When Terence and I first began attending Sanctuary’s Sunday evening service we were young seminary students. In our hoodies and ripped jeans, we were mostly attracted by the relaxed atmosphere and the fact that the band had a washtub bass. At first we didn’t even stay for the sermon. Having already been to our morning churches where we were doing our field placements, we felt justified in leaving Sanctuary during the mid service coffee break that followed communion. We didn’t know what we were missing. When we finally stayed and heard Greg Paul preach, we stopped cutting out early. With his bible in one hand, facing the small horseshoe of people gathered, Greg would make us feel like we could see and feel what was described thousands of years ago and that now reflected on those tightly printed pages.
Though we were a mixed bag of demographics (it would be hard to find a more diverse church group), we felt that Greg’s words spoke to our hearts. And you could tell in the way that the congregation interacted, in how people were welcomed, that the Spirit of God was doing something special. From the band member’s mom who brought cookies, to the middle aged man who sang Barnie songs, from the street involved to the bright eyed students, from the businessman to the self-confessed addict, all had a place of belonging. Now that we live hundred of kilometres from Toronto and we can’t go to Sanctuary anymore (though we try to pop in when we are in town), we feel a sense of connection though reading Greg Paul’s books. The most recent of these (it came out February 2nd) is called “Resurrecting Religion: Finding Our Way Back to the Good News”.
In this latest book, Greg addressed the shameful things that have given religion, and especially the Christian religion, a bad name. And not all of these sins are in the past. Working through the book of James, Greg describes how if our faith is just about ourselves and our own personal relationship with God then we’re probably missing out. Our connection to God is important, vital even, but so is our response to the poor and vulnerable among us. To me, this book is much more than another exposé on how we should live. It shifts our thinking on what it really means to be religious. Through his open bible, Greg shows us how we could live out our faith and be the Church in a way that bursts out with life and freedom – in other words, in the way that Jesus always intended it to be. It may be uncomfortable at times; it may stretch us; it may even hurt but it can also give life a fullness that is hard to find anywhere else.
Sanctuary influenced us in a lot of ways. It wasn’t just the Sunday services. It was the way they do things, the ethos of the place that helped form the way that we do our ministry. Greg’s books are well worth a read because of where these words come from, how they were shaped. I started off by talking about Sanctuary because it was an important place for Terence and I, but it is also an important part of this book (and all the books Greg has written), because it is a community that lives out what it really means to be the Church and what it really means to have faith, or be religious (in the best sense of the word). It isn’t perfect, far from that, but its imperfection is in fact its appeal. There is very little pretending or posturing during a Sanctuary service, none of the shinny, smiling faces described in Greg’s book. The guy who prays about his weight problem is still praying and struggling months down the road. The addict who blesses the communion bread admits that he will probably go out and use after the service. The sighs and groans that are let out during the course of the evening service, plainly describe that all is not OK. And yet there is joy, there is dancing, there is a deep sense that Jesus has come as a light to the world and that in some amazing and gracious way, we are invited to reflect that light.
There’s a lot to absorb here, after all. Resurrecting religion is no small task. What is helpful about Greg’s book is that it is not just about doing Sunday morning differently, or the latest leadership skills pastors should adopt, or starting a new program, or learning to be more welcoming. It is about changing our hearts, so that the way we live reflects the faith we experience. It’s about separating good religion from bad religion, and recognizing that there is such a thing as ‘good’ religion.
A small group of us has gathered to read together and discuss the book. In these times we’ve been able to open up about our own struggles in the church both in the present and in the past. We’ve also had the opportunity to talk about things we don’t often discuss in church groups: the residential schools and how we respond to our checkered past; the challenges we have in trying to belong in church communities, and how we bring dignity to those who come to us for help. We’ve been encouraged to ‘be bold’, to revisit the way we do community suppers and give out groceries, and we’ve been offered a picture of how to respond to the faith we have received. That’s quite a lot for one little book, so thank you Greg and thank you Sanctuary!
By Jasmine Chandra