An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor; HarperOne, 2009.
One of the most disorienting experiences for church people during The Pandemic has been displacement from church buildings. I’ve never been a fan of such places, and I know that puts me in the extreme minority among my colleagues. I appreciate a good worship space for its spiritual utility, but I can never really develop the sort of emotional attachment to such a space that I observe in other long-time Christians. For some, this attachment has become a kind of madness, as people have risked the health of whole communities to gather in the safe and stable spaces they call sanctuaries.
I suppose it has something to do with my difficulties in finding a home anywhere. And it certainly has something to do with having served in a variety of such spaces over the years. As a relatively itinerant church person (and someone who leaves more easily than he stays), I find that this deep devotion to a church building and worship center is not part of my ecclesial wiring.
White clapboard or ancient stone, low ceilings or tall steeples, Gothic choir or industrial warehouse – I’m happier in my study with a good book. I find my church most readily in a classroom or study group with some other curious and bright adults. It’s an unhelpful disability for a parish pastor, but I’ve made do with it over the years.
So, it’s no surprise that I have returned repeatedly to Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World. Taylor is one of those writers whose journey I have tracked with my own. From sermons and columns in The Christian Century to her first acclaim as one of America’s best preachers to Leaving Church, and far beyond, I have watched and read. Because Taylor is a brilliant and beautiful word wrangler and sculptor of similes, and because she has worked out much of her struggle on the pages of her books, it has been possible to follow along, and in many ways to be a fellow traveler of sorts.
An Altar in the World is an interesting re-read during The Pandemic. If there has been a time to rediscover the “altars” in ordinary life, this has been such a time. In the early pages of the book, she describes one of the epiphanies that led to writing the book and to the others that have followed.
As she walked a trail on the big island of Hawaii, Taylor “wondered how I had forgotten that the whole world is the House of God. Who had persuaded me that God preferred four walls and a roof to wide-open space? When had I made the subtle switch myself,” she mused, “becoming convinced that church bodies and buildings were the safest and most reliable places to encounter the living God?” (page 4). In this book, Taylor explores all the places and practices beyond church bodies and buildings where we might find “more” – not more church, but rather more God.
She describes that longing well. “We wanted More. We wanted a deeper sense of purpose. We wanted a stronger sense of God’s presence. We wanted more reliable ways both to seek and to stay in that presence,” she declared, “not for an hour on Sunday morning or Wednesday afternoon but for as much time as we could stand” (page 6). During The Pandemic we have been forced to find the More outside the walls of our handmade homes for God. It’s been a fraught, exhilarating, uncharted, and unregulated experience. I’ve enjoyed that aspect of the journey immensely.
This enforced sabbatical from sanctioned sacred spaces has stoked the anxiety of many who inhabit and tend those spaces (aka pastors, religious professionals and church boards). What if no one comes back? What if people have discovered that they don’t need such home bases to anchor their spiritual journeys?
I don’t think that will be the case for the majority of conventional church people. But I do think a sizable minority have asked such questions and experienced minor and major epiphanies along the way. As Church, we won’t turn back the clock on that one. We will need to explore how to build on the gifts and strengths our people have discovered along the way.
In December, one of the Hebrew scripture readings in Advent was the prophecy to King David that his “house” would last forever. David had wanted to build a temple for his God commensurate with his God’s glory and his own stature as a king. God reminded David that God was doing just fine without such a structure. It wasn’t God who needed the building; it was David. In fact, what God promised to build was not a temple but rather a people – a messianic people who could carry God’s promise and presence to a world in need of real altars.
It was a dangerous text in a time of disconnection from our own “temples.” I didn’t hear any sermons pointing that out. Rather, I think, that topic was studiously avoided.
The Pandemic didn’t cause any of this anxiety. It only exacerbated and accelerated it. The real Christian Church (not that neo-gnostic bullshit that makes love to fascists and calls anti-racists communists) is being pushed out of Egypt and into the wilderness. We long for the fleshpots and the familiarity, but there is something new ahead of us. Perhaps we need more tabernacle and less temple at this point. “For years and years,” Taylor writes, “the Divine Presence was content with a tent…which was not where God lived full-time but where God camped out with people who were also on the move” (page 8).
I don’t know what that looks like any more than you do. But I know it’s different. And I know it reflects something about God’s essential way of being with us in the world. After all, in John 1 we read that the Word became flesh and (in a literal translation) pitched a tent in our midst. A pilgrim God with a pilgrim people – that’s where we are now.
The healthy learning for church people coming out of The Pandemic must be, I am convinced, that we need buildings and to be built up, that the altars in our sanctuaries are doorways to the altars in the world – not substitutes or replacements for them.
In practical terms for example, congregations that think online worship was a temporary expedient now to be replaced by “normal” worship experiences – such congregations will have wasted the opportunity The Pandemic offered. In this exile from edifices, we have had chances to rediscover and explore the altars in our homes, in our walks, in our communities, and in the flicker of screens. We don’t have to choose one item off that menu, nor should we.
One of those altars in the world for me, during the last several months, has been an online book group we formed to study how to be anti-racists. We’ll be at that work for a lifetime, but it’s a place that is giving me life and hope. It’s a place where I feel the Spirit of God at work in a community and in the hearts of individual participants, including me. It’s a place where repentance, change, and growth happen in the midst of vulnerability and pain. It’s an altar in the world that moves me to action. We won’t give that up when the buildings re-open.
Perhaps you have discovered other new altars in your life and experience. I’d love to hear about those places, what they mean to you, and how you will maintain them in the coming months and years. Thanks for reading!