When I was younger, I thought I’d like to move east. I went to university in the United States, but I still looked at the admissions requirements for Queens, for McGill, for the big Canadian schools. And then, when I thought about my life after school, about how writers must live, how a writer must create, the places where writers go, I thought of New York City walk-ups, of Montreal cobblestones and the longed-for perfecting of my French accent, I thought of London flats, of Paris lofts, I thought of big cities, and crowded streets, old architecture, late nights, I thought of moving back east.

I never did any of those things. Now, all of these years later, I’ve never even visited most of those places.

There is something addictive about change, about moving. We made several significant moves when I was a kid, back in the days before Facebook, before email, before kids were allowed to use the phone for long-distance phone calls. When you moved, in those days, you moved, you were gone, perhaps for a few years there might be Christmas cards with the awkwardly cheerful family newsletters, but unless you were family, we lost touch with you.

And I liked it. I liked reinventing myself, even at 12, I liked being able to start over as the person I knew I was becoming, instead of having to plod along as the person that I wasn’t yet. And when I moved to the States for university, at 18, I shook the dust of Calgary from my feet, I never looked back. And again and again and again, I remained the new girl, the new-in-town one, the expert box-packer, the one without a past that could be verified or known except by my own admissions, always certain I’d be happier somewhere else. My solution for discomfort: let’s move.

Of course I didn’t move to New York or Montreal. How could I breathe there? The older I get, the less appeal these places have for me, I long only for where I am right now. I can’t imagine breathing well in the east, I need the place where I am, I need these mountains, I need the ocean now, I need the cold lake water, I need rocky shores. How could I write a single sentence without the silhouette of a pine tree in the setting sun? The years go by and I become more and more aware of my pioneer lineage, I understand the pull west better, I feel suffocated without a bit of a space, without an early morning walk beside the yarrow patch, I need the north, and I need the west in a way that veers towards the mystical, which is just fine to a Holy Spirit adoring tongue talker like me. The pull of it all is somewhere under my skin, and I am always drawn to the open air.

Maybe this need for space, for the western edges, is why I don’t like the rules and restrictions of most modern religion, why I kick back against labels and boxes and demarcations, the wind feels too good on my face for that business of churching.

My husband is a gardener and a farmer, a hard worker, by his family roots. He is the homesteader to my pioneer, now we’re on the edge of the continent together, and the roots are going down here in the thin rocky soil for us both. He dreams not of big cities and moving boxes and sexy locations around the world, he dreams of homesteads, of now-grown-tinies coming home to him in his big garden, of roots deeper than a desert mesquite (has anyone yet preached a sermon on the metaphor of how deserts have the plants with the deepest roots?).

The scrabbling nervousness, the claustrophobic feeling of being known, that I am so familiar with, the urge to pack and move and start over and over and over, rises up now and then for me, still. I want to sell the house, and move somewhere else, anywhere else. But I’m alone in that need, and, to be honest, I wonder if I have somehow been running away, if I have been using moving and going as a cover for my fears of staying put, my fears of being known.

When Brian was in seminary, we were introduced to the phrase “theology of place” – meaning that our faith, our Christianity, our life on The Way, is embodied in the neighbourhood and the community where we live. It means that we believe we are called to the place where we are living, and then we shop, we live, we move, we eat, with an incarnational awareness, an embodiment of Christ in the neighbourhood like we’re here, in this place, in this moment, on purpose. We don’t live out the hope of the incarnation in a pod, or a ghetto of other Christians, we live out the hope of glory, the Christ-in-us reality, in a real place, with real people, and it’s not always sexy to stay put, is it?

I feel drawn to the phrase, the theology of place, because it was so different than most of what we had been taught in the Evangelical Hero Complex. We were always taught to forsake all for the Gospel and GO. No one ever mentioned the holy work of staying once in a while. No one really talked about how the places where we live matter to our spiritual formation, how we are shaped by our communities, by the act of roots, our geography, by our families, by our neighbourhoods, by the complex web of connections and history that emerge by staying.

And this place is shaping me, absolutely, the grey and rainy winters, the fields of berries and corn instead of the wheat of my childhood, the mountains, the rivers. I’m shaped by this place, as Luci Shaw wrote about poets, the slender antennae of awareness is always combing the world, and I am shaped by the people here, by their stories, by our becoming-shared histories, what I pick up here matters for my work, my voice, my faith, my family, perhaps it’s not so prideful in this context, to say that it matters for the world.

The radical act of staying is shaping me. We’ve been in this town for nearly three years now. And only just now do I feel the community, only just now do I go to the store and see friends, do I gather at church meetings and services and anticipate conversations with friends, only now am I seeing the holy work of showing up, of praying out loud for real friends in real life. Only now am I living my faith out, in a real way, as an embodiment of the Gospel in a real place in a real context with real people.

In western Canada, we joke around that we rag-tag Christians can play Six Degrees of Separation in two degrees or less; we either know you or we know someone who knows you. Now there is no escaping from your past or from your present, from your parents, you work out your salvation in the context of people that know you.

Staying put, being known, engaging in life with people just as imperfect and weird as me, is changing me to be more like the Jesus I love so wildly. It’s a different kind of fearless, the fearless of no masks, of being known, the fearlessness of engaging in community slow and steady and whole-hearted, the fearless of hard conversations that only come after two years of surface conversations.

The theology of the place is as much about art and life as it is about spirituality and the real unsexy daily work of living, as anything else. As I get older, I am drawn more and more to the simplicity of the teachings of Jesus, the daily examples of Galilee that peppered his teaching, how everything from catching fish to baking bread as a sign and a foretaste of the ways of Christ and his Kingdom.

I like that. I like to think that everything from the gathering of the berries to the raising of my tinies to the feeding of the hungry to the advocating for my local community’s needs is a sacrament, and a foretaste, that we embody the Gospel by our roots, too, by our transforming love, by our unhurried community development, by our friendships, by our casseroles, and our wanderings.

I used to live the Gospel beautifully in my own head, I thought about it all the time. But the radical act of staying put, the theology of place, is teaching me, the over-thinker, that thinking isn’t the same thing as doing, my intentions and beliefs and pontificating about community matters not one iota if I am not engaged in living out the reality of it.

I can believe a lot of things, I have been convinced of many a good and theological thing in my life (and a few that weren’t so good), but if that belief or thought, however correct or properly foot-nooted, isn’t being lived out in the context of my real-walking-around-life right now, well, so what?

 

In which it's caught (not taught)
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  • After years of packing up and moving, we’re settling down in Columbus for a season while my wife works on her PhD, and I can feel that new tug to stay put rather than imagining what else could be over the horizon. One of the important things for us was living in a real neighborhood with a neighborhood church. We have thankfully found that, and it has been really wonderful. I regularly run into people I know for the first time ever in my life, including the people we serve at the community center. We’re closer to being on the same page together, and it’s starting to teach me what the incarnation should feel like.

    I’m sure you know about the book the Wisdom of Stability, but just in case you hadn’t, it’s a good one!

    • I have heard of it but been a while….must dig it up!

  • Good stuff. Right now I’m anxious to be moving to a different city- I will graduate and move sometime in the next 6 months. But for now, I’m here, and I want to do good while I’m here and love people and serve God.

  • Great piece! I think a lot of Christians think we’re not being faithful to God unless we drop everything and go to a third-world country. God may have that in mind for some, but I think we’re more faithful to God when we live out the Christian life here right where we are.

  • Oh my stars, I may have to print this out and read it every day this week. There is so much to say here, I wish I could sit down with you over a cup of tea and talk. We’ve moved eight times in 22 years of marriage, I grew up as a nomad with single alcoholic mother. I get the itch every three years. That’s when we start settling in, at about the three year mark and I start thinking about packing boxes. And this:
    using moving and going as a cover for my fears of staying put, my fears of being known – well, it rocked my world a bit today. It needed some rocking. The sacrament of presence is powerful when we embrace it holding onto His hand. Thanks Sarah.

    • I do the same thing, Shelly. I love the move, and I feel the itch. You and me both.

  • I fully believe in this. Although I don’t really have roots. I moved a lot as a kid. Then I thought I would stay in Chicago for the rest of my life (that is where I went to college and grad school.) But after 15 years of Chicago, my wife wanted to move back to her home town. So we have been here for going on 7 years now. I don’t think we will leave any time soon.

    What I have observed is that it is the communities that most need Christians to be stable that are least likely to be stable. I keep observing pastors that become good in a place that move because they are good in a place. It is especially hard to see that among many minority pastors. It is not that I blame them. They are going on to work in churches or para-church ministries where the jobs are often easier or at least they get more money and more recognition. But too often I see that success means leaving for many communities.

    My wife is a teacher. Her school ranges from 50 to 70 percent annual turn over. What that does to education is amazing. I have seen stats that suggest that many students lose 6 months of education every time they move. It is no wonder, if that is true, that so many schools are poor performing.

    • That’s truly interesting about your wife’s perspective, Adam! I never thought of that. We’ve battled it from a ministry perspective since Brian finished seminary. Do we pack up and go where the “ministry work” is? Or do we stay here and wait for it to develop organically? Sometimes we want to choose the former.

  • Sweet friend, you’re speaking to my heart this morning. Those words could be mine. As I’ve struggled to stay put for 7 years. 7 years! The longest amount of time in one place ever. It’s funny, because as I am beginning to feel the roots go deep and our community around us becoming alive and organically growing, my kids are beginning to feel restless. “Why have we been here so long? It’s time to move. We need to leave.” This, coming from some of my kids, who never wanted to leave. I think I need to continue to live life with open hands. There is a season for everything. I think it’s in the willingness to be when He wants me to be, and to go when He wants me to go. It’s learning to be content and see His handiwork in it all.
    Kristin

    • There are seasons in all things. I love the freedom of our God.

  • People always wonder “Where am I meant to be?” and “What is God’s will for me?” I think this answers many of those questions. What more could God want from us than to be fully present in the here and now where we are, instead of daydreaming about the then and there of where we want to be?

    Great post, Sarah!

  • I grew up in the middle of the desert and people knew our house because
    of its truly giant mesquite in the front yard, the one on which we
    carved our names all over the highest branches. In this day of Facebook,
    I can’t run away from that desert place, it seems, and I don’t even
    know if I’m trying to run from it or to it.

    I’ve never thought of staying put as a faith-driven act. We’ve been married eight years and we’ve lived in six houses, with a few
    added others claiming the “home” title temporarily. I pack and move,
    pack and move, eager to embark on adventure, create a new space, a new me. The thought of staying put, being the Gospel in a place such as this, it does seem radical as I envision perfection just a little further down the road.

    • Part of the struggle of staying is letting go of the striving. Very un-western thing to attempt. Almost impossible for me. I get you.

  • Allen Carr

    I can’t tell you enough how much this post is what I needed to hear today. About 7 years ago, I moved back into the area where I grew up. It seems like most of my youth was spent dreaming about other places and greener pastures. But then I felt called back to the same old place. I’m even a minister in the same church I attended growing up.

    It seems like most of my friends have gone on to “bigger and better” while I have been rooted to the same places and same people. I have often viewed these deep roots as strong chains keeping me from growing and experiencing everything the world has to offer.

    But there have been so many blessings to staying put – the closeness of family, long-term connection to people & true community. These are blessings I often take for granted. And staying does not mean stagnation. I continue to grow even when I don’t physically move location. Your post reminded me of this today.

    Thanks.

    • Oh, now this is some wisdom, Allen. Love how you put this —> staying does not mean stagnation. Encouraging!

  • Theology of place…that resonates with me. I moved to Nashville for a fresh start and in so many ways I feel Found here. I am more myself and now I see the many purposes of living here. Glory.

  • Sarah Comley Caldwell

    This post is so amazing…I am constantly in awe of the words you post to this blog! I resonate and relate with so much you have written here…and let me tell you – even when you have the chance to sometimes run off to those ‘big places of creativity’, you find that you didn’t really need them for the creative process, and running back to the beautiful ‘smaller’ spaces of home makes so much more sense. 🙂 Thank you for reminding me today of the theology of place… I am going to write a blog post soon about the blogs that inspire me, and I hope it’s ok if I feature yours loudly and happily! 🙂 Bless you and your beautiful family!

    • That’s so kind, Sarah! Thank you. Would be honoured.

  • Oh Sarah. This. I have moved over 18 times in nine years. I have lived in my current place for almost two years (actually, we moved next door last November, but I still feel like it counts that we’ve been in the same PLACE two years), longer than I’ve lived anywhere since I was 19. And it hurts. It aches. I feel the ground firming beneath my feet and I want out. I want out so badly. And yet I stay. I stay and breathe deeply and pray that God makes my feet sure, my foundation surer, and my heart certain.

    But it is so hard.
    So thank you. Thank you for this.

    • You and me both. Harder to stay, sometimes, than to go. I get that.

  • Tiffany Norris

    This is definitely where we are right now. I get itchy sometimes thinking about the “next” thing or where we might end up, but God has firmly planted us for now. And we’re trying to serve him faithfully and intentionally in our community. Thanks for this!

    • I struggle with the whole “next!” thing, too. hard to let go of it and just do “now.”

  • theblahblahblahger

    In December, I’ll have owned my shoebox condo for 10 years…I always assumed it was my starter place and that some gorgeous man would sweep me off my feet and deliver me to a forever home. Ten years have gone by in a blink and in those early years, while I was longer for the future, I missed out fun times in the present. I think there’s a sermon in there, too…

    Beautiful post, as always!

  • I love the idea of “theology of place,” a calling to truly BE where we are, to allow ourselves to be woven into the fabric of the landscape and the community…to share in the joys and do our part to absorb the impact of grief. It’s all part of being home. And the beautiful thing is, we’re already there. Always.

  • You are blessed to have a place you feel comfortable putting down roots (even though you dream sometimes of being elsewhere). We are wanderers right now and our heart beats to move west (because that’s the place on earth we feel we most belong) but family realities being what they are (the grands are east) we are stuck for now. But we are making the best of it in the beautiful gaspe peninsula of the Canadian east. Nature in spades, which we need. Christian community – nada, but we desperately need that too! Western Christians, especially lower mainland Abbotsford area folk how no idea how blessed they are for all the fellowship you can choose to join, or not. I digress (I long for Christian community).

    My tendency and my roots are to stay. But my adult life has taken a different turn. Perhaps God calls us into acts of service we are not totally comfortable with (to stay or go depending on who you are) to shape us more into who He wants us to be. To grow.

    You say the radical act of staying is shaping you. I can say the same thing about going. Funny how that is.

    Another thought. Your hubby is a homesteader, mine is a pioneer. We’re the opposite of you and it’s interesting how you’re staying (in part because of who your husband is no doubt) just as I am moving, in part, because of who my husband is.

    We don’t live our lives as believers, women, mother, etc. in isolation. Seeking only God to direct. There are these people in our lives – whom we have committed to stay with till death do us part that significantly influence our journey.
    Just a few thoughts as I feel envious over here in the east for the Christian community you experience and roots where you are (smile).

    • Yes, and amen. (And you should wander this way sometime…)

  • I’ve been missing my home lately (the one I came from, not the one I’m making right now) and this post was a moving reminder to be where I am. Thanks, Sarah. (PS: do you know Scott Russell Sanders’ book Staying Put? He touches on some of these same themes, in gorgeous, understated prose.)

    • I have heard of it but not read it yet. Must do!

  • i love to hear the different takes on this subject. in my little post on “fruit trees” it was pointed out to me that some of us have both the going and the staying in our lives. that made me feel so much better, for some reason. whatever we do, may we be called to do it radically. amen? oh, and ps: plant some fruit trees for me :).

  • JennaDeWitt

    “deserts have the plants with the deepest roots” – I know this was just a sidenote, but this is echoing in my head loud and clear… I have used the desert metaphor for a while now, meaning different things in the different places I have struggled through (college followed by job halfway across the country = 5 moves in 6 years) and each has been a desert in its own way.

    But like it says in Hosea, He leads us, His Bride, out into the desert to speak tenderly to us, that we may fall deeper in love with Him and get to know His voice, fall head over heels all over again.

    Perhaps that’s where the roots run deep. Where we soak in all the Living Water we can get because we desperately need it… when there is nothing else to satisfy, to cling to, out here in the wilderness… that’s where the deep roots grow.

    • The desert season of our life was long, too, and God was faithful there. I really “get” what you mean here.

      • JennaDeWitt

        Thanks, Sarah. (Isn’t it amazing how just having someone say “Oh, me too!” can bring such peace? haha)

  • When we were in the empty quarter in Saudi Arabia the tour guide told us that the plants there (I was so amazed that there were any) had roots 20 feet long to reach the water. It would be an amazing topic for a sermon. 🙂

    • It would be amazing. I’d want to hear it, that’s for sure.

  • Diana Trautwein

    Yes, I get this. Wherever we are – there we are. Uh-huh. And some of us may move more often than others – but where we land, that’s where we ARE – for however long. I’m feeling MIcha Boyett’s pain in moving just now. And I’m grateful for your growing contentment in not moving, and in my own, too. Roots deep – yes, in the desert, too. In the desert especially. Thanks, SB.

  • nina

    I’m learning how much fruit can come from staying…thank you for this

  • Tam Rice

    Sarah, I love how you put this into words. As someone who moved every three years (sometimes less) for the first twenty-plus years of my life, I really, really relate. And then came the slowing down. Every four years. And now … I’ve been in the same house, the same bedroom, the same life for almost nine years and it is the wildest, craziest thing I’ve ever done. But there is so much truth. I have a friend who once sent out cards when she moved with a cartoon of a house and a tired woman out in front of the house. It said: “We’re moving to a new place. This one’s dirty.” Just like that silly card, my solution to all problems is moving, and it’s not always for the best. Sometimes staying put and cleaning up is the hardest but best thing we could ever do.

    • Tam Rice

      Oops. Meant to say “so much truth in what you said about staying.” 🙂

  • YES! Sister! We are 13 years in ministry at one church and it is getting sweeter. Tonight i drank beer with our old youth group now mid twenties…we talked of marriage now, and it was so extraordinary. There is a new truth to be told in the long haul…you can fool them anymore…so all you can be is a grace hound. And…isn’t that all we can ever be????

  • I hope you’ve read “Dakota” by Kathleen Norris. Her theology of place led to this poetic “spiritual geography.” She chose South Dakota after living in New York City!

  • I love this. I find myself just reading it over and over and letting the words seep into my soul. I’m in the middle of an urban neighborhood, a neighborhood which my husband and I chose and have committed to. But sometimes I feel that commitment waning. Feel the draw back to the flat lands and rustling corn fields of my childhood home. But I know these big building, busy street corners, traffic lights, abandoned houses, beggars and millionaires on the same block–they’re changing me for the better. And hopefully our presence in this place, our commitment to eat and walk and chat and work here, are changing it too.

  • I’m late to reading this, but I had to comment. It resonated so deeply with me

    Like many, I love to travel. It’s fun and wonderful. It’s a joyful part of my life. Part of my travel experiences have been for short-term mission trips. I have loved them, but there is something about the culture of short-term mission trips and the call to “go” in our churches that bugs me. I think is actually a bit selfish. It becomes a way to see the world and have adventures more than a way to love. Because real, deep love takes commitment. It’s hard. It can be boring. It often involves staying put. Loving those who are already in our life. People who don’t become a story of the difference we made or the thing we did in that other place, but are intertwined with the story of our everyday lives.

    “We were always taught to forsake all for the Gospel and GO. No one ever mentioned the holy work of staying once in a while.” Yes.

  • I’ve written about this before and have felt it bubbling up again just recently. I don’t know where my longing to leave comes from, but I’ve learned over the past several years that no matter how deeply I feel it, it might still not be God calling me away. Good thoughts here. My head and heart are still a jumble, figuring out what this means to me, for me, in me – and for Him, in Him. Yes. A jumble. 🙂

  • stephsday

    Goodness, you can WRITE.

    This line especially resonated with me: “I liked being able to start over as the person I knew I was becoming, instead of having to plod along as the person that I wasn’t yet.”

    I relate to this on many levels – the restlessness, the yearning for new, and the thankfulness for the now. I’m somewhere right in the middle of all those feelings.

    To be honest, I’m not sure what the next 5 years will bring, but I appreciate the reminder to live for HIM right where I am today.

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