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.
His observation could not go unchallenged.
"I have a thought for you that might spiff up your view of your jobs," I said to the four. "Why don't you start up your buses each morning and, while the engine is warming, walk down the aisle of the bus and shout, 'In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, I declare this bus to be a sanctuary where passengers will experience something of the love of Christ through me.' You can be a pastor in your own sanctuary."
I suggested that a bus (like a chapel, an arena, and a mountain hut) could be consecrated, "made holy," for higher purposes than just public transport. And I added that any job can be elevated into a form of pastoral Christ-serving if we start the day in such a way. I concluded, "See if Jesus honors your daily effort."
One of the drivers muttered, "I supposed we could try that."
In the weeks that followed, Gail and I would occasionally get on a bus operated by one of the four drivers. We'd quietly say—hoping that no one else would hear—"are you driving a bus or a sanctuary today?" Always, they'd answer, "It's a sanctuary, man, a sanctuary." Sometimes one of them would say when they saw either of us stepping on the bus, "Welcome to my sanctuary."
A few months later, one of the four drivers said he wanted a word with me.
"This sanctuary thing," he told me, "has changed my day. Yesterday, a guy got on the bus, and he began to curse at me when I wouldn't let him off at a corner where it's not legal to stop. Know something? There was a day when I would have invited someone like him to step off the bus and discuss things with our fists. But I stayed quiet, and when I finally let him off at the right place, I said, "Have a nice day, sir; glad you were aboard."
When I affirmed the driver for his patience, he said, "Oh, it's not really that difficult when you're driving a sanctuary instead of a bus."
Having told this story about our bus driver friends many times, I now have people who tell me that they've learned to declare their offices, their classrooms, their operating rooms into sanctuaries.
This morning I read once again (Mark 1) where Jesus, after a busy day, got up early the next morning and went off to "a solitary place where he prayed." I think Jesus would have thought of that place—quiet, beautiful, bereft of crowds—as a sanctuary.
We're not told what Jesus did in that outdoor sanctuary, but it's clear that when the time ended, he was committed to his mission of proclaiming his gospel more than ever.
A sanctuary, no matter what form it takes, is a place where one should experience interior change. Among the changes? A reminder of the beauty and love of God, a fresh realization of one's brokenness, a host of things to be thankful for, a chance to give from the fruits of one's labor, an experience of deep prayer and the sense that God has heard, and a time to hear the reading of Holy Scripture and feel it planting its powerful content in one's soul.
Many of us enter sanctuaries tired or disappointed or angry or fearful or lonely. Others enter with appreciations for loving relationships, life-blessings, and a desire to deepen or grow. But the thing of greatest importance is how do we leave? Redirected, newly focused? Having experienced grace and forgiveness? Appreciative of the people we've been with? Freshly committed to Jesus?
Then, whether we sat on pews, arena seats, a dirt floor, or a crowded bus, makes little difference. We have worshiped and God himself has been with us.
Gordon MacDonald is editor at large of Leadership Journal and chancellor of Denver Seminary.
Copyright © 2011 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
Click here for reprint information on Leadership Journal.