Place Matters

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.’”  -Jeremiah 29:4-7

A few years ago, when I picked up Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s up The Wisdom of Stability, the author had to overcome some baggage I had with the word “stability.” What I mean is, when I hear the word stability, I’m temped to think about the monotony of suburbs: houses that look the same, strip malls, mega churches, wealthy schools of whiteness. The Simple Way founder and author of The Irresistable Revolution, Shane Claiborne, said it this way: “Sometimes people ask me if I am scared, living in the inner city. I usually reply, ‘I’m more scared of the suburbs.'” Granted, I have never actually lived in a suburb, but that’s the way I’m apt to view them.

Of course, quoting Wendell Berry early in the book didn’t hurt Wilson-Hartgrove’s cause any, and the book was actually about committing to place, which is an idea for too many of us and a reality for too few of us in this techno-obsessed, transient, “globalized” world. Wilson-Hargrove claims that the advantage of our Facebook friends and the like is their easiness. Jonathan Franzen says something very similar elsewhere. That is to say, social media connections are convenient, and we can avoid real intimacy by racking them up. “There is nothing in our technology that helps us see the person next to us as a gift,” Wilson-Hartgrove wrote.

People as gifts? Who am I kidding? The last time I lived in one place without moving for more than two years was more than a decade ago and about 40 roommates ago. I can picture some of their faces but cannot remember all of their names. At times, I’ve probably treated people and places (and myself!) more like disposable objects, to be used and discarded at will. The same way, really, that we treat land in general. I think the trends are connected.

The alternative vision, according to Wilson-Hartgrove is this:

“Without roots of love, we easily become slaves to our own desires, using the place where we happen to be as a staging ground for our ambitions and manipulating the people around us so they might serve our objectives. We do this, of course, with the best of intentions–even in God’s name. But until we give ourselves to a place–until we care enough to learn the names of its flowers and its second cousins–stability’s wisdom suggests we cannot know very much…”

And elsewhere:

“To imagine stability as mission is not to assume that we will change our neighbors and the broken places where we are if only we can muster the resolve to stick it out. Rather, it is to acknowledge that there is good news in this place–stability that we might not have seen at first, but without which we could not even begin. If God is faithful in exile and present in human flesh, then everything–every place–is now holy. We learn to enjoy the fruit of stability as we embrace God’s mission where we are.”

It made me think of lyrics from a Trevor Hall song: “All land is holy / All land is sacred.” It’s foreign to me, but I suppose that’s some of what I’m after during this season of life, to put a stake in the ground, to commit, to say this is where I’m going to be, and I’m going to stay around long enough to discover the holiness of the place.

  • Jameson Yingling

    This is a topic I have been focused in on as of late, as well. As has been the case all along for the two of us, I think first glance lends a perception that we are diametrically opposed. I know better now. I believe we have been exploring many of the same topics in our personal development the years we have known one another, albeit with different origins and with different processes. (A great literary example of this would be my affinity for that old rascal Edward Abbey and yours for the noble Wendell Berry.)

    I will check out the authors you have mentioned here. I am betting it would be stuff I would not seek out on my own, but could provide some material worthy of contemplation. Check out Walker Percy’s essay “Why I Live Where I Live”, which is from his collection “Signposts in a Strange Land”.

    Keep writing.


    • Hey Jameson, thanks for reading and responding. I’m familiar with Abbey and Percy, and I, too, see how much common ground there is between us. I look forward to seeing how that might grow and develop in the future between us. I’ll try to find the Percy essay you mention here. Where are you these days? 🙂