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I grew up in Rapid City, South Dakota, near the edge of the Black Hills. Just behind my home was a church building that housed a number of different congregations over the years – a white evangelical church, a Native Christian church, a Lutheran church, and now, the last I checked, an Orthodox church.
As I grew up, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit met me in conversations with my parents, in an Evangelical Free basement after Awana, during an Assemblies of God worship service, and at youth group meetings at Hope Christian Reformed Church. While the Reformed tradition has a hold on me, these other traditions (and more) also play a role in how I see God at work.
Paul wrote to Timothy that he had a “sincere faith,” a faith that “lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you” (2 Timothy 1.5). I’ve had lots of different kinds of predecessors of my faith. My faith is their faith, and my faith bears a witness to them all.
Just as God met me through these churches and relationships, God met me just as decisively over campfires and hikes and moments of silence when I ventured into the Black Hills as a teenager. I was confronted, reassured, buoyed, and filled by the Spirit of Christ in many places in those hills.
French poet Noel Arnaud wrote a line often quoted by geographers and architects: “I am the space where I am.” Maybe Arnaud was thinking about Paul when he was speaking to the Athenians: “. . . he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him” (Acts 17.27).
John Calvin restates Paul in this way: “God testifies in this place by the mouth of Paul that it was appointed beforehand in his counsel how long he would have the state of every people to continue, and within what bounds he would have them contained.” If Paul and Calvin have something to say about God, then that would mean that God brought me to the Black Hills to search, grope and find him.
I was given a particular place – a place right on the edge of the Black Hills – to search out and find the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Sure, God could have placed me somewhere else. He places others elsewhere; but this is where I was placed. My faith is a faith brought forth by the Spirit’s witness to me in the Black Hills.
Recently I spent a week with a cultural immersion group in and around Mission, South Dakota in order to deepen my familiarity with the history and culture of the Sicangu tribal band of the Lakota nation. Leon Leader Charge, one of the leaders who spoke with us, is active in substance abuse treatment and has been called upon by multiple agencies to think about how to address larger communal and societal tactics of prevention.
At one of these meetings, he suggested that if government agencies wanted to tackle substance abuse in a serious way, they should work on ways of returning the Black Hills to the Lakota. He mentioned two reasons. The Black Hills would create a significant revenue stream that would provide important services for substance abuse and other health care. But the loss of the Black Hills, he noted, play a role in how the Lakota have lost their dignity and strength.
The Black Hills has been described by the famous Christian Lakota leader Nicholas Black Elk as “the promised land” for his people. Black Elk also referred to the highest peak in the Black Hills as “the center of the earth” (it is now called Black Elk Peak). To lose this land is to lose themselves. Substance abuse is a way to survive when your identity has been stripped; it is an adaptation to intergenerational or historical trauma. I don’t think that Leader Charge is suggesting that the return of the Black Hills would erase substance abuse on its own. It would be part of an overall strategy to actively seek the flourishing of the Lakota people.
I recount this story because it seems to me that God has been speaking in the Black Hills, and in many other sacred places, for eons. God’s speech in the Black Hills and in other places needs to be interpreted in light of Christ. For example, to say that there are sacred places doesn’t mean other places are not holy. It is not about sacred vs secular; it is about varying levels of participation in the ever-present sacredness of God’s life.
God is to be found just about anywhere “in Spirit and in truth” (John 4.23). But, we cannot diminish the fact that certain places do indeed open us up to God’s power, wisdom and glory in ways that other places cannot quite match. The shores of Lake Michigan do that. The vast plains of the upper Midwest do that. The Blue Ridge Mountains do that. Durham Cathedral in the United Kingdom and The Basilica in Washington, DC do that. At least, that’s how it has been for me and for countless others.
Sitting on the shore of Lake Michigan or standing on the top of a peak in the Black Hills usually opens me to God’s life more powerfully than attending to God in my backyard. And, God’s been speaking like that to all kinds of people – including the Lakota – for eons.
Places give us our identity; they make us who we are. Sacred places even more so. It is time Reformed Christians and others recognize that more vividly and work to enact that reality more justly. How? That would take another blog post, or two. For now, let us search for God where God has placed us and make room for others to do the same.