Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going. (John 14-1-4)
For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. (Heb. 11:10)
A few years ago my I visited some old friends who moved away when their children were young and with whom I had not been for several years --- perhaps as much as a decade. One morning, as I was coming up the stairs from the downstairs guest room, my eyes caught sight of scuff marks on the white walls. Needs painting, I thought. I paused. My eyes drifted up to the place where the wall meets the ceiling. I noticed how cracks had appeared, how the wall had begun to separate from the ceiling. The rest of the morning I could not take my mind off of the house, noticing black marks and scratches on the floors, peeling paint, stains, and the chipped edges of walls. Walking the halls, I heard the creaks of floorboards working their way off their fittings, like the creaking of mature bones. The smells of new paint, wallpaper, and varnish that I remembered from years before were gone, replaced by a settled mix of musty age, dust taking root in carpet, humidity seeping into walls, invisible mildew and the smells of many, many cooked meals adhering to the furniture and draperies. The house had matured. Once full of shine and fresh smells, it now knew the imperfections of age. It had been lived in and had been a silent witness to the laughter of birthday parties, the tears of smaller and larger heartaches, the hurried mornings and leisurely Sunday afternoons. I realized how much I had missed by not having my friends close by, and how much this place had seen and meant to them, how much living had been done. A bittersweet feeling welled up in me.
People build things. They always have. They adopt places as their own, build houses, and buy and attach themselves to objects, and they hold all of these with some affection, with some love. And knowing love, they also inevitably consider loss. In his book about how buildings affect us, The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton recounts a conversation between Sigmund Freud and the poet Rainer Maria Rilke on a mountain walk on a beautiful summer's day:
The psychoanalyst was glad to be outdoors (it had been raining all week), but his companion walked with his head bowed, his eyes fixed on the ground, and remained taciturn throughout the excursion. It wasn't that Rilke was oblivious to the beauty around him; he simply could not overlook how impermanent everything was. In Freud's words, he was unable to forget "that all this beauty was fated to extinction, that it would vanish before winter came, like all human beauty and all the beauty that men have created or may create."
I think I understand how Rilke felt. Whether walking in my friends home or my own home, I am keenly aware of their impermanence, of their advancing age, of how they're drawn back to the earth by the leveling forces of gravity, rain, wind, and sun. We can struggle to keep up appearances through new paint, carpet, kitchen remodels, or even by a take-down and rebuilding, but despite the beautiful places we create and re-create, they last but for a time. For most, this depressing conclusion is held off only by a suspension of disbelief in aging and death or a continual remaking of a place, like the woman my builder friend knows who remodels her kitchen every two years. An aging kitchen likely would remind her that her kitchen won't last forever, that, more importantly, she won't last forever, that all is destined for decay. Viewed this way, architecture is a fantasy, a cruel joke, an attempt to create something beautiful, functional and permanent when all is hopeless.
And yet there is another way to look at it. While it's true that my friend's home is aging, that he is aging along with me, there is a permanence to what we build. Our hope is that God is preparing a place for us, a city. In his new architecture, not only will He craft new hearts and habits but new buildings, streets, houses, parks, courtyards and trails. All the good we now make --- all that is beautiful --- is a shadow of the permanent architecture we'll know in a restored earth --- a very physical, tangible reality. In fact, the genesis of my friend's new home in a restored earth is already here --- in the bricks, wood, and nails of the temporal one he now knows. And the affections he now has for particular sunny nook, a comfortable chair in a cozy corner, and a perspective through the window, as well as for objects such as his favorite old sweater, wood-carved box, or even the beautiful lines and styling of a classic Corvette --- all foreshadow the love he will have for the new architecture of our restored earth.
We are not ascetics, nor are we called to disdain the physical. Rather, we are called to have a proper affection for the tangible reality in which God has settled us. C.S. Lewis once said that "every created thing is, in its degree, an image of God, and the ordinate and faithful appreciation of that thing a clue, which, truly followed, will lead back to Him." Conversely, he warned that "every created thing, the highest devotion to moral duty, the purest conjugal love, the saint and the seraph, is no more than an image; that every one of them, followed for its own sake and isolated from its source, becomes an idol whose service is damnation." Buildings, gardens, natural places and urban parks --- all, loved properly, lead us to God. Idolized, they lead us away from God.
He's preparing a place. He's building a new city. It's made out of what we know and yet He will make all things new. That which we properly love here we will also love there, in a remade earth. The houses there are foreshadowed by the houses here. We'll recognize them. We'll be at home, finally.