Monday, June 22, 2009

Sanctuary III

The most oft associated image with the term sanctuary is, probably, a house of worship. In my case, that house is called church, though architecturally, it looks more like what Americans tend to associate with a mosque, mostly because of the domed roof. Atop the roof sits a cross, and not just any cross--a lighted cross. Not exterior lights, mind you; the cross itself lights up. It's not quite the solar-powered grave bible, but it's clearly a distant cousin.

Such kitsch features are terribly attractive to me.

The windows on this house of worship are made of granite, which probably sounds a bit odd at first, but realize that granite is something Georgia has a great deal of, then realize that you can cut granite very, very thin and, presto--granite windows. The church across the street also has the granite windows, so it's not an altogether unusual design feature locally (not that I can drum up an iota of proof from the internetz to share with you today, *sigh*).

The church is a modification of the Akron-plan, which appears to be more common in the Northern regions of the U.S., as is true of our denomination in general. The plan theoretically allows the sanctuary to be more flexible; the Sunday school classrooms can be opened via a rolling panel, allowing them to become part of the sanctuary. The architectural plan encourages eye-contact--you can see damn near everyone and, in theory, community, though in practice I've yet to see us function any differently than any other congregation. The sanctuary is gorgeous, filled with wooden beams, (occasionally) bright brass, and huge stained-glass windows, which are particularly beautiful at about 8:30 am, when the sun's rays begin to warm the glass.

If aesthetics were everything for a church, this one would have it. The space is undeniably beautiful, and it seems to offer a certain tranquility to all comers.

But, aesthetics are not everything. The particular modifications of the layout (and I think these choices were largely based on the land available, which is on a fairly small corner) placed the sanctuary level at the second floor, and many of the school classrooms, the nursery, the kitchen, and the fellowship hall area are below. The floors are connected by three narrow (seriously--two people of minimal girth cannot pass beside one another) stairwells, which, because of the "roundness" of the design, twist and turn and lead visitors to unexpected places. Often overheard: how did I end up here?

The design does not lend itself well to serving the community, as the bathrooms are tiny and while we "have" a handicapped stall, it's not especially large--no wheelchairs would fit in the one downstairs (which can only be accessed via stairs--irrespective of which floor you begin on) and the one at sanctuary level is difficult to navigate into. The rooms are often oddly shaped; we have old stairwells than no longer lead anywhere, etc. The space is excellent for a congregation who wishes to meet once a week on Sundays, but it is less useful to a congregation who wishes to serve the community.

This should not be taken to suggest that the church does not serve--we do. Three AA meetings are hosted there, covering 7 days a week. The space serves as a shelter to homeless families in concert with other local congregations, once a quarter. The Red Cross uses the space for training, and so forth. Over the past two or so years, the level of activity at the building has increased probably ten-fold. My favorite example of this occurred on Maundy Thursday this year, as I set up for the Maundy Thursday communion service, while an AA meeting was held, and a Seder supper began.

The building was, for a few hours, alive...filled with an energy that nearly brought me to my knees. THIS. This right here is what we are meant to be...a place and a space of energy and, yes, sanctuary--even if the "sanctuary" is not immediately in use.

For alcoholics and addicts, the places willing to house the meetings can very much be sanctuary; the meetings themselves certainly are for many of them. A community opens its arms to another in need. What better use for a house of worship than to feed the needs of its community.

The denomination I joined, the Disciples of Christ, appeared to be a sanctuary to me when I first joined, having fled the Episcopal church and its then burgeoning crisis over gay membership (the moment someone in my home congregation told me "they" were not welcome, I was done, and I wasn't sure I'd go back to an Episcopal church again, though I do miss parts of the service and mission of that denomination). DoC, as a denomination, celebrates diversity of opinion and education, and I was drawn to these notions.

One of the catch phrases for DoC is "In Essentials, Unity; in Non-essentials, Liberty; in All Things, Charity," which precedes the Restoration Movement (which birthed DoC), but is nevertheless important to it. The quotation, for all of its positivity, can, and does, become trite, all too easily. What, for instance, are the "essentials" and "non-essentials"? Our congregation, for instance, has at least two rather distinct theologies (and myriad vines grow from each of these), one of which is rather Baptist in flavor and one that seems fairly traditionally DoC (at least this is what Rev. Dean tells me; since I am, as he often reminds me, an Episcopalian at heart, I can't really say one way or the other. But, since he's the professional here, we'll give him his due). I see the two theologies play off one another, and I don't see any chance that they will reconcile or be able to live together in harmony or charity.

This divide was made clear, in part, by the building several years ago, and the drama continues to play itself out. Yesterday we met with another dwindling DoC community, to discuss coming together, and somehow or another it turned (at least at my table) into a discussion of the building, and whether or not it was adequate to the cause. Its adequacy, of course, depends on your vision of the church mission: for those for whom Sunday attendance is central, the beautiful space is precisely what it should be--a gorgeous celebration of God and Christ. For those who believe that service is central to faith, the location is excellent, but the space itself is both inadequate and, at times, foreboding, given the demands made by a nearly century-old wooden building with poor wiring.

We come together to discuss mutual faith and survival and we get a discussion about a fucking building. Fabulous. Small wonder young families aren't coming in droves.

Once upon a time, this space was a sanctuary to me. I could find respite from the world there, even as the world was invited in. As the last few years of drama have progressed, it has become something else-a place that is decidedly not safe. I came to the denomination seeking solace and growth, seeking to learn and to learn to share. I have learned, however, silence in these walls. Speak not of possibility lest you be attacked. Speak not of change lest you unintentionally accuse.

Speak not.

I did not speak at the meeting yesterday, choosing to listen to the expanded forum (I've spoken on the subject of unification a number of times; I wanted to know what those being brought in for the first time had to say). I was unfortunate in my table choice, for I was treated to diatribes on lack of care and "some people" and bitterness wrapped in a facade of hope, rather than searches for possibility. Yesterday was another confirmation of my fears for the church--it is destined, like the building in which we worship, to fall.

But, I went into the meeting feeling like that. I go to service every week feeling like that (it's better in the early service, which is modeled on conversation, but I have had to serve as Elder for several weeks recently, which demands that I be at the late service). I hear fellow elders question why we should discuss theology. Seriously? Elders can't talk about theological difference? Fuck--what's the point, then?

Several months ago, I wondered idly why it was easier to tell stories of addiction than faith. I know why I don't at church--the level of judgment involved eradicates any feelings of safety there. I'm less sure why I don't here...though I suppose I fear a certain amount of judgment, though there's no good reason. I wonder if this is the lesson I need to draw here, that sanctuary is a space created, not one provided and that such sanctuaries will always be challenged. How, then, to protect sanctuary, which is so central to my sanity and survival?

Since February, I have run some 425 miles and will pass 450 (obviously) later this week, all in preparation for a marathon that was at first intended to keep me focused on something other than drinking (it works, most of the time) and has evolved into another addiction of sorts; I know I need another race to plan for, announce, and train for (and I guess I better choose one fast!). Running is my sanctuary because I have created it and insisted that it be protected, much as I insisted that my home be protected in the aftermath of the panic attack. So what of spiritual sanctuary-- how to protect it? How, in other words, to live in the world and protect faith from fellow congregants?

Not speaking is clearly not getting me anywhere on this.

Here's my dream: a safe space where worship and service work together for the betterment of the community, not just to draw people into faith, but to support local needs. To be green. To be faithful. To be curious and to be respectful. To promote a conversation about safe spaces and what it means to protect one, because it is no simple task. To be able to own up to violations of that safe space contract, learn from them, and move on together, even if our theologies remain apart.

My faith story is not much longer than that; there was never an ah-ha! moment, though I have been brought to my knees by the wonders of humanity and the world on more than one occasion. Faith is, to me, about the awe--the magic of reaching for a better world and figuring our how the holy hell to get there. Faith is about falling to my knees in awe, sometimes, of a world that is more vast than my understanding, but will nevertheless allow me to study and read and try to understand, all without judgment of my abilities and worth.

Faith is not a building or a place or a space. Faith can be an action of people. Faith can be service. Faith can be gratitude and pleas for understanding or help. Faith can be listening and learning and healing and serving.

I just wish I knew where to go from here. I know where my heart and prayer lead me, but I don't know if I'm that brave, and I don't know if I trust my own discernment that much (ah, the wonders of self-judgment, yes?). I want to be free from the bitterness that pervades that space, and I want to both find and create opportunity. I keep telling myself that if I do this one last thing, I'll have done all that I can do.

I'm on number 5 of that list right now.

3 comments:

  1. Different issues, but I so often feel dry and burned out. At about 20 years older than you, I worry that I have just resigned myself to the inhumanity of the "churched." For God's sake, I go to church in Watkinsville, the Georgia capital of white flight. Yeah, I know I'm overgeneralizing, and my pastor is easily one of the most progressive thinkers and believers I've ever known. She has chosen to stay in a denomination that needs a lot of work. I'm not sure if I can. Back in the 80s I helped start a house church; it didn't last long but was an amazing experience while it lasted. I too dream of a congregation that can find within itself a spiritual power that is derived from the mystery at the core of faith; that is unafraid and unjudging--and, maybe it's a cliche, but--transformative. Beautiful buildings are what they are--gorgeous piles that distract us from the real sanctuary that we might offer each other. I have found myself more than once in the past months looking online for a place to go on retreat for even just a few days. I feel the tug to be somewhere that sanctuary has been made so I can rest in it for awhile.

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  2. I love your blog. I am so glad I found it. Thank you for writing.

    I particularly felt this section deeply:

    "Running is my sanctuary because I have created it and insisted that it be protected, much as I insisted that my home be protected in the aftermath of the panic attack. So what of spiritual sanctuary-- how to protect it? How, in other words, to live in the world and protect faith from fellow congregants?"

    Yes. I can relate so, so much.

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  3. Thank you, ShannonElizabeth. Glad you are here.

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