Sanctuary.

At camp, we sing a song called Sanctuary.  It’s one of my favorite sounds in the world: listening to my camp family throughout the years, singing the words softly and loudly, with tears in their eyes and with smiles on their faces, holding hands, sitting in the dark, staring at the fire.  The tune is simple.  The words are straightforward.  It is a prayer that I never grow tired of praying.

Lord, prepare me
to be a sanctuary
pure and holy
tried and true.
With thanksgiving
I’ll be a living
sanctuary
for You.

When I sing this, I am under the cover of hundred-year-old oaks and maples and pines.  Even when I’m not, that is where my heart and my mind go.  I can close my eyes and I can be there – I can smell the woods and hear the water and the crackling tiki torches.  I feel like I’m home, like I’m where I belong.  It has so much to do with the place but it has so much more to do with the presence I feel.  I feel God holding me when I sing this song, when I go to that place.  I feel His existence beside me, in the air, in the pit of my stomach.

The plea of this song is for God to make me into His dwelling place.  I’m asking for preparation, I’m expecting to be transformed.  This song means I’m letting go – it’s what it’s always meant for me.  You see, a sanctuary is so much more than the room we worship in.  It’s more than the pews and slightly raised stage with the cross and the stained glass windows.  Those are beautiful, and they are special places.  But God doesn’t dwell in church buildings.  The Spirit has not torn His way through our fellowship halls and Sunday School classrooms, painted the walls white, and set it on fire.  Our churches are not holy because they are churches.

God rips into our lives, breaking our hearts and whitewashing the walls; He lights fires that cause us to feel, to hurt, to love.  He doesn’t destroy us – He made us – but He does refine.  And He pulls us together, weaving us into the lives of others.  We are living, breathing, walking-around sanctuaries.  God takes us places and we find holiness, not because we are holy ourselves or because a building (or a forest) has special powers.  When God is in us, you see, He breaks down our barriers of sacred and secular.  We see God in places we hadn’t noticed Him before.

Tonight I was with my friends at an old, old theatre in the center of the village.  The opera house creaks and it doesn’t have comfortable chairs or always-working lights, but it is beautiful in it’s age.  We’re putting on a show there this weekend: a bunch of twenty-somethings with no money, little time, and a whole hell of a lot of passion.  Tomorrow is opening night, so tonight we prayed.  A lot.  I was sitting in the back after rehearsal, watching the actors receive notes, watching and praying for people to come tomorrow, for people to like the show, for understanding and for soft hearts.  The show isn’t easy.  If I’m being honest – and I am – then I admit that there is a lingering fear in me that it won’t happen the way I want it to happen.  People won’t come, things will go wrong, no one will like it.  As though it were about me.  As though I controlled any of it.  As though any of it mattered.

Anyway, we prayed.  A lot.  I’m one of those people who opens their eyes during long prayers.  I’m not being disrespectful and I’m most definitely praying.  The thing is, I like watching others pray.  I like watching others be silent in the presence of their Savior.  I like seeing people smile, hold hands, furrow their brow.  Maybe I’m breaking the unspoken code of praying, or something.  But because people assume everyone’s eyes are closed, people usually stop putting on a show when they pray.  And Lord knows I am so sick of watching a show of churchiness and religiosity.  I love to see people talk with Jesus when they have no one to impress.

So I opened my eyes tonight.  And I looked at my friends, some I’ve known for a while and some I’m just now beginning to know.  My eyes traveled up the walls, to the top of the old proscenium, to the tall windows that let in so much cold air.  And in my head (or my heart – my voice seems to come from both), the song Sanctuary started up.  I could hear my camp brothers and sisters singing it, because it will always be them.  I smiled, because I had found another sanctuary.  Because church is not just a building and a system.  Church is the people of Jesus, holding onto one another in an old opera house, asking for forgiveness and peace and blessing and, please, Jesus, even butts in the seats.  I was struck by how little we all know, how little life we have between the lot of us, but how desperate we are for Jesus to come through us, for people to love one another, for something we’ve done to matter.

I think we forget that Divinity lives within us.  Not in the postmodern sense, not in the humanistic sense, no.  But the actual Divinity, the God of Creation, Yahweh who loves and redeems and comes back for His sheep, that God has cleared out a space for His home in the shadowy depths of our hearts.  He has called the space good, and He has promised to stay with us no matter how messy it gets.  He has promised us that we matter by breaking down the door and lighting a fire in the hearth of our souls.  Lord, prepare me for that.  Tried and true.  Living, alive, with a beating heart and lungs full of air, a sanctuary for You.

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Winona.

I grew up at Winona United Methodist Church.  We are a small congregation, as congregations go.  We can pack 300 in the sanctuary but we’re usually closer to 175 on a normal Sunday.  I have sat in the same pew (two up from the middle, house right) my entire life.  Before that, my mom and her family sat there.  My cousins sat in front of and beside me.  For most of my childhood, Walt sat behind me.  Now, Ron and Delores sit there.  When I go home from school, I am excited to go to my church.  The service is simple, and has remained largely unchanged as long as I’ve been around.  First we sing.  Then the kids get to go up to the front and sit on the steps while someone gives a lesson.  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to realize that the lesson sounds like it’s for children, but usually is meant for the rest of us.  Then the kids run through the sanctuary collecting coins in noisy tin cans.  That money goes to those in our community who need it.  After the little ones go downstairs for junior church, we pass around the mic for prayer requests and praises, then we pray.  We take up the offering, then someone from the congregation reads the Bible passages out loud.  The pastor gives the message, and we sing again, usually a hymn.  A benediction, and music starts, and we all stand to talk, laugh, or leave.  There is a lot of lingering.

I didn’t appreciate my church as much as I should’ve growing up.  I complained about it being small, about the music being so-so, about the sitting-still and the boring sermons and the people who seemed to know me too well.  But I loved it all at the same time, and as I’ve grown up, I’ve realized that all the small annoyances have actually made me love my church more.  It is small, so I can invest in lives.  I babysit children and know families and life stories.  The people there watched as I was baptized as an infant and as I graduated from high school.  When I worship with my church, I hear simple melodies and voices that sing because God allows them.  I listen to the words and my thoughts are not drowned in bass or manipulated by emotional musical swells.  I am free to sit in my pew or walk to the back or move to the parlor or tuck my feet up underneath me or take off my shoes or draw on my bulletin.  I am able to listen to sermons and let God speak through them, even when they’re not given by fast-paced speakers spouting tweetable one-liners.  I am surrounded by people who know me too well, and who love me more than I deserve.

This is why I am thankful for my church:

I have never been made to feel like less.  I grew up surrounded by people who valued me – and continue to value me – as a human, as a woman, as a daughter, as a sister, as a fellow heir with Christ.  Some of them are egalitarians, some are complementarians, some don’t know what those words mean, and some wouldn’t care to be labeled.  Some are truck drivers, some are teachers, some are farmers, some are stay-at-home moms, some are engineers, some are office managers, some are elected officials, some are unemployed.  Many grew up in Winona, and some did not.  Men served as trustees and Sunday School teachers.  Women served as trustees and Sunday School teachers.  Never once do I remember a message being preached from the pulpit that women are under the authority of men.  I do remember, though, being taught that men and women are under the authority of God.  I was surrounded by many types of men and women who worked for the Lord within the church and beyond.  I have been pastored by men and women.  I have been taught by men and women.  I have spoken in front of men and women.  I have taught boys and girls of all ages.  I have only ever been supported, loved, and encouraged.  I have been praised and admonished.  I have been asked to lead and I have been asked to follow.  I have been cradled and pushed from the nest by people who believed in me – even the radical parts of me.  Even the scared parts of me.  My too-loud was never enough to be shushed, and my too-quiet was never enough too be called weak.  This is a church that saw many of my flaws, my pride and my ambition on display in ways that it shouldn’t have been  But they’ve also seen my moments of peace, of understanding, of humility.  They’ve seen me broken, ready to shake God away.  They helped me heal.  Even when they don’t realize it, they are helping me heal.

This is a church with many failures and frustrations: we are humans.  We are sometimes nosy and sometimes pretentious.  We are sometimes quick to judge and sometimes afraid of change.  We have fallen short of His glory.  But we are Winonans, so we pick one another up, brush off the dust, make amends, restore promises, forgive, and move on.  That’s what we’re used to.  It’s all we know.  We have fallen short, but we do not stop seeking Him.  We know very little, at the end of the day, but we know the One who loves us, who empowers us to love others.  People die, and we run to them, make them food, hold them.  Storms hit and we open our doors.  We go into schools and tutor.  We watch someone else’s kid play in the band or act on the stage, because family is more than just the blood in our veins.

How grateful I am to have been part of a place where people loved the person sitting next to them.  It is a blessing to be remembered, to be prayed for, to be believed in.  How good it is to have someplace to go back to.

 

 

let the amen sound from His people again.