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On Faith: The geography of grace

I recently returned from a month long sabbatical study leave, during which I studied geography; world geography, and specifically, the geography of the Middle East and the Holy Land.

For whatever reason, I never learned geography during my student years, and as I've come to appreciate the importance of place in understanding history, including Biblical history, I realized I wanted to at least get a basic grasp of the subject. It was surprisingly fun and interesting, and several insights emerged.

First of all, I was vividly impressed by the incredible diversity of this world our God has made, in climate, terrain and people. Secondly, I have a much better context for understanding current events and politics, now that I can form a mental picture of where such events are happening in the world. And thirdly, I recognized that while location is very important in a nation's significance, size is not necessarily so.

Many great empires began from relatively small beginnings: think Greece, Rome, Japan, Great Britain. Nowhere is this more evident than in the significance of the Holy Land, which is holy to three of the world's faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Originally called Canaan in the Old Testament, Palestine in the time of Jesus, and Israel today, the Holy Land is impressively located. Because that ancient country of Canaan was part of the most direct highway situated between the two great empires of ancient times, the Egyptian to the west and the Mesopotamian to the east; and Canaan was also situated on the Fertile Crescent, which made it a promised land of milk and honey, amidst much surrounding desert land.

But when it comes to size, the Holy Land is not at all impressive; it's amazingly small. On a world globe or map, you can barely see Israel. It is, in fact, the size of the state of New Jersey. Which means it is one-tenth of the size of our state of Minnesota. It's more or less the size of Cook, Lake and St. Louis counties combined. That's it. The Holy Land that is central to three world faiths, that has turned the world on its head continually, and that is now the tragic center of so much turbulence, is practically negligible in terms of size. How can that be? It gives us a clue as to how God works.

One of the marvels of our faith is that God chose this small nation, which mattered only mostly in terms of how it was situated between other nations that did matter, to be the cradle of faith and promise for the world. Which shows us that God, as we should already know, often makes surprising choices, does things that seem backwards or crazy to us, and tends to favor the underdog.

God likes to take us off guard by using unexpected and unlikely means through which to accomplish amazing acts. We see this in the choosing of the Hebrew people and tiny nation of Canaan; we see it in the incarnation of the Eternal Word in a fragile human infant; we see this in how a Gospel of love continues to change a world that is often hostile and dark. As the old poem reminds us, "God moves in a mysterious way, God's wonders to perform." God isn't impressed by size or grandeur, but by humility, service and gracious ways.

This should reassure us, when we consider the size of our communities or congregations. We don't have to live in a huge urban center or belong to a mega-church to live faithfully in the kingdom of God and make a difference. We don't need to be big or grand; God works through the humble, the gracious and the willing servant's heart.

On Faith is a weekly column in the News-Chronicle written by area religious leaders. Pastor Susan Berge serves at Knife River Lutheran Church and lives in Duluth.