Finding Holy Ground
February 26, 2012
Reading: “Kaleidoscope” by Elizabeth Tarbox
Through a kaleidoscope the world becomes fractured, divided twenty-four ways in symmetrical pieces. A single candle flame becomes twenty-four flickering candles, each a perfect replica of the other. The mundane is made exquisite when it is placed in a pattern of identical squares; the ordinary becomes the mystical when it is seen through a prism.
Is this how life is, if only we step back far enough to see it all – a kaleidoscope of events joining, merging, dancing in rhythmic harmony? Could we appreciate the order of life, if we were not one of the fragments? But we are in it, of it, not observers of the pattern but part of the very texture of which it is constructed.
There may be a plan, but we will never be able to stand back far enough to appreciate it. Somewhere life may make sense to a great cosmic someone, but not to us here; not to us, splintered in a struggle to do what is right in a world that presents us with complex, competing options. We may never see the larger picture, creation’s perfected whole; we may be forever flickering fragments, fractured by the raw reality of immediacy from which there is no escape while we are alive.
Well then, let us dance in the flame that we see. Let the arc of our creativity embrace our moments of time, and let us add our light to the kaleidoscope, trusting in the unity of the whole even as we seek symmetry with the part.
There’s something about traveling by airplane that never ceases to amaze me! I find that when I fly I keep the little television screen on the channel that shows a map of the plane in flight … I like to keep track of where we are in the air. Part of this is my anticipation to finally get to my destination, but another part is not about the destination … it’s about the journey! Without that perspective of where I am … that constant reminder of how I am getting from place A to place B, the trip feels fragmented. I still think it is very strange to get onto a plane in icy cold weather and land in hot, sweltering weather. It feels disconnected! There needs to be a connection between the two!
So keeping track of the journey from here to there focuses more on the journey than the separateness of each place. There is an element of connection there. After all, life is more like a kaleidoscope than a pair of binoculars. We all have our ways of viewing this crazy world, and when our lives connect, that is where the beauty lies!
And so it is with most journeys in life … starting something new … leaving a situation or job we’re unhappy with … completing a degree … learning a new skill. These are all journeys that challenge us and stretch us to see things in a new way … to have a new experience … to step back and look at the big picture.
My recent trip to Ghana was a journey that stretched me, challenged me, and helped me see the world in a whole new way!
Since women in Ghana primarily wear skirts and dresses, the women on our trip were told we should wear skirts or dresses for the entirety of our stay. Most of us do not wear skirts as a matter of form, and so we set out to find proper attire.
This may come as a shock to some of you, but trying to find a skirt … in New England … in the winter … that isn’t made of wool is quite the task! And, finding a skirt that comes even remotely close to the knee, nevermind past it … is even more difficult! But, after scouring thrift stores and clearance sections, I had finally found a few things I could wear in the 100-degree weather I would encounter in Ghana.
And then there was the issue of shoes! We were told that we should wear socks under our shoes, because the dust on the ground can contain bugs and the sanitary conditions can be … less than desirable. So I was tasked with finding shoes to wear with my skirts. The most logical choice was sandals. But with socks? Socks with sandals? Really?
I was not the only person for whom this presented a challenge. I realize that as future clergy we aren’t expected to be particularly fashionable … but this was the first of many challenges I would encounter! Now I imagine most of you are thinking, “is she really going to give us a rundown of her wardrobe in Ghana?” Don’t worry. I’m not.
I bring up the issue of footwear to illustrate the way I prepared for my trip. I knew very little about what was to come. I hoped that by preparing myself and wearing the right clothes, or the right shoes, I would set the stage for the trip of a lifetime. The goal of this journey was to immerse myself in Ghanaian culture … the last thing I wanted to do was walk off the plane wearing white tube socks and shiny white walking sneakers! The last thing I wanted was to look like a tourist!
Of course, I was reminded by friends and family that the sheer whiteness of my complexion was more than enough to have me stick out like a sore thumb! And yes, when all was said and done … I decided to embrace my culture … the shoes I wore most frequently in Ghana were navy blue Chuck Taylor’s.
It was that pair of Chuck Taylor’s that first stepped on to African soil. I wore those shoes at the base of the tallest waterfall in West Africa … and I wore them as I danced and sang, arm and arm, with an elderly Ghanaian woman at the local senior center! Those shoes remind me of the places I saw, the people I met, and the beauty that is Ghana. I wore them as I stood on holy ground.
In the book of Exodus, Moses journeys to the mountain of the Lord. It is there that he encounters a bush that is ablaze with fire, but it is not consumed. As God calls Moses forward, God says to him: “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
What is it that makes a place holy? What is it that holds the energy of that place in such a light that awe and wonder are evoked in those who tread there?
Many places come to mind when we think of holy ground. Perhaps we think of places like Jerusalem, the Taj Mahal, or the Sistine chapel. Perhaps we think a little closer to home. The place we find holy may be a nearby mountain, a clearing in the woods that stretch behind our house, or a pond where the sun shines in such a way that we sit in quiet wonder.
What is it about these places that makes them holy? Is it that they represent in our history? It is how they have helped to shape who we are or how we see the world? Are they holy because we feel at home there?
We have all been on holy ground. Each time we have consoled a friend, felt the mist of the water on our skin when we visit the ocean, or sat in quiet reflection at a funeral. These are moments when we experience the holy. We experience the holy in our times of celebration and joy: at the wedding of our child, making music in church, or visiting with an old friend. And often what matters most about those moments is not where we are, but who we are with, and how we experience the moment. It is the sense of the holy that lives in our hearts.
I stood on holy ground in Ghana.
I traveled with nine colleagues on a twelve-day journey. We all piled into an old beat up van.
Five Christian and two Unitarian Universalist seminarians.
A professor of church history.
A retired minister.
This sounds like the beginning of a bad joke!
Our first stop was at a Kente weaving village, then thru villages and cities, driving along roads lined with people. We bought three loaves of bread from a woman who carried about three-dozen others upon her head in a large metal bowl.
That evening we had a visitor at the hotel. His name is Crafty. We welcomed Crafty with traditional Ghanaian custom of offering a refreshment of minerals (which is their name for soda) or water. Crafty took a drink of ice cold water.
Crafty is not his birth name, but a name given to him because of his outstanding artistic talent. He has been named a national treasure by the Ghanaian government. Crafty is Muslim, which made him a unique person for us to meet. Our group was hosted by the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Ghana, and so most of the people we met are Christians. Crafty has a sweet smile and a joyful laugh, and he speaks beautifully about his faith in people and the importance of a good spirit. That evening we talked with Crafty about important issues like snow … and snowmen … and snowshoeing … Crafty was amazed by snow! I have to say, after the conversation with him, I watched snowflakes fall with new wonder and amazement.
He invited us to his home. When we arrived, we saw the fruits of his years of labor … a unique home that is intricately decorated and adorned with his work. He taught us how to make stains for wood carvings and make jewelry. I tried diligently to make a necklace that would have him smile and say that I had done good work.
He brought us to his workshop and gave us our choice of the widest array of beads I have ever seen. I asked how old these particular beads were and he replied, “maybe one hundred and fifty or two-hundred years old?” I was reluctant to use them in my necklace … I was scared to even handle them … but he urged me forward.
When I finished with my necklace, Crafty clasped it around my neck.
“How much do I owe you?” I asked.
“Oh no, this is a gift!” he replied.
“Crafty, I couldn’t … please, let me pay you for the beads.” I said.
“This is your water,” Crafty replied. “When I visited you at the hotel you gave me water to drink. I can’t give you my water because it will make you sick. So you will take this necklace as your water.”
We stood on holy ground.
A few days later I wore that necklace as I walked down a long and dusty dirt road. I was accompanied by my fellow travelers and about fifty people from the village of Kpenoe. We were singing and walking together on our walk to another village. The village we were visiting was different. It was smaller than most. There are very few families there. It was unlike the other places we visited in Ghana. The village was created for a specific purpose: as a place for people who had leprosy to go and be cured.
I had no idea that leprosy was still a health issue in the world … I thought it ended sometime in Biblical days. There are stories of Jesus curing lepers with his touch, of reaching out to them at a time when they were so badly shunned by society. But to be honest, I didn’t think leprosy was still an issue! But it is. It is curable, but it is impossible to reverse its effects. So, we met the people of the Cured Lepers Village. We held their hands, and we visited with them. Many of the people there were older, but some were quite young.
When we asked about their lives in the village one man, who was in his 60’s, spoke. He said, “I have been here for 48 years, and my family has never come to see me. I am dead to them. They are so scared of the disease.” And this was true for many others there. Truth is, these people had been shunned because they had a disease that is spread by human contact. They are cured … and still people fear their touch.
As my hands met theirs … I could feel the energy in these beautiful people … I could feel the energy of this beautiful place.
I stood on holy ground.
Perhaps the holiest of moments came on our last day in Ghana. We drove six hours to Cape Coast. Our journey ended at a large fortress that stood on the waterfront … a coast lined with palm trees and sandy beaches. It was like something out of a postcard … an elegant port city with boats scattered along the shore.
The fortress upon the shore is mighty and solid. It’s called Elmina Castle, and is the founding site of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
There I stood, where millions of others have been … at a place that had such immense impact on our world, and countless lives. A place that continues to cast a shadow over our lives in this very instant.
We entered the castle and stood in the dungeons where captives were kept, sometimes for months at a time … as they awaited their fates … never to be free again.
We stood in the church that was built directly above the dungeons …
We peered through a narrow opening in the wall, called the “Door of No Return.” This was the last stop at the castle for those captives who had been sold into slavery. A thin stream of light shone through it into the dark cavern where we stood and looked out at the open ocean … a horizon of unknown future … a sparkling horizon of unknown fate.
We were led into a small cell … the door was closed … and there was no light … no ventilation. We were told that it was here that male captives who were rebelling were brought as punishment. They were given no water … given no food … and would eventually die.
The silence in the room was deafening. We stood on holy ground.
A few years ago a friend asked me to tell her about a time in my ministry when my heart cracked open. I sat there, silently, a little confused and speechless. It’s not often that I am speechless, I can usually find something to say about most things.
To imagine my heart cracked open, required some imagination. To be fully open … fully vulnerable … fully able to simultaneously give and receive the fullness of love and compassion. To be fully able to let sacred energy flow in and through me. Ever since that day I have thought about her question, and yearned for the day that I would have such an experience.
Since then I have sat with a young mother as she holds her newborn child for the first time. I have held the hand of a man who the next day would take his last breath. I have shared silent still moments with a young woman who struggles to find a reason to live. And in each of these moments, I have felt the presence of the holy. In each of these moments I have been graciously invited onto holy ground and shared the honor of the most intimate times in people’s lives.
I can imagine that some of you have had similar experiences … times when you’ve felt connected with another by the sacred and holy that is in that space. I can imagine you have stood on holy ground. Perhaps here, in this place … you experience the holy. In each moment of connection with another there is such potential to open our hearts to the holy in that place.
Just as sculptures are made by the gradual chiseling away of stone, each of those experiences has chipped away at my heart. With each experience, my heart was forever changed, and the imprint of that person or place now lives there.
But my heart cracked open in Ghana.
For perhaps the first time, I was open and vulnerable in ways I had never been before. Maybe it was the group I was with, the specific time in my life, or the places I visited. I’m inclined to think that it was none of these things … and all of them. My heart cracked open because of the holiness of each place I saw, the holiness in the eyes of each person I met … and the power and energy of my experience there.
Perhaps we find ourselves on holy ground when the divine spark within us joins the spark of another. Perhaps we find holy ground when we open ourselves to the possibility of change, of transformation. Perhaps we find holy ground only when we bring our lives alongside those of others to create the colorful and beautiful symmetry of a kaleidoscope … dancing in the flame together.
On that holy ground may our hearts crack open … bringing our light to the beauty of this world. In that holy place let us be forever changed. May it be so for all of us. Amen.