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August 31, 2020

You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance.”  Psalm 32:7

Sanctuary places have become popular in recent years. Cities and states that fail to enforce immigration laws have become known as sanctuary cities and states.  The Wall Street Journal reported in January that 91 of Virginia’s 96 counties have passed laws to become gun sanctuaries for the purpose of resisting proposed state gun regulations.  The Akron, Ohio suburb of Newton Falls recently declared that it is a “Statuary Sanctuary City,” offering to accept monuments that have been removed from other cities across the country.

Traditionally, the church was a sanctuary.  Movies depict a person fleeing from the law rushing into a church to claim sanctuary.  The church is depicted as a hiding place, a place of refuge—a place where God dwells and protects. I have a vivid memory of the scene in the 1939 classic movie, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, based on Victor Hugo’s book of the same name. Charles Laughton, playing the part of Quasimodo, swoops down from the belfry to save the unjustly accused Esmerelda, and carries her onto the church property yelling, “Sanctuary, Sanctuary!”  While some churches have sheltered people from law enforcement in recent years, legal protection for those seeking asylum from the law ended in Europe in the 17th century.

But the church is still a sanctuary for all who “are weary and burdened”[1] because it is the place where God dwells, among his people. It is a hiding place, a place of refuge—from the world.  The “church” is not a building; it has always been the people of God.  We have come to realize that more and more these past six months when we have been limited to virtual worship.  The church resides in the followers of Jesus Christ, and it is there—in our fellow believers– that we should find sanctuary.   Bricks, stucco, wood and other building materials don’t provide love, comfort, inspiration, and protection.  The building is not the refuge; it is the people of God who provide the sanctuary.

In her book, The Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom describes the small remodeled space in their home in Amsterdam that they created as a hiding place for Jews during World War II.  For those Jews who escaped from the Nazis through the work of the ten Booms, it was the love of that family, not the house that saved them.  The house was merely the tool that they used to express their love for those they saved.  Later, when a neighbor turned them into the Nazis, and the family was separated and shipped to various concentration camps, Corrie and her sister Betsie ended up at Ravensbruck, the infamous women’s prison.  There the sisters’ hiding place was the flea-infested women’s barracks that the guards refused to enter, permitting the women to read Corrie’s small smuggled Bible and to worship together undisturbed.  God protected them in that place, but it was the love of God that brought women from all walks of life and faiths to gather together around the sisters who read God’s Word to them. Jesus was there with him, protecting them and providing a hiding place where they could worship.

Love is a powerful force for good; it spawns healing, forgiveness, understanding, kindness, gratitude, and other benefits when it is expressed within any organization or relationship.  In his 44-page gem, The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, Tim Keller explains the meaning of loving our brothers and sisters in Christ; he addresses the problems (pride, ego, despondency, and condemnation of others and ourselves) that hinder the body of Christ from being a sanctuary–from realizing our potential as loving brothers and sisters in Christ.

Whether in the church, at home, or elsewhere, love is the best refuge.  When you are with those you love and who love you, you are sheltered from the world.  A place where love surrounds you is a comfort zone–a safe zone.  Paul explains how important it is to love each other: “Let no debt remain outstanding except the continuing debt to love one another, or whoever loves others has fulfilled the law . . . Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.[2] (Romans 13: 8, 10).

Is God’s love evident in the place where your church meets virtually or in person?  Does the church leadership provide a clear vision for the expression of love to those within the church and to those in the community?  Or is it a place where business is the primary focus?  Is your church a place where people flee to find sanctuary—rest, peace, inspiration, protection, and comfort from the slings and arrows of the world?  Or is it a place that people flee from to escape the slings and arrows within?  It is the most important question that church leaders can ask themselves. The expression of love within a congregation is the primary issue for its leadership because Jesus made it so: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13).  Love is the fruit of the Spirit upon which everything else is based.  A church is nothing without love.

How well we express our love for each other determines whether a church succeeds as a sanctuary.  Robert Chapman, a 19th century English lawyer-turned-preacher led his congregation by example for 70 years.  His small country church grew over the years, but it was beset by many problems.  Chapman shepherded his flock lovingly through all of those challenges.  Charles Spurgeon called him “the saintliest man I ever knew.”  The 80-page summary of his loving leadership style is outlined in Agape Leadership.  We can all learn from Robert Chapman.

The family of God consists of daughters and sons of our heavenly Father. While no family members agree on everything, there should be unity with respect to Jesus’ command to love each other, as he loves us. The church, consisting of the people of God, needs to be a place where believers are surrounded by brothers and sisters who love, shelter, protect, encourage, inspire, and comfort each other.  It must be a place to flee to, not to flee from.

The church should be a safe haven for all who come to worship God.  Jesus promised to be there: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them” (Matthew 18:20). Whether we gather together virtually now, or later in person for worship, coffee, Bible study, meetings or fellowship, we must ensure that love is the moving force behind each interaction.  We must guard against forces that seek to turn those in the church against each other. We must ensure that love remains the primary focus within the church.  Everything else pales in comparison.

God is our hiding place.  As his people, we can implement his plans by creating loving sanctuaries.  When the people in a church express their love to each other and to outsiders on an everyday basis, they become a sanctuary for the broken-hearted; such a church will be filled to overflowing.  It isn’t the programs that attract people to visit a church or to stay in a church—it is whether or not the people in the church are loving and welcoming as Jesus was.  David wrote: “You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance.”  Psalm 32: 7.  Jesus was welcoming to his disciples and to outsiders on an everyday basis.

When you make a commitment to join the family of God—when you say yes to God–the Holy Spirit comes into your life.  He inhabits your being.  I heard Dallas Willard, one of the leading Christian thinkers and authors of our day, speak at a Saturday retreat about 15 years ago.  He counseled that in times of great difficulty and stress, we can find relief in that quiet place in our souls where the Holy Spirit resides.  Wherever you are, whether in flea-infested barracks, in a flood zone, a medical facility, in a church building, or at home, God is with you.  Meet him there.  He is truly your ever-present refuge–as you will be to others when his love shines through you to them.

Prayer:  Father, you are our refuge. We run to you when storms swirl about us and threaten to engulf us. Shelter us from the coronavirus and from the other storms that threaten our health, livelihoods, safety, and well-being.  Send your Spirit to envelope us—to protect us and to keep us safe from harm.  We flee to the refuge of your Spirit.  We find our hiding place in you. Help us to be a refuge of love to our families and friends, and to everyone that we meet, speak with, or write to.  May your light shine through us to provide a sanctuary to others—a respite from life’s challenges.  Amen

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] Matthew 11:28-30: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

[2] The Scripture texts for the Fourteenth Sunday in Pentecost are Ezekiel 33: 7-9; Psalm 32; Romans 13: 1-10; Matthew 18: 1-20.

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