We put our house up for sale a few weeks ago. It sold quickly, but it unnerved me to have strangers peering into our closets and judging us for even a few days. As anyone who has purchased a home can tell you, the experience is just as awkward for the buyers. Perhaps even more awkward. Buying a house is like getting engaged after a round of speed dating. You spend a few minutes with the object of your desire frantically trying to gauge what its bones really look like under all that makeup. Then with fingers crossed you commit your life and fortune to it.
The experience brought to mind all the houses I have lived in over the years. Each has been good in its way, a testimony to God’s provision for me. But I have not always felt the same about every place. I have loved some and others I have not liked at all. The difference between them was not due to aesthetics alone, although beauty does often play a role in the way we feel about the places where we live. Nor do I think that the comfort of a home is entirely a function of its design. Design is important, of course. The old architectural dictum which says that form follows function is true. But there is more to a home than merely organizing and decorating space.
The difference between space and place is lived experience. But after residing in our current community for almost two decades, I realize that it is only space to me. I leave it without feeling any great sense of loss, at least, not yet. I suspect that once I have moved, I will discover that I am more bonded to the house, the neighborhood, and the city than I knew. As theologian Gilbert Meilaender has observed, we are “creatures of place and time.” We shape the spaces in which we live, marking them to suit our tastes and our personalities and they, in turn, shape us both for good and for ill. The habits of life we practice while living there become familiar and offer a kind of comfort even if we don’t especially like the area. Happy experiences are engraved upon our memory, while the things we suffer leave scars.
The Bible seems to speak in two voices when it comes to this matter of place. On the one hand, it speaks of those who belong to Christ as displaced persons. We are aliens and strangers in the world (1 Peter 2:11). We are pilgrims who are on the way to somewhere else. At the same time, the God of the Bible is a God who recognizes the importance of location. He interacts in time and space. Before He created humanity, He created the dwelling place they would inhabit and placed Adam there (Genesis 2:8). Humanity’s purpose is similarly linked to location. The statement of Genesis 1:27 that humanity was created to be male and female anticipates the commission given in the next verse that they should “fill the earth.”
God’s call to Abraham was one that required him to change his location. Although Abraham is praised in the book of Hebrews for living his life as a pilgrim, God’s promise to him had to do with place. According to Genesis 12:1, “The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.’” Abraham was not called to rootlessness but re-location. It is also no accident that the final act of the Bible’s redemptive drama will be played out on a stage which places one particular location at the forefront. Scripture calls Jerusalem the place where God chose to put His name (Deuteronomy 12:5; 2 Chronicles 6:6).
What does this mean for us in the here and now? It means that we are pilgrims like Abraham, but we are also rooted. It means that we have been designed by God to be “in place.” I realize now (perhaps too late) that I have lived most of my adult life in ways that fail to acknowledge this fundamental dimension of human design. That is to say; I have lived my life in a hurry, moving through the world as if it were little more than a space that I passed through on my way to somewhere else. I have lived a life without roots to any particular locale. Some of this has been a function of my vocation. The call of God drew me away from my home and family when I was in my twenties. But these days I wonder if there were other less noble reasons for the sense of detachment I so often feel. I was a pilgrim, but I sometimes wonder if I wasn’t also in flight, not only from my family of origin but perhaps even from myself.
This is an old story, of course. It is also a biblical story. The theme of flight from home is the story of the prodigal son, Jacob, and ultimately Adam himself. In an essay entitled “The Work of Local Culture,” Wendell Berry observes that through much of human history the normal pattern was for one generation to succeed another in place. Berry sees this pattern reflected in the benediction of Psalm 128:5-6 which says, “May the Lord bless you from Zion; may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life. May you live to see your children’s children—peace be on Israel.”
But the Bible is too honest to limit itself to this beautiful vision. It is also full of stories where this cycle of succession is broken. Tension with his brother forces Jacob to flee from his family to live with his uncle. Moses is taken from his mother and raised in the palace of Pharaoh and then eventually flees Egypt to take refuge in the wilderness. David is called away from his family to serve Saul and is eventually anointed as king in his place. Then David’s son instead of succeeding him mounts a coup in the hope of replacing his father. Many of these stories include the corollary theme of return. Like these biblical figures, we know what it feels like to leave. What we don’t know is how to return. “Our society, on the whole, has forgotten or repudiated the theme of return,” Wendell Berry writes.
One of the mundane tasks connected with our impending move was the need to subscribe to cable service. Adam, the salesperson who waited on us, bore all the trademarks of a certain generational style: scruffy beard, piercings, and tattoos. He was amiable and talkative. After asking about our story, he shared a little of his own. Adam was originally from Michigan and had moved back to that state after spending many years away. He had recently moved back and relocated his mother to the town where he now lives. “You know, I didn’t keep in touch with her very well during the years that I was gone,” he told us with a pained expression.
“Young people still grow up in rural areas and go off to cities, not to return. But now it is felt that this is what they should do” Wendell Berry explains. “Now the norm is to leave and not return.” For many young people, there is nowhere to which they can return. There is no family homestead. If the parents are alive, they are often as rootless as their children. They now live somewhere where their children have never lived. The children may feel bound to their parents but not the community where they live. How could they? They have no shared experience there. They possess no cherished (or dreaded) memories of it. The children may visit, but they do not go home. They cannot go home because home no longer exists.
A couple of years ago I drove by the house where I grew up. That house, a small brick ranch in a working-class suburb of Detroit, was not especially attractive. It was functional, which is more than I can say for our family. When we lived there the address on the front porch hung slightly askew, perhaps loosened from its place by the hardships of ordinary life or some seismic upheaval from within. For some reason, my father never fixed it. Maybe he liked the off-kilter look it gave the house. Perhaps he was just lazy. Whatever the reason, it was a fitting symbol of the lives we lived inside. As I sat in the car looking at the house from the curb, I could easily imagine that my mother was on the other side of the front door, seated on the living room couch with her legs drawn up beside her and the amber tip of her cigarette pulsing like a heartbeat. But I knew it was only a fantasy. My parents were long gone. Nobody I knew lived inside. If there was comfort in the sight, it was the kind one gets when visiting a grave.
There is an old gospel song which declares, “This world is not my home, I’m just passing through.” But it seems that these words are only half true. To say that we no longer feel at home does not mean that we have no home. It also does not mean that we should have no sense of place. The final picture that we see in the Bible, or perhaps better, the first glimpse which the Bible gives us of the life that is to come, is one which is anchored to place. Like Abraham, we too are “looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10). That will be a real city in a real place. We are waiting for a new heaven and a new earth and for the new Jerusalem to come down out of heaven from God (Revelation 12:1-2). These biblical promises are a reminder that even in this rootless age, those who belong to God are rooted in place. There is a home even when no place feels like home. It is the place where all God’s pilgrims will finally come to rest.