Our Ordinary Time 2012 paper is now online. Be sure to read it and let us know what you think.
Ordinary Time 2012
Being Placed: More On Stability
Jodi and I moved five times in the first ten years of our life together—Fort Collins, Des Moines, Bratislava, Durham, Kansas City. Add to that almost two years in Atlanta, and back to Kansas City and we have experienced more than our share of mobility. I’m reminded of the main character in Wendell Berry’s book, Jayber Crow, who, after dropping out of school says, “It made me happy to have all my belongings in a box that I could carry with one hand and walk wherever I wanted to go.” Indeed there is something exhilarating about this freedom of movement.
At the time we thought little of our transience. It mostly felt logical (education), necessary (a job) good (a call to ministry), loving (to be near family) and, at times, a little adventurous. Our middle class culture expects this of us, to be sure. Yet looking back, it feels very different. It’s as if we have lived in the middle of everywhere but aren’t from anywhere. No roots. What one of Berry’s characters calls being a “theoretical person”.
This year we have been reflecting on stability in our community. In our last paper I shared some of what I’ve been learning about stability as a commitment to love: learning to love those particular persons around me; being willing to speak into their lives out of love and commitment to them; being willing to face that within myself that is unable to love.
Another question stirring in me is the relationship between stability and staying put. I don’t want to pit my experiences in Eastern Europe or the Deep South against the virtues of stability. They were filled with moments of clarity about our call to ministry and personal self-discovery. Besides, permanence comes with its own baggage like parochialism, close-mindedness or fear of strangers . Awareness must also be given to things like acedia, a vice recognized by monks whereby one can be present in body, but emotionally unconcerned about community happenings, withdrawn from central moments of communal life, or present only in a melancholy demeanor. So Benedictine Michael Casey wisely suggests we should not assume stability means never moving. “Stability is not a matter of immobility or resistance to change but of maintaining one’s momentum.”
But sometimes I wonder how being a “citizen of the world” (and I doubt such a thing is possible) has handicapped me from making commitments to a place? It seems inevitable that stability will require of me learning to be present to a concrete community, struggling to know it intimately, and accepting the limitations of its history and mine.
This value of committing to a place is one of the greatest lessons I have learned working with street friends in our neighborhood. Contrary to what we might think, homelessness is not instability, but the battle for greater stability amidst the volatility of life.
Ironically, for many of the homeless we know, Northeast Kansas City was and is their home. Their roots go deep into the happenings of the neighborhood. They attended Scarritt middle school, graduated from Northeast High school, went to VBS at Bales Baptist, or worked in the JC Penney’s distribution center.
For some, our chickens bring back childhood memories of gathering eggs in their own yard. Our garden reminds them of a family garden and steamy home-style vegetables at dinner.
Our own buildings are part of this memory stream as they recall shopping at Bob Mead’s hardware store, getting their hair cut from Freidley’s barber shop or watching a movie across the street at what is now a church.
And so they refuse to stay at the shelters or relocate. They find a corner in a friends house, tuck themselves in the shadows of abandoned buildings or bed down in the overgrowth rather than be forced out. I am often surprised at what great pains folks released from incarceration will take to make their way back to the area. Whatever challenges homelessness has brought to their lives and identity, this place is still an important part of their story. It’s home and they are staying. And when we stay, we become part of their story and they of ours.
What is the lesson in committing to a place? Perhaps it is that we moderns are the truly homeless, and the mainstream church shares in this displacement. We lack a real sense of commitment to community for the long haul. When we struggle with deep issue like generational poverty or our personal idiosyncrasies, wholeness can begin in the place where we stand. Stability requires us to abandon easy solutions or quick fixes.
In many of his writings, Wendell Berry calls the virtue of being rooted in a place “membership.” His character, Jayber Crow, reflects back on years of commitment to his place on earth called Port William,
“What I saw now was the community imperfect and irresolute but held together by the frayed and always fraying, incomplete and yet ever-holding bonds of the various sorts of affection. There had maybe never been anybody who had not been loved by somebody, who had not been loved by somebody else and so on…It was a community always disappointed in itself, disappointing its members, always trying to contain its divisions and gentle its meanness, always failing and yet always persevering a sort of will toward goodwill. I knew that, in the midst of all the ignorance and error, this was a membership; it was a membership of Port William and of no other place on earth. My vision gathered the community as it never has been and never will be gathered in this world of time, for the community must always be marred by members who are indifferent to it or against it, who are nonetheless its members and maybe nonetheless essential to it. And yet I saw them all as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another’s love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace.”
It also seems to me that commitment to a place nurtures stability because of a thousand daily acts and local life patterns that give us a sense of belonging. In this short time we have worked hard at establishing local patterns. Buying from our neighborhood grocery store or investing in a local business that employs our neighbors is not simply convenient, but it helps our lives overlap. One of the cashiers is a former homeless friend and behind each encounter and warm greeting is a celebration of her success.
Sending Diana and Henri to the local school brings us in relationship with families that live just a few streets up. Our evening walks take us in the direction of their homes. When we ride our bikes to church we see street friends in their fuller rhythms and appreciate them in new ways. Old patterns seem to merge into new ones, until ultimately there is a web of connectedness that is the gift of time.
Planting perennials can be seen as a spiritual discipline of this sort. Three years ago we planted peach trees in hope and anticipation. This year we awed as peaches emerged and giggled as they grew and ripened. Last year we planted pecan trees, an act of faith, for as saplings, they have no fruit yet to offer. Each year they survive I am more invested in their health, more devoted to their survival. And the desire within me grows to see their fruit.
This parable of the pecan tree begins with the assumption that I am tending the tree, that I chose to plant it and continue to care for it. In short, I am the cultivator of it. But those thousands of daily acts in one place have their effect on me, too. As the tree roots mine the earth, so my roots are winding their way through the darkness and we are being born anew from the same soil. As Jayber Crow reflects in his old age, “ I had laid my claim on the place, had made it answerable to my life. Of course, you can’t do that and get away free. You can’t choose, it seems, without being chosen. For the place, in return had laid its claim on me and had made my life answerable to it.”