The power of place

Sunday, December 26, 2010

"Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere." (Psalm 84:10)

Picture the scene: a man in his early 30s with his television reporter wife, drinks in hand, stuck in a nightclub in St. Louis on New Year's Eve. There are so many people present that they cannot move without jostling a stranger who -- like the man in question -- is holding a beverage, an occasion born more out of a desire for sociability than need for a libation.

The music on the stage below is blaring, the decibel level so high than the man fears his hearing is being irrevocably damaged. Looking about, he notices the sea of humanity ebbing and flowing as people enter and leave. He constantly shifts his position to avoid being inadvertently shoved or pushed. To be heard above this cacophony, he shouts banalities to a person standing right next to him. Anything less and his voice will not carry in the maelstrom. Such a throng was not meant to be jammed as tightly as sardines in an aluminum can. (Does anyone still eat sardines?)

Finally, after a drink or two ends up deposited on his freshly dry-cleaned suit by a tipsy partygoer, the man turns to his spouse, who is as uncomfortable as he, and declares: "You know, I'd much rather be in church."

The scene was real. The man and his wife actual. The date was Dec. 31, 1990. The occasion -- a New Year's Eve promotion party for a radio station (the man's employer) at a newly minted nightclub. That club is now long gone. The property on which it sat is now part of the beautiful St. Louis Science Center. The memory of that awful night lingers.

The man in this story is me. Be careful what you wish for while standing along the balcony of a nightclub, friends. I am living proof that a wish may well become reality. A year later, I was in seminary. A year and a half after that, I was assigned to a church as an associate pastor.

I don't regret being in that nightclub on that New Year's Eve 20 years ago. Every experience is part of who you are. That night, that miserable night, helped push me toward my life's work.

Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere. The psalmist was talking not about civil courts of justice but about the Temple courts in Jerusalem, the place Jews passed through on their way to worship. There is something powerful about being in a place of worship -- whether it be the modern spaciousness of La Croix, the majestic and vivid imagery of Old St. Vincent's, the beautifully tended and bright atmosphere of Lynwood Baptist or the powerful stained glass storytelling of Centenary, the church I currently serve.

Space does not permit detailing the beauty of other local places of worship, but they exist in abundance. Each setting has its own unique contribution to the Kingdom of God here on earth.

If you have been looking for something -- and you sense something is missing -- in this new year to come, may I suggest the sentiment of the writer of Psalm 84? I have found, and perhaps you have too, dear reader, that is better to spend a single day in God's house than to spend a thousand aimless days elsewhere.

Happy new year.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau.

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