Across the Pastor’s Desk: How lovely is your place to dwell?

Published 9:37 am Friday, October 21, 2016

By Pastor Cherie Daniel

Cherie Daniel is pastor of Peace United Church of Christ and St. Paul’s United Church of Christ of Minnesota Lake.

Usually this time of year, in preparation for the winter ahead, the people of our congregations will host a church cleanup and fix-up day. Windows are washed, cushions vacuumed, wood polished, leaves raked, cupboards scrubbed and lots of little projects completed. At the end of the activities, we usually celebrate worship together. There’s a palpable sense of accomplishment in the sanctuary.

Cherie Daniel

Cherie Daniel

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In every church I have served, people have been most proud of the long history of their building — in these parts, mostly over 100 years and counting. This is the place where baptisms and confirmations, weddings and funerals are all accomplished; one cannot help but see the images before them from days gone by.

The walls are infused with decades of smoke from Advent and Christmas Eve candles, and the scent of pine trees and Easter lilies. In the mix are the aromas of thousands of hot dishes and soup and pie suppers.

The memories of those gatherings warm our hearts.

Our souls resonate with the words of Psalm 84 which begins, “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.”

Years of hymn singing, dish-washing, earnest praying, leaf raking, psalm reading, window cleaning and altar decorating have resulted in great pride in association — if not a sense of ownership — in our places of worship. Most of us would call our sanctuaries lovely.

For an assignment in a seminary class, I researched church architecture. It both shapes and is shaped by our sense of relationship with God and with this world. Some congregations understand God to be in the heavens, far above the earth.

Ceilings are very high. Windows may be placed high in the walls. There are lots of vertical stripes created by tall crosses and thin windows and grand pipes for the organ. Windows are usually of stained glass and depict the saints, also high above the throngs of the faithful striving to rise to their standards of discipleship. These places are lovely.

Newer sanctuaries have been built with few or no windows. One reason has to do with the need for darkness when using electronic projection of words and images on screens,which would only be inhibited by daylight. Some of this reflects the belief that when we are in worship, we are to focus our attention on the words and music and people inside the walls. Colored glass and flickering light can distract us from the word being presented.

In these shelters, we are safe from the evils of the world as we learn how to respond to their attraction in our daily lives. These places are lovely.

Some congregations understand our Christian call to be amidst the people and institutions in which we find ourselves daily. Many of the New England churches we see pictured in our October calendar pages served as both sanctuary and city hall. Ceilings are relatively low. Windows, too, are lower in the walls and usually of clear glass so worshipers can see the real needs of the surrounding community — and see who is not in worship. These places are lovely.

But the greatest place for God to dwell is not made of brick or clapboard or seamless aluminum siding. In his letter of encouragement to the congregation at Ephesus, the apostle Paul penned a prayer for all followers of Christ.

He wrote, “I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.” (Ephesians 3:16-17 NRSV)

We are reminded again and again in scriptures that God does not dwell in any one place or building, but rather is free to move around and above and behind and before and among us, choosing particularly to dwell in our hearts.

Have you done your fall cleaning in your own sanctuary of the heart? Are the cobwebs and dirty windows and shuttered closets ready for freshening?

It is time to pray with the psalmist, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” (Psalm 51:10a NRSV)

Then it, too, will be lovely!