Friday, July 5, 2013

Theology of Place

Sometimes we recognize a place as holy ground from our very first step.  I remember discovering my dream school, The College of William and Mary, through a course catalog that became scuffed and dog-eared as I read it eagerly each night like a novel.  Visiting campus for the first time was like coming home.  And now, all it takes is a certain temperature in the fall to take me back to the crunch of leaves on the cobblestone roads and the sound of the fife and drum corps off in the distance.

There are places that call us, where we feel a connection and a sense of purpose.  My first job at the Science Museum of Virginia was like that, and later my ministry at HopeTree Family Services (aka Virginia Baptist Children's Home and Family Services).  I found excitement and passion in going to work, a gift that I later realized that not all share.  When we find the place where "our deep gladness and the worlds' deep hunger meet" (in Frederick Buechner's definition of vocation), work is life-giving and meaningful instead of draining.

Other places join us into community, which I experienced in my first visit to Baptist Theological Seminary.  Not only would it become a place of academic growth, but also of emotional and spiritual growth.  It is also the birthplace of my own family, as I met and married my husband on that same campus.  I grieve the loss of place as the seminary prepares to relocate.  Although it is a positive move for their future, I will miss visits to the quad, where we entered from separate walkways to be joined together under a small tree bordered by bushes, surrounded by the holy joy of our friends, professors, and family.  Our first home together was a small campus apartment with a kitchen too tiny for us to share at one time, and yet the love that it contained was larger than the square footage should have allowed.

My current calling seems like revelation, as the events unfolded in a God-ordained way.  Through the process of finding, longing for, and answering the call, I have learned much about myself and the providence of God.  It is fitting that I first spied the chapel's steeple as I drove onto campus, and the sight of the chapel up close stopped me in my tracks.  From my first week on campus as an excited and nervous interim chaplain, I walked through the sanctuary on my way to my office, pausing as I faced the altar to give thanks for this incredible ministry and my place in it.

I am one who is apt to go with my instinct, to be moved by a strong sense of feeling.  I connect easily with places and people.  So what does it mean for me to not feel strongly about a place?  I recently visited a seminary that could be my next academic home.  On paper, it's the strongest option for me, a way to grow in my current ministry.  The details (timing, price, location, reputation) all seem to fit.  I enjoyed the class I visited and the students and faculty I met.  And yet...there were no burning bushes, no tugging of my heart.  It was fine, really...just ordinary.  There was the sense that I could do it, that it would all work out.  And perhaps that is acceptable at this point in my life.  I'm more stable, coasting through the mid part of my journey, looking for what will maintain the status quo of my comfortable family life, while helping me to grow spiritually and professionally.  Is my numbness a sign of a potential problem, or just a recognition that I have found my home (or homes) already?  Is it fear of starting something new at the point where I am just beginning to reach equilibrium?

I keep running across the phrase "theology of place" in my readings.  Although I'm not sure I completely understand it, the phrase itself seems to resonate within me.  We are people called to community, and we are drawn to different places to work that out.  In our ever transitioning world, it is unlikely to stay in one place for long, and yet, there is much to be said about creating continuity by building roots in one place.  And then there are the places of our heart that are separate from where we reside physically, the "thin places" in our lives where we were able to gain a new glimpse of God and ourselves.  These root our souls while allowing us to grow and explore in new dimensions.  Home looks differently as we journey through the different stages of our lives, as new places call to us, and as take a detour and move into temporary dwellings.  I'm blessed to have found home with those I love, and know that wherever I go, I take my home with me.


  1. Oh yeah. I get this totally. I know my calling is more to a purpose (evangelism, discipleship and teaching) than a specific place (i.e. India, Africa, United States) and yet within that call, the purpose fleshes itself out *wherever* that place may be. So in that sense, there is never a place or a time when I'm "off the clock" so to speak. Those "thin" places....they seem to occur more and more as I get older-- so that there's no place I do not really see or have some sense of God being at work. But it can be lonely too. Glad I found this here today. Bless you Sister!

  2. Jenny, I'm glad you've shared your beautifully crafted, evocative reflections on place-making.Thank you!

    I'm reminded of two things. God continues to beckon us not to become overly attached to place; rather to become attached to the One who is "the" place. Second, as you mentioned, there is a profound movement of Spirit in places; beckoning to life-giving relationships, equitable sharing of place-based gifts of head, heart, hands - calling to shalom-making.

    Moreover, with each departure there is lamentation as one looks back; prophetic imagination for that which lies ahead; and faith in the One who is present in and sustains the place where we live and move and have our being.


    Dave Cooper

  3. Dave, I appreciate your wise and theological reflection on this. I love the thought of focusing on "the One who is the place." Thanks for inspiring me to think in new directions in how the Spirit may be leading. Shalom, friend!

    Loretta, I agree. It's neat to see how the purpose unfolds in each unique space. I know the loneliness, too, so it's a gift to meet fellow travelers like you! Blessings on the journey!