A Sense of the Sacred

What do you call the venue at which your congregation meets for worship? To some it’s an auditorium. Others refer to this place as “the theater,” or the “assembly hall,” or even “the gym.” To me, it’s the sanctuary.

A sanctuary need not be a marvel in Christian architecture. It can be a humble space rented from a school or community building. It can be in a storefront or a social club’s meeting room. It may also be a large, beautiful cathedral. The point of the term “sanctuary” is not the surroundings, but its use.

The word can be defined thusly,

th-2Sanctuary is a word derived from the Latin sanctuarium, which is like most words ending in -arium, a container for keeping something in – in this case holy things or perhaps holy people, sancta or sancti. The meaning was extended to places of holiness or safety. (Wikipedia).

A sanctuary is a container, it holds something. Ideally, what it enfolds is Christian believers filled with awe.

Words have meaning. If we call the place in which we meet for worship a gym, it will be treated like a gym. If we think of that space as a theater, then theatrics probably happen there. But, what happens when we enter the sanctuary?

In Psalm 73, Asaph is bemoaning his fate. He sees himself as the pure and righteous, yet those all around who cheat and lie and mock God are getting fat (in a good way). Then this, in verse 17: “…until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.” It was in the sanctuary that Asaph encountered the living God. It was there that he discerned the truth about His relationship with God. He wrote:

Nevertheless, I am continually with you;
    you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
    and afterward you will receive me to glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
    And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
    but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

For behold, those who are far from you shall perish;
    you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you.
But for me it is good to be near God;
    I have made the Lord God my refuge,
    that I may tell of all your works.

These are the things we should hear and have reinforced in the sanctuary, that place of refuge and safety and reverence.

As we enter the house of worship, we should have a sense of the sacred. And we must pass this awe on to the next generation. In Psalm 78, this same Asaph writes,

We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,  and the wonders that he has done.

Hide what? The glories of God! No, we want to expose them.

Certainly these lessons are to be taught at home, by believing parents. Let us not neglect, however, to teach the children the awe, the majesty of God in the setting of corporate worship.

I recently came across a blog post (actually, my wife sent it to me) that explains rather nicely what we should be conveying to the next generation regarding the sanctuary – and what we should avoid. Here’s a quote from that essay.

We have spent so much time and effort trying to make Church appealing to children by making it feel like home or school, creating spaces for them where they can sit apart and do their “kid” thing. Spaces where they feel welcomed in their childishness and “at home”. But we have been mistaken.

Because, first, we do not need to make children welcome in Church. By the very nature of the fact that is a Church founded by Jesus, who called the children to Himself, they are welcomed. We call a Church “the 

Second, we are not meant to feel at home at Church, at least not in the sense that we feel comfortable behaving the way we do at home while at Church. Stepping into Church should make us exhale with wonder. We should be aware that our surroundings have changed when we entered those doors. It should bring us to quiet attention. It should bring us to our knees. And our children should feel the same way. They may not respond to it in the way that we do as adults, but a child should have the sense of quiet hush that is adoration when he enters a Church. (Let’s Give Our Kids a Sense of the Sacred)

These are some of the points Sandra and I make in the book Children in Church: Nurturing Hearts of Worship. Allow me to boldly suggest that this be your first book purchase of this new year. Teach your children well. Teach them the glorious deeds of the LORD and His might, and the wonders He has done.

The Only Place of Refuge

One of the first Bibles I ever owned was the Harper Study Bible. Yes, it’s the RSV (Revised Standard Version). It was very handy in my formative years as a Christian. I still have it. In fact, while sorting belongings lately, I came across that Bible. I opened it and the page it opened to was Psalm 73. RSV

Asaph, the writer of this psalm, was a noted whiner. He was “envious of the arrogant, when [he] saw the prosperity of the wicked.” As I looked at the page, I saw a section circled (by me). It was these verses:

10 Therefore the people turn and praise them; and find no fault in them. 11 And they say, “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?” 12 Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches. 13 All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. 14 For all the day long I have been stricken, and chastened every morning.

The note in the margin (again, written in by me) reads this way:

Read over and over and over again.

Introspection – pathetic self-centeredness.

I needed that reminder. I need that reminder. I have felt the same way as Asaph on numerous occasions. I feel that way now. So, I must keep reading. In verses 21and 22 Asaph describes us (him and me) like this:  “When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was stupid and ignorant, I was like a beast toward thee.” Yup.

But, I need to keep reading. Brother Asaph finished the Psalm in a better frame of mind, writing:

27 For lo, those who are far from thee shall perish; thou dost put an end to those who are false to thee. 28 But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all thy works.

That’s the important part! That’s what I need to read often. That’s what I offer to you, too. It is good to be near God.

I actually preached on this psalm as my final sermon when I was at Covenant Seminary. I compared the psalmist to the blues singer. Asaph had the blues, it’s true. Unlike the bluesman, however, he also knew the answer for the blues. He knew that it is good to be near God. He is our only refuge.