The Place that Shapes Me

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“It’s not always sexy to stay put, is it? In most of my church tradition, no one ever mentioned the holy work of staying.”

Home_SarahWe made several significant moves when I was a kid, back in the days before Facebook, before email, and long before kids were allowed to use the phone for long-distance phone calls. In those days, when you moved, you moved.

And I liked it. I liked reinventing myself, even as a kid. I liked being able to start over as the person I knew I was becoming, instead of having to plod along, before witnesses, as the person that I wasn’t yet. When I moved to the States for university, I shook the dust of Calgary from my feet, I never looked back. And again and again and again, I remained the new girl, the new-in-town one, the expert box-packer, the one without a past verified or known except by my own admissions. My solution for discomfort: let’s move. I used a “love of change” as a cover for “fear of being known.”

Plus, we might as well add in some good old-fashioned evangelical baggage which celebrates the one-who-goes more than the one-who-stays.

My husband, Brian, is the homesteader to my pioneer. Even though we kept moving throughout the early years of our marriage, for jobs and seminary and family, he longed for a sense of home, generations deep. Now, we’re on the edge of the continent together, and this place isn’t technically “home” for either one of us. But our roots are going down anyway and I find myself, for once, crazily, longing to stay and grow old here.

The recovery of a sense of place, and the sacredness of staying, has become a pillar in my spiritual formation, particularly in the past eight years or so.

When Brian was in seminary a few years ago, we were introduced to the phrase “theology of place“—meaning that our faith, our Christianity, our life on The Way, is embodied in the neighbourhood and the community where we live. In our world of globalization, technology, and mobility, we’ve misplaced the sacredness of place.

Yet we are called to the place where we are living right now. And then we play, we work, we live, we move, we eat, we shop, all with an incarnational awareness of our embodiment of Christ in the neighbourhood. We are supposed to live like we’re here, in this place, in this moment, on purpose. We are to live out the hope of glory, the Christ-in-us reality, in a real place, with real people. The place where we live–our friends, our families, our surroundings, our context, the weather, the road outside our door–all of it impacts our spiritual formation. Our place, and the act of staying and living in our place, has an impact on us practically, of course, and it has an impact on us theologically.

But it’s not always sexy to stay put, is it? In most of my church tradition, no one ever mentioned the holy work of staying.

No one really talked about how the places where we live matter to our spiritual formation, how we are shaped by our communities, by our rootedness, our geography, by our families, and by the complex web of connections and history which emerge only by staying.

I used to live the Gospel beautifully in my own head; I thought about it all the time. But the radical act of staying put, the theology of place, the making of my own home, is teaching me–the over-thinker–that thinking isn’t quite the same thing as doing.  My intentions and beliefs and pontificating about community matters not one iota if I am not engaged in living out the reality of it.

The theology of place is so different than most of what I had been taught in the Evangelical Hero Complex. The modern church always taught us to forsake all for the Gospel and GO. We go, we move, we grow, we create destination churches and video venues, programs every night of the week, and wonder why we don’t know our neighbours. We were even taught for a while there that the earth would be burned up and who cares anyway? I’ll fly away, oh, glory and because we believed we would fly away, we didn’t value roots, and we didn’t value the sacrament of dwelling well here, and burrowing down into our patch of dirt as part of our incarnational calling.

I’ve loved the language of “place,” because it sets my living and my rising, my working and my rhythms as a sacrament. The radical act of staying put is shaping me. We’ve been here for longer than anywhere else we’ve lived together. It took more years than I would have expected for the emergence of community to happen but now I go to the store and see neighbours pushing their carts up the aisle. I gather at church services and anticipate conversations with friends, I teach Sunday school to the same kids and I know them by name. The tinies look forward all year to the rituals and festivals unique to our town. We watch the same forest every spring for the first blossoms, our same robins return, and even the old grizzly bear lumbers through in the late fall with regularity. My spiritual formation has been shaped by the lush green spring, and the grey and rainy winters with long nights and short days. I am only now seeing the holy work in showing up, in praying out loud for our friends in my living room, in tending a garden, in walking the same path every day, year after year.

I am living my faith out, in a real way, as an embodiment of the Gospel in a real place in a real context with real people.

Staying put and daring to be known, engaging in life with people just as imperfect and weird as me, staying through the seasons as they come and go, is changing me to be more like the Jesus I love so wildly. It’s a different kind of fearless, the fearless of no-masks, the fearlessness of engaging in community slow and steady and whole-hearted. Real, hard conversations usually only come after a lot of surface conversations.

As I get older, I am drawn more and more to the simplicity of the teachings of Jesus. Daily examples of Galilee peppered his teaching: everything from catching fish to baking bread is a sign and a foretaste of the ways of Christ and his Kingdom.

I like that. I like to think that everything from the gathering of the neighbour’s blueberries to the refereeing of street hockey games, the feeding of the hungry to the advocating for my local community’s need of a half-decent sidewalk, is a sacrament. We can embody the Gospel by going, absolutely, but we can also embody the Gospel by our roots, by our transforming love, by our unhurried community development, by our friendships, by our casseroles, and our wanderings. Some of us embody the Gospel by staying put.

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Sarah Bessey

Sarah Bessey

Sarah Bessey is the author of Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith and Jesus Feminist. She is an award-winning blogger and writer who lives in Abbotsford, British Columbia with her husband and their four tinies. You can find her online at SarahBessey.com or on Twitter at @sarahbessey.
Sarah Bessey

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