A few days ago, I attended a Christmas pageant at the Saint Paul's School here in Concord, New Hampshire. The evening was replete with nativity scenes, exceptional choral music, and the sounds of a magnificent pipe organ. Mixed in were gospel readings that offered a full account of the birth of Jesus, each selection presented with great care and clarity. It was obvious that the readers had rehearsed their parts as much as the musicians and vocalists had prepared theirs.
The architecture (English Gothic) and the acoustics of the St. Paul's chapel are breath-taking, and, as the pageant progressed, I reflected on how much the beauty of it all added to my ability to appreciate the grandeur of the Christmas story. Everything that evening—the music, the readings, the physical splendor—drew me to a powerful sense of worship: that occasion when people and God enter into a closer proximity with one another … and something within changes.
I'd like to add that in the chapel we sat, stiff-backed, in ornately hand-carved pews that were more than a hundred years old. But who noticed?
I have visited other places where worship was equally as moving.
I recall the large University of Illinois basketball arena when, years ago, I was privileged to join 18,000 students at the Urbana Missionary Convention. There was the unforgettable New Year's Eve communion service, the robust singing of great hymns such as Wesley's "And Can It Be," and the daily Bible expositions of John Stott. These were amazing, awe-arousing experiences that, even now, years later, powerfully move me. Something within me changes each time I remember those moments.
I'm also reminded that, in the U of I arena, we sat uncomfortably scrunched in bleacher seats that are typical for athletic events. But no one minded.
Then there was once a time in Ecuador when I climbed a steep and dangerous trail up an Andean mountain for two (plus) hours in order to worship with about 30 Quechua Indians in a windowless, lantern-illuminated hut. After the singing and the praying, I was invited to offer a brief Bible talk that was crudely translated from English to Spanish and into the Quechua tongue. Then there followed the Lord's Supper served from a battered tin tray. When we were finished, no one wished to leave. Everyone, including me, simply wanted to remain in the afterglow of our experience.
In that hut we sat cross legged on a dirt floor, which for me was almost physical torture. But who cared?
So a magnificent chapel, a sports arena, and a damp stone hut all offered places for a transcendent moment when one discovers "again for the first time" grace, hope, spiritual sturdiness, community, and a freshened sense of direction. These: some of the gifts of Jesus to his people.
The operational word for places where God and his people meet for a connective moment is sanctuary. Sanctuary usually means safe place, holy place, beautiful place. Some think that such a place has to be uniquely designed with religious forms and ornamentation. Like St. Paul's, for example. I understand this. Thus my appreciation for cathedrals. But other places can also serve as a sanctuary when the space is purposely consecrated and declared to be set apart for meeting and exalting God. Abraham did this with his altars as did Solomon with his temple.
When I was a pastor in New York City, I once pushed this idea of holy space to its limit. On an early morning, my wife, Gail, and I hosted four city bus drivers for breakfast in our apartment. We'd met each of them in the course of using public transportation each day and became aware that they were Christ-followers. As we ate, one of our guests commented on my work as a pastor and how much more exciting that must be in contrast to his perception of his ("boring, stressful, and occasionally dangerous") bus-driving work.