A couple of weeks ago, the pastor at my church preached a message drawing from Genesis 22, where Jacob has a vision of God at Bethel. In it, the pastor pointed out how the passage took care to mention several times that Jacob was in "a certain place," and how Jacob marked that place after his experience there. The pastor then talked about the ways that God is experienced in certain places in our own lives. While he was careful to acknowledge that God can be experienced in any place, the pastor paid attention to the ways in which the biblical narrative calls out specific places as having special meaning to God's people, as was the case for Jacob at Bethel. We were invited to think of those places in which we experienced God, and although I ultimately was able to come up with several, the first location that came to mind was Montreat.
Although the entire year-round population of Montreat, North Carolina only numbers somewhere in the hundreds, there are two distinct institutions that make their home there: Montreat College and the Montreat Conference Center (actually, there are several others, but these are arguably the two most significant). At various points in time, I've been involved with both. (Readers can click the keyword "Montreat" to see what I've written in the past, but these two posts should give a quick idea of my time with the college and conference center, respectively.)
Montreat is situated within a cove of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Basically, there is one way into the town (the gate pictured above), and after driving into the town about half a mile, you hit the center of the town, from which you would generally turn right to go uphill. Although there is some overlap of buildings used by both institutions, I think it's safe to suggest that most of the buildings as you travel up the hill are operated by the college, while most of the bulidings at the lower end of the hill are operated by the conference center.
While I was in college, I would spend a good bit of my free time walking down the hill by myself, enjoying the surroundings, and generally glad to be in that place. These were buildings in which I'd seen God in ways that changed my life. I built many memories walking down the creek that parallels the main road into town, or sitting along the dam that holds Lake Susan back from it; enjoying the solitude of Robert Lake Park on the swings; maybe singing quietly to myself one of the theme songs to the youth conferences I'd enjoyed while I was in high school. I'll always cherish those times.
To acknowledge the reality that God may be found anywhere is not to deny the reality that there was something special about the way that I experienced God in that particular place. It is perhaps obvious to point out that, although God can absolutely be seen—for example—here in Pasadena where I work at Fuller Theological Seminary, the urban landscape of Southern California is quite different from the quiet natural wonder of North Carolina.
Location does matter. Perhaps experiencing God in particular ways in particular places helps us to understand God as inhabiting the realities of our lives, rather than being strictly some ethereal "other" with little connection to the things that matter to us.