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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.

Keith Starkenburg

Keith Starkenburg teaches theology at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois.

6 Comments

  • Kent says:

    Keith, thank you for your thought-provoking post. I deeply appreciate it.
    Kent

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    I love this. If, as your mentor Eugene Rogers writes, “the Holy Spirit loves bodies,” no less is it true, in Scripture for sure, “the Spirit loves landscapes.”

  • […] So begins Northwestern College alum Keith Starkenburg’s reflections on “place” and the sacred. You may read his entire piece at The Twelve here. […]

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Keith, for acknowledging God’s self revelation in the created order. Christians tend to advocate God’s revelation in both the Scriptures (or special revelation) and in the created order (or natural revelation). But it seems as though the created order is an addendum to the Scriptures, or at least it seems to be a lesser revelation, in the mind of Christians. So, I appreciate your emphasis in this article, that speaks clearly to God’s visibility in creation. The “deist” believes in the existence of God on the basis of reason and nature alone, with a rejection of supernatural revelations (such as the Bible, the Koran, the book of Mormon or the countless other so-called supernatural revelations of other religions. These other revelations are seen as human attempts to explain the God who reveals himself in nature. Does God really need human help, when he has already given such a magnificent self revelation? Thanks, Keith, for your contribution.

  • Doug Anderson says:

    Having been to the top of modern Mt. Sinai, and having been to the top of Bear Butte, and having heard/read many stories of both of these high places, I have some awareness of the power of place. The Book of God’s Works (creation) reveals God, and some places within creation, for whatever reason, awaken us spiritually and “naturally” generate worship if we make even the slightest effort to see and to hear.

  • Ann Longobardi says:

    Thank you for sharing these insights, Keith. It has also been my experience that in certain places I can feel the very breath of God. My heart response to vistas such as the Grand Canyon, Black Elk Peak, Roughlock Falls/Spearfish Canyon, Pactola Lake, etc. is, “If God created this kind of beauty for us to enjoy on earth, what must heaven be like?” It was a blessing to share in the Rosebud Immersion Experience with you!

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