Sacred Spaces

I lay my hand over my mouth.  Job 40:4

Some sights take my breath away and make my knees go weak.  Like the first glimpse of my wife in her white wedding gown as she walked down the isle of the church.  Like the sight of my first son squirming, screaming, chin quivering and arms flailing as the nurse wiped gunk off of his nearly ten pound body.  Like the first time I saw the Grand Tetons and averted my eyes because it was as if I were looking into the very face of God.

It happened again last month.  I felt my hand come to my mouth to hide my weeping.

I have been a Southern Baptist all my life.  We Baptist are an austere people.  We like things simple.  We don’t go for flashy, expensive, what we would call ostentatious trappings of liturgical churches.  The larger churches down south might have red brick and white columns, colonial trim and padded pews, but for the most part my people are a plain people.  Of course there are a few exceptions to this rule, but true Baptists would look at those churches as “showy and shallow.”

If you were to walk into the church in which I minister today, it would come across as simple, clean and rather plain.  Not much to look at.  I like it.  I can justify its Spartan style by saying, “that it is the quality of the people not the ornaments of the building that really matter.”  Didn’t Jesus say?…

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.  Matthew 23:27

The architecture and accoutrements of our little Baptist Church (and this will come as a shock to some of my congregants reading this that we are Baptists) is not impressive.  It is simple and plain.  Like our faith, traditions and even our people.  No one who walks into our building will be impressed with what they see.

Maybe that is why I got blind-sided in Conejos, Colorado.  On vacation recently I saw a historical road-side sign that had an arrow and words that said, Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Parish: the oldest church in Colorado.

About a mile off the main highway stood a large brick building with crosses on the spirals.  I had driven by it countless times as a kid with my grandfather when I worked on a cattle ranch in New Mexico, but he never had time or cared to go to the church.  Well, I was driving now and dadgummit, we were going to see the church.

There was a four room City Hall, a six room elementary school, several abandoned buildings and a few houses and this large red-gray brick church building with a mission bell at the top of the front façade.  A chain-link fence surrounded the manicured lawn.  Large shade trees were on the south part of the yard.  A man of Hispanic descent was talking on a cell phone and walking around.  We got out taking pictures of the ghostly little village, abandoned and condemned out-buildings when the man ended his call and asked us if we wanted to go inside the church.  Of course we did.

He unlocked the building, pulled the door open and reached for a font of water on his right just inside the jam of the door and crossed himself as he entered.  Do I do that too?  I didn’t.  I am a Baptist.  My family followed me through the doorway and followed the man to the altar.  As the man kneeled at the front and crossed himself again my sons were taking pictures of the stained glass and statues like they had all the film in the wide world.

I don’t know if it was the late afternoon light streaming through the colored glass, the majesty of the artwork, the height of the ceilings, age of the building (built in 1847) or the care in which this—his words—custodian was showing for this old building, but I froze just inside the door and stood in the narthex (Baptist translation: vestibule, the rest of you: entry way) with my hand over my mouth.

And then the tears came; buckets.  My sons gave me an awkward glance; my wife stared at me but knew better than to ask me what was wrong.  The care-taker walked past me and gave me a wide berth as if, perhaps, this was a common occurrence for him.  Maybe it was common for him, but it wasn’t for me—I am a Baptist.  We don’t get moved at the sight of a church.  We don’t get moved unless it says we can in the Bible or some other Baptist document.

I am not sure why it moved me at such a visceral level.  Maybe it was the truncated beauty of a building that was cared for by very poor people with such obvious love.  Maybe it was the grace of the care-taker to let us in after hours.  Maybe it was the age of the sacred place; the air felt old inside the building.

Maybe it was the just a sacred moment in a sacred place.

I wonder if we have forgotten how to honor God with extravagant beauty and art.  God seemed to enjoy and even expect it in the Temple of the Old Testament.  Jesus seemed to support it when he drove out the souvenir salesmen and when He praised a woman for spilling her alabaster treasure on His dusty feet.

Today churches look more like warehouses than places of worship.  They look corporate.  Few things are as spiritually dulling as the blurring of the lines of church and the corporate, complete with our welcome team to greet us as we enter.  Pastors are trained as leaders and behave more like CEOs.  Success is measured in attendance, book deals and making someone’s “someone to watch” list.  We want so badly to attract a crowd that we will do almost anything to market ourselves.

I like what author Bill Johnson says, “We are not relevant when we mirror the world around us, we are relevant when we model what they long to become.”

I believe that our faith ought to be an organic and holistic part of who we are.  That on a personal level there should be no dividing lines between sacred and secular.  My faith should influence and impact my vocation, politics and all my social relationships.  But I wonder if we are doing our communities a huge disservice by camouflaging our sacred spaces to the extent that we have removed the wonder and the sense of transcendence from community life?

I say we get back to decidedly sacred spaces.  Where a bar is a bar, a jail is a jail, a store is a store and a church is a church.  And maybe, just maybe, when people enter our vestibules they will have an encounter with the holy and not a Wal-Mart greeter.

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7 thoughts on “Sacred Spaces

  1. Interesting piece Joe, for me at least since I design church buildings. The opinions certainly run the gamut on what constitutes good and/or appropriate church architecture.

    • Thanks Brian. I am not sure what the answer is. I was surprised at how the space affected me emotionally. We have folks that wear their ball caps to church, shorts, flip-flop sandals and sometimes barefoot. I am not comfortable with that approach to a sacred space at all. Do I try to be the fashion police or the pastor?

      I wouldn’t blame a designer for the box-like structures we call churches today. I think the blame lies in the pastors and the people and the casualness with which we approach the sacred.

  2. Wonderful article Joe. I could feel your awe and emotion of the experience you had in the church and the longing for our faith should be at our core in everything we do, all the time.

  3. I have often wondered why the church follows society in so much; marketing, looks, creativity, attraction, etc. and why we aren’t instead leading. Thank you Joe for another eloquent thought.

  4. Great post dad. I wonder how we can embrace this concept as a church plant… Thanks for giving us all a question to ponder.

  5. I enjoyed this article, Pastor Joe. One of the things I love most about our church is it’s simplicity and how that simplicity is in complete contrast to our colorful, diverse, and complex congregants.

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