Sacred spaces

Jackson, the young minister of the Buzz, and I talk for almost two hours, sometimes like inhabitants of different planets meeting for the first time and at others like old friends. He confides that he and the other Buzz leaders have agreed not to build or buy a building to officially house the church. He says, “You put all this money and energy into raising the funds and then…” He trails off. I nod, understanding exactly where he’s going with his thought: the struggle for permanence may hurt a congregation whose mission, in part, is stay abreast of current trends. I think back to Vibrant Belief and the amount of creative energy the church leaders must have poured into funding and planning their elaborate building. Did that effort displace their original motivation and message?

For now, the Buzz will continue to rent. Just in the few weeks since my visit to the Buzz, the worship services have moved to an auditorium with built-in seating that accommodates more people than the previous event center. The congregation was able to up and go like a tumbleweed. But if they owned a building, they wouldn’t be able to adapt so easily. They’d be the church on Main Street or at 5th and Elm; they’d be the church with a cavernous space or a square space or a small space or a round space. People think the building is the church. But it’s not: the church is the people inside. The relationships. The ideas. The voices combined in song.

In his talk on Nehemiah, Jackson explains that when Nehemiah comes to Jerusalem he takes a deliberate approach to the enormous task he’s assigned himself of repairing the city’s destroyed walls. In the middle of the night, when everyone else is sleeping, he rides around the perimeter and surveys the damage. He takes an unflinching look at the problem. He acknowledges how bad it is before taking steps to make it better.

As a former servant, Nehemiah may have been an unlikely person for the job, but he was engaged in an unlikely job. His efforts weren’t focused on the most obvious target: the temple, which had also been wrecked. His idea of sacred space was much broader. It encompassed the areas where everyday life took place. Today, it might include the grocery store, the post office, or the sidewalk. Perhaps, too, it is the cyberspaces we occupy: Facebook, websites, and blogs. Nehemiah seemed to understand how everything that surrounds and supports the inner life is worthy of attention and protection too.

The temple may not have been the only thing worth salvaging but, for many, it was still the most important. A physical location for worship or prayer—a designated place where people gather to commune with each other and acknowledge something greater—remains a powerful draw. It seems the effort to build and maintain these structures, as energy-depleting as it may be, continues to be worth it. Even if we are only on the outside, driving past on our way to the grocery store, they remind us of life’s less material aspects.

The buildings that house places of worship have spoken to me my whole life. Not one in particular, but each whispering as I passed, “Why don’t you come inside?”

46 thoughts on “Sacred spaces

  1. Your story-telling just keeps getting better. Over the years I have felt that way about church buildings, too, as if something or someone was calling for me to look in. I have looked in many times and run a couple of them myself and you are right on target: It’s not about the buildings but the people who meet there.

  2. That interpretation of Nehemiah is a very “emergent” way of looking at things. The church’s work is outside the walls at least as much as it is within. Emergents seem to have a very strong idea of the Kingdom as something to bring forth in the here and now rather than an ethereal far-off land. It’s a very holistic look at things; I read an emergent treatise on the environment as it relates to God giving us stewardship of the earth; what kind of earth are we leaving to the next generation, and how do we reconcile that with God’s command to care for the planet? At its best, its a very challenging doctrine.

    On the flip side, one can look at the “building” as transcendent as well. I’ve always been interested in historical architecture including the great Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages. Thousands of people worked on their construction, knowing full well they wouldn’t live to see them completed. To them, helping build something to last a thousand years was a form of immortality, and an offering to God and their descendants. A modern person walking through them can still marvel at the work they created. And just in case you think that is a quaint antiquated notion, a while ago I read a National Geographic piece on Washington Cathedral. It was started in the 1890’s and barely completed in the last 20 years. A reporter was interviewing a stonemason working on a relief carving in an obscure recess where few people would see it. The reporter asked him why he was taking so much time on something practically nobody would notice. The mason’s reply was simple: “God sees it every day”.

  3. I like that, Tim. Good answer from the mason. I also agree with Frank that it’s the people inside. Sometimes it just seems as if the stone or mortar or wood soaks up the worship. David and I visited Ely Cathedral once, on visit to England. We were in the Lady Chapel, where there had been continuous worship for, I think, at least a thousand years. The site the Cathedral sits upon has been in continuous use since 900 ad.

    The place absolutely VIBRATED with sacredness, at least to us. You could feel it in your bones and in your mind and in your heart. People had prayed there for so long that it felt as though the walls had been saturated with prayer.

    And here we are back again to the concept of ‘sacred’ vs. ‘profane’. This seems to be a multifaceted, mufti-layered concept, doesn’t it?

    I’m off to do something quite mundane (or profane, as in secular). I have to go cook dinner. Much love and see you later.

    Yours in Christ

    • I traveled to India my senior year as a student nurse for a mission trip. Let me tell you, I think I would be embarrassed for the Indian people that I met….let alone any Christian from a third world country….to see some of our church buildings. We went to a church service in a tent with dirt floors and benches where people were squished like sardines. All of the locals shared a common cup for communion but they kindly provided us Americans our own cups. Not only that, believe it or not, they actually served us beef to eat while we were there! I’m sure you all know that cows are sacred over there. Anyway, my point is that despite the condition of their “church building”, the worship was phenomenal. The building doesn’t mean a thing. We are just spoiled as Americans. Use the money going for building funds to spread God’s Word!

        • We were there for about 2 and a half weeks. It was a medical mission’s trip. One of the most memorable experiences of my life. Even got to meet Mother Teresa and shake her hand. Although I’m not Catholic, it was pretty neat meeting someone so famous! Everyone should have the experience of going to a third world country to realize how blessed we are as Americans.

  4. Hi Jo L. And good morning all.

    I am in total agreement with you Jo, that worship CAN happen in the meanest, poorest, plainest of surroundings. I am also in agreement that the emphasis has to be on the Gospel. But I do think that there is a place for beauty, glory and high art in God’s house. As Tim commented about cathedrals, sometimes what we create as a space to worship is the result of our heart’s outpouring and our gift to God. It’s the attempt to recreate the beauty of Heaven on earth and so give people a taste of the joy that is the end of all belief.

    Throughout history there has been a fine tension between these two concepts – one that would produce Notre Dame Cathedral and one that was St. Francis living in the rain. I think that they both have an important place in worship. But I do think that when we go overboard on one or the other, it is usually going overboard in the direction of ostentation, glitter and forgetting what the emergent Church is trying to remind us of, namely ‘feed my people’.

    As a former Lutheran and present Anglican, I must admit that I have not particularly been an admirer of the Pope. When I became a Lutheran, we used to laugh about ‘being catholic with a big C and no P.” But I very much appreciate what Pope Francis has been doing in removing even a tiny bit of emphasis from the gold and glitter and aiming it back to St. Francis’ simplicity. That said, I would very sorely miss stained glass. 🙂

    Yours in Christ

  5. I respect what the Buzz has chosen to do by not building a church, and instead using vacant space. Very green of them! When we started going to the Vineyard church, it was in an old grocery store. We really liked that. But they started to grow and decided they needed to “own” instead of “rent”. We tried to suggest buying one of the MANY abandoned buildings in our town and renovating it, but they said it would actually cost less to build new. So they took a lovely meadow near a pond and turned it into this Starbucks structure. Paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

  6. The Unitarian Universalists started their church here in Yakima in 1956, way before my time here, but they spent a great deal of their worship at the Y, and then at another event site. Then the Congregationalists let them use a small room in the education wing of their old church…..somewhere in that timespan the Congregationalists decided to leave the building and join forces with another congregation—who also left their building. Those two groups did build a new church in the middle of a grass field….modest and somewhat modern, but just the right size for them. And new, without the expenses of an old building.

    The Unitarian-Universalists bought the Congregationalist’s building at a very good price. It was not a unanimous decision to purchase, and this still causes dust-ups once in a while! The Vineyards Church bought the other building.

    Our building is beautiful…..simple, as you might expect……but with wonderful stained glass windows and ceiling that makes my spirits soar, especially on a sunny day. We have to rent rooms out to various entities to be able to keep things going—The League of Women Voters, the Bodhi Center, the Metropolitan Rainbow church, a Christian Hispanic church, and a couple of NA/AA groups all share our facilities. We have an old boiler that is holding together, for now. Lots of things go along with having an old building. It is also downtown, not out in the suburbs, which has allowed some outreach programs that would not otherwise have been possible. Was it worth it? I don’t know in terms of finances…..but the sanctuary is a place which is worthy of worship, and I appreciate it every Sunday. But you know me and spirituality! I love beauty and light and openness! I am presently on the Finance Committee and the Board of Directors, so I have opportunity to temper my spiritual effusiveness with pragmatism!

    I guess what I am saying is that this is just not a simple issue. The Cathedrals—where the walls have been saturated with prayer, as Patti so wonderfully put it—served a purpose, as do the tents with dirt floors. And I do have to admire the emergent churches who put money into programs instead of buildings. I appreciate my beautiful, historic church, but would I go if we met in a Grange Hall. Yes.

  7. Maybe like everything else in this world, a building’s value should be measured by how much it contributes to dong God’s work. It can do that in any number of ways; as Merrill points out, inner-city churches can be centers for outreach and havens of peace. By their architecture and artistry, older or larger churches can inspire us to look heavenward, beyond this world. Even the cramped and rustic church serves a purpose by creating a community in a country where Christians are vastly outnumbered. There’s an evangelical “biker church” near us that either rents or buys old Victorian houses and commercial buildings, and fixes them up to use as worship spaces, and to physically improve the community. Like Vibrant Belief, there are plenty of churches where the space and ambience take precedence over the word. But there are others that are part of spreading the word, too.

  8. There are a couple of churches here in Charlotte, NC that I particularly appreciate, because they have managed to combine beautiful buildings with appropriate outreach. They are both basically “downtown”. One provides free musical concerts and brown bag discussion groups. The other (my favorite) provides a soup kitchen open to all. I think they are getting ‘sacred space’ right on both counts. The only thing that makes me sad about my church is that it is too far in the suburbs to have a soup kitchen ministry. I have to make do with the fact that every Sunday, we (the parishioners and any visitors/guests) sit down to a full lunch. Everyone stays and fellowships with each other. There are a number of elderly people in church who get a really good meal they don’t have to worry about preparing.

    Sorry.! The subject of food always sidetracks me, and I’m hostess this Sunday, so you can tell where my thoughts lie. 🙂

    And Tim, when you mentioned the ‘biker church’, I was reminded of the church my ex sister-in-law attends in Texas, and one a friend’s daughter here in Charlotte attended; it’s a “Cowboy Church” Yep….right out there with the bales of hay and the dirt! It was the only church my ex sister-in-law felt comfortable in, and if that is what it took, then it qualifies as having “sacredness”.

    The Anglican province to which we belong regularly starts churches in people’s homes and in already existing churches. Merrill….the Lutheran church we attended did exactly what your church does to keep the roof over their head. And it works!

    What we are debating is, in essence, the concept of sacred versus profane, and I have to say that I think a lot of that is based on objective appraisal. Would I, personally, ever be comfortable singing a rock and roll hymn and boogeying in front of the Host on my churches’ altar? NOPE! But the children who laughingly dance down the aisle after they have received a blessing, they are not being in the least profane. Some of the answer to this question has to be objective and personal.

    Looks like I got off the subject. I think I should go work on my menu for next Sunday.

    Yours in Christ

    • Thanks a lot, Patti—you got me thinking about dinner and its not even 4:00 o’clock out here yet—LOL!

      The part of Orange County I live in might be called semi-urban—originally a suburb of L.A. but now very much a city. Our church, too, does a Friday soup kitchen for the homeless, as it has for the past 25 years. Its part of an inter-faith coalition where churches schedule their soup kitchens so the homeless can get something to eat just about every night.

      Here’s an interesting take on how buildings affect your spiritual mindset: I’ve only been in three purpose-built large cathedrals in my life: Our Lady of the Angels Roman Catholic in L.A., St. Louis Basilica in Missouri (also RC), and Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco. Besides being churches, all three are tourist attractions. Grace is a Gothic cathedral constructed between 1930 and 1962; St. Louis was built in the early 20th century in the Greco-Byzantine style; and Our Lady is the newest, completed about 10 or 15 years ago, and is very modern in design. Maybe its because its L.A. and everything is casual, but I notice when tourists go inside, they don’t make much of an attempt to maintain a reverential quiet and wander around like they’re in a mall. Maybe its because the space is pretty generic modern—dramatic, but nothing that says you are in a sacred place, other than the decorations. On the other hand, people seem to quiet down when they’re in St. Louis or Grace. Even though both are in the middle of the city, they’re almost silent inside. Grace has a prayer labyrinth in its nave, and any time I’ve been there, there were people walking the path in silent prayer. I find those two spaces to be awe-inspiring (in the best sense of the word), but never overwhelming. Maybe uplifting is the best word. Can people feel the same way in Our Lady in L.A? Yes, I suppose some people respond to the light and airy surroundings. Like you said, Patti, its all very objective. But I know what inspires me…..

  9. Got off the subject? I am not sure that most of us know how to keep on subject. Our minds are too full and need to flow out somewhere! I always enjoy what you have to say, Patti, on subject or not! MET

  10. thanks for the post, Corinna. I was just listening today to an interview with Bono (lead singer of U2) on Focus on the Family. He is a follower of Jesus who realized years ago that the focus of our lives should be more on seeking “orthopraxy,” which a lot of Christians don’t seem to look at as much as “orthodoxy” Bono is looking at the tremendous human potential of people in the world and how it is wasted. Increasingly, my awareness of what Jesus taught sees that Bono is really on to something that a lot of our churches are missing: building the walls of community–which I think is what you were presenting here from The Buzz.

    • Sad but true, Walt. A close reading of the New Testament shows Jesus taught faith and action go hand in hand. What did He tell the rich ruler, who kept the law his whole life? “Go and sell all you have and give it to the poor.” Somewhere, somehow, the emphasis turned to avoiding things–sin–rather than affirmatively doing good. Many of us are like the fearful servant who buried his master’s treasure instead of using to it gain more spiritual treasure. The very times I’ve been told I’m a good Christian were because of the things I did to help others, rather than the sins I avoided or the prayers I recited.

    • Walt–I had never heard the word “orthopraxy” but am glad to have it be in my religious vocabulary. It certainly is closer in concept to what I believe…..thanks for bringing it to my attention. MET

  11. Walt–
    First, I meant to type “the very few times I’ve been told I’m a good Christian..”
    I think we’ve all done it. No matter what our denominational background, avoiding sin has been an overarching doctrine for so long it’s been almost impossible to escape.

  12. Hi Corina, Great article and enjoy your writing…Was at a worship service on Sunday and we were exploring the sacred ground we walk on, and thought I would share and add a little different perspective on sacred temples to consider. This is from a quote for the service from the book, “The Call of Soul” by Harold Klemp, pg.32.
    ” Learn to go inside yourself, because this is the source of all truth. There are a lot of holy temples out here, but the most sacred of all is the temple inside you, because this is where you meet with the Holy Spirit.
    How do you meet with the Holy Spirit?
    If you’re in Christianity, you pray. You come to the holy temple, to the holy of holies, through prayer. You meet on holy ground with your God. If you’re a member of any other religion, you have a means of going to that holy of holies, whether it’s meditation or contemplation or prayer.
    Go to the holy of holies. It’s the temple inside you. This is the place where all truth comes from. Before there were words, before there was a written Gutenberg Bible, before there was Luther’s translation, there was the Word in the heart of mankind.
    This is the temple. Go there.”

  13. You all have great things to say here. I’ve been so looking forward to Corinna’s comments on Nehemiah, but I got very sick a few days ago and am just beginning to recover. I’ve loved the experiences as all of you have painted them — from dirt floor sanctuaries in India to Our Lady of the Angels in LA. In that sanctuary, huge tapistries of the saints adorn the walls; people who died for their faith across the centuries. At the back is a picture of Jesus being baptized. It all speaks of mission to the world. And, in one of the side rooms, there used to be the most lovely picture of Jesus coming out of the tomb as if he was propelled, grave clothes peeling off as if life was sucking the death off of him. I didn’t get the name or artist and have searched in vain but the image is seared in my brain.

    Nehemiah was on a mission that he says God put on his heart. He was an unlikely candidate, but to God, we all are really likely candidates because God can see what gifts and skills God has given to each of us. As Walt said, do we use them for Him?

    One thing we tend to miss as Christians is that God cares a great deal for the city, for culture, for how we operate as society. That seems to get lost in the individualism of the day. Thus God’s vision implanted in Nehemiah. It was a vision of hope, where people had given up. God wanted to lift them up. The devastation was huge in Jerusalem; the task impossible; but God would give strength as they all worked together. I hope that you will all go read the book and be inspired. (Besides, reading the Bible is good for us all!)

    My church wants to do a public event for the community in October to raise funds for the local food pantry. The food pantry has agreed. It will be a storytelling and music festival that takes place in the local park. It’s a little daunting so I would covet your prayers for us. There’s a lot of need in our community. Like Nehemiah et. al., we are unlikely candidates.

    • Ginger, I am so sorry that you have been “under the weather,” as they say. I am not liking this business of aging—it means all sorts of little, and not so little, things that keep us from functioning at what- is- now our full speed. Hope all is well. Merrill

  14. I was thinking about all the diverse views we have on so many things; what is church, what is the Trinity, etc. An analogy came to me last night….

    I’m an L.A. kid born and raised, so cars are central to my way of thinking. Just east of downtown L.A., there’s an interchange where four freeways come together, heading into the central city. Cars literally come from every direction heading towards one place. For some reason, it brought to mind Matthew Chapter 7, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

    I suddenly got a mental picture of all of us on this blog, each of us on our narrow road, but all heading toward that small gate, just like all those cars headed to one destination. (Hopefully Heaven will be a little nicer than downtown L.A.). The broad road with the wide gate is for the people who don’t pay attention to the road signs, and choose the wrong direction (think Fresno in August). They’re the ones who never do the hard intellectual, spiritual, emotional-and occasionally physical–work of finding the right direction through the tangle of roads. We all may choose a unique narrow road, but as long as it heads towards Christ we’re moving in the right direction.

    • Good morning all! Tim, since I’ve never been to downtown LA (only to the airport) I really can’t identify. BUT I visit our daughter in Australia and have to navigate their frequent roundabouts (yes, on the other side of the road and steering wheel on other side, too!). So, in my case, you’ll forgive me if I ‘try out’ all the roads on the roundabout just for the exploration and education. . . I NEVER know in which direction I”m headed !!

    • Tim and others!
      An interesting metaphor……I am going to take it off in a bit of a different direction….as I see Carmen did…..while you all have been searching for the signs for that unique narrow road on your way to Christ, I have been keeping my car ready for the road trips I so enjoy taking. I will consciously be going down that broad road with the wide gate. If it leads to Fresno, I will throw on some sunscreen, crack open a Diet Pepsi and will enjoy the heat and the people I meet there. The thing is, there are an infinite number of roads I can take after I get outside of that gate….I won’t be on a one-way street….and I hope that the journey I am currently on, and the ones I will take in the future will continue to be where I need to be! You know that I am continually searching intellectually, emotionally and spiritually…you have been witness to this work… if you happen to see me in my car with the windows down with Emmy Lou Harris blasting out, give me a wave. Maybe we will even have time to sit down with a cup of coffee to talk. I would like that, my friends.

  15. Good morning all! Tim, my husband just hooted when I read him your post. He lived in California for four years when he was in the Air Force, and he ‘got’ your analogies instantly.

    Hello to George Franceschini and good morning. Your comment brought a thought to my mind. I believe in that temple inside of which you speak. As I once commented, no one can stop me from praying because it’s in my head. Yet I tend to think of my church as a place where many, many of us are praying together and ‘raising the level’ of prayer, if you will. When our priest tells us who is ill, or who has had surgery, or who is in sorrow, and requests prayer for those people, I appreciate the knowledge that God is ‘hearing’ from all of us, about the same thing, at once. It makes us, if you will, an amplifier. And it strengthens US. God doesn’t need it, being perfectly capable of discerning a whisper of prayer. But it makes US stronger in prayer and US more comforted in faith.

    Having a gathering of like minded ‘saints’ empowers us, if you will, with the strength to (as the Book of Common Prayers says) “Go forth and do all such good things as God has placed in your way, through Jesus Christ.”(paraphrased.)

    Tim, you also made me laugh with your comment about Fresno. As a former Texan, WELL accustomed to Texas in August (read 110 in the shade) I used to laughingly say that summer in Texas was as close to Hell as I ever wanted to get!

    Hello Walt, Ginger, homewithn, Merrill……….a good morning to all and here’s to a great day.

    Yours in Christ

  16. Carmen said:
    So, in my case, you’ll forgive me if I ‘try out’ all the roads on the roundabout just for the exploration and education. . . I NEVER know
    in which direction I”m headed !!

    Merrill said:
    Maybe we will even have time to sit down with a cup of coffee to talk. I would like that, my friends.

    I’d love the chance to sit and have a good cup of Joe with all you guys. Only, instead of Fresno, can we make it a coffe house on Union Street in San Francisco? (C)

    • ha, ha Tim! – enroute to Oz, I’m either in San Francisco or LA before that 13 – 14 hr. flight over the Pacific — one NEVER knows!! BUT I’m holding out for Corinna’s Book Launch – you know, the one entitled, (and remember, I can’t do underlining or italics) – How One None Got Some From Some Other Fun Ones

  17. How One None Got Some From Some Other Fun Ones

    Carmen, I will personally buy you coffee for life if you can that five times fast!

  18. Whoa. Where is everybody? Although it appears that some of us lost track of the thread—is that how you say it? I am not an electronic literate woman—–anyway, although it appears we have lost our way, I would say that we just scrambled into a different kind of sacred space: that of good humor and laughter and fun. Some of you might disagree that this can be called sacred, but I was deeply touched by the interchange between people who have never met face to face……who have become acquainted from the inside out, I would say. We couldn’t recognize each other from our “earth suits,” which are home alone’s words, but we have peeled back our skin and have allowed others to see our inner beings….our hearts and innermost beliefs. We’ve trusted….and we have become friends, who can have a bit of fun together. That’s entering sacred space for me.

  19. What a wonderful way of looking at things, Merrill! Like moist conversations among friends, the subject matter often wanders from the original subject, but in so doing, reveals new ways we look can appreciate each other. I’m sure Jesus told his share of jokes and shared laughter with His disciples—He was human, after all. If He was able to feel fear and agony in the Garden, then at other times, He was able to laugh; maybe that’s why he enjoyed the company of children so much. Good humor is an important part of fellowship.

  20. Homewithin – QUIT THAT! I’m pounding on my desk and a baby is asleep – too funny!!! And you can BET I won’t be one of the ones in the hot tub. . .

  21. June 27, 2013 at 10:29 am
    Homewithin says:
    Hey Tim, are “moist conversations” the ones friends have together in the hot tub?
    (snorting with you , not at you)

    Carmen says:
    Homewithin – QUIT THAT! I’m pounding on my desk and a baby is asleep – too funny!!! And you can BET I won’t be one of the ones in the hot tub.

    Crap, crap, crap. Paul had his thorn, but that was long before keybords!

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