This plenary message to New York Yearly Meeting, given in July of 2021, is also available for viewing on YouTube.
When I was little, I went to church with my family every Sunday, and in our church we had a room called the sanctuary. This was the place where services were held. The sanctuary had rules we had to abide by. They weren’t written down anywhere. But what we were told was that, in the sanctuary, we had to be “reverent,” and over time, we figured out what that meant.
Rule #1: No making noise, and if someone was funny, don’t laugh very hard.
Rule #2: No sitting on the floor, even though the benches were extremely uncomfortable.
Rule #3: Very little kids could play with quiet toys during worship, but as soon as you were about six years old, you were expected to “know better” and be still and listen. That meant listening to a bunch of old people—these days, I would call them “adults,” but back then they were old people—drone on and on about how we’re all supposed to behave in everyday life. Which I felt like I already knew, because the church of my childhood didn’t leave any doubts about dos and don’ts. We never heard anyone tell us anything we didn’t pretty much know before because there wasn’t any space for questioning or creativity about the rules.
Rule #4: You had to wear your nicest clothes, which for me as a child included petticoats and dresses and itchy tights. If your clothes were too stylish, they were probably inappropriate for the sanctuary.
Rule #5: Pianos and organs were allowed in the sanctuary, as were string instruments and woodwinds, with the exception of saxophones. But there were no brass instruments and no percussion because these were too loud and might encourage us to—I’m not sure exactly what. But when I was a kid, I definitely had the impression that they weren’t allowed because they might be too much fun. In the sanctuary, we weren’t allowed to have any fun.
Years later, my friend Kathleen, who grew up in the same tradition that I did, told me that when she was little, she eventually decided there were two people named God. One of them was the God her parents told her about at home, who loved her and knew her name and wanted her to be happy. The other was the God who lived at church, who wanted her to be quiet and sit still and wear stupid dresses.
I’ve been thinking a lot about sanctuary. That room of my childhood is the first place I learned the word. It didn’t seem to have much to do with God. And then, later, I learned about sanctuary in another sense, and while I don’t remember my first exposure to it, I remember pretty vividly the scene in The Hunchback of Notre Dame—the Disney cartoon version—where Quasimodo carries Esmerelda up the bell tower and holds her in the air shouting, “Sanctuary! Sanctuary! Sanctuary!”
This idea really intrigued me, the idea that there could be places on earth—churches, specifically—where all you had to do was get inside and call out “Sanctuary!” and suddenly the police couldn’t arrest you. It was like the adults of the world had somehow agreed on a universal olly-olly-oxen-free.
But of course, it’s more complicated than that. Not every government respects sanctuary, and places that do have sanctuary don’t all do it the same way. Sometimes there are restrictions on how long a person can stay in sanctuary. In medieval England, sanctuary only lasted forty days, but while you were in sanctuary, you could negotiate with the English legal system and ask to be sent into exile rather than imprisoned or executed. Medieval Catholics eventually restricted sanctuary to only people accused of certain kinds of crimes. In many places, sanctuary has come with rules about what the person entering was allowed to bring with them—for example, again in Europe, no bow and arrow. And in the Netherlands, where sanctuary still operates today, it only applies while a religious ceremony is actively being conducted, which is why a Dutch church in 2018 drew on the help of every clergy person in the area to keep a worship service going continuously for ninety-six days in order to protect a family seeking asylum.
Generally speaking, the concept is that the law of the land stops at the doors of the church, because inside the church—inside the sanctuary—the law of God prevails. Isn’t that a funny thought? That the law of God only triumphs in particular geographic areas? Or in the Netherlands, only at certain times or under certain conditions? Also, sanctuary sometimes works—not always—in places where nothing about it is codified into law. There have been innumerable examples of times, throughout history, when a person has claimed sanctuary in a church without any legal right to do so, but this sanctuary has been respected anyway. Whether that’s a matter of custom, concern for public perception, or moral conscience on the part of individuals working in the legal system, in that way, sanctuary does function a little bit like olly-olly-oxen-free.
Christians were not the first to come up with the idea of sanctuary. In the Torah, we read about sanctuary cities, specific places where a person could flee if they had accidentally killed another person. As long as the person stayed in the sanctuary city, no one could harm them, which was significant because at the time, it was considered just for the victim’s family members to take the life of the killer in exchange for the life of their loved one. Temples built for Greek and Roman gods also provided sanctuary for people being pursued, and anthropologists have found evidence of sanctuaries, either buildings or particular locations, in the Bedouin tradition and in the traditions of many indigenous peoples in the Americas. The idea of providing a place of refuge for the threatened seems to be deeply and universally embedded in human consciousness. We have this idea that a person, any living being, that is running and scared should have a guaranteed safe place to go. No matter who they are. No matter what they’ve done.
This idea that the law of the land stops at the door of the church, because inside the sanctuary, the law of God prevails. I’m not so sure about that one. One thing I found in my reading was that Christian churches didn’t start providing sanctuary until they realized that Greek and Roman temples were doing so, and they started providing their own sanctuary more or less as a form of competition. “You don’t want to take sanctuary with Zeus or Athena. Come over here! Take sanctuary with Jesus!” What is that about? If sanctuary is just about saving a life, then why is the early Christian church concerned about where a person takes sanctuary? Why exactly have so many pursuits stopped at the doorway of a church? Is it because God is inside the church? Isn’t God also outside the church?
I think what’s really happening is a different thing. I think inside a physical sanctuary, we haven’t moved from earthly law to divine law. I think we’ve moved to a different earthly law. In the case of medieval Christian sanctuaries, the law of the land stopped at the door of the church because, inside, the law of the church prevailed. This was a power struggle between secular and religious authorities, not a refuge where the law of God reigned supreme. And the law of the church said things like “limited to forty days” or “only for certain kinds of crimes” or “no bringing in your bow and arrow.” The law of the church, when I was little, said “no noise, no sitting on the floor, no toys, no jeans, no drums, no fun.” This is what my friend Kathleen was identifying: one God who loved her and wanted her to be happy, and another God—the church law God—who wanted her to be quiet and still.
And here’s the other thing about a sanctuary: once you go inside, you’re trapped. It might be a safe place, relatively speaking, but the minute you place a toe outside, the promise of safety goes away. You are trapped by the physical boundaries of the sanctuary. You have given up the freedom to explore. Choosing sanctuary in this sense might be the best choice available to you. A being in genuine danger of their life must be hugely relieved to enter a sanctuary. But no matter how much better it is inside than outside, a physical sanctuary to which one flees is still a form of imprisonment.
The theme of this week is becoming sanctuary.
That is a very different thing. If a physical, geographic sanctuary is a form of imprisonment, a human sanctuary, either embodied in an individual or in a community, is a moveable feast. It can be granted anywhere, anytime, to any person. It is, in a sense, invisible and intangible, but it can be gloriously available.
What does it mean—to be, become, sanctuary?
First off—it’s about embodying God’s law, not church law. Just like in physical sanctuaries, it is so incredibly easy to mix up God’s law with church law, or with other versions of human law. It is so incredibly easy to find ourselves saying, “I rejoice in you except if… I will always love you except if… We honor that of God in you but only as long as…”
Those provisos, those except ifs and only as long as-es, are the places where we start creeping into some kind of modified human law rather than resting in the overwhelming presence of God. To do this is profoundly human, so we naturally find ourselves doing this sometimes. But we can be something else. We can reach for real, divine sanctuary.
Grace. When Kelly Kellum became general secretary of Friends United Meeting, he brought into the FUM offices the phrase, “We all live by grace.” When somebody on the team screws up—misses a deadline, forgets to do something, knocks over a glass of iced tea on the stack of agendas, Kelly says, “We all live by grace.” I’ve seen this in action. It often draws laughter, but it also diffuses the situation. Everybody in the room has heard the phrase applied to their own mistakes: “We all live by grace.” Everybody in the room is reminded that we all make mistakes, that we all rely on the forgiveness of God and our fellow human beings, and there’s this moment in which everybody relaxes, and while there might still be a problem, something that actually needs to be solved, the feelings of guilt and recrimination aren’t there. “We all live by grace.” This is embodying sanctuary.
Mercy. There’s a Quaker boarding school in Britain with a small percentage of students from other countries, some of whom are still learning English. Their reading ability often lags several grade levels below their peers’. So the school librarian keeps two special shelves of books, carefully chosen, that are interesting to teenagers but written at a level accessible to struggling readers. These shelves are completely unmarked and unobtrusive. When she encounters a student who might benefit, the librarian says, “Let me show you a place where I keep some of my favorite books. I think you might like them.” And so they have books they can read. They can go to the library like any other student and find a book to read for pleasure—and their peers don’t know, so there’s no risk of embarrassment. This is embodying sanctuary.
There’s a Friend in Kenya who I won’t name in this story, and you’ll see why in a minute. She told me once about being awakened in the middle of the night by a call to her cell phone. At the other end was a voice that said, “We are Ugandans. We are fleeing our country. If you do not help us, we may be killed by morning.” She did not know these men. She did not know how they had obtained her phone number. But she did know that Ugandans accused of homosexuality were subject to death. She made arrangements to meet them and hide them and found a safe place for them to go next, and she did this at risk to herself, knowing that if she were discovered, she would at least experience severe social consequences in her own community. This is embodying sanctuary.
There’s a rural meeting outside Belfast that had the same caretaker for sixty years. She lived on the meetinghouse grounds and cared for the buildings and property from 1955 until 2015. When she finally, in her eighties, could not physically do the work anymore, she moved a half-hour’s drive away to a home for the aging. The meeting hired a new caretaker but added into its weekly division of tasks, every week without exception, someone to fetch Susan and bring her to meeting and someone else to give her lunch and then drive her back. It is not a large meeting. This is done without fuss. Of course they will care for Susan. This is embodying sanctuary.
Ever since I first read the theme of our summer sessions, there’s been something that’s been bothering me, which is the phrase “where Spirit can dwell.” Becoming a sanctuary where Spirit can dwell. My experience tells me that Spirit can dwell wherever Spirit pleases. There is nothing you or I must do to make it possible for God to come among us. God comes where God comes. Still, there are times when God will wait patiently and allow us the choice: do we choose to invite God into our presence? Do we choose to prepare ourselves in such a way that we are ready and obviously willing to listen? This is central to our ability to extend divine sanctuary.
We prepare ourselves in many ways. Some of us read Scripture. Some sing. Some walk. Some go out into nature and commune with birds and trees. Some align our bodies with the flow of energy. I remember, as a person with a preference for rational things, the first time someone told me to open the crown of my head, feel Spirit flowing through, down my spine, out my palms, and through the soles of my feet. But I tried it. My elders told me to. And over time, with practice, I discovered I could connect with God in this way and that I could extend that presence and energy beyond myself to those around me. And they notice. A couple of weeks ago, I heard a Baptist preacher call this “angel energy.” Whatever we need to do to prepare ourselves to receive God and then extend God’s presence to those around us—this is embodying sanctuary.
We can do that—embody sanctuary—in difficult times and in difficult conversations. Dr. Amanda Kemp, who is a Friend of color from New England, talks about being present with, and trading perspectives with, people who are actively expressing racist ideas. She says you need to check in with yourself first, make sure it’s the right time and you’re ready, make sure you’re grounded and strong, and then you can listen—really listen—to the person standing across from you, you can be that presence for them, and then ask, when they’re through, “Are you interested in hearing what my experience is like?” This is embodying sanctuary.
We also become sanctuary in meetings for worship. This is the point: collective alignment to the divine will of God. Early Friends said that in meetings for worship we could experience communion, that we didn’t need the physical sacrament of consuming the bread and wine—Christ’s body and blood—because worship was, in itself, sacramental. We know the experience of a gathered meeting. We feel it. We feel the thrumming presence of God and the communal heartbeat of a people aligned with Spirit.
True sanctuary is always divine. It is not always calm, and it certainly isn’t always pleasant. I can never think of sanctuary without the story of Jesus in the temple. “Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those selling doves. And He declared to them, ‘It is written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer.’ But you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’’”
Or the day Margaret Fell became convinced, as she listened to Fox’s ministry. “I stood up in my pew, and wondered at his doctrine, for I had never heard such before. And then he went on, and opened the scriptures, and said, ‘The scriptures were the prophets’ words, and Christ’s and the apostles’ words, and what, as they spoke, they enjoyed and possessed, and had it from the Lord,’ and said, ‘Then what had any to do with the scriptures, but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth? You will say, ‘Christ saith this, and the apostles say this’ but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?’ This opened me so, that it cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly we were all wrong. So I sat down in my pew again, and cried bitterly: and I cried in my spirit to the Lord, ‘We are all thieves; we are all thieves; we have taken the scriptures in words, and know nothing of them in ourselves.’”
Or Samuel Bownas, who tells this story: “On first days I frequented meetings, and the greater part of my time I slept, but took no account of teaching, nor received any other benefit . . . thus I went on for near three years; but one first day, being at meeting, a young woman, named Anne Wilson, was there and preached; she was very zealous, and fixing my eye upon her, she with a great zeal pointed her finger at me, uttering these words with much power: ‘A traditional Quaker, thou comest to meeting as thou went from it (the last time) and goest from it as thou came to it, but art no better for thy coming. What wilt thou do in the end?” This was so pat to my then condition, that, like Saul, I was smitten to the ground, as it might be said, but turning my thoughts inward, in secret I cried, Lord, what shall I do to help it? And a voice as it were spoke in my heart saying, Look unto me and I will help thee! and I found much comfort, that made me shed abundance of tears.”
Have you been searched by the Light?
Spirit, God, does comfort sometimes. But Spirit also searches us. The experience of being searched by the Light is often not a pleasant one. If we align, individually or communally, to the Light, we find our faults illuminated. We are called to repentance. Our hearts are broken because they must be broken open. When we truly embody sanctuary, we transform. We grow. We can do nothing less in the power of God. To suggest that becoming sanctuary is always comforting, always safe, to suggest that being aligned with the purpose of God causes us to be well-behaved in society, is to—as Jeremiah said—say “peace, peace, when there is no peace.” Church law may tell us to be quiet, to be orderly, not to bother anybody, but God’s law does not. If we embody true divine sanctuary, we may be called upon to stand up and shout and throw the money changers out of the temples.
But not before we repent.
We don’t talk about repentance much. I really don’t know why, but maybe it’s because it has fallen out of fashion to talk about sin. All the word “sin” really means, by the way, is being out of alignment with the divine will. It means we’ve fallen short, which we do. To recognize that we have sinned is what happens when we are searched and convicted by the Light, as Samuel Bownas was and as Margaret Fell was. It’s the moment when we recognize that there are some serious moneychangers inside our own personal sanctuary.
I’m not super clear on whether God requires repentance, but experience tells me that humans need it. We need a simple, clear process by which we recognize our mistakes, apologize sincerely, and resolve not to repeat what we’ve done. Repentance is more or less the same process we go through when we need to repair a relationship with another human being, but this is about realigning ourselves in right relationship with God. Again, it’s not because God needs the process of repentance in order to love and forgive us. God does not. It’s because there’s something deeply necessary for us, in that moment when our heart breaks open, when we see where we have sinned. We have not been in alignment with God’s will. We humans need something we can do to help us get through that. Repentance heals the way we relate with God and also the broken heartedness we have experienced. It brings us a little closer to embodying divine sanctuary.
Grace. Mercy. Unconditional love. And yes—prophetic speaking of truth. All of those fall under the umbrella of embodying genuine divine sanctuary. If we are nothing but gentle all the time, if we are silent and well-behaved in the face of extraordinary and harmful injustice, then we are embodying some set of human rules, not divine law—again, Jeremiah’s “peace, peace, where there is no peace.”
To embody divine law for one another, to be sanctuary, will often mean we must speak out. Like Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers, we will be compelled to speak on behalf of the humanity of all people and the holiness of every living thing. We will speak prophetically about racism, economic injustice, climate justice. We will say no to behaviors that harm. We will speak and act, possibly with tremendous passion, on matters interpersonal, local, national, and global. Divine sanctuary is not about “peace, peace, when there is no peace.” Divine sanctuary brings divine justice. If we embody divine sanctuary, we can settle for nothing less.
But divine justice includes mercy and unconditional love and grace.
When we speak up for divine justice, when we act prophetically, it is never without remembering that the person doing wrong—no matter who they are—no matter who they are—is a child of God deserving of mercy and unconditional love and grace. I may stand in front of you, toe to toe, and denounce your behavior and insist that you change, but if I truly embody divine sanctuary, I will never cease in all of that expecting to see the spark of God inside you. I will never forget that you are my sibling, no matter who you are.
When we show love to those we know to be desperately wrong, that’s not just about demonstrating our virtue. It’s not the sort of thing you do only because it’s something you’re supposed to do. Loving your enemy also works. I say this as a person who’s changed a lot over time, who grew up in a part of the country where I learned that certain groups of people were just plain bad people, that they were my enemies, people to fear. I didn’t grow past that because of a logical argument, and I didn’t grow past that because somebody shouted at me or scolded me or demanded I change. I grew because of an accumulation of many surprising acts of love: the gift of a sandwich, a word of kindness, a time when someone could have judged me harshly and didn’t. One such act has never been enough, for me, to overcome a lifetime of conditioning, of being taught, “That person is someone to fear.” But little acts of love, over time, have helped me grow and learn quite a lot. What changed mewas all the times when someone I feared embodied divine sanctuary.
I want to read a story from the book of Judges.
Jephthah then gathered all the men of Gilead and fought against Ephraim. And the men of Gilead struck them down because the Ephraimites had said, “You Gileadites are fugitives in Ephraim, living in the territories of Ephraim and Manasseh.”
(In other words: the Gileadites were living on land that the Ephraimites had claimed. The Ephraimites were persecuting them for it, and now the Gileadites were fighting back.)
The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a fugitive from Ephraim would say, “Let me cross over,” the Gileadites would ask him, “Are you an Ephraimite?”
(In other words, the Gileadites had decided not to allow the Ephraimites to cross the Jordan River. But they couldn’t recognize the Ephraimites on sight, so they had to check the identity of each person trying come through.)
If he answered “No,” they told him, “Please say Shibboleth.”
If he said, “Sibboleth,” because he could not pronounce it correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. So at that time 42,000 Ephraimites were killed.
The Gileadites were checking for an accent. If you could say “shibboleth” the way the Gileadites did, then you were safe. Sanctuary. But if you couldn’t, if you pronounced it “sibboleth,” like an Ephraimite, you were murdered immediately.
Because of this story, the word “shibboleth” actually entered English vocabulary. A shibboleth is a signifier. It’s a way that we figure out very quickly who we believe somebody to be: are you a welcome Gileadite, or are you a dangerous Ephraimite? When we engage with someone, we often listen for shibboleths. Do they use the right phrases? Display the right memes or bumper stickers? Drive the right cars? Wear the right shoes? Do they bring the right food to the potluck?
We do this. This community, New York Yearly Meeting. We do this. We do this to each other.
It’s one thing to expect one another to change, to have those moments of broken heartedness, to be present for one another in the moments when the Spirit of God is throwing the moneychangers out of our sanctuaries. To know that we all need repentance. To hold hands through that. Sometimes to speak prophetic truth to one another. To know that we have been exclusive. Racist. Homophobic. Chauvinist. Ablest. Destructive. We have fallen short, individually and collectively. We have sinned. I am so grateful that we know this and are working toward being better.
But it’s another thing when we allow the process of being searched by the Light, of broken heartedness, of repentance, and of genuine change of heart to be replaced by a set of shibboleths: right words, right clothes, right cars, right foods. None of those outward signifiers is bad, but as Margaret Fell would say, if we require them of one another and of those entering our communities—if it becomes about the shibboleth and not about the change of heart—then that is a silly, poor gospel.
Sometimes, we withhold sanctuary based on someone’s failure to say shibboleth. I see Friends in New York Yearly Meeting do this with Quaker jargon. I see us do it with political and sociological language connected to liberalism. I see us do it with whether people own either a hybrid or an electric car. I see us do it with whether people eat vegan and unprocessed foods. I see us do it with the strategies that people use to raise their children. I see us do it with what someone shares on Facebook. We look for shibboleths, and either explicitly or implicitly, we make clear that those who don’t say shibboleth will not receive our love, our mercy, our grace.
Just to be really clear here: when we have taken the time to know someone well, when we have worshipped with them, listened to them, learned what’s in their heart, and when we have a divine leading to engage with them, we might say—as John Woolman did when sitting with enslavers—“Friend, I am concerned for thee.” We speak the truth within divine sanctuary. We don’t subscribe to “peace, peace, when there is no peace.” Truth telling, coming from a place of love and relationship, is a part of divine sanctuary.
In contrast, to shibboleth is to make a judgment about someone based solely on outward signifiers and then to refuse to extend divine sanctuary to that person. If you do not say shibboleth, I do not extend to you mercy and grace.
That’s not sanctuary. A sanctuary welcomes in everyone, including—perhaps especially—those who’ve done wrong. That’s the entire point.
If I place any conditions around my willingness to embody sanctuary for you—when I require that you behave or speak in some specific way, or else I will not grant you mercy and grace—then I am building a barrier around the sanctuary I have tried to embody. Suddenly, just as there is in a physical sanctuary, there is an inside and an outside. And this is a real problem, because as long as sanctuary is conditional, those who want to stay in are imprisoned. Suddenly, there are boundaries on what you can do or say, and if you make a mistake, you find yourself on the outside.
Not on the outside of God’s love. That’s not possible. But on the outside of what someone is calling a sanctuary.
If the sanctuary we embody is really divine sanctuary, nobody can ever be kicked out. This is both glorious and terrible news. I can never refuse you mercy and grace. No matter what you’ve done, I hold open for you the possibility of repentance. Remember, that is different from saying I have to accept everything you do. This does not mean that I can’t say “no” or “stop.” Prophetic truth-telling and protection of the vulnerable will sometimes require that I say “no” or “stop.” But I do it knowing you are still a child of God fully worthy of unconditional love. I do it in the context of relationship. I do it because I love you, not because I want to condemn you. I do it in the hope that you may be searched by divine Light, which will break your heart open and change you. And I don’t do it because you didn’t say shibboleth.
Let’s remember, too, that we are inside our own sanctuaries. If we start dividing the world into those worthy of sanctuary and those unworthy, we are ourselves in danger of becoming unworthy. We might violate our community’s shibboleths and find ourselves outside the sanctuary. Maybe you’re even afraid that you might place yourselfoutside the sanctuary, that there are certain things you could say or do or think or feel that would cause you to believe you are unworthy of love and mercy and grace.
You are worthy of love and mercy and grace. You cannot earn it, and you cannot un-earn it. We are all worthy of divine sanctuary. Not “peace, peace, when there is no peace,” but a sanctuary without walls where truth comes with love and no sin is without the accompanying promise of the availability of repentance.
There is nothing anyone can do that makes them unworthy of divine sanctuary.
There is nothing our enemies can do that makes them unworthy of divine sanctuary.
There is nothing our friends can do that makes them unworthy of divine sanctuary.
There is nothing you can do that makes you unworthy of divine sanctuary.
It is so tempting to look at this world and think that the pathway to the Kingdom of God on Earth is to win. It is so tempting to identify sides, those who are with us and those who are against us, to believe that we can rearrange the power dynamics so that the “good” side, the “right” side, has the power, and then everything will be all right. Not that we think that’s going to be easy. But it’s tempting to believe that this is the right strategy. We will just overpower the wrong, at the ballot box, by protesting, with emails to our representatives. There’s nothing wrong with using any of those pathways, especially to speak prophetic truth, but these techniques will never get us all the way to the Kingdom of God on Earth.
Friends’ experience tells us that the divine Light changes hearts. We are searched by it; we are convicted by it; we are brought to repentance by it. It is not our job to overpower our enemies, to win so that we can establish a different system of human laws. It’s our job to love our enemies, to extend divine sanctuary to them, and to our neighbors, too. In the end, it is Spirit that makes the change, and what we can do is hold open that possibility for everyone by modeling mercy, grace, and prophetic truth accompanied by unconditional love. We can invite the world to transformational repentance, one person at a time, by extending to everyone divine sanctuary, where Spirit dwells.