From Terra Firma, to Terra Incognita, to Terra Sancta

By James Lamkin

Ah, terra firma. Thank God for it. The phrase literally means sturdy land or solid earth. 

Most days, I take the firm footing of Mother Earth for granted. I can live for days in a daze. But then, something unexpected barges in the door; and my safe groundedness turns to sinking sand. The vulnerability of a turbulent plane flight, or the nowhere-to-hide relentless pitch and yaw of a ship on rough seas—and suddenly, I awaken to where I am, and where I am not. 

I’ve left terra firma and entered the different space and time of terra incognita…the unknown land, as others have named it. It is not a Twilight Zone episode, but it feels like one. Early cartographers labeled it: “Here be dragons.” 

To live the adventure of a human life (and a holy one) is to experience dragons and dislocation. 

I’m thinking of ole’ Moses. He turns aside from the land of the familiar, and before he knows it finds himself off the map. The burning bush is before him. His whole past is behind him, including a cover-up hidden beneath the secret sands of history. 

Moses checks his Have a Blessed Day appointment app. “That’s strange,” he says, “no ten o’clock meeting booked with a burning bush.” However, per usual, in the most unlikely place, God shows up.

This theme weaves its way throughout the Bible’s fabric and faith: God loves masquerade. Yes. God seems to enjoy the incognito of terra incognita.

Moses stumbles closer. Then comes the reveal: a clue about shoes. Spirituality requires shedding, always. Holy Ground (Terra Sancta) requires a barefooted soul…and in this case, a shoeless sole.

Every religious tradition points to the sacredly saturated, but often disguised, world. “God was in this place and I did not even know it,” said the patriarch, Jacob. Christ, the familiar stranger, walked with two disciples along the Emmaus Road, “and that they did not know he was Jesus.”

What Moses, and nearly every other biblical character experienced, was walking from the well-known terra firma into the unknown terra incognita, but (surprise, surprise) God knows it to be terra sancta, land that is holy.

I bet one of Moses’ take-aways from the burning bush was that he never looked at the earth beneath his feet the same way again. Maybe he journaled that night: “What if I didn’t just walk onto holy ground? What if all ground is holy? What if I’ve been standing on it all along?” 

Those terra sancta questions have the power to change us. They change what we throw-out a car window when no one is watching. They change what we pour into the Chattahoochee River or the Mississippi, or what we dump into landfills. They change how we relate to neighbors and enemies—all fellow holy-landers (saunterers)—on this holy-human journey.  

The unknowns of life are not mappable—from car crashes to cancer; from a tornado’s splintering of a house to a flood’s erasing of a community; from the euphoria of meeting the love of your life, to the surgeon’s glad news, “I think we got it all.” On some days, we scrounge up enough faith to write on our maps: “Though it may not feel like it, this too is terra sancta.”

We who live north of the equator, already have heard autumn’s muted whispers. The school bell has rung, pumpkins sit with snaggled-toothed grins on doorsteps, and soon a few will set a heavy-laden Thanksgiving table.

Soon carolers will sing of graveyard-shift shepherds watching flocks by night, “all seated on the ground.”

Then, it will all happen again. God will show up in an unexpected place—like a baby born on the backside of Bethlehem. With only a handful (plus all the company of heaven!) noticing, the terra firma and the terra incognita miraculously merge by God’s grace, and yes–become terra sancta. How about that?  

James Lamkin has been connected with the Alliance of Baptists since 1990. His wife Rev. Liz Harris-Lamkin was the first military chaplain endorsed by the Alliance. James recently retired from Northside Drive Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga., after serving as pastor for 23 years. He has a son and a daughter and four grandkids.

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