Sacred Space

I went to a training session on pastoral care for reproductive health and justice issues and it was auspicious that they worked to create what they called “brave space” because it was what I had planned to talk about on Sunday. It was good to see it in action, to see how it is created. Brave space is sort of the next level of “safe space.” We all need places of safety. However, safe space can be a little too safe. Without challenge, we miss opportunities for growth and transformation. Brave space is a space in which we can take risks and know that we will be held. Since we’re a church and all, I like to call that sacred space.

Our facilitator described a set of concentric circles. In the center is our comfort zone. We can stay there and feel safe. However, we won’t necessarily learn or grow. The next ring is the challenge zone. It’s a little uncomfortable, just uncomfortable enough that we are prodded to grow. I have also heard this called “the growing edge.” But if we get too far outside our comfort zone, we begin to shut down. We can’t hear anymore challenges, so we don’t grow at all. If we’re trying to facilitate change, we need people in that challenge zone.

Safe space has gotten a bad rap lately. Many of us were traumatized by the election of this president. In part, that has to do with safety. Where we thought we were on a trajectory of greater justice, the rug was pulled out from under us. Since the election, things have escalated, with actual Nazis marching in our streets and receiving support from this president. Attacks on the media; attacks on religious, ethnic, and sexual minorities; attacks on the pillars of our democracy; and a frightening resemblance to the rise of fascism in the previous century have certainly made us feel unsafe. When people have tried to reclaim their sense of safety, they have been mocked. The truth is, we all need safe spaces to rest, a refuge to recharge. But we can’t spend all our time there if we want things to change.

Church in the Cliff has always prided itself on being a safe space for people who have been marginalized in other spaces. However, it should not be understood as a place without challenge. On Sundays, we usually talk theology and Scripture and we see over and over that our views are as diverse as the people. For each of us, our views of theology and Scripture are informed by our own unique history and personality. Sure, we’re all pretty progressive. Well, liberal; let’s not hide from that word. We’re striving for liberation, both for ourselves and others, and for our faith. But because of this, we often feel a tension in trying to be welcoming to people who are more conservative. We didn’t get to that part of the conversation on Sunday, so I wanted to look at a few things here. There are a lot of ways of thinking about this, but I want to speak to my own experience since, as we have said, the people of this church are not monolithic in our views.

Going back to that idea of comfort zones and challenge zones, I wonder how much overlap there is between the liberators and the conservators of the faith. I have been asked at times to participate in efforts to create space for evangelicals who are dipping their toes in the water of progress. Most often, they have changed on some moral issue and are trying to find a resolution with the rest of their faith. They might “have a heart” for immigrants or discover that their best friend is gay. However, they still hold onto their basic theology of God’s immutability and our need for atonement and all the rest. I find that I have little to say to them. My faith language is not theirs. My comfort zone is their shut down space, and probably vice versa.

There is also a problem of vulnerability and honest dialog. The conserving church has been obsessed with apologetics, the defense of the faith, since I was a kid. For many Christians, this is the whole project of Christianity: to argue for its rightness so as to convince others to convert. So some folks put on the “whole armor of God” before entering our space. For my part, as the pastor of what I take to be a refuge for many of our people, a refuge from those very places that have defended our people right out of church, I admit that my hackles can get up pretty quickly. That makes dialog difficult.

It may be helpful to be clear about the purpose of our worship time. When I say that we have a conversation about theology and Scripture, I mean a conversation. We try very hard not to make it a debate. It does not work well when our goal is to convince one another. It’s the difference between the colonizing evangelical formula of Matthew – “go therefore and make disciples of all nations” – and the invitational evangelical formula of John – “come and see.” What makes our space a brave space and a sacred space is that everyone is offering their experience, what has been meaningful and helpful, to them. If you are open to it, if you decide to come and see, you might find that it resonates with your experience or that it points the Way to something meaningful and helpful to you. At its best, you might find that you are transformed. So, to some, a conversation might not seem like worship, but Martin Buber teaches us that any relation to any particular other is, in fact, a relation to the Other. We invite God and humanity into the same vulnerable space to “come and see,” to see what we will see, to see where we have been blind.

I have a friend from high school that went into ministry. If you knew him as a youth, you would know it was inevitable. Both my path to ministry and my ministry have been very different than his. He was an associate at a megachurch near Atlanta and his specific responsibilities were to young singles and young married couples. He shepherded people through dating and the beginning of marriage. He is an advocate for purity culture, if a kinder and gentler version than the Duggars. Or, as I call it, “your basic nightmare.”

After not seeing each other for many years, I was in town and decided to look him up. I was nervous. Would we fight? Would we avoid any substantive conversation in the interest of peace? Both seemed like your basic nightmare. We sat down and had a drink. We sat across the table from one another and talked about our lives and our ministry, what got us here, what we were passionate about. We even talked about things we didn’t agree on. But more often than not, we found points of connection. Some were enduring memories from our youth together, but just as many were places that we had arrived separately together. His voice was hoarse after doing a marriage seminar all day, but we talked for hours. It was good.

Matthew 18:20 tells us that where two or three are gathered together in God’s name, God is there also. In that particular context, the “gathering together” is about reconciliation after some offense, but it can also have a suggestion of hospitality and welcome. To do something in God’s name is to do it in a manner in which God would do it. God’s presence is a vulnerable presence and a welcoming presence. So perhaps a debate is not the place to find God. Perhaps God does not need defending. Perhaps our sacred space and the people who gather there do not need defense, which is something I have had to learn.

Sacred space need not be defended. In trying to defend it, we destroy it. However, it can be cultivated and nurtured. We can approach one another, conserving and liberating, in the name of God, in the spirit of reconciliation and hospitality and welcome. We can be transformed so that more and more of our lives are caught up in that sacred space. To me, this is the whole project of Christianity: to expand our sacred space until all are caught up in God’s Way of peace and justice. May it be so.


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