“But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the LORD: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. “(1 Samuel 7:4-6)
Does the ground of being, the source of the love that fills us and flows through us as we allow, really need a house to live in?
Nathan’s message from God to David is about an upgrade in accommodation from a tabernacle in a tent, to a house made of cedar. This suggests a permanent, stationary structure.
The biblical scholarship that lives in my memory wants to remind me this story may represent the transition for Israel, under David’s rule, from a nomadic, wandering tribe to a kingdom like the kingdoms that surround it, centered in one place. This may point to the development of a city, or at least a larger village or town, that becomes the place to live, from which governing happens, where people gather for religious celebration, and to which people come for commerce.
Setting that aside, I hear this passage as the pastor of small congregation in suburban Canada, in the first quarter of the 21st century. I serve a denomination that seems about 50 years past its stale, or stagnation date. The sociologists of religion have been telling us that we were at our peak, and best condition, at least in terms of numbers of people, and social influence, in 1965. I have some awareness that we have built many “houses for God to live in”.
The community where I serve as a pastor has a half dozen houses of our brand, and I don’t know how many of other brands, other “god-house” developers. My congregation struggles weekly, monthly, annually, to meet the costs of maintaining our little house, and to pay the staff.
Was it supposed to be that our mission to be people of God, with hearts open to love others in God’s name would be overtaken with the financial and practical demands of property management? Did I know, when I was ordained 25 years ago that so many of the conversations I take part in, would be about this little house?
I find myself thinking about the tabernacle in the tent, and asking myself, “What was the problem again?”
The tabernacle in the tent was for a nomadic people who took God with them. Most of us today are not nomadic but living in neighbourhoods. We need a focus to build community and a building brings people together. But the mission needs to be outside the building.
I believe the issue of church buildings is a red herring. I believe the problem is that much of what goes on in the building is no longer relevant for people of the 21st century. Diversity is needed but the church is so set in its beliefs that the need is not seen except by those who have given up on the church.
I carry my God with me in the tabernacle of my heart and mind. She is present for me in a smile, a sunset, a helping hand.