Embracing Place

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

What will I do? What
will I do without exile, and a long night
that stares at the water?

-Mahmoud Darwish, from “Who Am I, Without Exile?”

What is exile in American culture? What is home?

The way we might define both perhaps differs dramatically from how they might have been defined a century ago, or how they are still defined in cultures less marked by our infatuation with transience. To know exile, we must first know home, and we are arguably a culture of non-places. With mobility a marker supposedly for our freedom, we fall too often for the lie that transience is the path to transcendence.

We have perhaps embraced the nomadic as a symbol of what it means to be successful. What is the old adage we use about our gain of influence? We say that we’re “going places,” or “on our way to the top.” Ambition feeds the lure of mobility, and we are tempted to take as normal the illusion that human beings are free agents, untethered from the constraints of place and earth.

Lest I seem to be launching a curmudgeonly critique which might merely fan the flames of nostalgia for a different time, let me note how this is for me confession. I am a prime example of the impulse toward mobility: In my fifteen-ish years of adulthood, I’ve made nine interstate moves, and have lived in seventeen different apartments or living arrangements. As I write this, it doesn’t seem possible that these numbers can be true – and yet they are.

And I am not alone.

Place has, for many of my generation, become commodified. We shop around for the right town with the right amount of culture and local charm, walkability, good schools, a good distance to the mountains and to the ocean, and the perfect balance of four seasons without temperature extremes. We follow our wild oats, our educational opportunities, jobs and callings, and when babies come, we sometimes gravitate back toward family – or sometimes not.

So, when I read the Jeremiah text for this week, it takes some work to ground myself down into his words, to put on the ears of his hearers, to feel the weight of the implications. Without a good working sense of home as grounded in a place, it’s hard to know what exile is.

And without knowing in my body what exile means, it is even more difficult to imagine what it could be like to have a prophet of the Lord announce that a foreign land which I was taken to against my will and by force will now be my home.

What Jeremiah proposes is not merely a longer-term change in circumstances, an admonition to just wait a little bit longer for God to rescue. It’s deeper than that. What he advocates is a change in identity, the embrace of living in an overlap between two existences, and the willingness to be shaped and played upon by this new place. Instead of being foreign and displaced, in an arrangement marked by impermanence, Israel will now be subject to all the mutual indwellings that result when we rightly depend on place for our livelihood.

They will build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat from them. They will intermarry and produce children, multiplying in this place – and herein lies the truth that what is being asked of Israel is a material shift in identity. The call is to inhabit place, but also to be inhabited by place. Their very bodies will become the site of such a shift – bodies which are entangled with the bodies of foreign spouses, with the food from foreign earth, and in the welfare of the city itself.

Living deeply into this place, praying for this city, who they are will become inextricable from this season of their story. The foreign becomes familiar, home – and yet not home. The longing for the place from which they are exiled doesn’t subside, but in time they learn to live in two imaginations at once.

While the currents of American culture make identification with the experience of exile itself a challenge, the call at the end of this passage still resonates as a profound reordering of life. Jeremiah says,

Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you… pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

The struggle to be at home in a place, to acknowledge our indebtedness to land, to a particular economy, and to particular people would indeed take a word of the Lord to shift us into this kind of imagination.

And yet by resisting rooting and grounding ourselves in place, we compromise our very identities. Do we believe anymore that God sends us to a particular place, and for its welfare, not our own? As a child, the old-timers would say “this is not my home, I’m just passing through,” as they pined for heaven.

The church isn’t immune to this pining for something otherworldly in our habits of mobility and ambition. We are too often tempted to ignore our entanglements with the place our ecclesial body lives. We think the church is about spiritual things and less about bodies. Even if we reject this kind of dualism outright, many congregations might struggle to name in concrete ways how exactly their welfare is bound up with the welfare of their place. At times, we don’t even know the history of the land our buildings now stand upon.

Our habits of mobility betray us, for place is central to the scriptures and God’s self-revelation as one who loves and nurtures us in places. At the heart of our Christian story is the incarnation, the infinite and eternal become particulate in Jesus’s body, sprung from the lineage of David, born in the city of Bethlehem. In Christ we have a picture of what it means to become subject to the entanglements of place, align our welfare with its welfare, and by our presence, transform it.

As the church, let us build houses and live in them. Let us plant gardens and eat from them. May we commune with bodies not obviously like our own, and multiply in the place we are planted, knowing that in the welfare of this place is our welfare, and in ours, the flourishing of the other.

Author’s note: I am indebted to Norman Wirzba’s Theology of Place class at Duke Divinity and our discussions thus far this semester for much of the understanding of place reflected in the above.

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