briefly, on isolation in the sanctuary


I wrote about this on my personal facebook profile last night, but the existential itch has not sufficiently been scratched.

wife and I are part of a community of faith here in the holy city that hangs its hat on truly, noticeably, generously caring about people; it’s what attracted us to become a part of this ekklesia over a year ago, after a year of being ecclesiastically homeless and time in Kansas City that forever altered our theological and ministerial orientation. The consonance between our church community there–dangerously urban, predominantly black, unabashedly pentecostal–and here–suburban, predominantly white, momentary dalliances with the charismata–isn’t so much in the socio-cultural location as much as it is a mutual, underlying joy in community and a sense of missional purpose. It’s precisely this distinct, outward sense of direction that made what happened a few weeks ago so strange.

We sat in the back row of our sanctuary–with the babies in tow, easy access to the back, restroom, nursery or lobby-narthex-vestibule-whatever-they-call-it-next-week is indispensable–and, out of the corner of my eye, I saw her: a young woman sitting in one of the few empty rows in the sanctuary by herself. It wasn’t her first time there on a Sunday: in fact, she was baptized a few weeks ago. No one went to greet her or to offer her a spot near them. I even asked wife if we should move, but with babies and all the accoutrements thereof, it wasn’t logistically feasible.

It has persistently bothered me ever since.

A sanctuary is a place of community, a safe haven and it often can be a place of solitude and meditation. On a Sunday morning, though, the sanctuary is a place teeming with community under shared purpose. No one should sit alone on Sunday morning, and again, my church doesn’t do this kind of thing. About a year ago, we were welcomed, bribed with [outstanding, delicious] cookies. We eventually let our guard down and haven’t looked back, nor have we had reason to.

Yet, a few Sundays ago, quite seriously everything about Sunday morning imploded around me. Everything rang hollow because someone sat in a row by herself, with apparently no one making an effort to connect with her. We Christians may do any number of religious things on Sunday mornings; those things may be well-intentioned, perfectly earnest and sincere displays of worship. Without what matters most, all of it is but window dressing. If we sing our songs and perform our instruments to perfection, a minister delivers a perfectly on-target, exegetically-sound, theologically-astute homily, even if we get the Holy Ghost goosebumps and have a big response at the altar call, and a single person is left to herself all morning, it is all for naught. (I am second? It’s not about me? Really??) Everything about who we are as Christ’s agents in the world is invalidated in that moment, for the only thing that matters is how we care for one another. Our songs and sermons are for us; our graciousness and goodness to others for God.

I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. — Amos 5.21-25 [ESV]

In the light of what happened, I am disquietly forced to ask two questions: one, what the hell is a Sunday morning?

And two, why wasn’t I more insistent to move us to that row?

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6 thoughts on “briefly, on isolation in the sanctuary

  1. Maybe she got baptized because of a morality scandal on facebook that left all her churchpeople (still) shunning her after baptism? imagine the feeling of being an immigrant (only from down the highway) witch/hallucinogen-user/daoist/scientist in a city that runs entirely on high school connections and the catholic church…. i probably exaggerate my limitation but it feels that way at times… or perhaps she just has social anxiety disorder. you could join her next week. nobody’s perfect, nor could they be expected to be. especially in this age when the old social strictures have dissolved and people are still fighting out the new ‘rules’ (if there will be any of that type???)

    1. I actually had someone from church provide some context. To be sure, though, the other should not be one for long when found in a community of faith.

      1. Of course there are; and this is a need to be met by the church that outweighs the Sunday simulacrum. That said, within the context of this post, that fact is beside the point.

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