Thursday, June 18, 2015

Speaking in Tongues: Sacred Spaces

There's this interesting passage in Acts about the churches speaking in tongues, and there's a great debate today over whether these tongues are real or not and whether we should be speaking in them. The truth is, however, that we're all speaking in them. We all have our own tongue in which we understand and express God. We each have our own God-language, and where we do not understand the many tongues in which we speak God, we really have the power to wound each other. 

I'm not speaking here of traditional languages, of the formation of words by syllable. I'm speaking of the spiritual disciplines and the engagement of man with God, which manifests differently in each of our lives.

Today, a God-language you might not have thought about: sacred spaces.

There are so many possible manifestations of this, so many images that probably come to mind when I say such a thing. And I chose this one for a couple of reasons. First, it is, at least in this season, my God-language, so I know a thing or two about it. And second, it is perhaps under most threat in our churches.

When I talk about sacred spaces, I'm not just talking about knowing that God is present. God is everywhere; that's too easy. What I'm talking about is the...accouterments of God. It used to be that when you walked into a church, there was a Cross hanging in plain view, right in front of all the worshipers, right behind the pulpit. It used to be, in many churches, that between the people and the pastor stood an altar of some sort. Even in churches that didn't ascribe to the idea of an altar, there was, perhaps, a Communion table. Remember those? There were all these things that gave you a place, a real place, to approach God in one way or another.

As a youth grouper many years ago, we'd always go on these retreat weeks or weekends, and it was the custom at the time (and probably still is) that Thursday night was designed for just a person like me. It was full of hands-on encounters with God. We cheekily referred to it as "cheesy prayer night." And I laughed along, but you guys, these nights were made for those who speak the tongue of sacred spaces. It was all about coming to the Cross and driving in your own nails, taking your shames or your sins and offering them in a fire, etc.

A few years later when I joined our church's creative arts team, this was it, too. For a few years, we put together an annual Stations of the Cross experience, and this was my tongue! It's about bringing people to Jesus. I mean, really bringing them to Jesus.

That's the best way I can explain what this language is to someone who doesn't speak it: when you're bringing me to Jesus, I need a Cross to kneel at the feet of. I need an altar to approach with incense. I need a table on which to break bread. I need God to be a story that I put myself in, a scene I'm invited to take part in.

I said I chose this language not just because it is mine, but also because it is in trouble. Maybe you're already starting to see that. I spend a fair amount of my time watching sermons from pastors who are not mine. I've seen my fair share of contemporary churches, usually non-denominational ones. Their stages are full of props and light shows, but there's not a lot of God in them. Not much Jesus, either. Most of our churches today don't have a Cross front and center. They don't have an altar between the people and the pastor. They don't have a table on which to break bread. They are completely void for someone who speaks the tongue of sacred spaces.

That's scary. And it's heartbreaking (for me). There are so many people who have this tongue who don't understand that they do or know what it means. They are in our churches looking for Jesus, and they need to be led to Him. They need to come to the foot of the Cross. How are you going to take them there if you don't even have a Cross in your building? They need an altar on which to offer their tears. Will you tell them you don't believe in altars? They need a table on which to break bread. Will you hand them a small cracker and tell them it's been broken?

People of sacred spaces speak the story of Jesus, and they need that story to unfold around them in a way in which they feel like a character in it. This is what is most powerfully meaningful to us. And the more our churches look to cater to a concert crowd, the more we lose this. Sorry, but it's true. You can't turn on a fog machine and tell me it's God leading in a cloud of smoke. (Ok, actually, you could. That might actually be pretty awesome. Someone do that.) But in general, we've set our stages with the effects of the 21st Century instead of the personal effects of God. And we're losing something for it.

At least, I am.

There's a tongue of sacred spaces, and people speaking it all around you. Maybe...maybe it is cheesy to a lot of people, like prayer night on Thursdays. But to those who speak this God-language, we cannot possibly know Him without it.  

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