By Anna Helzer
(This blog is the first part of a two-part series)
It’s easy for me to recognize encounters with God in familiar places, where I expect God to be. Sometimes those familiar places are the Lutheran hymns and liturgy that I’ve grown up with, or the beautiful Behold liturgy that we use at the Lutheran Center. Sometimes those places are actual places, like the Lutheran Center sanctuary in Sunday morning worship or afternoons playing piano by myself or evening prayer or the lounge filled with conversations, laughter, studying, and theological discussions.
As one of the two Hosts at the Lutheran Center last year, the building and its routines and people became deeply and intimately familiar to me. For an entire year, I closed the building nearly every night. In that familiar routine of caring for the building and the people who lived and worked and worshipped in it, it was obvious to me that God was present. Emptying the trash and recycling from the offices and shared spaces, wiping down the tables used for lunches and homework and board games, locking the doors, and standing for a few moments in the silence of the shadowed sanctuary before heading upstairs were all such concrete ways for me to recognize God’s presence in the building, throughout that day and overnight, and silently give thanks for the day and the people who had been there.
At our staff training this year, Dr. Michael Chan, an Old Testament professor at Luther Seminary, spoke to us about how the Israelites encountered God at the Mountain of God, Mount Sinai. Generations of God’s people returned from wanderings in the wilderness to hear God’s word and worship at the Mountain again and again throughout the Old Testament. I loved learning from Michael, but this part of his lessons hurt my heart a little. The Lutheran Center has been a place for me and generations of other students to encounter God. But over the last six months, as I’ve moved out of our host apartment, we’ve celebrated the Lutheran Center’s decommissioning service, and the building has been emptied and stripped, it has sometimes felt like walking away from the Mountain of God and into the wilderness. Where will we encounter God, I’ve wondered, when the mountain is no longer available to us and we are deep in the wilderness?
It’s harder for me to recognize encounters with God in the midst of change and uncertainty and in unfamiliar places. One evening this summer, a few weeks after the decommissioning service, I was in the sanctuary with Pastor Adam and a few other students who had come to see the empty building. The sanctuary was stripped bare – the cross had been taken down from the wall, the chairs were stacked in the lounge, and the piano had been moved to the back of the room. The eternal candle near the pulpit was gone, too, and I joked, looking around the bare room, that God had officially left the building. “No,” said Pastor Adam seriously. “God’s definitely still here.”
God IS still here. In her beautiful book, Inspired, Rachel Held Evans wrote that “some of Scripture’s most momentous events occur not at the start of a journey, nor at the destination, but in between, in the wilderness.” God is with God’s people in the wilderness, whether or not they/we make it back to the Mountain to worship there. God shows up in the fire leading us through the night, in the abundance and fellowship of the meals we share in the middle of our journeys, and even in the empty sanctuary. God goes with us into and through the unfamiliarity; thanks be to God.