Holy Space

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly sanctuary. For a tent was constructed, the first one, in which were the lampstand, the table, and the bread of the Presence; this is called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a tent called the Holy of Holies. (Hebrews 9:1-3)

For many years I have held season tickets to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. I enjoy going every few weeks to their performances, and am often purchasing tickets for additional concerts which are not in my season package. It’s always a gala affair, with the men dressed in tuxedos or dark suits and ties, the women in stunning evening dresses and high-heels, and everyone having a great time ... I know I do, each and every time I go.

One Saturday evening I was enjoying a particularly wonderful concert when my attention was drawn to a woman, seated a few rows in front of me, who was bent over in her chair. The person seated next to her was whispering into her ear, but she just shook her head and continued to lean over. About five minutes later, when the orchestra broke for the scheduled intermission and the audience got up to leave, the woman and her companion didn’t move.

I went down to see if there was anything I could do, but by the time I got there an usher had already arrived and was calling on her walkie-talkie for an Ambulance. I soon discovered that the woman was having a heart attack, and that she had been having it since the very beginning of the concert. Her face was ashen, her breathing labored, and she was doubled over in pain.

I was amazed. Rather than show disrespect for the concert hall, the music, the musicians, and her fellow patrons, this woman was willing to sit through nearly 40 minutes of music while suffering the severe chest pains of a heart attack! When I identified myself as a minister, she breathed “Thank God” and then asked me to pray with her, which I did. As I prayed, however, I couldn’t shake the thought from my mind that this woman’s respect for the concert hall and the music would put many Christians to shame.

Sadly, most of us don’t have this measure of respect for God’s House, God’s Word, God’s people, or God’s ministers. We treat the Sanctuary -- Holy Space where the Holy Word of God is preached and the New Testament’s Bread of Presence, the Sacrament of Holy Communion, is celebrated -- with a stunning lack of respect. We shout at each other, yell and run in it; we get up and cross in front of the Altar, the Pulpit, and the entire congregation, rather than going out the side doors or out the back; we set a poor example for our children and our youth by needlessly leaving worship during the midst of the message, and then fail to understand why our offspring have such an appalling lack of spiritual perception. The reason is simple, my friends: too many of us have an abysmal lack of respect for the things of God.

I do hope and pray that everyone can feel “at home” in Church, and I don’t want anybody to feel as though they can’t get up and slip out if they really need to do so. Nevertheless, in recent months I have noticed a growing disrespect for the sanctity of the worship service. Now, I’m not one to pick on people regarding how they dress -- I’m not fond of nudity, so as long as you have something on I’m happy to see you in worship! -- nor have I been quick to remark about people moving around in the worship service. Indeed, there have been times over these past two years when I should have said something, and haven’t, simply because I have long-since learned how to tune out such interruptions. A crying baby is not a disruption for me, nor do I consider the need to get up and care for one a problem; praise God we have a growing number of babies in our congregation! But an 8, an 18, or a 48 year old is another matter. With the number of times we stand for hymns and Psalms, the creed, and sung responses throughout the service -- times when people can slip out to take care of emergencies and other necessary plumbing business without disrupting others -- there is really no reason for a continual flood of folk getting up during the middle of the sermon to traipse in and out of the Sanctuary, crossing in front of the altar, the pulpit, the entire congregation, and disrupting the service.

My sisters and brothers, I’m not asking anyone to sit in pain and anguish, like that woman at the symphony. I know that emergencies occur, and that "when one’s gotta go, one’s gotta go!" However, I am asking that we all show a proper respect for God’s House, God’s Word, God’s Sacraments, God’s people, and God’s minister, and keep such motion down to what is truly necessary. The Sanctuary is a Holy Space, a place where we are reminded, again and again, of the real presence of God ... not just in worship but in every moment of our lives. Out of respect for the worship life of the Church, I ask that if you really need to slip out during the service, please do so through the rear doors or through the forward-side doors. Both of the forward-side doors work, and lead eventually to the same place, so there is really no reason for anyone ever cutting across the front of the Sanctuary while the Word is being preached or the Sacraments celebrated.

In our Holy Place, and in our Holy of Holies, God calls for our respect. We express our respect by being in worship, by participating in the means of grace, and by treating the Holy Space of our Sanctuary with proper reverence. If you haven’t attended worship in recent months, resolve to reverse your neglect and enter into God's Holy Space again.

© 2004 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

Stacks Image p13_n9
The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.