The Paradoxical Relationship between Place and Vocation in Sacred Scripture

1067121For the past few weeks, the daily Lectionary has shared the story of Abraham and Sarah and their journey to a new land and into relationship with God. My personal reflections on place, vocation, and belonging, while still nascent, have been percolating for a while. Praying with these chapters of Genesis while simultaneously thinking about Daily Theology’s theme of “Vocational Bible School” compel me to offer some of my own thoughts on the role place and places plays in the Bible and in our personal and collective vocations today.

Let me say from the start, Sacred Scripture reflects a deep ambiguity between human beings and their call to place. The Creation accounts and the immediate rupture of relationship between human beings, God, and creation introduce this ambiguity from the get go. In the Fall, human beings separate themselves from creation, there is animosity between the ground and human beings. At the same time, the call to a particular place is key in the budding relationship between Abraham and Sarah and God. The covenantal role of the Land and the call to place continues to be central in the story of the Exodus and the formation of the People of Israel.

Nevertheless, a good portion of the Hebrew Scriptures is spent wrestling with the complex relationship between the People and the Land. The stories of the Conquest in Joshua and Judges provide enough material for a lifetime of reflection on this ambiguous relationship between place and call. How can a call to the Land justify the displacement of others? And the Land itself does not seem to live up to the promise. The Land compromises the People’s very survival through drought and famine. The Land is constantly under threat of invasion. Yet, the People of Israel still yearn for this Promised Land. A good portion of the Hebrew Scriptures was written during the Babylonian captivity, when the People are separated from the Land. Their call to place is sustained through memory and the practices of lament. The Psalms and the Wisdom literature reflect this yearning for home and belonging amid the struggle of alienation and homelessness. Is it a spiritual yearning or a geographical yearning? It seems to be both. Even when the Land is in their possession, the Law and the prophets constantly remind the people that they must never forget their experiences as exiles. The Law explicitly states that they must always welcome the strangers, the aliens, the outsiders because they themselves were once strangers. Remembering their experience of exile should open their hearts to extend God’s compassion and mercy to others. It seems that at the heart of the biblical reflections on place is the simultaneous call to be at home and in exile.

Jesus’ own ministry as an itinerant preacher reflects this ambiguous relationship between call and place. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus returned to his hometown in Nazareth early on in his ministry, proclaiming the good news only to be rejected and expelled. Jesus was clearly familiar and at home with the cultural and religious norms of his time and place. At the same time, he refused to let old tribal rules and taboos dictate whom God’s favor falls upon. As both of the stories of the Canaanite woman and the Samaritan woman show, he refused to let geographic, cultural, and gender boundaries dictate to whom he would minister. Jesus demanded that his disciples should leave all behind—including homes and families—to follow him. After all, the Son of God had nowhere to lay his head. At the same time, he depended on the hospitality of disciples like Martha and Mary—hospitality that requires these disciples to stay in place rather than journey with him and the twelve. Based on the Gospels, Jesus seems to call us both to and away from home.

As a person for whom place is particularly important, I’ve wrestled with this ambiguity in my own life. I spent ten years in Boston, completing my Masters, teaching for a time, and then earning my doctorate. I loved my time in Boston. I had (and still have!) wonderful friends, a great place to live, a supportive community. I felt confident that it was the right decision to be in Boston. But it never felt like home. I had the luxury of being able to return to my childhood home in Oregon for every Christmas and every summer. I cherished those trips. They were balm for my soul, for my body, for my mind. My time at home helped me cope with the anxieties of teaching, city living, and graduate school. They were opportunities to remind myself who I am, where I’m from, and who I feel called to be. And, strangely enough, I came to know my childhood home in a more intimate way in the experience of missing it than I did when I was growing up there. But after every visit I was called to return to Boston. How could I feel called to both home and to a place that did not feel like home?

I remember speaking to a spiritual director about this spiritual and geographic struggle. She called my attention to the Resurrection scene in Matthew 28. Jesus’ instructs Mary Magdalene to tell the disciples to return to Galilee. Jesus appears to them as they are returning to Galilee and in Galilee, on the Mountain where they listened to him teach. Jesus must have understood the pain and anguish the disciples felt. Jesus knew they needed to return to the place they first heard felt called to follow Jesus. Their return to Galilee, this homecoming, resurrects their own vocations. It strengthens them for the journey and the unknown future. But as we know, Jesus does not tell the disciples to stay in Galilee. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gives the twelve the Great Commission. He tells them to go to the all the nations, announcing the Good News. Right in this Resurrection story is both the call home and the call to go forth, the call to be rooted and the call to be scattered.

This is but one scriptural example of a key paradox in our vocations as Christians: we are called to be both at home and stranger. In his book The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology, theologian Douglas Christie wrestles with this paradox in the context of the ecological crisis we face today. He dedicates an entire chapter to the role place and place-making can have in a contemplative life, looking specifically at the experiences and wisdom of the monastic tradition. If our call to our common home is to be taken seriously, he reflects, we must come to love the places we inhabit. In order to heal the ruptured relationship between us and creation, we must develop contemplative practice of place-making. The contemplative practice of place-making, Christie says, calls forth a deep love for and intimacy with the world—even if it is only through memory and lament. He writes,

Amidst this deepening sense of displacement and homelessness, we are witnessing a newfound urgency to discover language and practices that can help us situate ourselves more carefully and thoughtfully within the world, to recover the art of what some have called “place-making,” the imaginative work of beholding, inhabiting, and cherishing the particular places where we live. [1].

However, lest this contemplative practice of place-making inculcate a destructive impulse to live out some twisted form of tribal manifest destiny, Christie also reflects on the Christian call to chosen homelessness, that is, to be as strangers, to be vulnerable and seek out the unfamiliar—even in the places we inhabit and love. Attending to the ecological crisis today, Christie argues that nurturing both practices of place-making and place-seeking (my word) will help heal some of the wounds we inflict upon our planet. It will help us see that our ache for home is not just an ache for some distant union with God, but is also an ache for the actual world that we inhabit. The yearning we feel for place is both a spiritual and geographic ache to belong—and these two distinctions have something to say to each other. He writes,

Whatever the spiritual meaning of homelessness might be, it seems increasingly clear that it cannot be separated entirely from the precarious and fragile character of our material existence…The dream of homecoming owes much to the longing for a place of stable and encompassing security. That this dream can never be fully realized amidst the impermanence of actual existence has often meant projecting it into another world—either beyond or within. But should this necessary reckoning the fact of impermanence mean, as it so often has meant, sacrificing all hope of making a home in this world? Or is it possible to reconceive the very idea of homelessness and the desire for a spiritual home, so that they include the concrete and particular character of the actual world, and the possibility of learning to life with a deep and abiding affection for the world? [2].

The places that have shaped us, the places we love, even the places for which we grieve, contribute to our personal and collective vocations. As embodied and historical beings, we inhabit places that contribute to our identity. For all the ambiguity Sacred Scripture offers regarding our relationship with place, the story of salvation shows that place is intricately connected to vocation. Our common call, when we get right down to it, is a call to belong, a call to be at home. This shared yearning to belong, to be at home, is also a shared yearning for our common salvation, our desire to be intimately connected with the Divine, with the earth, and with one another. Paying attention to that common call will help nurture our capacity to offer compassion to those who are experiencing homelessness and displacement, a vocation that is becoming increasingly important in our world today. As each of us discerns our personal and ever-unfolding vocations, let us pay attention to the role place and places plays in our formation and our journey in, with, and to God. May our reflections on our collective call to be both at home and stranger help us serve those who are displaced with compassion and mercy, and, of course, hospitality.

Reflection questions:

  • What role does place play in your understanding of vocation?
  • What are some of the places that have shaped you and who you are and where you feel called?
  • What are some of the places that you have lost and for which you mourn? How does the memory of those places play into your spiritual life today? How does memory shape your sense of place?
  • Does there seem to be any dissonance between who you feel called to be, what you are called to do, and where you are called to be? If so, how do you reconcile these dissonances?
  • How do you respond to others’ loss of home, homeland, and experiences of displacement? Are there experiences in your own life that may help nurture compassion and mercy and compel you to action? What would that action look like?
  • Are there particular passages from Scripture that invite you to reflect on your personal call to place? What are they? Spend some time reflecting and praying with those passages.

1. Douglas E. Christie, The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 105.

2. Christie, The Blue Sapphire of the Mind, 107.