Everyone needs a place to feel safe and secure. We call these safe places many words – oasis, shelter, refuge, haven, sanctuary.
Ah, sanctuary. So often associated with religion, as it should be. Sanctuary was originally a word for a sacred place, a shrine. Over the years, it’s become a term for a place of safety. Each individual has their own idea of what sanctuary looks and feels like.
When I think of the word sanctuary, the first image in my mind is the large, unadorned cement block walls and long rows of wooden church pews of the strictly fundamental, conservative church of my youth. At one point in my life, the sanctuary was that building, and the word mainly meant the big room where church services happened. As far as being a sacred place, at times it was. At other times, it was for those of us attending the private church school there an impromptu playground. We’d run down the aisles, crawl under the pews, and be risking demerits and certain punishment by skipping study hall to cross the thin ledge of the baptistery. Never once did we fall into the water, though we did our best to spook our friends to see if it would happen. It was a safe place… until it wasn’t. Until abuse crept up, cover ups happened, and the family of believers that met in that refuge started taking sides.
So, my family found ourselves wandering. Attempting to find a new safe place. Sanctuary. It’s hard to truly find a safe haven after deep betrayal and hurts. Your definition of safety changes. Security never looks the same. Cynicism creeps in. For me, it took a long time to find sanctuary again. There were a couple churches that I worshiped at, but not one that invoked the word sanctuary in my head as I walked into the church. During this time, I graduated college, started a life with Eric, and then we started a family.
It was after having Katie and finding the church that was our home for the last 8 years that I started to think of the word sanctuary again. I told Jonah once to head into the sanctuary and he looked at me – unsure of where that was, unfamiliar with the word. This church is much less formal than those who use words like sanctuary for the spacious area where the congregation meets. Christian Life Center, or CLC, is the official term there. But the word sanctuary popped out of my mouth. It was natural. It was true. For the first time after a very long time, there was safety and security.
And this is where I struggle as I process through all of the change this last year has brought to us. It’s still a safe place. I know that even now, months after leaving, if tragedy were to strike, people from that body of believers would be there for us. But as opposed to the loss of sanctuary I felt as a teenager when a church was torn apart by sin and controversy… This time, nothing like that occurred. The decision to leave, to wander in the wilderness looking for a new oasis, was our own.
I have difficulty trying to explain this through the written word. Especially during this season of Lent. I’m purposefully trying to not be terribly controversial. But Eric and I have experienced, each through a different path, a shift in our thinking, sometimes subtle, sometimes seismic changes in our theology, a change in our worldview. Whereas I think the Baptist tradition of my youth, as well as most conservative evangelicals, tend to value certainty, Eric and I are finding ourselves with questions. We’re finding ourselves with an understanding that the body of Christ is so incredibly varied and that’s okay. Certainty and “Being Right”… is it even possible? As long as we can agree on the most important basics of belief and as long as we share the same roots, we’re willing to concede some of our certainty on the non-essentials. Living in this place of tension, in realizing that we are one body but with different parts and purposes, is a continual growing experience.
Rachel Held Evans says in her forthcoming book Searching for Sunday, “a notion that a single tradition owns the lockbox on truth is laughable… our differences can be a cause for celebration when we believe the same Spirit that sings through a pipe organ can sing through an electric guitar, a Gregorian chant, or a gospel choir… and that we each hear the Spirit best at a different pitch… in other words, unity does not require uniformity.”
That was pretty powerful for me to think about and digest. It’s human nature to think that your way is the right way. So, as Eric and I were finding a new way this past year, I have felt that cynicism rising again when questions were asked and judgment was cast. When a certain political notion was challenged and it was controversial. The cynicism was not so much from abusive hurts I experienced like in my youth, but from my disappointment with many aspects of the modern conservative evangelical movement. I felt on many fronts questions and doubts are frowned upon. I saw that any departure from the homogeneity of thought and checklist of religiously-inspired political beliefs would be unwelcome by many. Because of this, I found myself painting the situation with too broad a brush, one colored with my own cynicism.
But I’ve got to realize that “unity does not require uniformity.” My place of sanctuary is not necessarily your place of sanctuary. This body of believers known collectively as The Church is a body, with many parts serving many functions. It’s what St. Paul was trying to remind the Corinthians in I Corinthians 12 – We’re a diverse body. That’s why he opined so beautifully on what true Love is in the very next (and now famous) chapter (I Corinthians 13). In our differences, we forget to love. It happened in the early church, and sadly, it happens all too often now.
Sanctuary is now found in a new environment for me. And it’s where I need to be right now. We’ve wandered and I think we’ve found a tradition that is more comfortable with our very human uncertainty, that allows for questions and a bit more diversity. And to get me totally rethinking what is a traditional sanctuary, the little Anglican church plant we’ve found meets weekly in a coffee shop. There is no ornate architecture so many associate with an Anglican/Episcopal church. There is no stained glass, but the eclectic artwork of local artists. There are no pews, but the varied collection of tables and chairs and sofas. There is a smell of coffee that permeates the air and the upholstery. One week, we met in the area where during weekend nights the coffee shop hosts live musicians and a disco ball hangs from the ceiling.
Yet, this is a safe place now. I can ask my questions. I can explore differing theological ideas. I can debate the merits of the social gospel and social justice. During the week, I can sit in the coffee shop working on my blog and think back to the sacred music and scripture being read in this very spot last Sunday. I can stir my coffee and remember that just a few feet away on Sunday I approached the Lord’s table with empty hands and was reminded that this is his body, broken for me. I can walk into the doors of the shop and picture in my head the pastor of this little church kneeling down to my youngest and saying a prayer of blessing over her during the Eucharist while I stood there holding back tears in my eyes watching this tender moment.
It could be a bit scary jumping into this new fellowship, this little church plant known as Trinity Church Summerville. But it’s not. There are people like me there. There are people different from me there. There is this new way that is meeting needs I didn’t even know I had. So for now, this is our sanctuary. Our little oasis in the wilderness we found ourselves wandering.
God doesn’t just meet us in large ornate buildings or cement block walled buildings or warehouse style churches or large auditoriums. He improvises. He’s known for providing a tabernacle in the desert or a safe hiding spot in an upper room. He developed his church in the homes of early believers. Amazingly, God can be worshiped anywhere. Even a coffee shop with a disco ball.
God’s Peace to you all! May you find your own place of Sanctuary!