Growing up, I cannot recall experiencing genuine sanctuary on Sundays between the hours of 11 and 12. Growing up, I cannot recall many encounters with the transcendent and the immanent G-d while parked in a pew. Even communion, for me, was just a shot glass-full of grape juice and an oyster cracker. My grandmother—G-d rest her soul—once told a preacher, in the middle of a service, to “land the plane…everyone knows that nobody has been saved in a Methodist church after 12.” Salvation to a hyperactive kid isn’t found in an altar call. Salvation is what I felt as I left the sanctuary yanking off my clip on tie and unbuttoning my itchy church shirt while making a beeline for my mother’s car so we could get to grandma’s house for Sunday dinner. On the ride over to her house I shed my “Aren’t You A Handsome Young Man” dress pants leaving me in my husky boy white cotton undershirt. I’d manage to pull on a pair of well-broken-in sweatpants to avoid indecent exposure. Grandma’s house was sanctuary. Absence made the stomach growl louder and I’d been absent from her table for a week. It was over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we’d go except there was neither a river or a forest between the church and her house. All the way I say to myself, “sure is nice to be eating with grandma again.”
Show up in some sanctuaries and you might encounter a supposedly welcoming congregation who nonetheless have assigned seats. And G-d help you if you had not previously educated yourself about their seating arrangement. Grandma’s table had assigned seats, but it was a matter of utility over exclusivity. Her table was this Arthurian, faux-wood formica, round table encircled by rounded yellow chairs with faux wood armrests. The seat cushions were ketchup red pleather with black electrical tape covering any major tears. The table was way too big for the corner it occupied in her narrow kitchen/dinning room. My granddad sat an arm’s length from a toaster oven that sat table-side. We didn’t have biscuits or rolls, we had toasted white sandwich bread liberally coated with butter from a squeeze bottle. My granddad would barter with buttered bread to get my aunt to pass him the mashed potatoes from her corner of the room. These were real mashed potatoes complete with the legitimating lumps. And it would be heresy to serve such mashed potatoes without a gravy made from whatever meat my grandmother had fried up that Sunday. I sat between my aunt and mom as I usually required some post-church surveillance. My mother maintained the 38th parallel between my sister and I. I always hoped my grandma made fried chicken, which she did until my granddad became a health nut. It was fried chicken that you’d crave like a chainsmoker wants a cigarette after a transatlantic flight. There were green beans seasoned with bacon. And there was always a plate of fresh cut veggies offered up as a southern crudités. So you can understand how nice it was to eat with grandma.
Grandma’s sanctuary was not a romanticized Norman Rockwell reprint. Grandma’s was a place where I felt safe. My dad was tolerated the few times he joined us for dinner. I never missed him when he’d sleep in not bothering to darken G-d’s or Grandma’s doorstep. He couldn’t yell at me in her house. He didn’t dare raise his voice even a decibel.He couldn’t degrade me with her in the room. G-d help him if he so much as raised a hand to me. I was fearless at Grandma’s house. And I feel that my mother was strengthened in that sanctuary to the point that one day she threw him out and made our house a sanctuary. So you can see how nice it was to eat with grandma.
I grew up believing, like I imagine everyone else in my family did, that I was her favorite. As I grew up my grandma aged and in time we went out for lunch after church, but the sanctuary was always present. Present because sanctuaries are not made of bricks and mortar or of wood and nails. Sanctuaries are not made by people, sanctuaries are people. She met and approved of the woman who would become my wife. (A woman who was then and is now my sanctuary.) Grandma saw me graduate high school and leave town for college vowing to come back as little as possible. When I did come home to visit, it was to see that woman I’d some day marry. Still, I made time for my grandma. She died my second year of college and G-d help me I cried for what felt like years. I still went to visit her each time I came home. I’d share things graveside that I didn’t have the courage to share with her table-side. I’d reassure her how I wasn’t afraid anymore. I found sanctuary in that cemetery. And I’d think, “G-d it sure would be nice to eat with grandma again.”
As I look back over my life it was always the women who were my sanctuary…my mother…my wife…even my daughter. I’d go on to graduate from NCSU and later Duke Divinity. I’d go on to be ordained a minister who was charged with creating sanctuary for others. But while I was still at Duke, I forget which year I was in, I attended the midday chapel service where a fellow student presided. He shared that he grew up in an Eastern Orthodox church. His sermon was forgettable that day and remains lost to me today. But when he moved to bless the elements he shared about how some Easter Orthodox Christians believe that during communion they step out of time as we know it. They step out of time and are surrounded by that great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1). They join—they commune—with the Communion of Saints. They join those who have long since left the Church Militant to join the Church Triumphant. Later I came forward, like most who attended that service, with my hands cupped and outstretched in front of me ready to receive the bread and then partake of the cup. The bread tasted stale. The wine was too strong. Both where hard to swallow. I returned to my seat in that little sanctuary above our library with the burn of strong wine in my belly. I sat down. I bowed my head in reverence and reflection. My chair began to shake. I soon realized it was not the chair that was shaking; it was me. I’m shaking and I’m crying. The person next to me…I don’t remember who it was…put an arm around me to comfort me. The closing hymn came and went. The benediction was offered. And all the while, I sat shaking and crying fixed in my chair in that sanctuary. Someone asked me, “man, you alright?” All I could manage was, “it sure is nice to eat with grandma again.”