Sacred Space and Divine Glory
One of my favorite scriptures is an out-of-the-way story, the version of the dedication of the
temple of Solomon found at 2 Chronicles 5:11-14. The musicians and singers (and, we might
imagine, the liturgical dancers) raised their praise, singing “to the Lord, for he is good, for his
steadfast love endures forever.” As the praise rose up, the glory of the Lord filled the house like a
golden cloud, so that the preachers could not preach, the “priests could not stand to minister
because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house.”
This story always touches me. It reminds me of the importance of our music and our creative
arts in the praise of God. It reminds those of us who see our gifts as preaching and oratory that
we may not be the “main event” in a particular worship service. It reminds us that worship
becomes praise when God’s spirit appears. And it reminds me that our craft or art, the best we
can offer, are only humble containers for God’s true glory.
What I often forget is the temple itself. This story concerns the buildings, the sacred spaces,
in which we gather. The Chronicler spends three chapters describing the construction project, its
dimensions, its ornamentation, its fixtures and appurtenances, and the thousands of laborers
involved. Everything is crafted in fine woods and rich fabrics and gold. This all reflected
Solomon’s hope that a human structure could somehow house the glory of the Divine.
This scripture is on my mind because I have recently attended the dedication of two buildings
intended to serve as sacred space: the new American Baptist Churches headquarters outside Valley Forge, Pa., and the new church house of the Woodside Church in Flint, Mich. There were some striking similarities between the events. In each case, the old building had become too expensive to operate and maintain, too large for current use, stylistically old-fashioned and mechanically obsolete. Both buildings were in their day architectural masterpieces, beautiful attempts to create space for the worship of God and the administration of the affairs of the Kin-dom. In both cases, the choice to leave the old building was difficult and painstaking, bringing grief and upset. New spaces had to be found, designed, and built out. Moving is always hard.
Also in each case, the choice and design of new facilities were inspired, honoring both the
functionality and the spiritual purpose of these new spaces. The denominational offices are
warm, flexible, and modern, with a clean design and an open and welcoming floor plan. They are
decorated throughout with signs of religious purpose and reminders of Baptist heritage. The new
Woodside Church building, made from a converted tire shop, fits the church perfectly: it is open,
a little retro, and very funky. It reflects the working class heritage of the city as well as the strong
commitment of the church to be a spiritual community. The spaces are quite different from each
other, but they are alike in being well designed for the spiritual purpose of their use.
One of the clearest messages I have heard this year has been, “Our building is becoming such
a problem.” So many of our church houses were built to reflect tastes and values we no longer
have, to serve congregations that we no longer are. There are too many rooms and the sanctuaries are too large. The immovable pews the imposing decor evoke awe and distance instead of intimacy and communion. And they are so expensive to keep up! A new roof or boiler can easily cost five figures (or six!), all to keep up a space that no longer meets our needs. Of course, some of our churches continue to exist well inside their spaces; a few are even outgrowing them. But those seem increasingly to be exceptions. At least four of our congregations have sold their buildings in the past several years. Woodside is the only one to buy a new one. The other three are engaging in creative models of space sharing, still worshiping as guests in the space they once owned. Other models are possible. I am hoping in the coming year that we can imagine creative solutions to space needs. There is much wisdom here we can share with one another.
Key to remember, however, is the lesson from 2 Chronicles: more than the gold and the
cypress wood and the lush purple draperies, more than the preaching and even the music, the
stained glass and the pipe organ, what we most need in our church houses is the presence of God, filling our space when we gather and raise our voices in praise. Our churches worship in many kinds of spaces: a nineteenth century gothic cathedral, a retro-fitted movie theater, a cute midcentury chapel, a stately old synagogue, a cavernous gray stone monument, a converted tire shop, to name just a few. But in every case, when our voices are raised in praise, the glory of the Lord fills the house. That is the purpose to which our temples are dedicated, to house God’s glory and to be a place from which that glory can spread as a blessing and an impulse to justice beyond our doors and out into the city.
Perhaps it will also help to remember the architectural symbol of this current season, as we
contemplate heating our edifices through the long winter nights — the humble stable in which
Jesus was first laid in the feed trough, because there was no room in the proper inn. What space
was ever more filled with glory than that one?
The Rev. David Gregg is a member of the Sympara Board of Directors. He is the regional executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago.