Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Place of 'Place' in Faith and Life (Part 2)

The images of the Gulf Coast evacuees, living in shelters and in many instances, searching for family members from whom they've been separated, are heart-wrenching.

Thousands of people, some of them lifelong residents of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, have been forced by circumstances way beyond human control to leave homes that have been destroyed by winds, flooding, and a type of mud that's usually labeled toxic soup.

In many cases, those homes and the memories and familiar comforts they once held will be bulldozed under, never to be seen again. Thousands have moved already to Houston, Baton Rouge, Memphis, and countless other places, all to begin, however reluctantly and heavy-heartedly, new lives in new places.

What a horrible feeling it must be for them!

Most of us, I suppose, hated our junior high years, that time between ages twelve and fifteen. I know that I did. It's a tough time, a period when we're trying to grow up and when the opinions of others matter infinitely to us. Somehow, I landed near the bottom of the junior high pecking order and found myself on most days outmanned by a coterie of classmates who proved their masculine mettle by using me as punching bag. A few blocks' distant from school on my daily walks home though, I was a solo act, at the end of which something wonderful happened.

I hadn't thought much about those walks home for a long time when, a few years back, I found myself walking down the street on which I grew up with my father and my son. It was, during my junior high days, a relatively quiet, tree-lined place with pretty homes and friendly neighbors. My grandparents lived just down the street in a house they built in 1950. South Southampton Avenue, and the two homes at which I felt "at home" there, were my shelter from adolescent storms.

"You know," I told my father and my son, "when I turned onto South Southampton from Olive Avenue after school each day, I remember seeing this street and thinking, 'This is the most perfect place in the world.'"

Of course it wasn't perfect. But it's a thing of indescribable comfort to have a place called "home." For a kid who spent the day as a punching bag, it was especially comforting.

In spite of our unprecedented mobility as a society--maybe because of it, we still latch onto the comforts of home. We celebrate home, celebrate attachment to a special familial place in countless ways in our culture. Hallmark commercials bring us to tears because we feel the hankering for home so deeply. We click our heels with Dorothy as we recite, "There's no place like home." We weep joyfully on Christmas Eve with George Bailey, who had always desperately wanted to leave Bedford Falls, but comes to see the beauty of a well-worn and well-known place that enriches with friendship and love. And in that most American (and I would say, most perfect) of sports, baseball, you don't score a run until you've reached home, a goal the shape of which suggests a house.

All of this awkward rhapsodizing may seem to contradict what I wrote in the first installment of this series. There, I warned against being too in love with places, especially places of worship. I wrote there that, "Any place can be holy, a place where we can encounter God and where we can fulfill His call to love Him and others."

And since, as Martin Luther reminds us, the family is to be a "little church," an archetype of the big communion of believers in Christ that the Church is, this particular notion of the place of place in our lives applies as well to the apartment or house where a family lives as to a building in which a church worships.

It seems to me that, as is true of the people we love, we're to hold onto the places we love rather loosely. We can treasure them. But we must always remember that, whether because of job transfers or graduations or hurricanes, our connections to places--as well as to people--may be severed. Nothing on this planet lasts forever.

My mentor in seminary, Pastor Bruce Schein, used to tell us to never become too attached to a place. "Love the people with every bit of devotion God gives you," he would tell we prospective pastors, "but when it's time for you to move on, be ready to do it on a moment's notice."

Still, it's hard not to be attached to a place. I'm not sure that, for all the potential heartache that can come from it, that we should try too hard to keep from being attached.

There's a spot in northwestern Ohio, amid corn and soybean fields, where the farming and the flat reclaimed swampland conspire, allowing gentle breezes to blow without obstruction almost all the time. Though I lived there for only six years, it and the people with whom we lived our lives there, will always seem like a home to me.

So will the place called The Oval, the campus green at Ohio State, and the William Oxley Thompson Library stacks, which is its focal point. In my imagination, I can still approach the place where I spent so many hours reading--sometimes even from the books my profs assigned, while the Orton Hall belltower chimes.

In his fabulous book, The Journey of Desire, John Eldredge writes of a conversation he had with a fellow Christian. The other person alludes to conventional Christian notions that the world will one day be destroyed by fire and thinks of all the beauty that exists on this planet that is our home. "I hate the the thought of losing this place," the person confesses. "So do I," says Eldredge.

But, as Eldredge later points out, we needn't feel this way. He refers to one of the last scenes in The Last Battle, another great book, the sublime final installment of C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia. In it, Aslan, the Great Lion, who is the "son of the emperor over the sea" has just brought an end to Narnia as it had been known, a special place occasionally visited by eight different children from our world.

I'm going to quote now extensively from Eldredge's book because what he says is so good and so important. (I urge you to someday soon read it for yourself.)

At the end..., Aslan seems to have brought that delightful kingdom to an end, and the children are left to mourn its loss.

"So," said Peter, "night falls on Narnia. What Lucy! You're not crying? With Aslan ahead and all of us here?" "Don't try to stop me, Peter," said Lucy, "I am sure Aslan would not. I am sure it is not wrong to mourn for Narnia. Think of all that lies dead and frozen behind that door." "Yes, and I did hope," said Jill, "that it might go on forever. I knew our world couldn't. I did think Narnia might." "Sirs," said Tirian. "The ladies do well to weep. See, I do so myself. I have seen my mother's death. What world but Narnia have I ever known? It were no virtue, but great discourtesy, if we did not mourn."

But as the children venture farther into Aslan's country, they begin to recognize every rock and stream and tree. They have been there before. And then they discover, to their wonder and joy, that Narnia exists forever in Aslan's country, that the world they loved has been preserved, though more rich and more real than ever.

It was the unicorn who summed up what everyone was feeling. He stamped his right fore-hoof on the ground and neighed, and then cried, "I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this."
The New Testament tells us that when Jesus, the Son of the Father in heaven, has returned to us, He'll bring an end to life on this planet that we have called our home. Even now, when I think of the mountains in Colorado that my family so enjoyed a few years back...or the hedge-crossed fields of northwestern England that so charmed me on a bus tour five years ago...or the Schleswig-Holstein region in Germany and the portion of Denmark that hugs the Baltic which my daughter and I visited a year-and-a-half later...when I think of these places and the whole earth coming to an end, I'm saddened. They all are a part of my homeland, the only place I've ever lived.

Yet the New Testament also tells us that all with faith in Jesus Christ will one day live in the midst of "a new heaven and a new earth." Gone, as Eldredge reminds us, will be strip malls and strip mines, as well as all the other desecrations to which our fallen race has subjected this heaven and earth. We'll know that the reason we have so loved our homes here so much is because of the longing we have always had for the home for which we all were made. We will be truly at home. We will be in God's country and it will be perfect.


Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Thanks for this miniseries, Mark. Like so many of your posts, it's right in histories, both personal and public, interwoven with theological musings expressed with great humanity and friendliness.

I have to admit a weakness for beautiful places -- landscapes, buildings, streets -- and I think that if I were a churchgoer I'd find it much easier to worship in a physically beautiful church than in a drab one. (I have a son who's a churchgoer and who feels the same way.) I think our attachment to place is an exact marker of the degree to which we're earthly, fleshly creatures rather than celestial creatures. Perhaps it would be more enlightened to dismiss the importance of place, but I think it may be a kind of wisdom to accept a compromise with our mortal failings.

I once knew a man whose family went to church but who, for his own part, preferred to golf on Sunday mornings. "I can find God just as well on the golf course," was his rationale. Of course in the abstract he was right, but I've often wondered how sincere his statement was. Perhaps more so than a cynic would assume.

Mark Daniels said...

I've heard Gerald Mann, who is a pastor in Austin, say that there is more mention of God's Name on golf courses on Sunday mornings than there is in the average worshiping church at the same time.

Thanks for your comments!


Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

I meant "it's rich in histories..."