In the 5th grade I wrote a paper about Iceland which was when I first had the desire to visit this place. I can still remember the encylopedia page (yes, it was totally ‘old school’ huge, heavy book with thick glossy pages and bright pictures) with the photos of people on bikes, the big steepled church and farmlands of sheep. I do not entirely remember why I fell so in love with the idea of Iceland, maybe it was just because it was the first time I had researched something I knew nothing about, however, I do know that the idea of living so far north, being with others who knew endless days of sun and endless days of darkness, and thus in my mind must see life differently was fascinating.
I set out on this trip to Iceland with the idea that I would find out more about this “Lutheran Country” (the state church is Lutheran) and what that meant. I had these key questions in mind: What does Lutheran identity look like in this place? What does religious identity look like in this place? It is interesting to look now at the questions I posed and laugh a little and not knowing what I did not know. They may not be the questions I would ask now, but they remain good ones with which to start. What I found out about Iceland is some of the answers to these questions but more so about the majesty of creation and God’s infinite creative process. What I also know is that one blog post cannot sum up my reflections and that there will be more insight to come as the days and weeks and months progress. And this is a good place to start.
There is much in Iceland that is of Lutheran history–the majestic cathedral in the center of the town, the small white country churches found in every remote area that look exactly alike, the historical elements of the people voting and choosing to adopt this religion. Also, in theological terms, Iceland is a very open and welcoming place, which is a part of our identity in the ELCA. For instance, there are signs that state LGBTQ people are welcome, restrooms say ‘whichever’ on the door instead of designating a gender, and the Pride parade is attended by over 100,000 people while the population of Iceland is just around 300,000.
The history of Iceland is such that the real roots of religion come from long standing Norse mythology traditions. We hiked a hill that is seen as a sacred site and has been for centuries–but first it was a hill to be climbed to worship Thor and now it is attributed to Jesus, but still carries some of the tradition with it because as the story goes, if you climb the hill in silence without looking back, you can make three wishes at the top–none of the wishes can cause harm to anyone and must be positive in nature. So we went ahead and paid our 4 Icelandic kroner and hiked the hill in silence. The view was spectacular and the wind was strong enough to hold us up if we leaned back. While I am not sure that I would classify this as a deep spiritual experience (ok, I am sure that I wouldn’t), it was a connecting moment as we climbed in silence, politely nodding to those one their way down who dared to try to speak to us (must not have read the sign!). Seeing the view in each direction of the land and see around us, the little church in the distance, the boats and roads and mountains and holding our little knit square was a moment of being small in the vastness of God, but not being small alone, yet rather together. Also, being connected to a story–the story of the people there, the story of the mountain, the story of Thor and Jesus and all the threads that tied together to come to that moment is what being knit together is about. It is connecting with those we know well and love and with the mystery of God’s creation and with people who have different stories yet the same oneness.
This ‘oneness’ connection in Iceland is where I will land on answering the questions posed at the beginning. This country has a deep spiritual history from worshipping the Norse gods, to holding sagas–big meetings–where a vote was taken to be Christians and with that came Lutheranism, to the immense amounts of space and beauty of so many places (black sand beaches, waterfalls the original Geyser, volcanoes to just name a few). There were very few people in worship on Sunday and the space echoed with the words and the prayers and yet there was a richness to the deeper connections in this country. While no hymns were sung in the street and the only place we saw signs of ‘Lutheranism’ was in the church buildings, we did experience a place that holds the promise of God’s grace in connection with all of creation and humanity, which at it’s core is very Lutheran.
Iceland holds a spirit of adventure, of appreciating the spaces and the places around you, of living each day with the light you have when you have it. It would be cold and rainy and overcast all day and then the sun would shine brightly at 10pm and the children would come out to play–this is embracing light and living into it whenever and however you can! Jesus says in the gospel of Matthew–You are a light for the world, a city on a hill and in John we are told that Jesus is that word and that light come to dwell with us. This is what make deeper connections between the land and sky and people; living into the gifts of the moment and remaining in the promise so that when darkness is present or overcast the light continues to sustain you and breath with you and in you.
So here are some new questions–What does this look like in your life? How do you catch the light and embrace its moments and then allow it to be sustaining gift? Where do you look for the spaces of God breathing in and out and in between? What hills have you climbed while not looking back, allowing the moment and the space to embrace you?