“Be Present”

Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting Gerald’s Tree portrays a dense, gnarly juniper with three tapering arms that reach toward the sky. Round red hills stand in the background while bright spring grasses grow beneath the tree. I was lucky to take a tour of O’Keeffe’s painting sites at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. On this walk, the guide pointed out Gerald’s tree. It’s still there. You see, junipers are perfectly adapted to the desert, inhabiting poor quality soils, thriving where other trees fail. They grow very slowly, developing massive underground roots. They live for hundreds of years (the internet says between 350-700 years on average). And after they die, they do not quickly rot, but continue to stand upright for hundreds of more years. The tour guide drew our attention to a shadow in the painting sprawled across the ground next to the tree. At first glance, it appears to be the shadow of the tree. But a closer look reveals that such an assumption doesn’t make sense with the way the light falls. Instead, O’Keeffe said, the shadow was that of her friend, the Irish writer, Gerald Heard, who was dancing around the tree. O’Keeffe once remarked, “I wish people were all trees and I think I could enjoy them then.”[1] She was certainly known to be a bit of a hermit. But I don’t hear in this comment so much a dislike for people as a recognition of how important it is for us to be rooted. The enduring juniper tree beckons us to be fully present, to inhabit our own bodies and spirits with integrity. When we are present, then we come alive. When we are present, then, like Gerald, we can dance.

I hear this same message in Paul’s letter to the Romans. “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” In other words… God is present. And we ought to be present too, be rooted. That is worship. Worship means inhabiting our own bodies, and the body of the world, as sacred space. Paul continues: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” I don’t think that Paul means to set up a dualism: to say the “world” is bad, and the church is good. I don’t believe he wants the followers of Christ to withdraw from society. It seems to me that Paul is talking about a world that seems real but is actually a delusion. Do not conform, Paul urges, to the lies of this culture: the lie that says our sacred earth is only a commodity to be exploited; the lie that says dishonoring the divine image in each person is simply the cost of doing business; the lie that frames violence as the one and only option we have to resolve differences, to deal with fear, to end hatred. The pressure to believe in, and to live by, these lies is enormous. But rooting ourselves in God’s vision of the world changes everything.

As we celebrate the restoration of this building, and honor the earth that cradles it, let us remember that this is sacred space. Here, we worship the living God. Here we offer our full attention—body, mind and spirit—to the Holy One who is Creator, Christ and Spirit, who is above us, beside us and within us. Being present to God on this holy ground is an act of resistance that allows us to be “transformed by the renewing of our minds.” I have, in the past, viewed the costs of this building—of tuck-pointing stone, replacing slate, repairing windows, smoothing alleys, plastering and painting—as a burden on our financial and human resources, and even as an obstacle to the ministry we are called to do. But recently I have realized that our attention to this sacred space, our rootedness in this place, is integral to our ministry.

This week, Linda Kelsey and I attended immigration court. We went representing First Church, the University Area Sanctuary Coalition, and an organization called the Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee (MIRAC). We went to accompany a woman named Kelly who had requested spiritual support because her partner was facing deportation. The moment I entered through the guard gate, I felt it: this place was designed to instill fear, to keep people in line. Police cars were parked everywhere. Guards milled about. IDs were checked multiple times and purses and diaper bags sent through metal detectors. We entered the courtroom and sat through several cases. It was heartbreaking to listen, as again and again, the judge uttered final orders for deportation, shattering lives and breaking families apart. I couldn’t help but notice that everyone the court expelled from our nation had brown or black skin. Our immigration policy is a mechanism designed to sustain the racist structures and systems on which our nation is built. The location of the immigration court, in the Whipple federal building, at Fort Snelling, embodies this truth in a deeply troubling way. This place is Bdote, the birthplace of the Dakota people. In the winter following the 1862 US-Dakota war, their holy ground became their prison. Those who survived until spring were driven forever from the state; they, too, were deported.

Before we went in to the court that day, we joined hands beneath the American flag and prayed together. I felt a nudge in that moment from the Spirit: claim this place of fear and violence as holy ground. Claim the bodies imprisoned here, the hearts shackled here, as sacred. So I prayed that those detained would know themselves to be beloved children of God, no matter what they were told by our government. I prayed for the lawyers and the judges and the guards, that they, too, would remember who they are and to whom they belong, that their hearts would be open in compassion and their eyes enlightened by the demands of justice.

Worship, in this sacred space, forms in us a spirit of resistance. We gain the strength and vision we need to refuse to conform to the dehumanizing lies of our world. Here, we learn our own story, a history in which the beauty of this holy ground is complicated by pain, and the goodness of this community of faith marred by unhealed acts of harm. The expulsion of the Dakota people from our state was one factor that allowed a small number of families to accumulate enormous wealth by claiming as their own the natural resources of the land. And, of course, the Pillsbury family was one of those families, and their fortune was key to building this church. In our capital campaign, we have the chance to make contributions to ministries that reach beyond our building. It seems fitting to me that we would support the Dakota land recovery project as an act of reparative justice that might begin to restore our souls, that might allow us to inhabit this holy ground with greater integrity. Being present to God in this place strengthens us to worship in every place we live and work and play. Here, we learn to claim the world as holy, to claim our bodies and the bodies of our neighbors as sacred.

Today is a day of celebration. It is a day to dance around what roots us, just as Gerald danced with that gnarled juniper tree. Let us dance with gratitude for the enduring beauty and strength of this sanctuary and the community that is alive in this place. Let us dance with sorrow and with hope in the face of broken relationships that we must repair. Let us dance with joy for all who will enter here and find refuge, and for all who will go out from here formed in resistance.


[1] (http://www.geraldstiebel.com/2016/12/collecting-quotations.html)