Lord, you have made my lot secure.
—King David, Psalm 16
In both my personal life and pastoral ministry, I am sustained by this underlying conviction: our place in this world is wonderfully important.
The reality is that wherever we are, we live in bodies and occupy both space and time. I am never apart from my body (although sometimes I wonder about dreams I have on a ‘melatonin night’) or space—the physical, tangible space of my office or our living room. But the deeper reality is that certain spaces matter far more to me than others.
While space is all around us—it’s air, ground, objects, etc.—some places are different. Place is unique; it’s meaningful and significant space, almost divine space.
What is Place?
Place is hard to define (which is why it’s so neglected in contemporary theologies), but it’s easy to recognize and describe.
Place is where I grew up, in South Kansas City, on Cherry Street, where we turned our backyard into a baseball diamond and invited friends over to play home run derby. Place is the church I grew up in, was baptized in, and where my parents met some 35 years ago—it’s where our family has been known and loved for decades. Place is the cemetery where my older brother and younger sister are buried. It’s just grass and flowers and a couple of caskets, but of course, to my family and me, it’s so much more. It’s almost sacred, holy ground; its significance and meaning is huge to us.
Place is where my wife and I went on our first date in college, the small now-closed Artisan Cafe back in Columbia, Missouri. Place is Cherokee Park, where we first visited five years ago with our baby son. I remember the day like it was yesterday: 65 degrees and sunny, crowded with runners and cyclists and families with happy little kids. We sat under this giant tree at Cherokee Park and decided we wanted to spend the rest of our lives right here in Louisville, Kentucky. Place is St Matthews, where we bought our first home and are now raising our three boys. It’s where we go on walks and meet our neighbors; it’s the center of our ministry and where we will send our kids to public schools.
Place is Home. It’s where our heart is, where we find meaning, where we are known, where we are safe, where we belong.
We were each created by God with this divine capacity to fall in love with the natural spaces around us, for them to become a Place for us.
In his great work Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today, Old Testament scholar Craig G Bartholomew writes: “Place is so fundamental to human existence and so ubiquitous that, paradoxically, it is easy to miss.”
Place in the Scriptures
But the Scriptures—both Old and New Testaments—carefully describe places as though they were intimately connected to the people and events that occurred there. The creation narrative is a beautiful telling of the beginning of the cosmos and then humanity, not as an entire, diverse race, but as a single man and woman, in one unique place, Eden. Mankind is given dominion over the entire place of earth; by “ruling” over the land, animals, and seas, man images its Creator. But in the fall of man, the “emplacement” of man in Eden gives way to their “displacement”—both from the presence of God and their Place in Eden.
Through the rest of the Old Testament, Place is critically significant: Abel’s punishment for murder is removal from the land; Abraham is told by God to “go to a place I will show you”; slavery in Egypt is followed by the exodus into the wilderness, where the people wander in pursuit of the Promised Land; Israel’s lowest points spiritually and morally lead them into exile in Babylon and other nations, their highest points see them restored to security in Jerusalem, the City of David, Zion itself!
Similarly, in the NT, Jesus is found walking along the path, sitting in the town square, eating with tax collectors and sinners, and reclining at table with his disciples. He retreats into quiet mountains, he collapses in the Garden of Gethsemane, and he was crucified, significantly, “outside the city gates.” Christ’s great victory, of course, is his physical, literal, bodily resurrection; he returns to many of the same places, but now everything has changed! So too, after his ascension back to his eternal Place (the right hand of the Father), his followers are no longer identified by their old nationalities (Jew and Gentile) but as a new dwelling place, the temple of God and the body of Christ.
But despite the great biblical narrative and basic human reality of emplacement, we live in a crisis of place.
Why Place Matters Today
In our late-modern age we have lost that very human sense of place amidst the time-space compression characteristic of “postmodernity” and globalization. Place has become something that one moves through, preferably at great speed, and virtual reality is no re-place-ment. As David Lyon perceptively notes of cyberspace, “There is no place to this space.” Casey describes our culture as dromocratic, that is, a speedbound era. Indeed, the suffering of placelessness is not confined to refugees and those in exile, agonizing as their experiences are; in our dromocratic society every person constantly “on the move” suffers from placelessness in one form or another.
We are a culture of loners, strangers and exiles: a people who have no clue where their Home is. In the name of mobility—the ability to get a better education, better job and better family—our culture has trained us to always look for “the next big thing.” And what has mobility has cost us but stability? We have lost our sense of pride in the ordinary things of life, of loving our family and friends, and of being devoted to one another.
Contemporary theologians and missiologists have praised the new mega city, where individuals can lose their past, maintain anonymity, and build “upward mobility.” But as Walter Brueggemann notes,
That promise concerned human persons who could lead detached, unrooted lives of endless choice and no commitment. It was glamorized around the virtues of mobility and anonymity that seemed so full of promise for freedom and self-actualization. But it has failed… It is now clear that a sense of place is a human hunger that urban promise has not met…. It is rootlessness and not meaninglessness that characterizes the current crisis. There are no meanings apart from roots.
Those Who Settle
In 2012, Kentucky poet Wendell Berry received our nation’s highest honor for intellectual achievement—the Jefferson Lecture. In his lecture before President Obama and world leaders, Berry delivered an essay on Place: “It All Turns On Affection.” In this lecture, Mr. Berry describes two kinds of people in modern America: Boomers and Stickers.
Boomers are those who pillage and run, who want to make a killing and end up on Easy Street, whereas Stickers are those who settle, and love the life they have made and the Place they have made it in. Boomer names a kind of person and ambition that is the major theme, so far, of the history of the European races in our country. Sticker names a kind of person and desire that is, so far, a minor theme of that history, but a theme persistent enough to remain significant and to offer, still, a significant hope….
The boomer is motivated by greed, the desire for money, property, and therefore power… Stickers on the contrary are motivated by affection, by a love for a Place and its life that they want to preserve.
But let’s take it one step further. Place is more than just the memorable space we inhabit; it’s the full measure of circumstances in which we dwell. Unlike our infinite Creator, we are finite, limited, and restricted. He is Omni; we live within certain fences.
A Delightful Inheritance
Just as we have been created to dwell in a certain place, God has designed us to live within the boundary lines of our own bodies. We are both emplaced and embodied creatures, surrounded by fences on all sides. I’ve written on this before, but it’s helpful here: an enduring mark of spiritual maturity is the audacity to dwell within these fences. The quality of our relationships largely depends on our willingness to recognize and live within.
For example, I have a minor chronic illness that dictates how much time and energy I can spend. I just can’t do all the things that I used to, what other people can do. But if I try to live as though I don’t have a limited body, it won’t go well for me. I, of course, also have the relational boundaries of one wife and three children. As a result, Jessie and I have safeguards to protect our marriage, and we don’t relate to all children like we relate to our own. Growth in Christ, in the reality, alone can enable me to say with King David in Psalm 16:
LORD, you have assigned me my portion and my cup;
You have made my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
Surely I have a delightful inheritance.
I have one portion, one cup, one lot. The boundary lines surround this one life and Place. But like David, I can trust that God is the one who has drawn the lines, who has determined my portion and cup. Everything within these fences—this body, this spouse, these children, this job, this neighborhood—has been given by God. This is my Place.
And in faith, I want to be able to say “The boundary lines have fallen in pleasant places.” To say, “This is a delightful set of circumstances that the Lord has entrusted to me.
There is a real spiritual danger to being a Boomer and one who is constantly looking to a new and better Place. “I wish I had a different job; I wish I lived in Boston; I wish I didn’t have health issues; I wish we weren’t stuck at home with little kids every night…”
This is a dangerous and sad Place to be as a Christian, and it’s a very real threat to the whole church.
My buddy Jamison makes his pastoral interns read Berry’s essay. There’s always going to be the lure of “the bigger and better”: bigger city, more innovative strategy, better church. It’s ridiculous when you put it on paper, but how many young bucks have gone into pastoral ministry out of a sincere desire and calling to make disciples, only to end up scheming for a hip church, radical mission field, and/or thriving national platform?
So, you might ask, are there any practices or habits we can cultivate to enable a more deeply rooted life in our Place? I’m glad you asked.
From Hostility to Hospitality
I have become recently convinced that there is a single activity that embraces and cultivates a fidelity to place: hospitality. Hospitality, in the fullest, most biblical sense, is the distinctly Christ-like practice of creating space. In hospitality, we open our hearts and create space for the Holy Spirit to dwell and to fill. In hospitality, we open our homes and create space for our family and friends to be themselves. In hospitality, we reject cultural barriers and stereotypes and create space for the poor, the needy, the marginalized, and simply, people unlike us.
Henri Nouwen, in the last years of his life, wrote a short book on the essential movements of spiritual formation, and noted the essential transformation “from hostility to hospitality.” It’s a perfect phrase: the opposite of hospitality is not just busyness; it’s hostility. We don’t have time, we don’t have space, we are dissatisfied, not because we are busy, but because we are hostile! We are fiercely committed to self-preservation. Don’t let anyone in; don’t take risks; don’t reach out.
By releasing our own internal hostility toward others—especially the outsider and the needy—we return to our roots, to our Place.
Few things have been as deeply challenging and rewarding this year as the very simple task of leading and hosting a community group again. I say “again” because we have led and hosted small groups in our homes and apartments for most of the past eight years. (In fact, I grew up in a family that often hosted small groups, had young singles live with us, and demonstrated incredible hospitality.) But after a short break, and after gaining more responsibility at the church and having three crazy boys, opening up our home week in and week out to a dozen plus young adults… it’s just much, much less appealing than it used to be.
But this year has been profoundly satisfying because of this wonderful group of people, even though apart from Christ and this group, we don’t have much in common. But now, they don’t just come over on Wednesday nights. They regularly babysit our boys, so that our boys can see a number of examples of godly men and women. The guys come over often for sports games—all part of my justification for satellite TV and NFL Sunday Ticket! Some have stayed the weekend with us during tough seasons. We recently spent an entire day together Red River Gorge, and it wasn’t even awkward. Truly, we have done life together, and no one has been more blessed by it than us.
So here we are, for probably the first time in our lives, living truly rooted lives in our Place. We’re finally aware of who we are, where we are, and although we’ve got a lot to learn, the good Lord has brought us to a beautifully satisfied Place. There’s no “for now.” This is where we are. This is our home, our Place.
May the Lord give us wisdom and patience for a wonderfully simple, deeply rooted life.