Stock Photography: Church Steeple With Cross 

I visited a church a few weeks ago in a mid-Western state.  Upon walking into the church I was immediately ushered back to countless Sundays in childhood spent in a church that “felt” like the church I was visiting.  Men were dressed in suits and ties and many of the women wore modest “church dresses.”  The place was filled with well-groomed families who carried their Bibles in cases with their names imprinted in gold lettering on the cases.  I felt like I was back in the pews of my childhood sanctuary, and I was flooded with memories of faithfully filing into church with all of the other intact families with bright and shining faces.  I recalled my dad’s frequent admonition to us as we walked into church, “You kids straighten up.”  I would often grumble a few words under my breath, grab my Bible, smooth the wrinkles from my dress, and walk into church with a crooked smile on my face.  I decided early in my church experience that it would not be the place where I told the truth about my life — even to myself.

The church was the place where I learned to hide my sins, prove that I was good enough, and pretend that I could save myself.  For years I held a grudge against the church and blamed it for not offering sanctuary for my sin, woundedness, and confusion.  Fifty years of experiences in church have taught me that it is a perfect place for my addictive, perfectionistic, people-pleasing personality to flourish, but as I looked around this mid-Western congregation I knew what fifty years of living have revealed even more dramatically: it is something in me — whether tempted by vice or enticed by virtue — that forgets that I really am powerless to save myself, I need a Savior, and telling the truth about this sets me free!

As I settled into this church service I thought about my new friend, Gayle, who invited me to church.  I spent a week with her — seeing her beautiful heart for others and for God.  There was a young man right in front of us who fell to his knees during prayertime — unashamed to demonstrate his need and desperation for God.  A worship song reminded all of us to “Cry unto the Lord in time of need . . . .”  And my heart softened to being in this place that reminded me of so many Sunday mornings when I hardened my heart and refused to confess my sins, acknowledge that I couldn’t make life work, and surrender to the truth that even when I am living my best life I cannot save myself.

The enemy slithers into biker bars where drugs are dealt under the counter and into well-maintained churches where secrets are kept in the name of giving God our “best” — deceiving us into believing a lie about God and about ourselves.  But the church is the best scapegoat for the truth of Romans 7, “I realize that I don’t have what it takes.  I can will it, but I can’t do it.  I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway.  Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.”  We blame the church for revealing just how much we need a Savior.  Since my early years of faithful Sunday School attendance I have learned that I can harden my heart to the sanctuary of salvation in all kinds of places — dens of temptation, well-intentioned programs, and individual moments — when I decide to say, “No, God.” 

It’s easier to be mad at the church than see it as another means that God uses to break into our personal life stories to remind us that we cannot save ourselves.  I am overwhelmed by a God who will use failure and faithfulness; worship in a beautiful sanctuary or confession in a 12-step meeting held in a dusty church basement; a saint in a starched white shirt or a saint sneaking out from the service for a cigarette — God will use anything and everything to find us in the midst of our neediness.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book, Life Together, wonderfully summarzies what should happen when we participate in community, we get hurt by others, and we ourselves fail, “God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely we must be ourwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.”  God never intended for church to be our sanctuary, but He will use the church to remind us that He longs to be our Sanctuary, and then in His grace He allows us to be His sanctuary.

The church that I attend today is called The Sanctuary.  My pastor reminds us every week that we are the sanctuary, that God longs to inhabit us even when we are good for nothing, and that we inhabit Him simply because He is good.  I know that when I believe this Good News, I can live with nothing to prove and nothing to protect; I can be the same person at church that I am anywhere else; I can invite others to relationship without demanding that they prove something; and I cannot help but be consumed with wanting to make Christ known because He is the Good News that brings sanctuary.  When I notice that the church is a little messy, that a lot of the people attending are falling apart, and that the service doesn’t really go that smoothly, it becomes another moment for me to remember the theme of the Gospel — that God uses mess, flaws, and brokenness to relentlessly remind us that we really do need Him.  Today I can’t wait to go to church.  I hardly ever wear a “church dress”, and I seldom even bring my Bible to church, but I know that it is the place where I can tell the truth about my life, be vulnerable to others and to God, and see the most remarkable demonstrations of God’s love.  I think the poet’s words really do describe the sanctuary we can experience on Sunday morning: “Here in dust and dirt — o here, the lilies of His love appear.”

“What this adds up to, then, is this: no more lies, no more pretense.  Tell your neighbor the truth.  In Christ’s body we’re all connected to each other, after all.”  Ephesians 4