Sanctuary, Justice and the Practice of Sabbath

On Friday I was at the ‘God in the Concrete’ gathering of Think Tanks, this was a gathering of many people who are passionate about changing the world, “with coffee and cake” as one of the presentations put it, for our young people. We were challenged to recognise our power and privilege as mainly white middle class youth workers, not to stop reaching out and fighting injustice but also not to be blind to our own circumstances. We were encouraged to see ourselves as on-the-road theologians: those living, breathing, walking and talking theology right at the coal-face of all the church does and is doing, to fight injustice by loving our young people and really listening to them before being prepared to act with them. We were all stunned to hear theologian Sam Wells articulate so clearly and plainly something many of us have known without giving full credence to ourselves: ‘Being with’ is an important way of working that is gospel orientated. Or in other words, hanging out is modelling salvation. When Christians who work with young people do so by investing time and themselves, that’s where the gold is, that’s where we see lasting fruit, lasting relationships, lasting faith.

Another big encouragement for me was the way that the theme of Sanctuary was embraced and responded to so readily by many of those at the event.

This is the text I read out in our Young People and Mental Health Think Tank presentation:

Historically, places of sanctuary were those where a person could find refuge, acceptance and care for any number of different reasons. They were cities of refuge, and then later, often Monasteries. Still today you can turn up a monastery (there were more of them then than now) and ask for shelter & sanctuary and they will give you what you need. They were used by those in trouble, those with difficult decisions to make, those for whom decisions were being taken that they didn’t want to be a part of. They were places of community, protection and wisdom. Once you had entered the church/monastery building, you were under God’s protection and no one could drag you out until the matter was settled.

In today’s context we want to see the concept of sanctuary being brought back where it has been lost; sanctuary as a temporary place/time where a person takes time out, seeking the wisdom and protection of others, in order to find a solution or way forward from their present position. Young people need the church to be these places and times or even people. Young people who are struggling to find where they fit, to make decisions about their future, to get space to think about the multiple problems they are carrying, to find love and care for them in their anxiety or depression, need rest, refreshing, care, wisdom and protection; they need sanctuary.

Let’s end the loneliness epidemic that is rife amongst many people in our communities both young and old, let’s be active in drawing people in who need sanctuary.

Sanctuary means: A temporary refuge; someone who will speak on your behalf; a physical space or person; to be encircled or cocooned; a place of safety; somewhere calm and peaceful; a shelter from the storm.

It is time to bring the concept of Sanctuary back into our communities, our churches, to our work with young people. In creating Sanctuary space, either in our buildings or in our daily/weekly routines we create time to listen, time to love and support young people. We will discover injustices, we will hear about both low level struggles with mental health issues like loneliness, sadness, anger, or fluctuating self-worth as well as more complex mental health illnesses that are often triggered by trauma or neglect, the latter of which need more than most of us are qualified to deal with. This doesn’t mean we turn these people away, nor do we ask them to leave because they’ve caused too much disruption. Sanctuary, for all its connotations of calm, peace, holiness and solitude, is going to be messy, shouty, sweary and probably very painful but, Jesus was not above washing the dirtiest, messiest of disciples’ feet, why should we expect anything different?

In all this I am not advocating ‘burning out for Jesus’. One delegate at the event brought up the practice of Sabbath and it was as if he was talking directly to me! We cannot operate well, cannot offer true sanctuary without rest, without professional and personal boundaries, without our own sanctuary and Sabbath practices. Operating from a place of rest is something I’m still very much learning how to do, but it is vital to our mental/emotional/spiritual health and well-being.

We need to re-learn how to offer sanctuary, re-embrace the practice of Sabbath and discover how to fight injustice by loving and listening to our young people.

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