During a recent visit to New York City, I visited the September 11 Memorial for the first time. Like most adults, I remember exactly what I was doing and where I was when I learned of the attacks on that bright, sunny Tuesday morning in 2001. Still, the memorial, while moving and haunting, seemed surreal and distant to me. Until about a decade ago, I had visited New York City only a handful of times, so I’ve never felt a particularly strong connection.
By contrast, the bombings in London, in July 2005, felt much closer, and personal. Although I was a long way away at the time of the attack on London, my family and I had lived in London for a short time in 2004. I remember one particular afternoon, when my children and I were taking a long walk, we came across Tavistock Square (where the bus bomb was detonated) and spent some time wandering around the little park in the middle of the Square, a park dedicated to peace. There’s a statue of Mathatma Ghandi and trees planted in remembrance of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (more information here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tavistock_Square). When I heard of the London attack, and learned about where the bombs went off, I felt a deep sense of loss and outrage. Those were places I knew, where I had not only spent time, but meaningful time.
It’s not uncommon for people to develop a sense of connection to certain geographical locations. Sometimes these connections are strong ones. Places come to mean something to us—they spark strong memory or emotion, perhaps both; they evoke a sense of belonging, of kinship, of community; they offer a compelling, physical tie to something both a part of us and beyond us.
When it comes to the Christian faith, though, we are encouraged to resist that strong sense of place or connection, in terms of geography and the physical nature of human life. I’ve always found it interesting that Christ chose to show himself on that first Easter morning in small, intimate ways, rather than in the large and dramatic. There’s not much about the surroundings, except that they are outside an empty tomb. One gets the sense that it’s not so much about place, but about relationship. And, even more so when Christ warns Mary not to touch him. We are drawn in through our connection with Christ, rather than a connection to a certain physical place.
Yet, many Christians cannot help but get caught up in attaching themselves to places, especially church buildings. For quite a few of those who attend Old South, for example, the building in which we worship is a vital piece of the connection to the God we worship. When we worship in the Parish House in the winter (across the street from the church building), a couple of people stay away altogether and a few others attend only grudgingly.
The first winter that we tried worship in the Parish House (it’s an easier and cheaper building to heat, plus it’s closer to the parking area so not as challenging to get into when it’s snowy and icy), it was interesting to find that quite a few people found themselves truly drawn to the experience. Although it was at first seen as something born out of necessity, it became something meaningful and valuable. For many, the new surroundings offered a better path to better relationship. In the Parish House, people sit closer to each other. The space feels more intimate, friendlier. For some, the Parish House was more akin to “church” than the church building with its beautiful sanctuary. I felt closer to community.
Although not everyone got “on board,” it offered a glimmer of hope for the future.
Christians—whether forced to by shrinking congregations or not—must discover ways of living out the faith that are not so bound to physical locations. This is painful for many, to be sure, and an especially unwelcome dimension for those who are older and perhaps weary of change. Our Christian faith, though, speaks to us to resist attachment to physical things. Instead, we must reclaim and rekindle our connection to the One who is not contained in any earthly, physical place or location, but is found when we gather together in Christ’s name.