Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Sacred space

The church I serve, Johns Creek United Methodist Church in suburban Atlanta, did something pretty countercultural on Sunday. The church opened a new sanctuary.

Now, the church did not open a new worship center or multipurpose space. The church opened a new sanctuary. Let's be clear: the altar rail is bolted to the floor.

Johns Creek UMC worshiped in the Family Life Center (lovingly dubbed the FelloSanctAnasium) for fifteen years before reaching this point, and the space has quite a history. There have been thousands of worship services, dozens of funerals and weddings, plenty of basketball games and scout meetings. In that space, 250,000 meals have been packaged for Stop Hunger Now since 2010. Truly, it is a multipurpose space. It is used, and used well.

And yet, I believe, the church needed a space strictly for worship. Some of my clergy colleagues disagree with this assessment, and I understand the disagreement. I am not one who has a very old-fashioned understanding of worship. Worship is not simply something that happens in a service, on a Sunday morning. Worship happens when we serve others in Christ's name. Worship happens when we share Christ's love. No pew is required.

But corporate worship, whenever it is scheduled, is vital to the faith, and a deep part of our faith tradition. In my own United Methodist context, the corporate nature of faith is part of our DNA; because we believe that no one person has a handle on the truth, we are an itinerant church. We change pastoral and lay leadership with some frequency. We need each other, as truth is tempered in community. God's love is made manifest in the bonds between people.

There is something special about worship, about spending an hour or two (or however long) focused, together, on discerning God's will and responding in kind. Corporate worship is the avenue through which we most clearly build a connection between our hearts and God's, for in the final analysis, God can be found in the space between people, calling us closer to one another. Put another way: if God's vision for humanity is that we come together, then we ought to come together.

Now, while I am a traditionalist in some senses, I am not mired in the muck of centuries past. I'm twenty-nine, for one thing, and I did not grow up in the church, so I am not automatically predisposed to the high-church notion of designated sacred space. I have nothing against multipurpose space, and I am sensitive to the notion that a room ought not be left empty all week if there are ministries to fill it. There are contexts in which multipurpose use is the most faithful response; I would argue that for the last fifteen years, the congregation at Johns Creek UMC has been faithful in its use of its designated space. But there comes a time and a circumstance in which God deserves something all of God's own.

The question I have received more than any other in the midst of this building program is this: why are we spending so much money on this building when there are children to be fed, people to be housed, brothers and sisters across the world who need access to clean water? I understand these arguments at a very visceral level, as mission is a large part of my portfolio at the church. I spent three years at the denominational mission-sending agency. I have led trips around the world. I believe that the core call of Christ is to love God by loving people.

And yet I also believe that sometimes God calls us to love people by building buildings, even ones with altar rails bolted to the floor. Yes, we are called to offer food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty, but we are also called to share the light of Christ with the world. The steeple at Johns Creek United Methodist Church is visible from miles away. The cross that sits atop it is a reminder to all that this is God's house, and that all are welcome.

Sacred space also reminds us that in a multipurpose world, God is greater than our transience. The same God who was present at creation is present still, and will be present long after my own funeral. The brick that surrounds the sanctuary is a reminder that we worship a God larger than our own desires, who calls us out of ourselves to see the problems of the world and to respond in loving-kindness. We move around like nomads, chasing one dream or another, trying to escape the Minotaurs of our past. In the face of such transience, God is permanent. God promises to never leave us.

Let me say one more thing about the particular sanctuary at Johns Creek UMC, and about sacred space in general. Anyone who has ever walked into a cathedral in France or Italy knows that it is impossible to walk into such a space without understanding how Freidrich Schleiermacher regarded religion as "a sense and taste for the infinite." You walk into such a space and your voice gets quiet, your eyes rise, and you recognize that there is something greater, something ineffable, something at once personal and transcendent. Sacred space calls us to greater things, in our relationship with God, in our relationships with one another, in our relationship with the world. It is as if the once-narrow trajectory of the world explodes at the altar into extravagant possibility.

This is why I am so thankful for sacred space. I need only walk to the edge of the campus, enter that space, and be reminded of God's presence. And on the sabbath, when the pews are full and song fills the space, I am reminded that God's presence is with others, too. For this is the promise of God: that nothing can separate us from God's love. May our sacred spaces do justice to that promise.

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