By Hannah Shultz, coordinator of short-term service for Brethren Volunteer Service
“This is holy ground.” The first time I heard Jason Haldeman, the former program manager at Camp Swatara, speak these words I got goosebumps. It was during staff training of my first summer working at camp and Jason was preparing us for the ministry we would be a part of in the upcoming weeks. He told us that God was present among us and that we were on holy ground. “This is holy ground” stuck with me throughout the summer as I planned evening vesper services, went on hikes, taught Bible classes, and sang silly songs around the campfire. I knew what Jason said was true. From the moment you drove through the archway onto camp property, something felt different. God was certainly present in that place. Camp is where I learned to encounter God in both the most mundane and the most serious moments.
Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest and theologian, has a book called an Altar in the World in which she talks about blurring the lines of what we consider to be sacred. We need not only encounter the Divine sitting in church pews and reading scripture, she says, but by keeping our hearts and minds open to the presence of God in the world—in the everyday activities and encounters in our lives. She also encourages us to follow the words of Jesus by recognizing how God cares for lilies and sparrows as well as women who prepare bread and laborers who wait to be paid. In all these cases, we find the work of God in the world as much as in scripture.
In Genesis, Jacob told us what to do when we encounter God in the world. As the story goes, Jacob and Esau both wanted their father Isaac to bless them on his deathbed. Since Esau was the firstborn, he was set to receive the blessing, but Jacob and his mother developed a scheme to trick Isaac into blessing Jacob instead. This enraged Esau, so Jacob fled for his life. He left with nothing and walked as far as he could. He was out in the wilderness when he finally decided to rest, and he went to sleep using a stone as his pillow. During the night he had a vision from God in which God promised him safety, children, and land. God said to Jacob, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”
Genesis 28:16-18 reads:
“Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it.”
God visited Jacob right where he was—out in the wilderness. Jacob realized that this ordinary place in the world must be part of the house of God, so he used a stone as an altar for God. In doing this, he taught us what to do when we encounter God in the world. Barbara Brown Taylor encourages us to follow his example and set up an altar, in the world or in our heart, to commemorate the places where the Divine meets us.
For the past few months, Kara and Liana and I have been writing the 2020 workcamp curriculum, centered on our theme, “Voices for Peace.” Through the workcamp experience, we hope to learn that encountering God does not just take place within church walls, but also when we serve and live in the world. Workcamps offer many opportunities to do physical acts of worship. Through pulling weeds on a farm in Florida, dishing out food at a soup kitchen in Los Angeles, and being in community and sleeping on hard church floors, we are challenged to find God in these daily, sometimes mundane, activities.
At workcamps, we also encounter God in the hard work of identifying injustice and doing something about it. Encountering God in the world often means getting involved in the messiness of human failure. It requires a willingness to be radical disciples in a world that may reject us. Jesus calls for an inbreaking of the kingdom of God on earth. His compassion and healing reaches out to those who are often ignored, and in his parables, he challenges his followers to consider the poor, the hungry, the widow, and the orphan. Similarly, we are called to challenge systems and structures that perpetuate injustice and to make God’s enduring presence known to everyone. We build altars in the world when we participate in activities that advance God’s love and justice, when we create more spaces where we can say “this is holy ground.”
Holy ground does not rise only out of church buildings, it is not just a place where we have sung to God or preached from scripture. Holy ground is the place where God’s beloved community is formed and where God’s reign of justice is made known on earth.
We are each on our own path to discovering holy ground, and as we journey through mundane circumstances and personal fatigue, there are moments to pay attention to the Divine. Like Jacob, we are called to recognize when we have encountered God in the wilderness and to celebrate that God meets us in the most unexpected places. Let us go into the wilderness, seeking God in the fight for justice and peace, and discovering divine possibility in our daily practices. And when we discover that we are on holy ground, let us make an altar to the Lord, revealing to others that God is in this place and still moving in our midst.
Church of the Brethren workcamps are for people of all ages to be the hands of Jesus and voices for peace in the world. Learn more about the workcamp ministry or register for a 2020 workcamp at www.brethren.org/workcamps. Registration opens tomorrow evening (1/16).
(Read this issue of eBrethren.)