The sacredness of space, and the writing life

sacredspaceBy Joe LaGuardia

It has been some time since I last wrote an article.  I no longer write a weekly column for the newspaper, so that has not helped my cause.

I also moved to a new state, started pastoring a larger church, tried to figure out how to get around town, and sold one house only to purchase another.  Life has not been easy; writing has been harder still.

My hectic schedule and lack of routine is no excuse.  I was just as busy in my old life in Georgia, but still managed to write two or three articles on a good week.

What is an excuse, however, has to do more with preferences than priorities: I don’t have a sacred space in which to write.

I believe it was Anne Lamott who once said that every writer has a talisman that helps inspire the muses.  Some have a special pen or brand of pencil; others use a particular sized notepad.  Barbara Brown Taylor writes everything in longhand; movie director Quentin Tarantino types scripts with a 30-year old Smith Corona; Annie Dillard locks herself in cells and cellars.

For me, spaces have always served as talismans.  One space was in my old house, a writing desk across from the foot of my bed.  I’d wake up early in the morning before the children arose and started typing away.

Another space consisted of the second to the back booth at my favorite chicken wings eatery, where I often read The Christian Century or innumerable books that provided fodder for article and sermon alike.

Moving to a strange land and living in a strange place (we are privileged to stay in a furnished condo until we close on our new home), I have not had a dedicated writing desk set up yet.  I have not found a local restaurant to call home.  I am still waiting for the good folks at The Christian Century magazines to change my mailing address (thank goodness the secretary at my old church loves me enough to mail me back issues!).  I can hardly write.

I may seem odd, but I am not alone in considering the sacredness and utility of space in the grand scheme of practicing my spiritual disciplines, writing included.   In fact, Christians have always considered the importance of sacred spaces.

The earliest space God in-dwelled was a garden, a very fit environment for a Creator whose greatest contribution to time and, well, space is the very act of calling things into being, some of which put us humans here in the first place.

Next was a tabernacle–God’s “throne room”– that was nothing short of a tent that moved with a nomadic people who escaped Egypt and ventured towards– you guessed it– a “promised land”.

In the person of Christ, God chose to “tabernacle” and live among us, declaring that even humans are sacred enough to call home: “And the word became flesh,” John’s gospel reminds us.

“Churches” grew soon after Christ’s death and resurrection, first in the homes of believers (Acts 20:20 tells us that the early Christian movement grew “from home to home”), and then to meeting places throughout the Roman empire.

Brick-and-mortar Churches resulted from a greater concentration of wealth among Christians.  The earliest edifices started as simple stone structures and then evolved into elaborate cathedrals still celebrated today.

Some Christians, tired of being too wealthy and privileged, chose to abandon their belongings and city life for the deserts of Egypt and Arabia.  These desert mothers and fathers noted that the very wilderness in which they sojourned merely reflected the wilderness of all our hearts–sacred spaces were just as important in the “interior” of the soul as exterior spaces were for gathering believers who longed to worship God.

Perhaps the creepiest spaces that Christians occupied were the catacombs of Europe in the darkest ages of Christian history.  Persecuted Christians took up residence among the buried dead to sing praises and proclaim a hope in the resurrection of the Lord.

Now, Christians have diversified sacred spaces so much that people forget the importance of space altogether.  Christians meet in bars, bookstores, coffee shops, cigar shops, beaches, abandoned banks, and “auditoriums.” Even then, regularly scheduled gatherings of believers only prove how ambiance shapes faith communities.

Spaces, whether we recognize it or not, have a sacredness to them that sometimes go unnoticed.  Just try to move states, sell a home, miss a favorite eatery, or close up a church and you will quickly understand how much space creates a place to belong as well as intimate settings where people meet God, hear from the Spirit, and find hope for a new day filled with ever expanding frontiers begging for the Gospel’s invitation.

I was lucky to write this article–I’m still not in a permanent home yet, and in many ways we are homeless until that time comes (but, lo, my cat still found her way onto my laptop keyboard, trying to get a backrub and leaving a wake of odd letters, numbers and symbols on the computer monitor…).    Yet, it helps to note that when we appreciate the spaces that are special in our lives, we can always make room in our hearts to help us along the way when we find ourselves “in between” those times and places most sacred in our life.

After all, we don’t invite Jesus into our houses.  We invite him into our hearts, for each home is where the heart is.

Christians create sacred spaces wherever they go!

CoffeeBy Joe LaGuardia

Every Monday, a group of us from Trinity Baptist Church gather at a local coffee shop to fellowship and talk about whatever is on our minds.

Topics range from politics to hobbies, travel excursions to child-rearing.  On any given week, there can be as few as four people or as many as a dozen who attend.

We had a big turnout last week.  We had visitors from the community.  My wife and children–freed from the burdens of school to celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.–were in attendance.  It took about three tables to fit everyone.

I rallied the group and took a picture for our Facebook page.  We laughed.  We told stories.  We were captivated by some folks who told us eyewitness accounts of the Civil Rights movement and Dr. King’s visit to Southern Seminary in 1961 when several of our parishioners were students there.

Most of all, I was captivated by the idea that we were being the church right there around that table.  (And, yes, there were twelve of us that day.)

It was long ago that we at Trinity changed our tune about what Christ’s Body is all about.  Usually, when people refer to “church,” they refer to a building or a place in which formal worship takes place.

Over the years, we learned that the church is made up, not of bricks and mortar, but of the people of God.  Where “two or more are gathered” in Jesus’ name, we are being the church.  And when we leave a physical building, we therefore bring church wherever we go.

In a conference I attended recently, someone stated that there are two ingredients that make a good church: a sense of transcendence and an environment that inspires a sense of belonging.

For thousands of years, church architecture and music have been the primary catalysts for providing transcendence.  Long-term relationships in the pews and pulpit have added to a congregation’s sense of belonging.

The only problem churches face now is that people no longer require a traditional church building to experience those two ingredients.  Walk into any coffee shop, mall, or movie theater, and you will find architecture, music, and abundant relationships that fulfill people’s needs for transcendence and belonging.

Many churches have to compete; and, in some cases, churches lose the battle and close.

The life and ministry of Christ as told in the New Testament reminds us that we don’t need buildings to have a relationship with God or with others in a sacred space in which the Holy Spirit guides God’s people.  Jesus was constantly on the move, and his only church consisted of crowds, mountain sides, boats, and campfires.

Yet, Jesus did not neglect the buildings that were important in a life of faith–Jesus went to temple for his annual sacrifices; he went for his Bar Mitzvah (Luke 2:42); he went to synagogue to commune, pray, and teach (Luke 4:15).

But he also knew that God was larger than any one of those edifices.

Don’t hear me wrong, dear reader.  I love the institutional church.  I love church buildings.  In fact, I grieve over the fact that we spend more money on erecting sports arenas than we do on building more cathedrals, and that many a church has lost a sense of grandeur when it comes to “God’s house.”

Yet, we have to keep things in perspective: Jesus used places as a means to an end.  He taught and discipled in one place, only to send those very disciples out to create sacred spaces in their local communities.

Church buildings are still a means to an end: They are places to gather and celebrate what God is doing in the world.  They also serve as hubs to equip disciples for ministry.  They are launching pads for ambassadors of the good news of the Gospel.

So it is with our little coffee group every week.  The routine is the same: Worship on Sunday; coffee group on Monday.  And both are church to me.  They are sacred spaces that carve out sacred times for the people of God to meet with one another–and with God–in ever creative and vibrant ways.

Relationships and the sacred space we share

pewsI hear the cliche all of the time: “We are a welcoming church.”

No church thinks that they are not welcoming and, no matter the denomination, each one boasts,”All are invited,” on the marquee.

But I know of a test that truly determines whether this is true: The “Pew Test.”

It is very simple: If a guest comes to your church and sits in any pew, is he or she asked to move because “you’re in my seat”?

I’ve heard horror stories about the “Pew Test” over the years.  We at Trinity have had our share of people who have visited other churches and were told to move from a certain seat.

Yet, I have also learned something very important over the past decade about pews and the people who claim them.   You see, when people have “my seat” in the pew, it is not because they don’t want to welcome others.  It is because our Christian faith is highly experiential and tactile.

It is in church that we experience conversions and born-again transformations.  It is in church that we witness baptisms, baby dedications, and funerals.  There, we are moved with compassion and participate in missions, inspired by God’s Word, and sing hymns that bring encouragement.

We have a variety of spiritual encounters at church, and the seats in which we sit and the rituals that we practice remind us of the variety of ways that God has worked–and works–in our life.

People don’t mean to be rude when they ask you to sit somewhere else; its just that that’s where they’ve sat when they have met with God so many times in their life.  They want to make room for you, but not at the expense of robbing you of the chance to hear their stories, to see why the church is so meaningful to them.

For all of the negative criticism related to rituals, sacred spaces, and monotonous “traditional” worship I’ve heard over the years, I’ve also heard beautiful pleas for why these elements of church-going and worship are significant to those who participate in congregational life.

There is something about sacred spaces–the very pews that we fight over–that gives us opportunities to meet God again and again, week in and week out.  These spaces–both physical and spiritual–are safe places that nurture stability in a world often in disarray and disorientation.

I experienced this in my life in a very personal way.  When my father passed away, his funeral was held in a church that has an auditorium rather than a sanctuary.  There is a stage with a few musical instruments, a simple podium, and a black-curtain backdrop.

It is devoid of icons, crosses, and artwork.  There are no paraments or altar-clothes.  There isn’t an colored antependium that implicitly communicates what season of the Christian year it is.  There are no acolyte candles for children to light or communion chalices to admire, no big open Bible or ambo on a common table that remind us of the centrality of the Holy Word.

The funeral was nice, but I missed my church.  In that moment of sorrow, all I wanted was to sit in my seat in the front row of my church, to be surrounded by my church family, and to find encouragement in that heavy pulpit from which God’s Word had been preached for nearly three decades.

I missed looking at the aged banners that adorn the church walls, the baptistry where my daughter was baptized, the baby-grand piano and the choir loft that’s home to so many familiar hymns and anthems that act as a healing balm to the heart.

I missed seeing one of our children light the acolyte candles to remind me that the Holy Spirit is present with us and that all of us–regardless of age and gender–can participate in our worship to God.  I missed the green antependium, green for “Ordinary Time” in the life of the church, a sign that life still goes on despite tragic loss.

When I did return to my church several weeks later, I found profound comfort in that sacred space.  The songs, the sights, the sounds, and the smells reminded me of a simple message of hope penned long ago by Julian of Norwich: “All will be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

I finally felt the silent love of the “church ladies” sitting in the row directly behind me.  I was warmly embraced by my deacon.  Our pianist preached on my first day back, and his message sent our hearts aright with hope, our tears set aflame with love, and our spirits souring upon lofty places.

Only in a sacred space can you experience that kind of divine interaction.  Thanks be to God.