Last week I was in New York City. It’s pretty much an annual trip in early December for Anne and me. Since two of our three adult kids reside there, it gives us a great excuse to go. We get to see the kids, run a race in Central Park together, soak in a little Christmas in the city, feel the winter weather, eat good food, go to museums and do some shopping. We love New York. And after cancelling our trip in 2020 thanks to Covid, last week seemed especially fun.
One afternoon we were running an errand near the Rockefeller Center, and found ourselves on 5th Avenue, staring across at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. That’s the stunning piece of Gothic architecture from the 1800’s, resolutely planted in the midst of modern steel and glass buildings. Since we were nearby, I jogged over and stuck my head in the door for a couple minutes. I’ve been inside St. Patrick’s many times, so I wasn’t surprised by what I found there. The entire back of the huge space was jammed with tourists, a constant stream of humanity going in and out of the five gigantic doors. The area was a beehive of security guards, photos being snapped and the din of 20 different languages. At the same time, way up at the front of the church, a worship service was in process. A smattering of people attending a mid-day mass were trying to ignore the cacophony from the rear.
I felt the same internal struggle, the same uncertainty I have many times. Why do they do this? Is this gorgeous edifice simply another church that has gone the way of the culture, and become little more than an institution or a box to check on a tourism bucket list? Or…is it holy ground, a sanctuary of God planted squarely in the midst of a remarkably secular city? Is it about the noisy visitors at the back who take a quick look and then move on to the high-end jewelry and clothing stores of 5th Avenue, or is it about the worship going on at the front of the sanctuary?
Probably the truth lies somewhere in the messy middle, where we human beings seem to constantly find ourselves. St. Patrick’s is, simultaneously, an ode to cultural institutionalism and a place to take off one’s sandals. I thought about this paradox more on the plane returning home. I’m currently pastoring a small church in Santa Rosa, CA. Who are we, in the midst of this particular city? A group of nice people doing church as it has always been done, viewed as either a relic or a mostly irrelevant institution in the eyes of our larger community? Or something very different, a plot of sacred ground, a vestige of holiness in an unmoored, secular town? Or some of both? I was rather impressed with my musing–these are things a pastor should be thinking about, right? And that’s when it changed for me.
I think I’m bold enough to say God spoke. Or rather, asked me a question: What about you personally, Dan? It’s great to think about St. Patrick’s or your church…but what about your life? Quietly living out a boundaried life in your neighborhood or with people you meet, mostly indistinguishable from what everyone around you is doing? Or are you holy ground, an inviting spiritual refuge for others in the midst of a secular culture? Is your life more a musty reminder of the past, or the intriguing aroma of Christ now to others?
God always does this–asks the hardest questions, which are inevitably personal. At my most honest moments, I confess that I’m a paradox too. The New York cathedral, our faith community in Santa Rosa, my own life…are all messy mixes. To one degree or another, we somehow embrace a strange combination of cultural accommodation and radical Christ-centered transformation.
This is one of the huge challenges of the Advent / Christmas season for those leading in churches. The power of cultural influence on pace, busyness, expectations and stress is immense, and mostly without any undergirding of faith. We will feel and participate in some parts of it, consciously or not. At the same time, few situations we encounter reveal people’s longing for real meaning in life like the holidays. We have an amazing opportunity to live out something different and invite others into a holy space.
God’s question on the plane continues to stick with me. If I’m going to lead well in this time, I need to begin with my own life. My times with my closest circle– family, friends, people in my neighborhood–will they be seasoned only with holiday cheer? Or with a profound sense of the Holy? Because in the end, real leadership begins with God encountering a person. Only then does it proceed to a people. A church. A cathedral.
Peace of Christ, Dan Baumgartner
Dan Baumgartner is the senior pastor at The Cove in Santa Rosa CA and serves as a member of The Fellowship Community Board.