SANCTUARY. “A safe place. A shrine. A setting for worship.” To a refugee or a person fleeing violence or oppression, the word “sanctuary” captures a sense of hoped-for safety and provision. To a birder, it’s a specially set-aside area on which a long-sought-after species just might be seen, even if at a distance. To a person in a religious community, the word conjures up images of stained glass, icons, men and women in robes and vestments, sacred texts and hymn books in the backs of uncomfortable wooden seats. But the seat of a John Deere lawn tractor? Can that be a sanctuary?
My Midlife Sanctuary
The whitewashed, nondescript, one-car garage sits off to the side of the property whose sign welcomes people to Faith Lutheran Church. The garage is some 300 yards from the gathering place called “sanctuary,” with its stained glass on three sides and adornments draped over eucharistic table and lectern and baptismal fount from which the Word and the two recognized sacraments are practiced weekly. The garage houses no car and has no adornments. Very few people ever visit it. But it holds the keys to my midlife sanctuary. Inside, a John Deere riding lawn mower with its trademark yellow and green color scheme sits waiting for a small group of volunteers to arrive—one per week— and tackle the mowing that, from April to October, keeps the church’s expansive grounds neat, tidy, orderly, and well presented—a portrait, one could argue, of Lutheran theology itself.
In January after a season of fallow engagement with a church that we had long called home, Cindy asked one Sunday, “What about visiting Faith Lutheran?” I’d never considered attending a Lutheran church. They were the people Garrison Keillor told funny stories about on Prairie Home Companion—“heavy-set gents in Hush Puppies with brown sport coats and patches on the elbows.” But I was a bit desperate for community, for a place to call home. “Sure. Why not? I’ll go check the service times.” Less than an hour later, we arrived in the sanctuary and attended our first of what has now become nearly a year of Sundays: Christmastide, Epiphany, Lent, Eastertide, Pentecost. Advent is on the horizon, with expectation.
As the “polar vortex” of that winter began to give way to spring and the church calendar moved from Epiphany to Lent, the church’s weekly service bulletin included a two-sentence call for volunteers to help with the season’s mowing, and my eyes brightened. I immediately sent a message to Gregg, the coordinator, and said, “I’m in!”
In more than thirty years of attending churches in Indiana, Tennessee, and Illinois, I have been quick to offer to teach or respond to calls to leadership—visible roles that are often given places of honor and respect; roles that are attached, rightly or not, to a sense of importance, power, prestige. But mowing a church’s property? I’d never been asked, never offered, never done it. Oh, what I’d missed. With eight or nine people on the mowing crew, each of us had but a few weeks for which we were responsible, and each of the weeks on my calendar were marked in brightly colored “MOWING WEEK. FAITH CHURCH.” I looked forward to each week with expectation, knowing what those three hours would bring.
Finding A Voice Speaking in Whispers
In his book Walking the Labyrinth, Travis Scholl says, “On the surface of it, [a labyrinth] is a place for silence and for speaking into silence, for speaking to One unseen. But beneath the surface, walking the labyrinth is a profound discipline in listening, in active silence, in finding movement and rhythm in the stillnesses underneath and in between every day’s noise. Walking the labyrinth is an exercise in finding the voice speaking in whispers underneath the whirlwind of sound.”1 The “spiritual discipline” of mowing the Faith Lutheran Church grass became for me a type of labyrinth. Each of those weeks marked in bright colors and ALL CAPS on my calendar brought three hours of sanctuary. They became a time and a place of peace, provision, discovery. A paradoxical place of solitude and silence, amid the hum of a 22-horsepower engine.
In the spring, summer, and fall of my first year of “life among the Lutherans,” to quote one of Keillor’s books, I found a place of solace, prayer, mindfulness, appropriate anonymity, and service that brought life and rekindled a sense of joy and hopefulness that had largely been missing from my experiences associated with church over the past decade. It became a sanctuary. Thanks be to God.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jeff Crosby is serves in management at InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, and lives in the western suburbs of Chicago with his author/editor wife, Cindy. He is the editor and compiler of Days of Grace Through the Year, a collection of meditations drawn from the writings of Lewis B. Smedes.
1Travis Scholl, Walking the Labyrinth (Downers Grove. IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014)
This Article Originally Appeared In:
Conversations Journal: A Forum for Authentic Transformation; Spring/Summer 2015, Issue 13.1 Community. Additional articles, back issues, and subscriptions are available on their website at www.conversationsjournal.com.