The wisdom of stained glass

“I come for confession…and the glass. A riot of color in a dreary, grey world.”

A Knight’s Tale

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When Matthew and I visited the National Cathedral in Washington D.C., I had discovered¬† my favorite place on earth–with the exception of a beach, of course. If you haven’t been, please add it to your bucket list. It’s well worth it’s very own trip. We spent hours there (have I mentioned that Matthew is the most patient man on the planet?) walking slowly up and down the edges of the sanctuary, studying the vibrant glass that told stories from Scripture, creation, and our lives in community together. I took pictures of a few all of them. The classic images of the loaves and fishes, Samuel responding to God’s call, and Jesus’ baptism. The space window with an actual piece of moon rock worked into it. The technicolor panels with women caring for children and sickly neighbors. The radiant red one with the Pentecost fire of the Holy Spirit climbing up it. I love them all.

The overall effect is stunning. It does good things for my soul. As I stared at them, I started noticing all the little parts, too. Each giant panel consists of smaller shapes and colors of glass that have been fragmented and reconfigured to make these works of art. I started to wonder what went into all that, and Google informed me that it wasn’t as difficult a hobby to pick up as you’d think. For my birthday, Matthew got me a starter kit, complete with glass cutter, soldering iron, solder, copper foil, some basic patterns, and all the other little things an aspiring glass worker needs. Most importantly, though, he got me the card of Susan at Durham’s local stained glass store (who knew that was a thing?) who patiently answered all my dumb questions and sold me tons more supplies and gorgeous bits of glass to make into my own little masterpieces. (I use that term loosely as I’m just barely getting the hang of soldering the bits together without burning my fingertips off).

Jonah's Whale

Susan sells big sheets of glass in all kinds of textures and colors, but my favorite thing to do is to scrounge through her little box labeled “Scraps” and buy a few of the $6 plastic baggies filled with the leftovers of someone else’s projects. I take them home and see what I can find. Sometimes I’ll try to combine them with the dropped cups and busted plates friends have passed along to me to give them a second life. Soon I’m hoping to include some of them in a piece for our wedding reception alongside a bit of gorgeous red class that is the last survivor of an old family home that belonged to one of Matthew’s great aunts. There’s still plenty of beauty in these suckers, they just need to find the right place to belong. On their own they look pitiful and literally rough around the edges, but next to their brethren they get brighter, friendlier, dare I say jubilant. Sometimes people are that way, too. If there’s one thing I’m learning at Grace Place where I’m building friendships with folks who live on the streets and the volunteers who serve them, it’s that we shine when we have a place to belong. We reflect God’s love and grace in our own particular shape and shade.

Hesed, Hebrew for God's loving kindness

Hesed, Hebrew for God’s loving kindness

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Supposedly Irenaeus, a well-known Biblical scholar back in the day, had an analogy for reading the Bible that involved stained glass. He said that Scripture is like a stained glass window. He claimed that if you looked at the Bible as one big panel of skillfully combined pieces, you’ll see a beautiful image of a King. It’s possible, he figured, for someone to take down the window and rearrange the fragments into a jacked-up image of a dog or a fox or some such, using the same pieces out of order and maybe even leaving out the ones that just refuse to fit with the image they were going for. When we pick and choose which verses will matter to us, which aspects of Scripture we like, Irenaeus says we’re just putting together a bunch of ugly critters to decorate our windows because we’ve lost sight of the King. We have to keep the whole in mind, to let the pieces fit together as they desire to, as they’ve been so carefully cut and sanded and soldered into place.

It all comes back to belonging. When we pluck anything (people, stories, ideas) from their proper context, trouble follows. We lose sight of the significance of each individual piece in the whole of Creation, but each piece matters, regardless of color, size, shape, texture, or whatever else. Each of us contributes to the whole of Creation, and each of us reflects something uniquely beautiful and true about God.

That, my friends, is what the stained glass teaches me.

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