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“My church meets just down the road…”

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Seeking a theology of place for the church

As the son of an air force sergeant, I grew familiar with home by its absence. The postings came every two or three years, and when I left home for college, my travels continued in the same pattern: my first year in Vancouver, three years in Winnipeg, back to Vancouver again, and then two years in Fresno, Cal. Never enough time to set down roots, but in that wandering, my sensitivity to roots increased.

Thomas Merton, both a mystic and a rooted man, embodied in his life and work this paradox – between earth and spirit – that expressed his gospel journey. I was first drawn to Merton’s work in 1981 with New Seeds of Contemplation. I recognized the threads of a common pilgrimage: a search for a place to belong.

My search contained further complexities. In 1968, my father bought two acres of land, then six acres on a hillside in Yarrow, B.C. He cleared land, and his children helped. He planted trees, and taught us the rudiments of pruning. His own roots in central Manitoba on a small farm found new expression. And his love of animals and trees, especially fruit trees, was passed on to another generation. My father retired in 1978, but he’s still a gardener. Everywhere I’ve lived, I have planted trees.

Rooted in place

Thomas Merton, trying first to escape the world, perceived that the path to life was in and through creation. Life became sacramental: the created world a window opening toward God. All around him, creation was continuing – “the dance of the Lord in emptiness.” He saw imperfection not as lack of completeness, but as the playground of grace. He would have heartily approved the words of songwriter Bruce Cockburn in “In the Falling Dark”:

Light pours from a million radiant lives

Off of kids and dogs and the hard-shelled husbands and wives

All that glory shining around and we’re all caught taking a dive

And all the beasts of the hills around shout, “such a waste!

Don’t you know that from the first to the last we’re all one in the gift of grace!”

Somewhere in modernity, we became insulated from the world God loves, sheltered behind protective barriers and fraught with fear. We separated the sacred and secular, the physical and spiritual worlds. As futurist William Knoke notes, we’re entering a “placeless society,” where the difference between near and far is erased, and where the longing for a place to call home will only increase.

In this placeless society, we’ve come to believe that driving across town to attend a church in another neighbourhood can faithfully express our call to follow Jesus. We don’t see how we’ve divorced mission and incarnation, and how we’ve damaged the fabric of the gospel by making worship an out-of-this-world experience.

Walking to church

The gospel response is simple:  recover the practice of parish, where people live together in one local area. In a parish, we can be Jesus’ body: hands to wash and serve with; feet to walk our neighbourhoods and spread the gospel of peace; arms extended to welcome neighbours home. As we tell the gospel story, we must welcome people where they live.

The commuter is merely a con-sumer and tourist, viewing the world through a pane of glass, not able to fully enter the lived story of neighbourhoods they visit. Sean Benesh, in Metrospiritual: The Geography of Church Planting, writes of the need for churches to be developed with walkability as a key value. Why? Because “it elevates the chance for investment in the local neighbourhood that otherwise might be missing if the church is built and grows based upon the auto-based commuter mentality.”

Today, being missional is all the rage. If mission is the sending impulse, incarnation is the rooting and deepening one. Writer Henri Nouwen reminds us we must convert hostility to hospitality – and this is a call to prayer. In prayer, we will discern the Spirit in the rhythms and textures of the neighbourhoods to which we are called, and which Jesus died to redeem.

I planted my first tree when I was 21. Since then, I’ve planted trees on every property I’ve owned. Perhaps I have aspired to a stability I cannot completely embrace. Or perhaps I’ve simply understood that others will benefit from and enjoy these trees long after I’m gone.

—Len Hjalmarson lives with his wife Betty in Kelowna, B.C. He is co-author of Missional Spirituality and an adjunct professor of ministry at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Chicago.

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