She called our church.
She wanted to rent our sanctuary. She was getting married.
"I go to church, and I love my church, but it doesn't feel like a church," she said. "It doesn't look like a church, it's just a space."
I knew what she wanted.
She wasn't asking for more holy space or for the space to feel more churchy. She wasn't saying her church was ugly or that it needed stained glass windows. She was asking for the sense of peace and well-being that comes from grandeur. She was asking for Zion.
The name Zion has deep roots. It's an ancient Hebrew word. It means refuge, shelter, sanctuary.
But it can also mean fortress or strong place. Zion was the name of the mountain that became the city of Jerusalem. I suppose you could say it's a nickname for the city of Jerusalem: a city that is considered sacred by three different religions.
Mt. Zion is the place where Mohammed returned from a visit to heaven, where King David built the Temple, and where Jesus was crucified and resurrected. So the name became theological shorthand; the place where we can touch and be touched by God.
Think of it as the front porch of Heaven. It's the first taste of a place where everything is good and right and safe and lovely.
When people visited Zion National Park, they had that same feeling. The cliffs of Zion National Park are spectacular. They rise 2,500 feet above the valley floor. The red and white cliffs stand as cathedral spires reaching toward heaven.
The adventuresome can hike along those cliff faces. They can walk on a narrow ledge traversing the mountain face and find hidden canyons, and waterfalls.
The less adventuresome, those willing to get waterlogged, can hike along the stream that will take you in between the cliffs where you will find rocks swirled and sculptured. Breathe deep because the next view will take your breath away.
This place is so spectacular, so wondrously grand, and so awesome that breathing itself seems a holy activity. That's what she was looking for. It's what we all look for. The place we can call Zion, a sanctuary, a refuge, safety.
But it's oh so hard to find. Life interrupts. Chaos arrives. Bad things happen.
We find ourselves in a horror not of our own making. We begin searching: changing churches, values, families, institutions, in hopes of finding Zion. But it eludes us. And, oh so easy to lose.
Our family learned this in a small way in Zion. We had gone on the river hike. Our daughter was in the stroller. Things were going well until the hike back. The cliffs of Zion are sandstone. Sandstone crumbles into sand.
And sand got into the bearings of her stroller. It died. We had no idea the stroller was not an all-terrain stroller. We were surrounded by beauty and wonder, but all we could think about was that we killed the stroller.
But if sanctuary and refuge is so easy to lose, can it really be that hard to find?
One of the common themes of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is that God cares for the world. God drops by occasionally, and even miraculously intervenes in the world. God is not content to stay cooped up in heaven. The Holy Spirit is already on the loose. Jesus does come out to play! God loves to come by for afternoon tea.
In the 17th century, Brother Lawrence discovered that his work station — the kitchen sink — could become a holy altar. The laundry room could be sacred ground.
Even the bathroom had a spiritual dimension. Can we not ask God to clean our souls as we wash our faces? He discovered the spiritual trick: any place can be Zion, if we focus on God's Presence.
Could it be that our search to find Zion is the very thing that hinders our finding it? Maybe we are too busy searching for holy places; we miss the holy in the place where we are?
What if the makeup mirror in our house was the front porch to heaven? What if the office meeting room was a sanctuary? What if the very place our lives are broken is the place of sanctuary, refuge, and safety?
I think God is just as comfortable in the parking lot as in the cathedral, in the emergency room as the national park, at the kitchen sink as the high altar. Breathe deep where you are now because the next view may take your breath away.
MARK WILEY is pastor of Mesa Verde United Methodist Church in Costa Mesa.