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.
I’ll be a living
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.