There are people in the pews whose presence is an act of resistance. They had to lift the weight of mental illness and the burdens of marginalization. They had to overcome physical pain and disability. They had to wonder if they were entering a place of acceptance or a place of trauma. We need to recognize their pain and struggle in the way we claim God.
Sanctuary is more than a location; it is also a state of being.
When I first began attending services at the United Church of Christ, I would always arrive early. Something about the stillness of the nave was sanctified – I could feel the Divine as anxiety melted from my bones. It is in our stillness, our rest, that we invite God to enter.
To this very day, I find immense joy in half empty churches and dim altars.. My very existence as a Black man is filled with anxiety – in these times, I could lose my life at any moment and on thin justification. I practice centering prayer and seek out Taize services whenever I can. I turn to God when the world fails me and in the turning I find rest.
C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from [God], because it is not there. There is no such thing.” Whenever we experience true happiness and rest, God’s presence is making itself known – instances of the counter-reality where the purpose of our humanity manages to crack the surface.
Jesus as the Christ demonstrated how faith provides sanctuary:
A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm (Mk 4:37-39).
Pastors are representatives of the will of God on earth and, therefore, have the power to rebuke the winds of this world.
Sometimes this means calling for justice and protest or leading the church into the streets. At other times this means creating an atmosphere of peace, stillness, and rest – a sanctuary in the center of the storm. So, we must allow for silence in our worship. We must open room for God to enter unmediated.
Foster J. Pinkney is a writer, student, and organizer from Columbus, Ohio. He is a recent graduate from Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York and started attending the University of Chicago Divinity School in September 2015, to study for a PhD in Religious Ethics.