Monthly Archives: May 2009

Sanctuary

Sanctuary is a rich concept, both in its original sacred sense and in secular applications. Unfortunately, churches appear to be abandoning the word in favor of terms arguably more accessible to people who do not have long familiarity with church words, employing names like “worship center” for what used to be called a sanctuary. While the attempt to be more welcoming to seekers is good, other words just don’t equal sanctuary for the wealth of connections to spiritual and daily experiences

Sanctuary is inherently related to experiencing the nature of God. Our English word traces back to Latin sanctus, which means “holy.” Thus, sanctuary at its most basic meaning refers to a place made holy by experiencing God there in worship. It came to be recognized as a place of protection on the grounds that people within a sanctuary were in the hands of God and were not to be molested by governments or any other entity. From that sense of a place of safety and protection, sanctuary began to be applied to refuges for wildlife. Contemporary usage may soon turn to that extended meaning more than to the original association with God’s holiness, so that wildlife sanctuaries outnumber church sanctuaries.

Sanctuary appears far more often in the Old Testament than in the New Testament. The writer of Hebrews refers to the heavenly sanctuary in which Christ is our high priest, and into which he opens the way for us to come into the presence of God by faith. The Hebrew word translated as sanctuary conveys several important meanings. Sanctuary is the place where God is, whether it is the Temple, the wondrous expanse of creation, or the heavenly realm where God perfectly reigns. Sanctuary is the place God invites people to dwell with him. It is the place for worshipping and meeting God, as in Isaiah’s vision of God’s presence filling the sanctuary. For the prophets, sanctuary is a place where God gathers and protects his faithful people who have been scattered, assaulted, and frightened. The Old Testament concept of sanctuary offers God’s provision for some of our most basic needs: experiencing the presence of God, having a place for responding to God’s great grace, seeking a place of asylum from forces hostile to us and to God. All of us need sanctuary.

I spent some time in one of my favorite sanctuaries earlier this week. It is a place I am glad to share with others, but I am also delighted to spend time there by myself. Our boathouse has a finished room on the end adjacent to the dock. It is equipped with more than rustic comforts, providing an exceptional private retreat floating on the river. I can take my laptop computer to have easy access to reading materials, writing projects, Bible versions, and more. On Tuesday’s visit, several rain showers drummed soothingly on the metal roof. Part of the lunch I carried there with me was a bowl of locally-grown strawberries and a slice of pound cake from a nearby Mennonite bakery. I was there all day, basking in the simple joys it offers. This devotional began to take shape there. It often is my own place of solace, quiet, rest, and opportunity to commune with God.

The boathouse is not the only sanctuary I am blessed to visit. I love the theological symbolism in our church Sanctuary, and I enjoy and benefit from sharing experiences of worship there with hundreds of other people. Several locations around our house qualify as sanctuaries, from my study (which is uniquely my space!), to our vegetable garden, and sometimes places we have renovated. Other sanctuaries are reachable with an investment of time and travel: our boat on the river, a beach with crashing surf, almost any airplane carrying me into the heights of God’s creation. Any of these sanctuaries offers a special opportunity for me to be aware of God’s presence, to respond to God’s amazing love with personal expressions of worship, and to be assured of God’s care, protection, and comfort.

I hope that you have several sanctuaries identified among the places your travels take you. Summer vacation might take you to one of your sanctuaries – perhaps a mountain cabin, a favorite beach, a family home, the church where you made your profession of faith in Jesus. Everyone needs an identifiable place where becoming aware of God’s presence comes more easily, where communicating with God in prayer and worship is regularly stimulated, where assurance of God’s saving grace and sustaining spirit readily provide strength and hope for faithfully meeting each day’s challenges.

Although Psalm 46 does not use the Hebrew word for sanctuary, it captures the blessings we can find in a sanctuary experience with God:

      God is our refuge and strength, A very present help in trouble.

      {2} Therefore we will not fear, Even though the earth be removed, And though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;

      {3} Though its waters roar and be troubled, Though the mountains shake with its swelling. Selah

      {4} There is a river whose streams shall make glad the city of God, The holy place of the tabernacle of the Most High.

      {5} God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved….

      {10} Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth! (Psalms 46:1-5a, 10 NKJV)

    Where are your sanctuaries? Do you have a definite plan for getting there and spending time in a sanctuary soon? Often, getting to a genuine sanctuary requires planning, setting aside the time, even traveling to a special place. My prayer is that you will make the investment to identify and to spend some time in whatever may be your sanctuary. It will do you worlds of good. Remember, God lives there, and he is always home and waiting to meet you there.

    J. Edward Culpepper