God Places

God Places
X HUMANS EXPERIENCE DIVINE PRESENCE For as long as we have indications that human beings have consciously experienced the divine presence, we have evidence that suggests some places seem more holy than others. In the past fifteen years I have visited a number of classic holy places that have been considered sacred by many other human beings.
X VARANASI With the Birmingham 8 I visited the River Ganges in the sacred City of Varanasi, India, where we attended the fire offering to the river Ganga and observed Hindus from all over the world come to bath in the sacred river, and where they even come to die, so they might be cremated beside the waters and their ashes poured into the holy river.
X SARNATH Varanasi is also within a few miles of Sarnath, the site of the Buddha’s first sermon, and so is credited by some as the birthplace of Buddhism. While Buddhism flourished in others parts of Asia, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, Thailand, and Japan, it all but disappeared in India. So most of the spiritual tourists who visit Sarnath are Buddhist monks and adolescents from these other Asian countries.
X GOLDEN TEMPLE The Birmingham 8 also visited the Golden Temple of the Sikhs in Amritsar in the Punjab of India. The Temple is built around a much older place of spiritual focus that was a pond in the middle of a sacred forest, known as “the pool of the nectar of immortality,” and according to legend it possessed healing properties. Today the pond is part of a pool inside of the temple that surrounds the central shrine where the ritual reading of the Sikh scriptures are conducted. Ancient sacred trees grow at the east end of the lake and impart a blessing to those who bathe there.
X MT SINAI Closer to our Judeo-Christian tradition I climbed Mt. Sinai with the Round Table Ice Group. We got up at 2 a.m. in order to be at the top of the mountain at dawn. I think I expected Mt. Sinai to be more inspirational. The place should have been infused with more holiness. But then maybe it was sharing the experience with the 4,000 other people who climbed the mountain that morning, or discovering Starbucks near the summit, or the lack of breakfast that detracted from the encounter. Somehow it would be my stomach that would get in the way of the divine.
X HEBRON On my last visit to Israel I finally had the opportunity to visit the City of Hebron and the Ibrahimi Mosque that is built over the Cave of Machpelah where according to tradition Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah are buried. The burial place of the Patriarchs is venerated by Muslims and Jews, but I was distracted by the Israeli soldiers and the separate entrances for each group as well as the bullet proof glass used to prevent the two sides from shooting at one another.
X MT OF BEATITUDES In the Galilee I have experienced the Mount of Beatitudes as a place of energy and insight. The church there has the disadvantage of having been built by Mussolini, but it’s the view rather than the church that is important. From the Mt. of Beatitudes I can look down to the left and see Capernaum the headquarters for Jesus’ ministry. I look down to the right and I can see Tabgah the traditional site for the feeding of the multitude, the original Sharing Table. A little further away to the right is the Village of Magdala home of Mary Magdalene. Further to the left is Bethsaida the home of James and John and across the lake is Gamla, the headquarters of the zealot movement, and a little further on is Kursi, where Jesus healed the gentile demoniac and the swine ran down the bluff into the lake. From the Mt. of Beatitudes I understand how small was the world of the gospels, and feel the presence of Jesus still clinging to the mountainside.
X BATHROOM QUEUE Beth has been similarly affected by the Mt. of Beatitudes, but she reports an interesting encounter of another kind. She was waiting to use the women’s room standing in an orderly line with a number of Korean Christians, when a French woman walked past the line and into a stall that was being vacated. A very orderly Korean lady began to wrap on the door of the stall in protest. When the French woman came out of the stall the Korean lady pointed to the line and said, “There is a cue!”
With a wave of her hand the French woman replied, “You are stupid,” somehow I think missing Jesus’ point about sharing.
X JERUSALEM On several occasions I have visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem, where I have experienced a palpable energy perhaps from all of the prayers that have been offered in that place. On the steps of the southern entrance of the Temple I experienced an energy from walking in a place where undeniably Jesus had walked. And on our trip to Israel in 1998, during a relative thaw in Jewish Palestinian relations we were able to enter the Dome of the Rock. The exposed bedrock in the Dome according to legend is the place where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac, where David placed the Ark of the Covenant, Solomon built the first Temple, and Muhammad reputedly made his night journey to heaven. According to tradition if there is any place where heaven is a local call the Temple Mount is it.
X MAKES PLACES SACRED What makes these places sacred? Some sites have special historical associations. Other environments are awe inspiring because of some natural wonder or beauty associated with them. It is hard to visit the Grand Canyon or even Little River Canyon right here in Alabama without experiencing awe and wonder. Walking along the ocean for me is also spiritually stirring. I relate to the line from the Country Western song, “I hope you still feel small, when you stand beside the ocean.” Moments when we understand our own place within creation, that it’s not all about us, are humbling and spiritually important God moments. What is really important for the experience of the divine presence is somehow finding the sacred place within us.
X PLACE OF SILENCEOne of my favorite devotional writers, Frederick Bueckner, tried to express it this way. “What deadens us most to God’s presence within us, I think, is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought. I suspect that there is nothing more crucial to true spiritual comfort, as the huge monk in cloth of gold put it, than being able from time to time to stop that chatter including the chatter of spoken prayer. If we choose to seek the silence of the holy place, or to open ourselves to its seeking, I think there is no surer way than by keeping silent.
God knows I am no good at it, but I keep trying, and once or twice I have been lucky, graced. I have been conscious but not conscious of anything, not even of myself. I have been surrounded by the whiteness of snow. I have heard a stillness that encloses all sounds stilled the way whiteness encloses all colors stilled, the way wordlessness encloses all words stilled. I have sensed the presence of a presence. I have felt a promise promised.
X THE HOLY PLACE WITHINThis conscious but not conscious relates to Jacob’s aha moment: “Surely God was in this place and I, i did not know.” Surely I was aware of God in this moment, because I was no longer aware of self. Self was not in the way. Transcending our selves is the entry point to the Holy Place within, and we usually only become aware of our having visited the sacred experience after the fact – like Jacob after we wake up.
X VISITING PLACES FROM THE PASTIs there any benefit to visiting the sacred places where we or others have experienced the divine? Can we touch holiness by visiting, the fire offering at the great river, the pool of immortal nectar at Golden Temple, the Western Wall, or the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem? Maybe. But since the true holy place is really somewhere inside of us maybe it makes more sense to try to visit the locations, where we have experienced the divine presence. I have considered the possibility of making a pilgrimage to the places where in the past I have encountered the divine: Seventy-eighth and Pacific Streets in Omaha, the Quadrangle at Trinity College, under the organ at the First Presbyterian Church in Plattsburgh, New York, the Indiana Dunes, St. Paul’s Cemetery, an ocean beach at night. But we have to be careful we do not indulge too much in nostalgia, trying to get back to somewhere in the past that no longer exists. Rather we need to learn to cultivate the silence within and the openness to wonder that allows us to transcend ourselves to become aware of the divine presence in the present moment. Always remembering that we will only be aware after the fact. Sort of like God’s mysterious instruction to Moses to hide himself in a crevice of the rock, so the divine presence might pass by him and then and only then the prophet might “see” God’s back – see God in hindsight. Or like Jacob in our scripture, surely God was in this place, but I, i did not know it at the time.
X FEAR OF THE LORDOf course some people report they have never had an encounter with a divine presence. And who am I to argue with their experience or non-experience? I would, however, point to an observation by Ron Buford, who was the original architect of United Church of Christ Still Speaking Campaign – remember the bouncers?
He wrote recently: “’Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.’ This biblical text is on my top ten list of Bible verses to remember. Here fear does not mean “to be afraid.” but something more akin to ‘be in awe.’
“At a meeting with La Selva Beach Community Church UCC, I met Dick Kanto, who designs some of astronomy’s newest and most sophisticated instruments. When asked what recent discovery excites him most, he said new instruments have just revealed that an area of space astronomers previously thought to be strangely dark, has turned out to be filled with stars.
X DISCOVERING STARS“These stars did not just appear. They were always there.
“Belief only in “the stuff” we see, atheism, fear of the unknown, are all sheer folly not only for science, but also for society and self. Through the lens of faith, possibility, and hypothesis, we become our best selves discovering stars in places seemingly devoid of light.
X NEW FAITH LENS“(Theologian) Henri Nouwen compared God to an elegant trapeze artist, ‘The Great Catcher.’ So if you feel unloved, hopeless, overwhelmed, or like a failure, try a new faith lens. Catch the unbounded Light of a God breaking forth, grasping our lives, from despair, swinging them to new heights of possibility.
X SURELY GOD WAS IN THIS PLACE We might all try a new faith lens. Perhaps with that lens we will discover the sacred place within our selves, that place of quiet, silence, where we transcend the chatter even of whispered prayer. And then perhaps like Jacob we will discover God’s presence, where we never expected, and we will say, “Surely God was in this place and I, i did not know.”


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