grief God would not spare Himself. He provided no substitute for His own Son. He used Jesus as our substitute and nailed down His eternal promises for us in His body on the cross. The benefits of what Jesus did then God delivers for us today.
Christ Jesus was not kidding. “Take, eat; this is My body. Take, drink; this is My blood, given and shed for you for the remission of your sins.”
God’s chosen means of bestowing saving grace are not dependent upon a church’s art and architect, but what a joy to attempt to build a sanctuary to express reality. When we enter the sanctuary on Sunday, we enter into the presence of Jesus Christ, our Lord, our Savior. With angels and all the people of heaven, let us laud and magnify His glorious name.
The Rev. Timothy Shoup (firstname.lastname@example.org) is pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Bonduel, Wisc.