Celebrating the holidays while sheltering-at-home


Finding sacred space beyond the sanctuary

By Donna Frischknecht Jackson | Presbyterians Today

When in-person worship was not an option due to COVID-19, Anne Jennings, a member of Brevard-Davidson River Presbyterian Church in North Carolina, created a sacred space in her home. She looks forward to lighting her Advent candles here in her worship nook. Larry Jennings

Anne Jennings, dressed in a sweater and jeans, lights the candle on a table draped with a purple cloth, the liturgical color for the season of Advent. Her Bible is open, ready to read. The table has been purposely positioned in front of two large windows where the trees can be seen blowing in the wind. She quietly sits in a chair.

The South Carolina resident who calls Brevard-Davidson River Presbyterian in Brevard, North Carolina, her “local” church — just “across the Eastern Continental Divide, over a 3,500-foot mountain and in another state,” she says — is ready to nurture her soul in a sacred place she has created for herself and her husband — at home.

“When we were no longer able to be present with our local congregation to worship [due to COVID-19], a phrase started going through my head, ‘With all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious name.’ I realized then that we didn’t have to be ‘in church’ to add our voices to the praise constantly going on in the throne room of God,” said Jennings.

Connecting with God doesn’t take place only in a sanctuary on a Sunday morning. The holy can be found anywhere and anytime — even in one’s home. The important thing is for people to create a worshipful environment in order to pave the way for an experience with God. Getty Images

The questions she did have were, “How could we physically and spiritually acknowledge this and participate? How could we feel connected with God and with others?”

That’s when Jennings decided to create a space that would foster a sense of connectiveness. An upstairs nook was transformed into a new worship space, one that would reflect the seasons of the church achieved by the liturgical colors of the material Jennings draped on the table — green for Ordinary Time, purple for Advent, white for Christmas, etc. The candle on the table, she says, is to “signify that Christ is the light of the world.” On Sunday mornings, Jennings and her husband enter their sacred space listening to the King’s College Choir chanting Psalm 122 — I was glad when they said unto me: We will go into the house of the Lord.

“This connects us to our ancestors in the faith,” she said. The couple’s space, though, is not just a makeshift Sunday sanctuary for worshiping in a time of COVID-19. “We can enter this sacred space any time, and even passing by it brings to mind a sense of connection to God and the larger church,” she said.

Nurturing the soul

Carl Jung’s Tower House Retreat in the village of Bollingen on Lake Zürich Wikimedia

In 1922, Carl Jung, the noted Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, purchased lakeside property and built a stone tower for himself as a place where he could nurture his spiritual life. It was a sacred space where he retreated from the world so that he could reconnect to his dreams and hopes. Seventy years later, Thomas Moore, an American psychotherapist who was influenced by the writings of Jung, became a bestselling author with the publication of “Care for the Soul.” In the book, Moore recounts the example of Jung’s tower, underscoring the importance of creating a physical space as a “retreat for the soul.”

Moore’s Jungian views have never been so timely. An ongoing pandemic, which has disrupted everything from where we work to how we worship, is bringing to light a myriad of physical and emotional maladies. In early fall, six months into the COVID-19 crisis, social media buzzed with stories on the coronavirus’ many effects, among them the waning of creativity, chronic fatigue, and, yes, even soul exhaustion — where no amount of sleep refreshes the body and hopelessness continues to escalate.

While many people might not be in a position to build an actual stone tower to combat soul exhaustion, creating a sacred space to retreat to like the Jenningses have done has become essential, especially as church buildings — the go-to sacred place where many find comfort and joy during the holidays — have made the difficult decision to remain closed.

For those churches that are worshiping in person, the reality has hit that while the doors are opened, many congregants will still opt to remain at home rather than risk exposure to a virus that is still without a proven vaccine. The Jenningses are an example of those erring on the side of caution.

“Since all of our relatives live in different states, and since COVID cases are increasing where we are, we have gone ahead and decided to forgo family get-togethers over the holidays,” said Jennings, adding that “having our sacred space with Advent candles to light will help to connect us, but it will also be a visible sign of waiting. Perhaps this ‘holiday timeout’ will provide an opportunity.”

As summer came to an end, the Rev. Richard Hong of First Presbyterian Church of Englewood in New Jersey and his session decided not to have indoor, in-person services for the remainder of 2020. That, of course, brought up questions about what Advent and Christmas worship would look like. With those questions came opportunities.

With events like the church’s Advent week not happening in person this year, First Presbyterian will be sending a small Advent wreath to the candle-lighting families, Hong says, asking them to record themselves lighting the candle. The recording will be shared during the church’s online worship on Sunday. For Christmas Eve, the congregation will be receiving what Hong calls “watch boxes” — gift boxes with everything needed to recreate the Christmas service environment at home: candles, an ornament and an Advent devotional.

“Christmas is a season full of emotions, so our hope is to create an environment where people will feel Christmas in their hearts,” said Hong. In addition to helping his worshipers create a sense of sacredness at home with the watch boxes, First Presbyterian will also be bringing the sounds of the seasons into homes.

“Our annual candlelight carol service features 14 pieces of music, with about 14 singers and seven to eight instrumentalists; this will mean over 300 separate video recordings that have to be received and edited together,” he said, noting that the planning and preparation began in August.

Throughout the pandemic, First Presbyterian has continued to pay soloists and band members regardless of whether they were used in the online services, says Hong. For Christmas, “especially knowing that musicians have been particularly hard-hit economically,” he says, the church will be hiring its usual complement of instrumentalists (brass quartet, flute, harp, percussion).

“We will be asking them to record their parts from their homes,” said Hong. “This Christmas will certainly be different, but our goal is to make it more memorable than any other.”

You have space for the sacred

The Rev. Chris Miller of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Missouri encouraged his congregation to create sacred space in their homes, sharing how for him that space is a rocking chair on a porch. Getty Images

This holiday season will see many more people in the congregation at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Missouri, retreating to their at-home sacred spaces that their pastor, the Rev. Chris Miller, has encouraged them to create.

“Our session decided we aren’t going to be resuming our Sunday morning pre-pandemic worship. We surveyed people and, while we want to see one another, we want to wait till it is safe,” Miller said.

“Safe” for Trinity means “we are not returning until there is a reliable vaccine,” he said, adding that even then, “a chunk of folks will not come back to in-person worship right away.” For Miller, then, the challenge became not just how to do worship virtually, but how to connect his congregation to the sacredness that they might be missing by not being in a defined sacred space such as a sanctuary, especially during Advent and Christmas.

Planning for Zoom and YouTube worship aside, along with all the decisions to be made for how much content to generate on social media as well as the feasibility of coordinating a possible drive-in caroling event, Miller is encouraging his congregation to create sacred space in the home for the holidays — and even after.

“When you hear ‘sacred space,’ what do you think of? Is it a worship space with a grand choir and lots of stained glass, a small country chapel on a quiet side road, or a place that is particularly meaningful in your memory? But I wonder if folks actually thought about their home as offering sacred space,” said Miller. It is in the home that such space can be found — even amid clutter and cramped spaces, he stresses.

“I know for me it can be hard to think of my house as sacred space. I have a 4-year-old and a 1-year-old living with my wife and me in a rental house. It might not seem easy to create a space where I can find a sense of calm to reflect, especially when it is covered in toys and half-finished boxes of raisins. It is easy for me to think that I need to go somewhere else to find sacred space, but in these days of staying home more, I’ve been rethinking how I engage with sacred space,” he said, offering the simplest of ideas such as moving a chair to face a new direction. “Just changing a view, a perspective, can open one up to seeing things differently and in connecting with God.”

For Miller, the idea of introducing his congregation to the spiritual practice of creating sacred space at home came at the onset of a major church holiday — Easter. The COVID-19 sheltering-in-place restrictions had just happened and “we were all still in a kind of shock, and we were grappling with what it would mean for us not to worship in the sanctuary.”

As Holy Week began, Miller, who is a self-purported “Presbyterian nerd” who loves reading the Book of Order, especially the “Director of Worship” section where the theology of worship, not only the rubrics, are highlighted, decided to introduce his congregation to the idea of finding the holy in the ordinary — creating the sacred in spaces not usually seen as sacred.

With a video camera rolling, Miller took to the church website airwaves and shared tips with his congregation on how to create sacred space in one’s home. In addition to useful tips, he also gave people permission to experiment — basically, to go wherever the Spirit was leading, he says.

“Many people think that if you can’t create space with the right stuff, then why bother? But you don’t have to have the perfect pillow or the correct candle,” said Miller. Sacred space can be defined in many ways and will mean something different to each person.

“I would offer a simple definition: Any space that allows us to more easily connect with God is sacred space. Importantly, these spaces are created through both physical and spiritual/emotional elements. In other words, the most beautiful space in the world will not be sacred to me if my mind is distracted, and conversely, a tremendously ordinary location can be a place of deep spiritual meaning if I am in the right mindset,” he said.

Miller credits his camp experiences as a child and teen, and then later a counselor, at Heartland Presbyterian Center in Parkville, Missouri, in exposing him to the power of sacred space. “Worship at camp was not in a static indoor space. Each night you were in a different space,” he recalls. Communal worship aside, it was an experience in a horse field at the camp that helped Miller define what sacred space was to him. It was there in a field filled with horse dung that two old telephone poles made into a cross stood. “It smelled just like one would imagine a horse field smelling,” said Miller. But it was there in that space that he felt the presence of God. That’s when Miller realized that if he could have an encounter with God in a horse field, then encounters with God can happen in any space in which we make room for God. These experiences, he says, are not confined to officially designated worship spaces.

“We have a role to play in the construction of the places where we connect with God, and our openness to that connection is important,” said Miller. “It’s all about mystery. When we embrace the mystery, then it creates space in our soul. We are then opened to the holy moments. And, if God is present where we are, we don’t have to lose sleep that we are not in the sanctuary.”

Donna Frischknecht Jackson is editor of Presbyterians Today.

Tips for creating sacred space

The Rev. Chris Miller of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Missouri, offers these ideas for creating sacred space at home.

  • Try to find a place in your home where you already go to feel at peace. Think about where you go when you want to calm down or need a moment to yourself. “For me it is often the wooden rocker on my front porch,” he said.
  • For many people, a comfortable place to sit is a key element, as it allows us to relax. “My only suggestion is this not be your bed; it can become too easy for prayer time to become nap time. Not that nap time is a bad thing, it’s just different from prayer time.”
  • If there are physical distractions in the space, see if there is an easy way to move them. Even if they don’t leave the room, maybe you can rearrange the space, so they are out of your sight.
  • See if there is a way to bring meaningful or peaceful items into the space. These might be pictures of family and friends, candles, plants, chimes, etc. “For me, the wind chimes on our porch are a gentle reminder of the movement of the Spirit,” said Miller.

In addition to physical changes in the space, Miller suggests considering your spiritual/emotional state as you enter your sacred space. Here are a few thoughts:

  • When entering a time of worship or prayer, try to do so intentionally. Decide that this is a time you are going to focus on prayer, or read Scripture, or engage in extended worship. Allow yourself to set aside other concerns until your time of worship or prayer is over.
  • Mark the start and end of your time with a pattern. This might be taking a few deep breaths, lighting a candle, or reciting a prayer or verse of Scripture.
  • Try to set aside distractions that might pull you away from your sacred space. Turn your phone on silent or “do not disturb” — especially if you are using it as part of your prayer or worship time. If you aren’t planning to use your phone, you might even leave it in another room.

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