“I want to go home to Virginia.”
These words were at least a decade in the making, probably a lifetime. But when my husband finally uttered them, we’d been married 10 years and had already moved seven times.
We met in college while he was studying for overseas ministry. We’d both grown up in rural communities and spent the majority of childhood living close to the land—he in a one-stoplight county in the mountains of Virginia and I in a former coal-mining community in Pennsylvania. But because we’d also been raised in the church, we knew the click and whir of the missionary-slide carousel, the images of red-roofed European villages and South Pacific tribes. We believed them when they said God called people just like us to faraway places. In fact, for all we knew, the call of God was the only way out of small towns like ours.
Like many young couples, we didn’t know each other (or ourselves) as well as we would come to eventually, but I did know enough to realize we shared similar backgrounds and similar goals. So when he said, “Marry me and I’ll show you the world,” I accepted.
Once we moved to Pennsylvania. Once to Indiana. Once to South Carolina. Sometimes the moves were local, sometimes farther afield. But whatever else we did during those first 10 years, we became expert packers.
On average, Americans relocate a little more than 11 times in our lives, with the majority of moves happening in early adulthood. (Our European counterparts average only four moves.) So while our pace was slightly high, it wasn’t unheard of, and at the time each move made sense to us: more space for our growing family, a ministry opportunity, or simply adventure. Each time, our eyes were fixed on the future.
Wandering the World
“Do you want to move to New Zealand?”
We were only two years out of school, married three, when he said these words. Neither of us wanted to stay in the mid-sized Southern city where we’d attended university and seminary, but without a clear call somewhere else, we were beginning to feel directionless. Then one day, he found a short-term position with a church more than 8,000 miles away.
“Sure.” I shrugged and shifted my attention back to our 4-month-old daughter. “Why not?”
Growing up, we’d heard from those who had left family and country to follow Christ. They assured us that just as Christ is right here with you now, he will be present with you there. And we believed them. But we’d learned something else, something they didn’t necessarily say.
Somehow, we’d gotten the idea that spiritual maturity meant uncoupling ourselves from dependence on any one place. To be unfettered by geography—to be willing to go anywhere—seemed next to godliness. Because if God is everywhere, then he’s nowhere in particular, and if God is everywhere, then it doesn’t really matter where you go. The prevention for homesickness, it seemed, was simply to never need home in the first place.
But if God is everywhere, then how can you know for sure where you’re supposed to be?
The paradox of place is that while God may exist everywhere, human beings don’t. Made from the dust of the earth, we’re forever linked to it and can no more escape its boundaries than we can escape ourselves. In fact, we each owe our existence, at least in some small way, to geography. We can’t trace our heritage without simultaneously tracing the map, the places where our forebears lived and loved forever bound up in the strands of our DNA.
The paradox of place is that while God may exist everywhere, human beings don’t. Made from the dust of the earth, we’re forever linked to it and can no more escape its boundaries than we can escape ourselves.
So important is geography to human identity that when God the Son became human, when he willfully assumed the limits of time and space, he became Jesus of Nazareth, the son of the carpenter Joseph who went up to Bethlehem because he was of the house and lineage of David.
Rather than calling us to transcendence, God forms us and guides us through place. As Paul reminds us in Acts 17, it’s God who has “determined allotted periods and the boundaries of [our] dwelling places” for the express purpose that we “should seek [him] in the hope that [we] might feel [our] way to him and find him.” To miss a sense of place is to overlook one of Providence’s primary means of drawing us to himself.
But without a sense of place, with the world open before us, my husband and I wandered. And six months later, we packed our suitcases and moved once again.
Wrestling with Our Limitations
“Virginia boys always come back home.”
In the midst of our many moves, my husband’s grandmother had predicted he’d eventually find his way home. But when he did, it didn’t happen easily.
We were living in a small town in Indiana at the time, dropped there after a problematic pastorate had left us jobless, churchless, and homeless in one fell swoop. Needing a fresh start, we’d packed up a 26-foot moving truck, bundled our three children into the family van, and nonsensically moved seven hours and two states away. We were ready to put down roots, and we didn’t care where it happened.
Rather than calling us to transcendence, God forms us and guides us through place.
I know in some way this move was prompted by the trauma of our previous ministry. (As poet Warsan Shire observes, “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.”) But in another way, it was the culmination of a decade of transience. It was a longing—no, a desperation—for some sense of direction.
But our hopes for a fresh start soured when my husband couldn’t find work and money was scarce. The winter was especially hard. The flatness of the landscape, a stark contrast to the hills we loved, was a constant reminder of how very displaced we were. Within a few months, we discovered that this place, like all the others before it, wouldn’t become home for us either.
But if this wasn’t home, where was?
It’s no coincidence that our crisis occurred when we were in the trenches of parenthood. From its earliest pages, the Scripture ties family formation to our movement through the earth. “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it,” God commands his newly created image-bearers. And later when God calls Abram out of Ur, he does it with the certain promise of both a new family and also a new place for that family.
It’s not that God intends for us to stay locked in one place forever. His work throughout Scripture assumes a sense of movement, whether it’s the Creation Mandate or the Great Commission. But we must also understand what such movement entails: when God calls us to exercise dominion over the earth, it’s a call to form new communities. When God calls us to spread the gospel through the world, it’s for the purpose of building his family.
Because the call to family and community is bound up with the call to steward the earth, the unraveling of one means the unraveling of the whole. It’s no wonder, then, that a society which has lost a sense of family would also lose a sense of where we belong in the world. When the sexual revolution “freed” us from the bonds of parenthood and generational responsibility, it unmoored us, leaving us to drift on every passing wave.
It’s no wonder that a society which has lost a sense of family would also lose a sense of where we belong in the world.
To find some sense of direction, my husband and I began to pay attention to the work God had already been doing in our family long before either of us recognized it. When he brought us together in marriage, who had he made us to be? What kinds of things had shaped us, both prior to our union and also in it? What did we need because of this providence? What could we uniquely contribute because of it?
Suddenly the world was no longer open before us. Instead of wrestling with its vastness, we had to wrestle with its limitations. And somehow this wrestling was deeper, the questions more personal, the stakes higher. Yes, we could live anywhere in the world, but where had God prepared us to live? Where must we live?
And so we turned home. We listened to who God had made us to be and how he’d shaped us. We paid attention to all the years that had brought us to this point. God wasn’t simply using place to help us find ourselves; he was using it to help us find him.
Entering into Community
“I just want to be a pastor in Virginia.”
Within six months of deciding to return to Virginia, my husband found a position with a small country church. But because we’d been drawn back by an understanding of place, we entered ministry differently. Instead of living in the parsonage as we had before, we bought a house, rooting ourselves in the community. If things went badly, we figured, ownership would force us to work through problems in a way living in a less permanent housing arrangement would not. We enrolled our children in the small elementary school just up the road and joined the Rec Club and PTA.
But our civic involvement wasn’t evangelistic sleight of hand, a way to gain entrance into the community. It was an attempt to become part of the community, to integrate ourselves into what Wendell Berry describes as “the membership”—those people who recognize their shared responsibility to a place and take ownership for its wellbeing. Embracing a deeper understanding of place meant embracing both our new congregation and also the community from which she grew. Embracing a deeper understanding of place meant embracing the idea of the local church.
Embracing a deeper understanding of place meant embracing the idea of the local church.
Ironically, the same religious tradition that had taught us about God’s transcendence (and sent us traveling the wide world to find him) had also taught us to value the local church. But by some linguistic aberration, “local church” had become synonymous with autonomy and congregational governance instead of the calling of a specific congregation in a specific place.
In its most basic sense, the doctrine of the local church is embodied ecclesiology, an outworking of what it means to be the church within the confines of place. It’s a way to identify the Holy Spirit’s work in a specific region and recognize those saints who have been “called out” from among their neighbors. So fundamental is a sense of place to ecclesiology that congregations in the New Testament are identified, not by their doctrinal or denominational preferences, but by their location—by the communities in which they exist.
Without an understanding of place, we can lack a meaningful understanding of how to love our nearest neighbors.
Without an understanding of place, we can also lack a meaningful understanding of how to love our nearest neighbors. Philosophers call this “moral proximity,” but it’s nothing more than recognizing which part of the kingdom we’re responsible for first. Such clarity is especially important in the digital age when a series of 1s and 0s can obscure the limits of place. Sitting behind a screen, I can encounter the wide open world—all its beauty and all its brokenness. And this can be disorienting. To whom do I owe my joy and my grief? For whom am I responsible?
A sense of place will not tell us where our responsibilities end, but it will help us clarify where they begin.
Given the fragmentation that already exists in society, some may rightly worry that pressing into “localness” will simply amplify inequity. If the rich and poor live on opposite sides of the tracks, if Sunday is truly the most segregated hour of the week, won’t turning our attention to the local church exacerbate our cultural sins?
The unsettling truth is that the majority of our churches aren’t truly local. Our churches become segregated not because we don’t live near each other but because dominant groups withdraw from their nearest neighbors. Our churches are class-based, not because we don’t come in contact with the poor, but because we ignore them as they serve us Sunday dinner after church. Like the rich young ruler, we know enough not to question the command to love our neighbor, so we simply redefine who our neighbor is in the first place.
But a theology of place disrupts this by reminding us that wherever “the rich and poor meet together,” “the LORD is maker of them all” (Prov. 22:2). When outliers enter the same physical space we inhabit—our country, our communities, our congregations—we become responsible to them by the sheer virtue of their proximity to us. We aren’t responsible to them because they look or act or believe like we do. We’re responsible to them because the God who ordains the boundaries of peoples has brought them to us.
Seeking a Better Place
We’ve been home for almost six years now. We’ve passed out of the honeymoon phase into a state of faithfulness and commitment. One of the side effects of our frequent relocation was that we never stayed in one place long enough to build the kind of relationships necessary for a mature life. We never reached a point in relationships that would test and grow us. We have here, and at times, it’s been excruciating.
Someone asked me recently why we stay. Our church is small and, like so many other congregations in rural communities, struggling. The answer is a simple, albeit difficult, one. We stay because there are people here, and we believe we’ve been placed here. We stay because this is our community, this is our home.
We’ve learned our lesson: there’s nothing out there that can’t be found here. There is no beauty or brokenness that exists out there that can’t be loved or combated right here. We believe we’ve been prepared and called to live in this community, and until God providentially changes that, we’ll stay.
We’ve learned our lesson: there’s nothing out there that can’t be found here. There is no beauty or brokenness that exists out there that can’t be loved or combated right here.
Because this is the deeper truth about place: no earthly place can fill what is ultimately a longing for a heavenly one. We can stay here because we know we’ll never find our final home on this earth.
Like those saints of old, we’re seeking a better city whose building and maker is the Lord himself (Heb. 11:10). By submitting to this truth, we’re able to enjoy our earthly home. By loving a place no less and no more than we should, we’re able to love it exactly as we should. We’re able to give ourselves to it and allow it to naturally reveal God to us. To reveal him through the mountains and forests. To show him in the generations of family who lived and walked these hills before us. To make him known in his faithfulness to a church housed in a small brick building that has sat at a bend in the road for more than 90 years.
We haven’t lost our previous understanding of place so much as had it turned right-side-out. We’ve been reoriented.
And this reorientation has provided an unexpected stability and rootedness. Of all the things we don’t know, of all the places he could lead us, we do know this: God has determined the boundaries of our dwelling place so we might find him. And when we find him, we will find our home.