Recovering the Sacred Space

Recovering the Sacred Space

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Revd Canon Terry Wong is the Vicar of the Cathedral. He writes weekly for the weekend Service bulletins and the articles are posted on this site.

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14 October 2016

Recovering the Sacred Space

Photo: @idroneman

There was a time when God was worshipped only in one particular building, found only in one particular city. Psalm 122 captures the love and reverence that devoted Jews had for the holy temple in the holy city of Jerusalem.

With the coming of Christ, the worship of God is now decentralised and ‘everywhere’. As Jesus told the Samaritan woman: “… the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father” (John 4:21, NKJV). Today we no longer worship in a temple, because God’s dwelling place is with His people worldwide.

Such is our freedom to worship Him—everywhere and in any building, where God’s people gather the sacred can be found. The same Jesus, whose sacrifice tore away the veil of the temple, also taught us that when two or three are gathered in His name, that space is made holy by His presence (Matthew 18:20).

But alas, this accessibility to God does come with a concern. How easily our minds slide from the notion that everything is truly holy… to the notion that, therefore, nothing is particularly holy.

If our faith did have one central, identifiable sacred shrine, we would probably venerate it, protect it and speak gently and reverently about it. But because we have a multitude of churches, some worshipping in cinemas and secular halls, our sense for what is sacred can be diffused. If any place can be holy, then nowhere is particularly holy. ‘Everything’ in theory can sometimes mean ‘nothing’ in practice.

While I am not hung up about using what is modern and current, changes in the way services are run often sweep away what we grew up on, and we might lose the sense of the sacredness of the church as well. In modern Singapore, after 50 years of amazing success, churches here are in desperate need to keep and grow their sacred nature and presence in the city.

Revisiting this ancient psalm is helpful. It reminds us of the need to recover our sacred space, canon (order) and calling in the city.

Recovering the Sacred Space

I rejoiced with those who said to me, "Let us go to the house of the Lord."
Our feet are standing in your gates, Jerusalem. (Psalm 122:1-2, NIV)

Three times a year, during the major festivals, faithful Hebrews made the trip to Jerusalem. This city was one of the highest peaks in Palestine—a journey there would certainly be an upward one. As the pilgrims travelled, their routes snaking through villages, cities and towns, songs for the journey were sung, Psalm 122 among them. They were all headed in the direction of Jerusalem. It was the centre of their lives.

Scattered as congregations are in Singapore, each gathered community is equally sacred. We need to centre our lives around these sacred spaces. As pilgrims, we journey through the ‘secular’ to the sacred gatherings. Sometimes, this can feel like a difficult uphill climb. It is much easier to stay in the valleys of our toils, or be distracted by the shrines of the world as we make the upward climb.

Courage and joy are needed, and this need starts before we make the climb. Notice that the psalmist rejoices at the thought of going to Jerusalem, even before the trip begins (Psalm 122:1). Even if we stand on worldly ground, our desire and joy for the sacred need to be seeded beforehand.

If the church is like the world, then Sunday worship or a weekday cell meeting is just another event. It may be different from our regular schedule, but just ‘same-same’. However, when we recognise the holy—and thus like Isaiah, recognise that we are amongst men of unclean lips (Isaiah 6)—we know we cannot remain here for too long. The trip to the sacred needs to be made.

In the midst of the unholy, recognised for what it is, the disciple gazes at the sacred space. He centres his life on it. And when a fellow believer says, “Let’s go!”, he responds with joy, not a dutiful sigh of “I suppose I have to.”

And yes, this sacred space is communal. Speaking of the Sermon on the Mount, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, once said:

In order fully to explain and enforce these important words, I shall endeavour to show, First, that Christianity is essentially a social religion; and that to turn it into a solitary one is to destroy it. (emphasis added)[1]

The English writer CS Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia, certainly agreed. In his book The Great Divorce, he paints hell as a place not of fiery torment, but eternal solitude and misery: where people lived far apart from each other. Hell is non-communal. 

Indeed, as the writer to the Hebrews tells us:

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:24-25, NIV)

As Singapore turns 50, may every church continue to honour what is sacred, gathering to pray, worship and hear God’s Word.

Keeping the Sacred Canon

Jerusalem is built like a city that is closely compacted together.
That is where the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord,
to praise the name of the Lord according to the statute given to Israel.
There the thrones for judgment stand, the thrones of the house of David. (Psalm 122:3-5, NIV, emphasis added)

Today we define a city by its size, in contrast to towns and villages. But in biblical times, a city was defined not by population size but density (v. 3). A city is a social form in which people live in close proximity to one another. According to the American sociologist, Edward Glaeser: “Cities are the absence of physical space between people.”[2]

A closely compacted city offers safety and stability within her walls. There is diversity and interaction, leading to cities becoming growth centres for civilisations. A city has more of everything: the good but unfortunately, the bad and the ugly as well.

By this definition, Singapore was a city from the word go. After 50 years as an independent city-state, it is hailed today as a world-class city. While I will not make the logical leap of equating Singapore with the long and ancient influence of Jerusalem, there is something to be said about the discipline and order which will make any city great.

Fifty years is a very short time. The first Premier of China was asked about his evaluation of the French Revolution, which happened around 200 years ago. He was well educated, and serving in the very difficult Cold War years of the 1950s and 1960s. He said, gently and quietly: “It is too short to tell.”[3]

Indeed, 50 years is simply “too short to tell.”

Five hundred years from now, what will people say of Singapore, assuming that she is still remembered? Cities’ lives have consequences that last far beyond our physical lifespans.

What role can the church play to strengthen the discipline, order and foundations of the city? After all, we have been called to be the “salt and light” in the city. By Jesus’ definition of ‘salt’ in Luke 14:34-35, the church is called to hold back what is evil (as disinfectant) and promote what is just and good (as fertiliser).

There a call in Psalm 122 to “praise the name of the Lord according to the statutes” (v. 4, NIV, emphasis added). It begins with His Word. We are to live according to it. We don’t preach the Word to the city; we are the Word in the city.

There in the city are “thrones for judgment … of the house of David” (v. 5, NIV). Authority is located at the heart of the city, and it is honoured. This goes against the grain of what is popular today—a mindset where every pillar of authority is being questioned. But since when has the truth been popular?

I hear it again and again: the church is the last bastion where morality and order are upheld. Change the church and you change society. There is tremendous pressure for the church to capitulate on her long-held beliefs in areas like marriage, family and sex. Large sections of the church have been infiltrated and through them, there is constant pressure on the church to conform, to be less salty and luminous.

How ironic. The coming together as man and wife in a union characterised by mutual life-long faithfulness and the bearing of children is something which every civilised culture and society has invested enormous resources in, by creating institutions that support and encourage this arrangement, and prohibiting alternative arrangements that undermine it. Throughout the millennia, the Christian church has played a crucial role in supporting and strengthening marriage, in whichever society it has found itself.

It was largely under the influence of the church that marriage itself became a legally recognised and protected institution in many societies. The church has recognised the intense physical and psychological pressures involved in maintaining the existence of families, and endeavoured to provide support at the individual level at all times.

As Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, put it beautifully:

What made the traditional family remarkable, a work of high religious art, is what it brought together: sexual drive, physical desire, friendship, companionship, emotional kinship and love, the begetting of children and their protection and care, their early education and induction into an identity and a history. Seldom has any institution woven together so many different drives and desires, roles and responsibilities. It made sense of the world and gave it a human face, the face of love.[4]

It would be ironic in the extreme, if today, the viability of the very societies that the church has helped to build up (through biblically based teachings and values) is jeopardised by a betrayal by the church of marriage and the family. This is already happening as parts of the church in the West and Asia give in to the pressures of society.

If the church as a ‘canon’ or a standard caves in, the “thrones of judgment” will eventually give way too. With that, the city will disintegrate. Society will revel in her new-found freedom, but only to suffer a long hangover for which future generations will pay.

This leads us to the last part of the psalm, which reminds us of our sacred call.

Renewing our Sacred Call

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
"May those who love you be secure.

May there be peace within your walls
and security within your citadels."

For the sake of my brothers and friends,
I will say, "Peace be within you."

For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your prosperity. (Psalm 122:6-9, NIV)

What difference will our worship make, if we don’t move beyond our own needs to that of the city? In our liturgy, we move from “give us this day our daily bread” to “that we may bring light to others.”

We ask (pray) for the peace and security of the city. We are to become a house of prayer for all nations.

We hear Paul’s refrain of this in 1 Timothy 2:1-4:

Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (NKJV)

We have a mission to this city. We have an eye on the church, but that vision is city-shaped too. As we make our way as pilgrims to the ‘temple’, it is not to find refuge, but a refreshed vision for the city.

The city rests from work on Sundays. The trading of shares halts. The money-counting in banks ceases for a day. Boardrooms are empty. But Christians gather in churches and enter into the essential work of worship and prayer for the city.

What was the message Jesus gave to His disciples after his resurrection? “Peace be with you.” He blessed them with shalom, or wholeness. And what next? “Go into the world and relay that message.”

Lest we think that prayer for prosperity is confined to the holy city of Jerusalem, Jeremiah reminds the people of God to seek the welfare of the cities they find themselves in (Jeremiah 29:7). Therefore, we pray that Singapore may prosper. That there is shalom and security within her. That her gateways and walls will hold strong. But make no mistake about this: we want Singapore to be a great city for the sake of the Lord’s House (Psalm 122:9).

We are dual citizens—of heaven and of earth—and when we honor His heavenly kingdom, he will honor our earthly ones: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33, ESV).

In Closing

We keep in our hearts a love for the Lord and His people.  We keep in our hearts a delight for His Word and align our lives to it. And when the final blessing (in the Anglican liturgy) is given: “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” we leave the ‘temple’ with a renewed vision in our hearts for the city.

The best gift we can give to Singapore as she celebrates her fiftieth birthday is for the church to remain faithful to who she is called to be.  The two-millennium history of the Church witnesses of this again and again. The modern pastor caught up in the temporal and immediate success of a ministry divorced from the ‘ancient paths’ of the church will only do this to the detriment of his flock and eventually, the city.

In 2015, we celebrated 50 years of His amazing grace in our city. But remember, 50 years is still “too short to tell,” and the story is still being written. May we be found faithful to Him, His Body and our call in this city.

 

__________________________

[1] ‘The Sermons of John Wesley, Sermon 24,’ The Wesley Centre Online, at http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-24-upon-our-lords-sermon-on-the-mount-discourse-four.

[2] Ben Lillie, ‘How cities make us smarter: Ed Glaeser at TED2012,’ TEDBlog, at http://blog.ted.com/2012/02/29/cities-ed-glaeser-at-ted2012.

[3] Quoted from a sermon by given by Bishop John Chew at the Fourth Global South Anglican Conference in 2010.

[4] Talk given at an International Interreligious Colloquium on The Complementarity of Man and Woman, 17-19 November 2014.

About the Author

Terry Wong Photo

Revd Canon Terry Wong is the Vicar of the Cathedral. He writes weekly for the weekend Service bulletins and the articles are posted on this site.