The Sacred and the Profane

Looking for Church: Part I

In my normal day life, I do an unconventional mix of marketing management, corporate training, project development, vendor relations and unofficial spiritual direction, all under the heading of Chief Operating Officer.  I rarely use THIRTYSIXWORDS to talk about my professional life, not because they aren’t interrelated, but because I struggle in the same war as so many of you: the fight to compartmentalize and put things in boxes. It is my instinct, like yours, to separate life into (seemingly) controllable frames. And from those frames keep my mashed potatoes from getting gussied up by my peas and carrots. I seek to divide good and evil and in controlling the categories of the sacred and the profane I, like you, seem to keep the edges from getting too loose. And isn’t control what it’s all about after all?

When see the bulge of tongue in cheek from the above, abandon the cause of my self-sustainment I start to notice that there is no THIRTYSIXWORDS me up against a COO me.  There’s just… me. There is just the life I live and the words I search for to describe it, acknowledging that the words I choose either entrap or liberate my story.  In light of this, I have found myself in need of considering the strangeness of my work, my office and what happens therein.  And while some days I would like to condemn the space for all the mistakes I’ve made on its not so sacred ground, I cannot. Because upon honest reflection, in many cases, the walls of my office are a sanctuary for many. As one dear one upon entry to a one-to-one meeting of ours said it recently, through a wave of unexpected tears, “Sometimes you get to a safe place and the emotions just come.”

Certainly they do.

It is a relief to me that the four walls of my office are a preserve against the ravages of the world out there. Working in the white collar jungle of professional life, I have seen—in ways I never saw as a pastor—the real underbelly of our existence, the striation of our muscles pressing against the walls of time and space. I have seen what lengths we will go to keep our aspirations within reach, and more so, to keep our fears at bay.  Some would say that work is no place for religion, and generally I agree. But I also believe what we are talking about here is not religion. It does not require you to change the box you check on the census bureau. Religion defines our boxes. What we are talking about here defines our humanness, and it is this definition (or lack thereof) which pains us most of the time.

In my office, there are regular moments when a person makes clear who they are and what matters to them, and somewhere in that declaration, they let me know that part of what matters to them is God.  This may seem shocking to some who will say that God is Dead (or make ridiculous movies to prove that He’s not) or others who would say that faith itself is under assault in our time.  I can say without reservation that I find neither of these views compelling.  In fact, more than ever I see people’s overt longing’s for the fabric which sustains existence to be shown and for that showing to have meaning and influence on the way we live our lives and express our will to thrive amongst the storms. 

Some would call this a flight to “spirituality” which threatens the time-proven dogmas of “Christianity.” It is clear to me that the only Christianity which finds this threatening is a Christianity not worth having.

But back to my office. As one person put it, “I believe in God, I just don’t believe in church.” Oh dear friend, you are not alone. The church is, if it is anything, a sanctuary of contagious embrace. It is a tribe of commissioned hopers, lovers and faithers, who hold on by letting go, who run but do not grow faint. They are riders on the wild winds of the Spirit of Life which Pentecost ushered into the world. And as riders on such a wind, they endear the world to live like children, release their striving, and embrace the liberation of God’s Exodus from fear to flight.

But this—what I’ve just described—is not what most people mean when they say “church.” What they mean is a place which ascribes meritorious value on some over others. A place of rules and unspoken expectations. A place of illusions and fantasies which mask the undercurrent of self-righteousness and hypocrisy.  In recent years (almost more than the aforementioned judgments) they mean a place of loudness, spectacle, self-help and song… a flash and no fire. A well-marketed monster of one-liners and positive-thinking strategies. A place promising a better world, but mostly just hoping people show up for bouncy house and the petting zoo on Easter.

But real church, a sanctuary of contagious embrace, is where we find who we are. It is a place so free as to enzymatically repel all illusions. A place so illumen with warm natural light that the men and women we’ve been pretending to be are dispelled in its glow, and beneath that Frankensteinian surface: who we might yet become shining with unmet possibility.  It is a place of truthfulness and winsome exposure, where by the agency of the beloved we learn kindness and generosity at the hand of the Crucified God. We who are saved from our own self-destruction and the downward spiral of our own faithless tribes, are liberated to face each other without fear and say, “I see you, and what I recognize in you is beautiful.”

I suppose, then, in light of this working definition, my office, as much as any space I occupied as a professional minister, is a church. It is a place where people are seen, stories are told, and I have the opportunity to look at each and say, “I see you.” This way of recognizing and seeing and embracing is a way of being the body of Christ without having to put it on a poster.  It is a way of talking about God without naming Him. It is a way of living the journey of the Humble King who is the Life wherever there is Life, without having to obtain the credit. He is the glory of the first, by living in the shadows like the last. Jesus. Jesus. Jesus.

To see this I must let go of it as “work:” a place where things get done to make money, thus segregating it from me, the person within it. In abandoning the existential effort to name the professional up against the personal, the sanctified against the profane, I abandon my claim to the moral high-ground, and my grip on the Snake’s Forbidden Fruit. I would be foolish to say that this happens every day or even every week inside the walls of my office.  And in all my “efforts” at being a safe place, I have failed as often as I have succeeded. But this, too, affirms the churchiness of things. Because in the church there are no heroes in the play. Only ensemble players.  No one gets to always be the seer. It is always, eventually, our turn to be seen.

Considering this, it is perhaps inside the walls of my office that I have more often than not been seen. I have been recognized as condescending, abrupt, and often unwilling to play out the hand until everyone has had their turn. I have been exposed for my rush to resolution, my hardness toward those who oppose me. My irregular boundaries—which are often more self-serving than they are the gifts of clarity they were intended—are documented. And when I am listening, I find that I am there, with all this recognition, not alone. The Spirit of God attends to me in my weakness and vulnerability, giving me a window of opportunity to step back from the precipice of shame. It is in the churchiness of that place when on rare occasions I am allowed to be the Face of God to others, but no matter the occasion, I am always presented with my own opportunity to see His Face. Sanctuary.

One beloved friend who attends our Monday evening TRIBE gatherings and is also subject to my Monday morning office meetings said to me, “How many people, do you think, realize, the “gospel” you talk about on Monday mornings is the same Gospel you talk about on Monday nights?” As tears rolled to my own eyes I had to confess… “Until you said it, not even me.” I, like so many have been busy segmenting the sacred and the profane.

As the institutional church once again loses its footing in our age, we are reminded of the true Promise of the Spirit of Jesus: wherever two or more are gathered there is Sanctuary. Searching Twitter and the blogosphere you will find no shortage of commentary on where to and (more often) not to find church. But is it possible that our use of this word betrays our illusions? That in talking about finding church the same way we talk about finding a car dealer we recognize that it is not the sanctuary of the beloved we seek, but the pitstop of the bedazzled? In separating church from the world, segregating Sunday from Wednesday, pulling the sacred from the profane, are we exposed as lovers of our own moral knowledge, Christian propagators of the garden’s curse?

Perhaps it is not HD screens, smoke-filled music performances, easy “FirstServes” or Anti-Slavery Fund Drives that we long for. (Though any and all of these may serve a purpose for a time.) Perhaps when we seek the church, we are looking for our offices, our living rooms, our neighborhood parks, populated by people of honesty and mess, declaring to us and us to them through tear-stained cheeks: “Sometimes you get to a safe place and the emotions just come.”

Certainly they do. “I see you. And what I recognize is beautiful.”

Sanctuary.

Lord prepare me
to be a sanctuary
pure and holy
tried and true
and with thanksgiving
I’ll be a living
sanctuary for you.
— Vinyard Music