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A few weeks ago we worshipped in our new sanctuary for the first time. It was the culmination of a five-year journey of prayer and discernment and planning and more prayer. To mark this historic moment in the life of our congregation, we decided to begin the worship service in the former sanctuary and then process together into the new.
It was a surreal experience, standing up one last time in that tired and lovely old sanctuary—a sanctuary that has served us so well for forty-five years. A sanctuary where I first clumsily learned to lead worship and preach as a seminary intern. A sanctuary where my youngest daughter was marked by the waters of promise and where so many baptisms and professions of faith and first communions and weddings and funerals and sermons and prayers have inhabited that space.
As I was standing before the congregation, leading in a prayer of thanksgiving based on Psalm 122, it dawned on me: If the walls of this place could talk, think of all the stories they would tell.
Stories of joy and sadness, gain and loss, life and death. And yet all of these stories infused and richly textured with the grace of God. In her beautiful novel The Underneath, Kathi Appelt describes the trees as “the keepers of stories.” Old oaks and elms and tallows, with deep roots and sturdy hearts, standing tall beneath the stars, witnessing the change of seasons and the slow passage of time.
That’s what the walls of this old sanctuary had become over the years: the keeper of this congregation’s stories. The old walls proved to be a faithful holder of these stories, a sacred space where we encountered the presence of the living God and the presence of one another. A place where all of our individual stories were scooped up and gently woven into a beautiful tapestry of the larger story of God.
So as we processed out of that sanctuary one last time, led by our children dancing as we sang praises to God, my heart was carrying both joy and sadness. Did the Israelites feel this, I wonder, as they passed through the Jordan River and into the Promise Land, after all those years of making the Judean wilderness their home? Joy and sadness?
What about years later when Ezra the priest and Nehemiah the governor returned to Jerusalem after the Babylonian Exile, and led the rebuilding of the wall and the temple? Was there both joy and sadness in that too?
Ezra 3:11-13 seems to suggest so when it tells us: “And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shouts from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.”
It strikes me that this seems to describe the experience of so many of us that morning as we paraded into our new space. Weeping mingled with joy—the two indistinguishable– if not in our audible shouts and singing, at least in the deep place of our hearts.
When I stood up on the platform in the new sanctuary for the first time, it also was a surreal experience. To see the fruition of so many years of prayer, listening, discerning, working, planning, leading. And finally, it was ready. We still have plenty of bugs to work out, and it will take us all time to feel more settled in this new space, but there was a sense for me already that this feels like “home.”
But it does feel different. And that is part of the journey, part of the transition, part of leaving something behind and stepping into something new. I was processing this with my spiritual director, and I told him that while it is good to be in the new space, it also feels a little strange. Like a new suit or gown that looks like you but you’re still getting used to what it feels like to wear it. We talked about how the former sanctuary was such a loyal holder of our stories. And then my spiritual director said something that hit me as so profound:
“The walls of the new sanctuary haven’t had to hold any stories yet. That’s part of what feels so strange. You find yourself wondering, ‘Can I trust these walls to hold our stories well?’ They will. Over time, the new walls will gather up and hold the stories that are yet to unfold. But it will take time.”
I think he’s exactly right. Think of all the stories yet to come…in our lives, our children’s lives and their children’s lives. Stories yet to come of joy and sadness, gain and loss, life and death. And yet all of these stories will also be infused and richly textured with the grace of God. I am confident that in the years to come, these new walls will have stories to tell. Like the former sanctuary, this sanctuary, too, will become a trustworthy keeper of our stories, a place where all of our individual stories are scooped up and gently woven into a beautiful tapestry of the larger story of God.
Brian Keepers is the Minister of Preaching and Congregational Leadership at Fellowship Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.