Apr 8 2015

Where Might We Find Holy Ground?

_DSC8003In the seventh chapter of the Book of Acts you will find Stephen’s defense before the Sanhedrin or ruling court of Israel.  He was put on trial for “speaking against this holy place (the temple) and against the law.”  (Acts 6:13)  How Stephen responds to these charges is absolutely amazing.  He had several points he wanted to make in his defense and one of these is that God cannot be tied down to one place or land.  The Jewish leaders of that day had come to believe that God’s presence was pretty much limited to the Temple itself.  In a sense they had put God in a box.  Stephen believed that was not possible and that the very thought was idolatrous.

In Stephen’s defense before the Jewish council he pointed out how God had from the beginning worked and made himself known outside of what they considered the “holy land.”  Contrary to what they might believe, no single place could be identified as God’s house, no area or region could be called the “holy land.”

CA Julia Pffeifer SP waterfall (v)I think this is something we need to consider still today.   Each religion has places it considers as holy land.  Many years ago I spent a month studying in Israel and Jordan.  For a lot of people the “holy land” is Palestine—the land of the Jewish patriarchs and eventually Jesus.  I’m thankful I got to spend a number of weeks there and certainly learned a lot by doing so, but in the end I had to come to the same conclusion as Stephen did, that no land is holier than any other.  What makes any land “holy” is God’s presence and God’s presence is not limited by any geographical border.


Going back to Stephen’s defense, at one point he reminded those who stood as his judges that when God confronted Moses through the burning bush God told him to take off his sandals for the ground he was standing on was holy ground.  (Exodus 3:5)  Where God encountered Moses was not in Israel.  Stephen wanted the Sanhedrin to remember that God has revealed himself in numerous places. Later Stephen brought up how Solomon would eventually build a temple for Israel but that even he realized that no earthly building could contain God.  Stephen quoted Isaiah 66:1-2 to drive home his point:  “This is what the Lord says: ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool.  Where is the house you will build for me?  Where will my resting place be?  Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?’”

WY Grand Teton NP Oxbow BendGod is Maker of heaven and earth.  God cannot and will not be limited to any one building, land or group of people.  God can be encountered anywhere we happen to be.  It may well be in a beautiful sanctuary or shrine, or even in a place of significant religious importance, but God can just as easily be found in a local park, your backyard garden or your own home or workplace.  Stephen did not quote Isaiah 6:3 in his defense but very well could have.  Here the prophet Isaiah hears the angels calling to one another saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

If Stephen is right and the angels knew what they were talking about then we must conclude that the whole world is sacred and should be thought of as such.  We must not put limits on where God can speak or act.  You just never know when it comes to God; the place where you are at this very moment may well be holy ground.


(I took the images above in Michigan, California and Wyoming.)

Nov 2 2011

Sacred Places, Sacred Moments

This past Sunday, our pastor talked about the names of God, and in doing that, spent a little time with the story of Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3). As Moses got close to that bush, he was instructed to remove his sandals, for this was holy ground.

While our pastor had an excellent sermon about Yahweh, the concept of holy ground is what I want to look at. Notice that this holy ground was not in some magnificent temple nor was it in some dramatic wild place. It was simply the ground near a burning bush. And notice that even the bush is not some huge, towering tree. It is a rather ordinary bush (though the fact that it was burning and not being burned makes it not such an ordinary sight!). What made this holy was that it connected Moses to God.

Rabbi Abraham Heschel once said, “The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.”  That moment for Moses was certainly sacred, too, for it definitely challenged him spiritually. Mark Nepo in his book, The Book of Awakening, uses Heschel’s quote for a meditation about facing sacred moments. He says that often we want to build a road to somewhere other than where we are rather than open doors that wait before us. Those doors that wait before us are sacred moments that can connect us to God.

I think it is easy to get caught up in taking a “road” to some magnificent national park to be inspired there by God’s creation when we may be missing sacred places and sacred moments that are not so dramatic. It is interesting that Jesus rarely went to some dramatic temple for His sermons. And indeed, He was more likely to talk about lilies of the field than the dramatic cedars of Lebanon (that lived during His time and were indeed dramatic).

I love dramatic places. I love to go to the redwoods and be impressed by these tallest of trees. I love to go to Yosemite and be impressed by massive mountains of granite. But sometimes I feel that those are the only places where people feel awestruck by God’s creation. If you can pause and be open to sacred moments all around us, you can be awestruck by a spider building a web, something truly amazing and a sacred moment for me. Or maybe it means getting down to the level of a flower growing quietly beside a parking lot, yet sharing its beauty for all. That is a sacred place for me (and seriously, maybe I should remove my shoes just to reinforce the importance of such places).

I admit that I have always had a place in my heart for such small things. Maybe that comes from growing up in Minnesota where there are not so many dramatic parks. But I think it goes further. I believe that if we are to respect and care for God’s world, we need to see all of it as important, not just the dramatic places. With an open mind that lets us “face sacred moments”, as Heschel says, watching a spider build a web can be an amazing sacred moment, kneeling before a flower can be kneeling on holy ground.

The flower is a datura or jimsonweed in a parking lot in Pasadena. The spider is called a common orb weaver and was in my front yard.

— Rob