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Sunday Worship 21 August | Sacred Spaces: in our own lives

Updated: Mar 18

Last week we looked back over all seven of the sacred spaces identified by minister and theologian George Lings, spaces he first identified in monastic communities but encourages us to recognise and make space for in the church and in our own lives. We reflected on how those spaces are already expressed and might be better expressed in our shared life as a church. This week I want to go back over them one last time to think about how we experience and express these spaces away from church. I’ll say a little about each space, and then offer a question to get you thinking.


CELL: a place of private prayer. Being a private space, it is perhaps easier to see where this fits in our individual lives than our shared life, but that doesn't mean it is easier to create or sustain. It may in fact make it harder as we are trying to do it alone, which is why I said last week that I think the community has a part to play in supporting the individual. There are many things that can distract or pressure us, meaning that we don't take the time we need to pray and seek the presence of God, and so it is good that we encourage one another in our personal devotions. One way we can do that is by helping one another find the right kind of space. The word cell implies a small closed room, and perhaps that is the kind of setting you find conducive to prayer, but many pray best on the move or in wide open space. The point of the cell is not to limit prayer but to recognise the importance of praying. How and when and where do you pray?


CHAPEL: a place of public worship. For most of us here this morning, this is our chapel. But even for those who worship here regularly, it may not be our only chapel. There may be other places where we gather with others to worship, whether regularly or sporadically. Being involved in wider denominational and ecumenical life sometimes affords me the opportunity to worship in different places and in different ways, and there is much that is enriching in that. There’s also much joy in family worship at home, which is not exactly public but is shared. One of the positive experiences of lockdown for us was Eddie realising that church isn’t just the building, and asking to ‘do church’ almost every day. We’ve not maintained family worship with the same intensity, but we do end every day with prayer, those moments offering something that cell alone can’t. Where else and with whom else do you gather for worship?


CHAPTERHOUSE: a place for decision making. We make countless decisions every day, some more significant than others. We probably don’t have a specific place where we make all our decisions, but I think chapterhouse can teach us a few things. The first is about being deliberate in how we make decisions, giving them the full consideration they deserve and seeking the wisdom of God to guide us. The second is about making decisions with and for others, seeking opinions and considering how our actions impact on others. The third is about having a basic set of principles which guide our decisions, which could be as simple as prioritising values like justice and kindness even if we do not develop them into a monastic style rule of life. How conscious and intentional are you about your decision making?


CLOISTER: a place for interaction. This is about the way we encounter others, in both planned and unexpected meetings. When we move these spaces away from the monastery and the church, we realise the cloister can be literally anywhere that we could meet another person - the bus, the shops, the street, at work, at home. I wonder what would happen if we saw each interaction as an opportunity to show and receive grace, to reveal and experience God. And I don’t mean that every conversation needs to end with a two minute presentation of the gospel, although it is good to talk openly and naturally about our faith, but rather that we are called to treat each person with the lovingkindness of God, and to recognise that the there is that of God in every person. Where do you interact with others and how open are you to grace in that interaction?


GARDEN: a place of work. Work will look different for each of us, and it will look different at different stages of our lives. It may be physical or mental, it may be paid or voluntary, it may be full time or part time, it may be at home or elsewhere. Whatever we do, it can be an opportunity to experience and express God, as we heard from Sue and Mike when they talked about their work. One of my favourite prayers for the Northumbria Daily Office comes from Midday Prayer - “let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us and establish thou the work of our hands”. I remember praying that while moving speakers and projectors to set up for an art installation accompanied by prayer stations, and marvelling that the work of my hands was so simple and yet could glorify God. What is the work of your hands and how might it glorify God?


REFECTORY: a place for hospitality. Just as we all make decisions but we don’t all have a chapterhouse, in the same way we all eat but we may not all have a refectory. Perhaps we grab what we can when we can and there is less ritual about it than in a community like a monastery. Whatever our experience of eating, I think that seeing it as a sacred space can encourage us to be more grateful for the food that sustains us, and perhaps more mindful of where it has come from. And because refectory is about company as much as it is about nourishment, I think that understanding it as sacred can help us to see the holiness of those around us, and learn the value of both serving and being served. What role do food and hospitality have in your life?


SCRIPTORIUM: a place for study. Even as minister, I have to be honest and acknowledge how hard it can be to set time aside for reading and contemplation, at least aside from sermon preparation. I have periods where I am able to commit to a plan or a pattern, but I struggle to be consistent. I do however know that I feel better on those days that I have set time aside for reflection, and there is a great thrill in those moments where I discover something new or understand something a little better. I think it also helps to think of scriptorium more broadly as the sharing and receiving of knowledge of God, because that can happen in all sorts of different ways. If the word study conjures up images of sitting down with a book and a highlighter and that fills you with dread, don’t worry because there are other ways of doing it. Listening to podcasts has become a favourite of mine, and as I said last week, I’ll be looking at ways we can start sharing recommendations. Do you set aside time to reflect and think?

The voice from the burning bush (found in Exodus 3)
When Moses grew into a man, he looked after his father in law’s sheep and goats in the desert. One day he saw a bush burning, but - to his amazement - the leaves were still green! His heart was pounding as he walked closer.
‘Moses! Moses!’ God called out from the bush.  Moses shook and covered his face with his hands. ‘Here I am’, he said. ‘Take off your sandals, you are on holy ground.’ Moses did as he was told. ‘I am the God of your ancestors. I promised Abraham that I would watch over his family and give them a land flowing with milk and honey. I have heard the cries of the Hebrew people. Go to Pharaoh and tell him to let my people go!’
‘Who am I that anyone would listen to me?’ Moses asked. ‘Moses, I need you to be my lips, my ears, my eyes, my hands so that I may free my children.’ ‘Who will I say has sent me?’ ‘Tell them I AM WHO I AM sent you.’ Moses still trembled, so God said, ‘Do not be afraid, my child. I will be with you.’

I want to draw this series to a close by stepping back from the particularities of the seven sacred spaces to think more generally about what makes space sacred.  Last week I suggested that what makes the spaces we have considered sacred is that they lead us to God, and that we can turn that around to say that any space that leads us to God is sacred. That for me is the heart of it, but as always there is more to say. I first talked about the seven sacred spaces as part of a one-off reflection three years ago, and I began then by reflecting on the story of the burning bush, so I want to go full circle and end there too.


The first thing the story tells us is that SACRED SPACE IS NOT FIXED. There is nothing in the story to say that the bush was burning the day before or the day after. It was a sacred space in that moment because God was encountered in a particularly visceral way. This is important because it reminds us that the idea of sacred space is not about tying God down to a specific room or a physical object or a grid reference, but rather about recognising that there are places and moments in which we experience God with greater power and immediacy. It also suggests that sacred space and sacred time are sometimes so entwined as to be indistinguishable.


Next we see that SACRED SPACE IS AN INVITATION. God took the initiative in lighting the bush but Moses had to turn aside to see it properly and to understand its significance. One of my favourite snatches of poetry is from Emily Barrett Browning - "earth’s crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God, but only he who sees takes off his shoes, the rest sit around and pluck blackberries”. It is so easy for us to walk past sacred spaces if we are not paying attention, and so we need to cultivate an attitude of openness to God, being willing to accept the invitation.


Because we also learn that SACRED SPACE REQUIRES RESPONSE. Moses not only had to turn aside from his path but he was also told to take off his shoes for he was on holy ground. A former minister of mine talked about the importance of going barefoot before the bush, of recognising and responding to the presence of God. Of course God is always present, but there are moments when we become particularly aware of it and we mustn’t let those simply pass by, so for years I would take off my shoes in worship as a symbolic act. Perhaps that’s not the action that has meaning for you, but I encourage you to find some way of acknowledging your experience of the presence of God.


We see too that SACRED SPACE IS ABOUT ENCOUNTER. God gave Moses some clear instructions about what he wanted him to do next, but he did not give Moses a clear answer when he asked who he was speaking to. I am who I am isn’t particularly descriptive as a name or title, and I think that is because first and foremost God wanted Moses to experience him. Sometimes when we enter sacred spaces we will come away with new knowledge or understanding, but often we will receive nothing we can put into words, rather a sense of presence or of satisfaction that runs soul deep.


Of course sacred space won’t always look or feel like the burning bush. Sometimes God will be more subtle. We see that in the story of Elijah’s encounter on the mountain in 1 Kings 19, where God is not in the storm or the earthquake or the fire but in the quiet whisper. Sometimes God will be less subtle. We see that in the story of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus in Acts 9, where he is struck by a light that temporarily blinds him. Sometimes God will be comforting. We see that in Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28, where he is assured that God is with him even in his exile. Sometimes God will be challenging. We see that in Jacob’s night time wrestling in Genesis 32, where he tussles with God and is left with a limp and a blessing.


Looking at these experiences together, I think we can finally say that SACRED SPACE IS TRANSFORMATIONAL. We tend to tell stories that are exceptional, so the encounters we see in the Bible are most often the particularly dramatic ones, but that doesn't make the quieter experiences any less significant. We won’t all be sent to challenge rulers like Moses or become church planting experts like Paul, although we should always be open to the possibility, but encounter with God will leave us changed. It will grow in us the fruit of the spirit, which is love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and faithfulness and self control. And it will change the way we see the world, as we recognise more and more the goodness of the lord in the land of the living.


Perhaps the experiences of Moses and Elijah and Paul and Jacob don’t seem to have very much to do with the sacred spaces of the monastery. After all, none of them happened in a chapel or a refectory or a cloister. But I do believe that the spaces we have explored over the past couple of months can open us to those deep and spiritual experiences. The more we learn about God in scriptorium, the more readily we will recognise the presence of God in our lives. The more we connect our work with our faith, the more likely we are to experience God in our labour. The more we deepen our relationships with others, the more easily we will recognise God in the face of friend and stranger/


My prayer for all of us as we conclude this series is that we will become more aware of the sacred in our lives, that we will be deliberate about recognising and developing the spaces in which we encounter God, and that we will be surprised and transformed by burning bushes and gentle whispers and bright lights.


If you would like to reflect more deeply on the sacred spaces we are exploring this summer, you can find reflection questions in the file below.

Stoneygate Baptist Church teaching series Summer 2022
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