12 August 2013
The Loss of Sacred
Once while driving around with my elderly great aunt, she pointed at a corner in the countryside where two roads intersected. It was obvious something had been there at one time due to the large old trees and the lay of the land; now it was the extended lawn of a modular home pulled up to the road just south of the corner.
"There was a church at that corner..." my aunt said "...my dad knew the man who tore that building down, his whole family got terribly, terribly ill and he died. That's why my dad said never would he tear down a building that had been used for God's house." Based on my knowledge of the area, I guessed that the church was razed over 100 years ago.
We, well, not me, tear down churches all the time. I imagine if there was some hard-and-fast conclusion that people who tore down old religious buildings became cursed and died, I suppose that church demolition would have ceased a long time ago. We've turned churches into homes, parking lots, antique stores, bakeries, and even night clubs.....that's got to be worse than a bulldozer. I'm familiar with the practice of "consecrating" and inversely, "de-consecrating" buildings for the use of God's purposes. That seems to add some level of understanding that the building itself may be a vessel for God's use, not unlike what we are called to be.
But I think my aunt's trepidation went beyond this thought that the building itself was a fixed sacred site not to be tampered with. I think it was the larger concept of the callous loss of something sacred that should concern us. I recently gave a presentation about a downtown historic district that once included a grand building constructed in 1867 for use as a Methodist church. When I showed the slide with the photo above, aside from the local, older, Methodists in attendance, folks were unaware that the building existed. The building was reduced to an auto garage in 1912, then almost entirely razed by the time its back wall became part of a pizza shop today. Magnificent house of worship-turned auto garage-turned pizza place.....nothing sacred about that.
I suppose the reverse could be true. New congregations are springing up in strip malls, downtown storefronts, and warehouses (like our church)....they are taking the secular and making it "sacred"? Maybe. I don't want to get too side-tracked on church architecture's present state of decline, but it would be a great history lesson for churches to understand the importance architecture once played, and could still play, in lifting the soul in worship. Far greater I think than a light and sound show.
I'd be the first one to acknowledge that God's presence is not confined to any one building or particular site....that a church is more about the people than the building, but even then do we understand the sacred? And I'm not talking about specific music, ritual, or how we dress. I'm referring to how we engage in the presence of God-and yes-specifically on Sundays for the purpose of this discussion. Is church routine? Is it just a place to have a good time with our friends? When we walk into the sanctuary doors, in what state is our heart? Are we rushing through a ritual (that occurs even in our evangelical churches) that is too busy to acknowledge we might just be in the presence of God? I remember a communion service once when the pastor was breaking the loaf of bread and a small piece fell to the floor. An elder went to pick up the bread and the pastor stopped him; instead he knelt down and carefully picked it up using the two pieces yet in his hands. Sacred. And I remember a time when a joke was told during communion. It just felt really, really wrong.
I can recall just a handful of services in my 40+ years when it became clear that God "showed up". Oddly enough.......He wasn't planned into the schedule of service. It seemed as though His spirit found a small window, entered, and the rest of the schedule was given to Him. I don't think that most of us even come to church with the expectation that God might actually show up. To me this is the loss of sacred. As much as I'd love to save old churches, I'd much prefer the fight to save a "place" in our churches for God.
While Christ's crucifixion may have torn the veil to provide access to God's presence, God is no less holy.....His presence is no less deserving of our sanctity. I think about all that the priests went through to enter the Holy of Holies to meet with God.....and yet, do we even contemplate much less lose a step-when we stride into our sanctuaries Sunday after Sunday? It may actually help if they didn't look like warehouses, but I suspect our brothers and sisters in the most beautiful cathedrals may suffer some of the same ambivalence to God's house. Let us bring back the sacred-not an outward show, but that rendering of our hearts and minds with the expectation that God might actually show up if we let Him.