A Sacred Patch of Carpet
Gary Thomas is a graduate of Regent College, an adjunct faculty member at Western Seminary, and Writer in Residence at Second Baptist Church in Houston, Texas. Since graduating from Regent in 1988, Gary has written 18 books that have collectively sold over a million copies and have been translated into fifteen languages.
I was a mile from downtown Houston, crossing a bridge that spanned a busy road, on my first run from our new home in a section of Houston called the “Heights” (because it’s 38 feet above downtown!), when it hit me: breathing deeply on a run here is like trying to meditate in an arcade.
The air was awful.
But we already owned the house, so in one sense, this was my new trail…
While running in Bellingham, Washington, where I had lived much of my adult life, breathing on a run was like smelling pine trees that were literally nourished by the Bay’s waters. Every gulp was a gift from God. In Houston, the air tastes like every breath has traveled through concrete and industrial particulate matter before it assaults your lungs, laughing on its way in. It’s grudging, spiteful, and my heart doctor practically suggested I’d do better, health wise, eating a doughnut inside than going for a run outside.
I knew accepting a teaching position (as writer-in-residence) at Second Baptist Church would change my running experience, and six years in, “change” is much too soft of a word. But the commitment to live out our calling sometimes means avocations must give way to our calling.
My wife is a saint for following. Houston is renowned in the United States for being the only major city without a single zoning law. Schools, strip malls, houses, and businesses can be built over, around, on top of, or behind each other. If you own the land, you can do just about whatever you want with it.
It’s the Texas way.
My wife left a city perfumed with pine, waking up to mornings of picturesque fog, mountains in the distance framing sunrise and sunset, a favorite walk through the woods to a grocery store that catered toward organic food lovers, and some waterfalls just a few miles away, to drive through legions of concrete (how is there any concrete left in the world after Houston built its freeways?), in a city flat enough to, as the saying goes, “Spend three days watching your dog run away.”
But the people… Oh, how we love the people. They love God, they know their Bibles, and they are thirsty for solid, challenging teaching. Last Sunday my sermon got interrupted by applause four times. That never happened once in the Pacific Northwest. They might spill their coffee if they’re offended, but they’re not going to put it down to clap.
I can’t tell you how much I miss my Saturday runs in Bellingham. I had the perfect eighteen-mile run that crossed just a few streets. The rest was on forest trails and on one glorious expanse a walkway that stretched out over the bay.
That is gone; there is no running trail in Houston that could compare with my tenth favorite trail in Bellingham. But there’s a new place I love to go to. It has to be early in the morning or late on certain evenings for the quiet to ascend. When the time is right, though, I have a key fob that allows me entrance to an empty sanctuary that seats 5,500 people. I crawl up the steps to the stage, I kneel right where I’ll be standing to teach that weekend, and I pour out my heart to God in total isolation.
It is now one of my favorite places on this planet to be.
There’s something about knowing that in another day, or a few hours, this place will be full and loud and there will be cameras on me and three terrifyingly large screens fed by high definition cameras that pick up the glare of my bald head and every skin blemish (it’s unfortunate to still be fighting acne while you’re going bald, but God never asked my permission).
But in those quiet, dark moments, before the drama begins, I open up my heart to God and pray that he’ll treat me like a dam—it’s an analogy birthed in the Pacific Northwest, but it works here in Houston, too: the power of the sermon isn’t dependent on the dam, any more than hydroelectricity is. What matters is the water flowing through it. If God might concentrate the flow of His water through this place, from this very spot, thirsty souls could drink deeply of His grace, some of them for the very first time. Others, so thirsty that they have begun testing polluted waters, could be brought back from the brink. If God would let His pure water flow through this dam, in this place, there might be a line of people here, standing before me, making life-changing decisions…
The beauty of that patch of carpet—I can’t believe I even typed those words—rivals Whatcom Falls, Bellingham Bay, and even Mt. Baker. It’s a place of drama, of warfare, of battle—but a place where I’ve seen God show up time after time.
I’ve learned that what matters is not so much the place as the presence of God. Sure, that sounds like a Christian bookstore cliché poster, but when Christ has made your heart His home, the location doesn’t matter quite as much as the company you keep.