A couple of weeks ago I drove 20 hours to preach one 30 minute sermon. This is something that I would normally avoid at all costs, but this trip was different. This trip was a long time coming.
I grew up in Northwest Indiana, sometimes called the Lake (as in Michigan) Region, or to those of us who grew up there, simply the Region. It’s a unique place that exists in the shadow of the greatest city on earth without the annoyance of having to actually live in Illinois. It’s famous for steel mills, sand dunes, Michael Jackson, and discount fireworks.
It had been years since I’d been back to visit my hometown of Crown Point. I missed both my 10th and my 20th high school reunions. My family and most of my friends had moved out of the area, and I just haven’t had much reason or opportunity to go back until this particular weekend. And on this visit I would bringing my two girls with me.
Those poor girls. They got to ride in a van for 20 hours to see the lot where their dad’s high school used to stand. (I can remember making fun of how ancient my dad was when I learned his high school was no longer standing.) They got to see the track where their dad won many fourth place finishes. They got to eat lunch at Schoop’s. They got to see each one of the five houses that their dad lived in and hear stories that all pretty much ended with “you don’t realize how good you have it.”
And they got to hold their dad’s hand as they visited their aunt at the cemetery.
Our long stroll down dad’s memory lane finally ended at Camp.
Lake Region Christian Assembly. It was the reason that I had made the trip. I was asked to come and speak at an appreciation dinner for volunteers. I wish I could tell you how important this place is to me.
I learned to swim in the camp’s pool. I learned to drive on the camp’s roads. I met my best friend at camp when I was five-years-old. I had my first crush at camp when I was in seventh grade. I still remember trying to position myself to stand next to her in the prayer circle at the end of the day. Thousands of memories came rushing at me when I set foot back on that ground. Memories of long days under the summer sun when you were young and you didn’t know it. Memories of summer nights packed with campfires, hay rides, capture the flag, and endless games of knock-out. Aching memories of dear friends from what seems like another lifetime ago.
I wish I could tell you how important this place is to me. Some of you have places like this. I know that a person’s alma mater is typically the place where they received their formal education. But LRCA is my “nourishing mother.” It raised me. Literally. When you’re young, you don’t appreciate how a place is shaping you. When you get older, it becomes impossible to imagine yourself without that place.
Camp LRCA is a special place. But it’s more than that. It’s a sacred place. A sacred place is any place where God shows up. And God showed up for me at Camp. It was at camp in junior high that I had my first serious discussion about God and His purpose for my life with my dad. It was also at camp years later where I would spend hours walking alone with God expressing my anger, bitterness, and confusion that my sister had to die. Camp is a sacred place.
And sacred places matter. Somehow or another it seems like we have lost the spiritual significance of physical places. It seems that we don’t pay enough attention to the power of places to disciple us. We’re hesitant to even call a place sacred. After all, didn’t Jesus tell the woman at the well that the place of worship was less important than worshiping in spirit and truth? And aren’t we told in numerous passages in the New Testament that God’s people are actually the sacred space – the temple of God, the spiritual household? No, places are not special or sacred. Places are simply utilitarian. They serve a purpose. If you are wanting to get from point A to point B, any transportation will do. If you are wanting to worship God, any old place will do. And our places reflect this utilitarian purpose. Very few people would mistake many of our church buildings as sacred places.
But is God anti-place? Of course not! The whole doctrine of creation would challenge that idea. The Jews knew that God couldn’t be confined to a building. But they built the Temple anyway and worshiped God there with absolute sanctity. Yes, Jesus does say that true worshipers worship in spirit and truth, but it would be a mistake to assume that Jesus didn’t care about sacred places – specifically the Temple. That would be like saying “Because Jesus told us not to announce our gifts to the poor with trumpets we no longer need to give to the poor.” But a sacred place doesn’t have to be a Temple. It could be a burning bush. It could be a field where you wrestled with God. A sacred place is any place where God shows up. I have been forever blessed by a sacred place – an unimpressive church camp with stinky well water where God regularly showed up and changed the lives of hundreds and thousands of kids. I pray that my kids will have such a place. I pray that in our disenchanted and utilitarian world, there will exist somewhere for them an enchanted place they revere as sacred.
The opposite of place is displace. The New Testament says that we are displaced, aliens and exiles in the world. But it seems to me that people who are displaced feel a more pressing need to identify sacred places. In the same way that a patch of dry ground is life-giving to a person adrift at sea, a sacred place offers life and nourishment to a person adrift in a culture largely drained of anything sacred.
As we were on the long drive home, I started thinking about the spiritual discipline of the pilgrimage. That is what we had been on together. It is the only reason why the trip made an sense. We don’t usually talk about this discipline. I know I’ve never heard any teaching on it. The pilgrimage has a long, important history in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. But we no longer go on pilgrimages outside of perhaps our weekly pilgrimage to church. For most of us there are only two reasons to travel – for work or for pleasure. The idea of traveling for worship never even occurs to us. So I wonder what would it look like for us to somehow recover this discipline – to identify those sacred places and to intentionally and strategically journey there for worship? What would it change in us, in our kids, in our communities to recover the discipline of the pilgrimage?