All Other Ground is Shishmaref

I chose the words for my title very carefully. It is a good title. I like it because of the positivity I hear in it. This ground, this place is not just our ground. It is not just the ground of 600 Inupiat people, who have lived here for generations on the edge of the world. It is all of our ground, because the things happening here matter for all of us. The climate change that immediately threatens the way of life in Shishmaref, is the same climate change that is a threat to all other ground as well. The only difference is, we see our homes toppling into the ocean. We can look at our fourth sea-wall and how thin and fragile a barrier it is between us and the melting stormy northern seas. But Shishmaref is not the only ground sinking into the ocean. For our planet is changing, and whether you live right in the mess of the thaw or not, your ground is also Shishmaref ground. Your ground is as much sinking sand as Shishmaref.

Now, this positivity is something I have had to claim into that phrase. It is not a positive all-ground is Shishmaref Ground sense in which I first heard it. In fact, the phrase was sung to me jeeringly. An elder pastor sang it to me and my Shishmaref Native campers attending a summer camp near Nome. There is an old hymn by Edward Mote which goes “On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand; All other ground is sinking sand.” It was an easy switch to make to sing to us that all other ground is Shishmaref. It is my practice to take anything said to me in a jeering and dismissive way, and defiantly find the positive in it. But that is my own peculiar coping mechanism. It is indeed a hard truth that we all must face: Shishmaref is sinking sand. But singing it jeeringly to a bunch of kids is perhaps not the best way to face a hard truth. In fact, it is the most sure way to guarantee that we neglect the truth. It will be sunk and drowned in shame. The best way I know to bury truth so that it will never see the light of day is with shame. Shame is a sinking sand that will swallow us all.

Which brings me to another tragic way in which all other ground is positively and absolutely Shishmaref. When I say those first paragraphs above, to me they are hard-won words spoken in hope of action. But to some, that action is to jeer and shame and bury more truths. When confronted with the sinking of our land, we become ashamed. We think about how we have not done enough, we think on ourselves and our country and our pollution and mistreatment, and we double over in shame. But this is no good. This is worse than if you hadn’t heard at all that all other ground truly was Shishmaref. Because now you are sinking in the sands of shame. How quickly the devil in us turns what should be news that frees us into action into something that paralyzes instead! The shame that I imagine my campers felt at hearing the song with the word Shishmaref swapped in for the words sinking sand, is the same shame I imagine many of us feel when confronted with our own hard truths and realities.

This is not how truths should move us. Or in my Lutheran terms, I would say: This is not a good end to preaching the law. If talking about the truth of the human condition ends in despair and shame, then you are not done talking about it. If you hear that your ground is sinking, and the end of that is you coiling up in shame and sinking with it, things are worse not better. Truth should not be buried in shame. For that only causes our sinking nature to double!

How then should truth move us? I talk about truth as hard, not because it is perhaps more solid than say fiction. That fiction can often be more solid to us than truth is evident in how many of us are daily bumped around and supported by our unending heaps of fictions. No, I talk about truth as hard, because it is not easy. I talk about it as hard, because like the hardness of a knife it cuts into and divides us. It cuts and bumps harder than our fictions do. So truth cuts us away and forces us to face our own inadequacies. It forces us to see the sinking sand that is all of the ground that we stand on. But the truth doesn’t stop there. It keeps on hard through. Because at the very bottom of it is something else: we are not in control. We are no more the ones who are going to fix the truths of the world, any more than we are the ones who set them up. Truth then, pointing us to our needs, to our sinking sands, should move us to trust and hope. Not shame.

Why trust and hope? How do I get there from exposing and cutting ugliness? Well I don’t. See, the idea that I could get there is part of the problem. I am not in control. I do not get there by my effort of will or strength. When I am no longer in the seat of power, it no longer makes sense for me to be looking down and in on myself in shame. My needs show me that God must act, and that I cannot do things on my own. And so freed from looking at myself, I have nowhere left to look but toward others. I find myself gathered with other people just as broken. And what is looking at others, but learning to trust? What is it to be in community with one another, but to hope? The truths among us force us to look up and out, and to see one another.

At the very bottom of the law is writ the gospel. That is, at the very bottom of hard truth, is the good news of communion with God and one another. Truth should move us to see that we need help! The most true thing about Shishmaref is that without help from others, the government, and all other grounds, we are out of luck. Stay or leave, shame or no shame, we must look to others because we cannot get there on our own. And so we are moved toward trust because it is the only place left to go. We trust and hope that all other grounds are truly Shishmaref. We hope in the idea that we have neighbors who will see us, respond to us, and will reach out in love.

Now I have left you with an ugly sight. I have told you to look at your neighbor. And neighbors are disappointing. For neighbors are not really in control either. And we are generally pretty good at being rotten toward one another. The despair and loneliness that we feel when others around us fail to act in response to our Shishmaref ground is real. That is why we sing each other jeering songs about how much sand we are sinking in. But where is that solid rock? Where is the foundation after all has been shaken away and we are staring at one another, with our trust shaken all the way down to our boots?

Christ the rock on which I stand, stands me. It is not some miracle that gets me out of my suffering. This is not something that magically changes the truth from one of sinking sand to one of polished marble. The truth remains. The cup is not taken away. But as my teacher was fond of saying, “This is a weak and foolish word spoken by the weak and foolish to the other weak fools.” Faith declares peace and holiness in a place where it seems no peace and holiness could be: in the tortured death of someone on a cross. It is a promise that God will show up exactly and precisely in those parched places to satisfy. God comes and makes holy the sinking sand. God comes and makes holy all Shishmaref Ground. God enters into human brokenness, and it is exactly human brokenness that God makes holy. God enters into death and into our hard truths. And God in Christ makes us new.

God does not come in power and might to whisk us away from what ails us. God comes in weakness and death, and speaks a word of hope and trust. God is a light that shines precisely and specifically into the darkness. God gives us strength to face the truth, and to face it together. God does not take the truth away from us. God enters into the truth and makes it holy. And so, through faith, I can say your ugly neighbors are Holy. God will be there with them looking back at you.

Finally, here is the answer to what it is that frees our hands to act. The God that meets us where we are in our brokenness. Here is what it is that makes good works happen among us. Here is where truth should move us: to love given us in Christ. Then, all at once actions gush up out of us spontaneously, as a result of such love. We are loved! We are absolutely loved, every stinking sinking sand one of us! This Love is given persistently and mercilessly to us, who are unlovable. Love given to all. Love given to Shishmaref.

There is no better action-freeing thing I know than love. (Insert necessary reference to Luther’s freedom of a Christian here). Take any listless good-for-nothing teen, who spends all their time moping in their room. Now watch what happens when that same teen falls in love. There is no end to the number of things they will do for that love! All of a sudden, that same moping person is buying chocolates, or staying up all night texting, or snapchatting or running aimlessly through the rain on fool’s errands. So it is that love animates us in this foolish way. So it is that we do good for one another. All because of the freely given love of God, that looks at the ground we’re standing on and says, “This too, is a holy place. This people, are a loved people.” This is the trust and hope to be found in our brokenness: God shows up there and loves us! And it is that Love that I am pointing to when I say that all other ground is Shishmaref.


  1. Sharon Richter
    Sep 7, 2016

    Preach it!

  2. Pastor Gary Stiegler
    Sep 7, 2016

    Tommy, I am proud to have spent 7 months getting to know you and applaud your words to the people of Shishmaref as you settle in to your “new” church home. Your message should be shared with every church in the ELCA worldwide. “Sinking Sand” may be a physical anomaly in Shishmaref, but every church in America has it’s own “sinking sand” in church giving, evangelism, growth, faith development, trust, and hope. Your friends from the lower 49 would do well to heed your words and seek new hope and trust from a God who will always be our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ , our solid rock on which we stand.

  3. ed slaughter
    Sep 7, 2016

    AMEN !!! Your words,thoughts and faith are truly uplifting—It takes effort and faith to live by them–thank you Rev Tom !!!!!!

  4. Crockett
    Sep 15, 2016

    Eduardo Duran: Healing the Soul Wound; Counseling with American Indians and Other Native Peoples – a little light reading for the soul. Hope your well.