Twelve Hymns Project: What is this place
Text: 1 Cor 3:16
Every fall we have an Inquirers Sunday school class. It’s open to anyone, but geared for adults new to the congregation. It’s basically an overview of how Mennonites approach Christian faith, plus an introduction to how this congregation does church together.
Most years I use HWB 1, What is this place, as an opening meditation for one of the sessions. I suppose I could make these newcomers sight read it to see if they can handle the harmonies, but it’s a test I myself would fail, and is likely not a seeker friendly approach. We do hope some of these folks stick around. So we look at the words. We read them through, we talk about how they reflect our theology.
“What is this place, where we are meeting, only a house, the earth its floor, walls and a roof, sheltering people, windows for light, an open door. Yet it becomes a body that lives when we are gathered here, and know our God is near.”
The hymn poses a question that it proceeds to answer. What is this place? The response de-emphasizes the role of the building as the church. Followed by an emphasis on what makes the church what it is – people, gathered, who give their attention to the nearness of God.
When Paul wrote to the Corinthians saying “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirits dwells in you?” all of those “you’s” were plural. All of the depth of meaning packed into the temple, Paul taught, was embodied in the gathered community. The Spirit dwells in our relationships. This place is a meeting house for the church, for you plural.
We’ve been looking at the stories behind the hymns we’ve chosen as our top 12. But the story I pursued here was the story behind the placement of this hymn. Why number 1? Surely that was a strategic choice. So I emailed the Managing Editor of the committee which compiled our hymnal 25 years ago. Rebecca Slough is now the academic dean at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, AMBS, in Indiana.
She responded quickly, and here’s what she wrote:
“What is this place” became the first hymn in the book because the committee thought that the theology of the text reflected the Anabaptist/Pietist theology of the sponsoring denominations. It was a song unknown to all of the participating groups, so did not give any sense of priority or preference to one denomination over another. In that way, it was a neutral choice. The fact that it was written by a contemporary Roman Catholic and set to a Dutch hymn tune did not hurt its cause, either.
So there you have it, hymnal politics. Or, there you have the reason why What is this place is tailor made for an opening meditation of an Inquirer’s class. Our worship book leads with a hymn that summarizes key parts of our theology, with an ecumenical punchline. The song about the importance of people over building is a product of those cathedral building Roman Catholics.
One direction we could take this would be to reflect on how the church, at its best, has never been about the building. We could note that for the first 200 years of its existence, the church built no structures dedicated solely to worship. Instead, they met in homes of wealthier members, and in public places, even warehouses. For 200 years. One of the first known church buildings was a remodel of a large house, around the year 235, in present day Syria. Notably, that building was right next to a synagogue. Jews and Christians worshiping as neighbors. Both were destroyed in 256 AD by the Persians invading from the east.
It wasn’t until the fourth century, with the conversion of the emperor Constantine that Christians went on a building spree, financed by the treasury of the empire.
We could explore how the monastic movement was in many ways a counter-movement to the growing wealth and power of the church as the official religion of the empire. Monastic communities built their own structures, including churches, but emphasized a simple lifestyle characterized by work and worship.
We could follow that trajectory into the 16th century where the Anabaptists and Mennonites became convinced that the call of discipleship was not just for monastics, but for all who claimed the name of Christ. Their convictions put them at odds with an increasingly conflicted and divided Europe, different factions vying for territorial control under different theological brands. For our spiritual ancestors, building their own churches was low on their priority list. One Anabaptist martyr noted that they met, “”there where Christ and His apostles held their meetings, in the woods, in the fields, on the seashore, and sometimes in homes.”
On the bulletin cover is a famous cave in Switzerland where Anabaptists worshiped in secret to avoid arrest.
All of this collectively might lead to a de-emphasis of place. We are sojourners. The church is the people and the people can meet anywhere, and they have met just about everywhere.
But here’s another angle. As settled people, worshiping regularly in the same building, I see this song also inviting us to be mindful of the particularities of this place, this building, this neighborhood and city. The hymn poses a question that bears further reflection.
What is this place where we are meeting?
In the last year this place has hosted worship services, a presentation by Ted and Company raising awareness of suicide, a talk by Drew Hart challenging how we view racism. This space has been packed to the gills with an event titled Sanctuary for Immigrants 101: Theory, Data, and Action. This place has hosted weddings, piano recitals, and a Rise up and Resist community concert. Children from the neighborhood are gathering in this place every weekday this summer, from morning till later afternoon through the CRC Kids Club.
This place, this sanctuary, was built by the Baptists from whom we bought the building in 1998. We liked the feature that we could see each other in worship. Before the carpet was Mennonite purple it was Baptist red. That wall is the exterior wall of the original church building, built by the Presbyterians in 1917, 100 years ago. What we use as a fellowship hall was originally a Presbyterian sanctuary. At that time this and the foyer were an alleyway running between the church and an apartment building. The apartment building now serves as the church offices and nursery, and restrooms.
In June of 1933, when this building was a young sweet sixteen, the US Congress created the Home Owners Loan Corporation, for the purpose of reversing the economic woes of the Great Depression. Its mission was to assist in refinancing mortgages to prevent foreclosures. The Corporation was asked to look at 239 cities and to create “residential security maps.” These maps would parse out the safest and highest risk neighborhoods to issue refinanced mortgages. The map for Columbus was created in 1936. The homes around this place were classified as an Area A, color coded with green, indicating it was among the most desirable locations for such mortgage assistance. Areas such as the near east side, Bronzeville, now King-Lincoln, a historic thriving African American neighborhood, were classified as an Area D, color coded with red, indicating they were among the highest risk for mortgage assistance from the federal government, and so got none or very, very little. This place is now an economically thriving area. That place and other red-lined areas are still trying to recover. What does it mean to meet for worship in Area A? Color coded green.
What is this place?
Just a few blocks south of here the Southwick-Good and Fortkamp funeral home was once the Clinton Chapel, a stop on the Underground Railroad to protect fugitive slaves heading north.
What is this place?
This city, Columbus, is named after a European whose arrival changed the face of this continent. This place was once the home of mound builders, earth shapers, Adena and Hopewell, white names given to discovered cultures. It was a hub of a vast intra-continental trading network. After that this place became a sacred hunting ground for the Iroquois, for a time, barely inhabited by humans. This place became a temporary refuge for Mingo and Shawnee, Delaware and Miami, coming from other places, to escape or engage the growing French and British influence. This place is the site of battles and treaties and broken promises.
This place was once the home of megfauna, large animals, who did not survive long after the humans arrived. The mastodon, the mammoth, the giant beaver, the short-faced bear, the giant sloth, the saber-tooth cat.
This place was once covered with a sheet of ice over a mile thick. More than once. Waves of glaciers, over thousands of years, scraping up and depositing minerals, leaving us with rich land, primed for the spread of agriculture.
This place has not always been in this place. We are still floating on a thin plate of solid rock on top of a thick hot stew. We North Americans are all currently heading West young man at a rate of about an inch a year.
The hymn says: “What is this place, where we are meeting, only a house, the earth its floor, walls and a roof, sheltering people, windows for light, an open door. Yet it becomes a body that lives when we are gathered here, and know our God is near.”
This place has quite a story. We’ve barely scratched the surface. This place has quite a story, and now we’re a part of it. For now, we are inhabiting this place.
What is this place asking of us as Jesus followers? What are its gifts? What are its lingering wounds?
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?