Sunday, September 25, 2005

Making a Place in the World ::

I remember the feeling of purchasing my first home. As a thirty-year-old doctoral candidate, I took a pastorate in a traditional, urban neighborhood of my hometown. I felt a profound settledness. It was my place, not a landlord's house, nor my parents' home. The age of Jesus at the outset of his ministry, I was carving out my own niche in the world. Would the Son of Man, who had "no place to lay his head," call me away from such a place? Five years later, I discerned that God was calling me to leave. Not only did I leave this place, but I gave up having a place of my own while I finished an internship in counseling. The crisis of adjust­ment for my family was stressful. I now have a deeper appreciation for the difficulty the invited guest had in leaving a field to go to God's party.

We must make our place in the world. We will do it either in a manner that enhances our lives spiritually or in a way that detracts from our true humanness. Place-making requires the elements of time, depth and creativity. Time enough to establish oneself. Depth enough to put our roots down to the water tables of community. Creativity enough to fashion our place as an expression of our truest nature.

I've met persons who seem to have never fully landed. They are caught up in dream-chasing to the extent that they carry through with few of their creative notions. The stories of their lives are disjointed series of half-written fairy tales without the depth of meaning found in a cohesive narrative. This is distraction in its negative, shadow sense.

As in many spiritual realities, truth exists between the extremes. At the other extremity of distracted place-making are root-bound individ­uals. They are so tied to the earth of their place that they can no longer make it their own. Their place is defined by mothers and fathers, mother-figures and father-figures, in such a way that it stifles their own self-definition. The chief symptom of their stagnation is a persistent, simmering anger. Sometimes masked in depression, the bitterness can be heard in the cynical powerlessness of their language and self-assess­ments. Otherwise, it spells out a choking moralism and judgmental disposition toward others, especially toward the free-spirited. Their story is the story of their clan: canonical, sacred, unquestioned, hiding shameful wounds behind secrets and secret sin. Like the age-old incantations of a ritual, the spell-binding story defines the person and his or her place in life.

Our life’s story is the account of our finding our place in the world. Jesus told the story of a person who found a treasure hidden in a field, reburied it and gladly went and bought the field. This kingdom parable is a picture of distraction. Do we find the kingdom or does it find us? Did the man become a treasure hunter or a treasure finder? Did he compulsively go digging in fields the rest of his life or did he settle down on his treasured field? The treasure is not the field of our lives, but what we find in the field. Our place in this world is the gift found in distraction. The serendipity of the find became the story of the man's life—The Man Who Found the Treasure in the Field. Likewise, our story reflects our basic disposition toward our place in life: hunting or finding.

While hiking in the Texas hill country, I was discussing with my wife Thomas Moore’s book, The Enchantment of Everyday Life. Moore refers to the ancient religious practices of discerning the spirits of a place before deciding to build. Just then, Marlena pointed to a large flat rock under our feet on the trail. The rock’s natural indentations formed the clear picture of a face—to us a scowling face. “Looks like we just met one of the spirits of this place,” I remarked as I took a photo. The developed picture sits on my desktop, but now the rock’s face is more inviting and happy. Perhaps the rock was reflecting my spirit at the time.

One's story can either reveal or conceal. I grew up in a religion that valued stories. It was important to be able to "give a testimony" of God's work in our lives, past or present. In the formality of this storytell­ing, I heard the self-descriptions of my fellow congregants. Some testimonies were full of stock phrases and cliché mean­ings, finished and polished in neat packaging, designed to impress and uphold carefully-crafted self images. They either whitewashed the obvious or hurtfully broadcast secrets in a public confessional. Other testimonies had a richness and individuality—works in progress—bearing the signature of grace. These stories rang true with an authentic tone, giving greater light into the soul of the storyteller.

Our story portrays our place in the world and our aspirations for enriching our place. A good story enlightens both teller and hearer to the sense of journey. The story of a life-enhancing place carries both the thread of meaning spun from the wheel of generations and the recipes of healing potions distilled from the laboratory of life's experi­ments. It offers a bookbinding for the journey's saga of mountains and valleys, conflicts and covenants. It is a display case for artifacts of legends and a drawing board for blurry blueprints of visions. Standing in such a place is like attending a celebration.

For Israel, the place of greatest distractibility was the Exodus, a life-defining journey from slavery to promise. This story embodies the soul of the nation and many stories were spun from this central legend: stories of mighty kings and captivities, victory chants and lamentations. Israel's greatest figures were sojourners. Abraham, a "stranger in a strange land." Sarah, the mother of a nation. Moses, the leader of the migration and his mother who courageously cast him afloat in the Nile to be found by Pharaoh’s daughter. Elijah, the prophet who discov­ered God in the stillness of Horeb. Daniel, who in Babylonia discovered that God’s power and presence is not limited to a certain land. Though focused on the land, Israel's soul was not in the land, but in the journey of God with the people who traversed the land. The Scriptures record the epic of God's recurrent distraction of the nation from their land to the journey—and the many heroes who caught sight of the vision.

The outset of the journey of Christ could be described as a call to begin forming the story of one's relationship with God. As our story forms, so our place in the world takes shape.

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