In the Netherlands, people make a game out of the outlines of the nation's little burgs, the silhouettes its towns cut against a gray, Dutch sky. Like fingerprints, no two of them are exactly the same.
Winners are determined by who can recognize most towns. It works, at least in part, because the Netherlands has only one hill. Centuries ago, if you were Dutch and you were committed to believe the world is flat, you could be forgiven because it is.
Every country hamlet has a church tower. When people built cathedrals a thousand years ago, they were determined the place itself had to inspire, to point toward the creator of the universe. No one would have thought that worshiping in a bowling alley was hip. Basically, if you want to win at "Name That Burg," you have to know cathedrals.
Couldn't be done around here, even though there aren't that many more hills. We could create a similar game out of gyms--"Name That Gym." While there are some huge churches in small towns around here, it's the communities' gyms that wow people, which is why, I suppose, some of the biggest churches have their own.
You could make a case that the real places of worship here gymnasiums. Third-grade tournaments draw grandparents. People drive across the state--from Amsterdam to Paris--just to watch seventh-grade girls play volleyball. Athletics is a religion here; gyms are our cathedrals.
So it was, in many ways, counter-cultural for a high school on the other side of town, a Christian high school at that, to put real money into a sprawling performing arts building. You can imagine what good people said. It wasn't always kind. After all, "why can't kids sing in the gym? There's a stage in there, I think, isn't there? Strikes me as extravagance. Call that stewardship?"
But it went up, and last night it was packed. Fifteen minutes into the Christmas concert, men were still hauling in chairs to accommodate the overflow. But the size of the crowd wasn't surprising. Put kids on display and those same grandparents--like me--show up. By the hundreds. Last night, almost by the thousands.
It was a terrific concert--all Christmas, all the time. Sometimes cute, sometimes reverent. You know the melodies. It was all about the season.
Even the end. The high school's stringed orchestra was on-stage when the director motioned to the choir members in the sanctuary to return for the evening's last number. Hundreds starting coming up. While they were, she told the audience she was waiting all night for finale, not because the rest of the concert was chopped liver, but because it would bring up just about every kid in the high school, and the orchestra, and a harp and the kettle drums and a harpsichord so that huge stage overflowed and lyrics that couldn't help but inspire.
That's not all. She told that audience that if any of them wanted to sing along they too should come up.
In a moment that performance hall looked like something out of Billy Graham. From all corners audience members streamed down the aisles to the front, to the stage and somehow found a square inch to stand. Seriously, there had to be a thousand people, all tolled, up on that stage.
A wonderful mythology has grown up around George Frederick Handel, who wrote the score for the Messiah in just 24 days of white-heat creativity. People have loved to believe that he was, as Christians say of Bible writers, "inspired," fired by nothing less than the power of the Holy Spirit, that when he wrote the "Hallelujah Chorus" specifically, he saw before him the heavens opened. Literally.
I don't know about all of that, but had G. F. Handel been in that high school performance hall last night and watched and listened to singers and performers of all ages praising God with music he wrote, I can't help but think he'd have scribbled on the program the very same Latin phrase he wrote on the manuscript the moment he finished--"Solo deo Gloria."
To accomplish what was accomplished in that moment required much, much more than a gorgeous performance hall, a place on campus for music; but I'll tell you this: when that crowd moved out of the hall after the program, no one was talking money. Everyone was talking praise.
Solo deo Gloria.