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Home > 2011 > December Web Exclusives > Unexpected Sanctuary

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.

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Gordon MacDonald is chancellor of Denver Seminary and editor-at-large for Leadership Journal. He is author of numerous books, including Going Deep: Becoming A Person of Influence.

Posted: December 23, 2011

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December 28, 2011  9:52am

I have often declared my home to be a sanctuary, set apart for God's purposes as I minister prayer counsel to those who come for help or a listening ear. Now I am discovering that even casual visitors comment about the peace they feel here. Maintaining my home as a place where the Presence of God is welcomed is of high value to me, and is thus a refuge to others.

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Jun Gerra

December 28, 2011  8:11am

I find the article enlightening.Wherever the presence of God is, its a holy place.Our God is an omnipresent God but its us the believers of the Lord Jesus, the light bearers of this world that carries also the presence of God even to the darkest place of this world.That place becomes a sanctuary of God bringing His very presence and grace into that place.It takes more than the eyes to appreciate the beauty that God has made.Yes even the most mundane place where our feet takes us becomes a sanctuary of Gods presence when we allow God's love to manifest.When we bring God's love to the hopeless,discouraged,downtrodden, the sick and lost people that very place where these people abound becomes God's sanctuary.I really hope and pray that we will see with our spiritual eyes the beauty of God even in the very dark alleys of our paths and transform this into God's very sanctuary where His love and grace abounds.

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Krista Austin

December 28, 2011  8:08am

I, too, remember Urbana. I still have a fondness for Romans because of John Stott's meaty Bible teaching. Then there was the midnight communion service with Billy Graham issuing a challenge to serve the Lord full-time. It wasn't until years later that I realized serving Him full-time didn't have to mean overseas as a missionary. It's a little like having a sanctuary that isn't confined to a church building. Emmanuel, God with...me.

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Earl G

December 28, 2011  7:09am

I have just had a walk (several blocks). I always enjoy the quietness and the liitle distractions to be with my Lord. Having read this article, I declare that my sanctaury is a mobile one as I experience the presence of my Creator as I walk and welcome the new morning! Thanks for this insightful article!

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Elizabeth Havill

December 27, 2011  1:35pm

I find Gordon MacDonalds articles so fresh and inspiring! What a nice thought about making every place we are a "Santuary." Besides being one myself where the Lord Jesus can dwell! And it's a choice we make each day! What a profound difference we could make in the lives of those who cross our paths, if we kept this thought foremost in our minds and hearts. May God grant this in the year before us for His Dear Name's sake!

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