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Finding Our Place

September 26, 2011

Posted by Inagrace Dietterich

(This is second in a series of talks given by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove at the Convocation in Chicago earlier this year).

When Israel is set free from the bondage of Egypt, they move from a death-dealing system into a new way of living. But that way of living requires a place—a holy land. When Israel goes into exile, they learn to “seek the peace of the city” where they are, to see that every place can be made holy in God’s kingdom. God’s quiet revolution recalls the ancient practice of stability and its lessons for the contemporary church as we seek to find a place for a simple life with God and other friends to happen.

Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove at the 2011 Convocation

New Jerusalem Now. Take the elevated train north from Philadelphia’s Center City and you soon find yourself in a post-industrial wasteland. Old factory buildings are surrounded by boarded up row-houses, interrupted by empty lots where plastic bags from corner stores roll like tumbleweeds. You might mistake some blocks here for a ghost town, except for the ceaseless noise that arises from the chaotic lives of people who are not so much ghosts as dead men walking—lives abandoned when everyone who could get out of this place did.  Read More…

The Promised Land. From the very beginning of the story of God’s people, the promise of life with God is tied to a place on earth. God’s promise to make Abraham into a great nation is not only a promise of children, but also of land. “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.”  Read More…

Placelessness. But we are not accustomed to being placed people. For all of the ways our story ties us to the ground from which we’re made and the particular places where our God has met us, we also live in a culture of placelessness. We pride ourselves in being “global citizens” who know more about what’s happening in New York and Tokyo than we know about the contours of the watershed in which we live and move and feed our children.  Read More…

Engaging Our Place. Where we live matters because, as living members of Christ’s body, our vocation is to make true worship possible in our place. This worship is not confined to a house of worship. Gathering places are needed, and it is a great gift to have a room or building devoted to prayer. But church buildings do not define holy ground for those who are “in Christ.”  Read More…

Standing in Place. To confess that Jesus took on flesh and moved into the neighborhood is to see that we are invited to dwell in our places and grow up into “the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” We are not in charge of securing our own place in the world. Jesus told Peter, the rock upon whom he promised to build his church, that he should put away his sword in the garden of Gethsemane.  Read More…

Questions for Reflection and Discussion



New Jerusalem Now. Take the elevated train north from Philadelphia’s Center City and you soon find yourself in a post-industrial wasteland. Old factory buildings are surrounded by boarded up row-houses, interrupted by empty lots where plastic bags from corner stores roll like tumbleweeds. You might mistake some blocks here for a ghost town, except for the ceaseless noise that arises from the chaotic lives of people who are not so much ghosts as dead men walking—lives abandoned when everyone who could get out of this place did. The souls who were left to scrounge in these ruins eke out their existence from plastic wrappers and brown paper bags. Heroine has left so many of their eyes hollow that they mostly look down—or through you—when you pass them on the street. The train car rattles away overhead, stirring a wind at your back that brings with it the smell of urine mixed with dust. You have come to an abandoned place.

In the midst of this urban desert, on Norris Street, a sign hangs over a simple door proclaiming “New Jerusalem Now.” Here the sidewalk is swept clean. If you follow it past the house you can see a garden in full bloom, flowers surrounding Swiss chard and heirloom variety tomatoes, ripe on the vine. An inner-city oasis, this community is home to a couple of religious sisters and fifty recovering addicts. They begin their day with an hour of group Bible study, followed by household chores and two and half hours of community service. Members of the community feed their neighbors, tend the garden, run a small bio diesel station, and offer Alternatives to Violence seminars. In the living room where they study Scripture together, a sign hangs on the wall: ‘My recovery will never be complete until I help to heal the society that made me sick.’

For these brothers and sisters, healing begins on Norris Street. The new life they seek is not far away in a land they dream of, but right here in the abandoned place they call home. Though this street has been overlooked by city government, “red-lined” by lenders, avoided by real estate agents, and preyed on by hucksters, God is present on Norris Street. It’s not just a feeling some people have here. You can see it. “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God,” the apostle John writes in his Revelation. If you listen closely to the people who are finding new life at New Jerusalem Now, they echo the declaration that accompanied John’s vision: “God’s dwelling place is now among the people.”

The Promised Land. From the very beginning of the story of God’s people, the promise of life with God is tied to a place on earth. God’s promise to make Abraham into a great nation is not only a promise of children, but also of land. “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.”

Conviction about promised land gives rise to the agony of Israel’s exile: “How can we sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land?” Relationship with God is so connected to relationship with the land that Israel cannot initially imagine worship in a new and foreign place. But this crisis of dislocation does not severe Israel’s connection to place. It radically redefines it. “Seek the peace of the city to which I have carried you into exile,” God says through the prophet Jeremiah. Place matters, but Israel learns in Babylon that their God can hallow any ground. Indeed, “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.” When we pay attention to our story, the centrality of our place on earth emerges as an essential element of what it means to be people of God’s promise.

Placelessness. But we are not accustomed to being placed people. For all of the ways our story ties us to the ground from which we’re made and the particular places where our God has met us, we also live in a culture of placelessness. We pride ourselves in being “global citizens” who know more about what’s happening in New York and Tokyo than we know about the contours of the watershed in which we live and move and feed our children. While local culture may seem quaint (especially when we’re on vacation), the ways and means of local places are not our standard models of success. The place we call home in a technological era is increasingly the bedroom community from which we connect by Internet or airplane with the people and issues that matter to us, wherever they happen to be.

Still, we long for home—for community, for roots, for a basic sense of belonging. No one knows this better than our marketing firms. A thousand times a day we are sold the experience of home. Whether it’s in a car, a bank, or a cup of coffee, we are invited to buy a little bit of the stability that we can’t seem to find in a culture where most of us are always on the go. But when the gift we were made for is reduced to a commodity, it cannot satisfy. A placeless culture threatens to hold us captive in the cyberspace of endless desire.

But God’s desire for us is still more powerful. Scattered though we may be by the desires of our twisted selves, God insists on meeting us in the particularity of our daily lives. The chaos of a blighted neighborhood is interrupted by a New Jerusalem Now. The busy life of a contemporary church go-er is confronted by words plainly spoken from a pastor tearing a piece of bread: “This is my body, broken for you.” These signs are not the norm in our world, but neither are they an anomaly in the story of God’s people. Concrete interruptions, they point to the peculiar way God is in the habit of breaking into a broken world. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

Strange as it seems, God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham and to Israel that God would make a home with us. God dwells with people in the particularity of our place and culture not so we can learn to transcend these particularities but so that we can know that our material lives have been redeemed. To stand with Jesus is to stand on holy ground.

The places where we live matter because we are, each of us, invited to participate in the mystery of Christ’s incarnation. The New Testament calls the church the ‘body of Christ’ because it assumes that Jesus’ incarnation on the ground that was hallowed by his presence is extended into all the earth through the flesh and blood of people who have died to themselves and found new life by the Spirit. To live a life “in Christ” is to live in place, growing day by day into the fullness of the One who showed us how to engage our world faithfully. It is to pray not only with our words, but with our whole lives: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Engaging Our Place. Where we live matters because, as living members of Christ’s body, our vocation is to make true worship possible in our place. This worship is not confined to a house of worship. Gathering places are needed, and it is a great gift to have a room or building devoted to prayer. But church buildings do not define holy ground for those who are “in Christ.” The ground we till to plant a garden, the streets connecting us one to another, the homes where we live, the shops where we work, the “third spaces” where we meet neighbors, the forests where nature’s rhythms are preserved, the abandoned lot we overlook—all of these places are holy now. God wants to meet us here, and to meet our neighborhoods through us.

Monastic wisdom points us toward this understanding of being a placed people. The monos in monasticism is Greek for “one.” From the very beginning of their life in the church, monks sought to focus their full attention on one thing. To pray without ceasing, to marry Christ, to worship God in spirit and in truth—this is the monastic vocation. It exists as a gift to all of us, as a concrete reminder that this is really all that any of us were made for. The whole point of human existence, as a later catechism taught us, is to “glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”

If we pay attention to the monastic witness, its radical focus reveals something about how true worship compels people to engage our places. While monasticism began as a movement of solitary prayer in the desert, it quickly took on a communal expression. Pilgrims who found hospitality in the early desert communities brought their wisdom back to cities, integrating a vision for true worship into the life of the whole church. In Western monasticism, this wisdom was best summarized in Benedict of Nursia’s Rule, a document that not only shaped monastic spirituality, but the life of Western civilization.

Giving themselves to the Rule’s pattern of ora et labora—prayer and work—Benedictine communities became anchors of society in Europe during the Middle Ages, offering stability and life-giving compassion to those around them through turmoils that were unimaginably chaotic by our contemporary standards. While critics have rightly observed that some Benedictines were corrupted by the power they amassed in Europe, their communities became a force in Western society while committed to nonviolence and gospel poverty. They grew both in number and influence not because they were eager to “change the world” but because they understood their vocation to be the worship of God in an authentic engagement with local places.

Standing in Place. To confess that Jesus took on flesh and moved into the neighborhood is to see that we are invited to dwell in our places and grow up into “the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” We are not in charge of securing our own place in the world. Jesus told Peter, the rock upon whom he promised to build his church, that he should put away his sword in the garden of Gethsemane. The violence of this world’s kingdoms would not be the means by which God would establish the peaceable kingdom here on earth. Jesus’ refusal of worldly power is not, however, a passive submission to the status quo. Jesus stands before Pilate, just as the martyrs would stand before authorities after him, neither backing down nor succumbing to the ways of an order that is passing away. “Fight the good fight of the faith,” Paul exhorted his young disciple, Timothy, recalling that Timothy had made the same “good confession” Jesus made while testifying before Pontius Pilate. It was a confession made not so much with his mouth as with his feet. In the power of the Spirit, he stood his ground.

The recovering addicts at New Jerusalem Now in North Philadelphia cannot imagine their own redemption apart from the redemption of their place. They know in their bones that they must be born again; they know just as surely that they need new homes and new businesses, new manners and new friends, new food and new fun, a new heaven and a new earth. It is striking, though, that even as they are giving their whole selves to building a new society in the shell of the old, they are equally committed to unlearning the habits of power and control that those who are apparently successful in our society often assume. Their Alternatives to Violence seminars, alongside their vigils against war and capital punishment, testify to the way they are learning to ‘fight the good fight of faith.’ To pay attention to their witness is to see how the transformation of our own places depends on learning the peculiar way of standing that we see in the stories of Israel and Jesus.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

1. Imagine “an inner city oasis,” in the midst of decaying neighborhoods in your community. In what ways could it manifest God’s quiet revolution? What can your congregation learn from such communities? What excites you about such a project? What disturbs you?

2. What can we learn from the journey of the people of Israel about the ways in which God’s promise is “tied to a place on earth”?

3. What is meant by “placelessness”? Where do you see evidence of placelessness? What is the effect of placelessness?

4. In what ways has the experience and expression of Christian faith been disconnected from place?

5. How does the incarnation transform our vision of how God dwells with human beings?

6. Why does place matter? In what ways could your congregation more fully engage its place?

7. What would it mean for contemporary congregations to become “anchors of society”? What can we learn from the monastic tradition about worshiping God in engagement with our place?

8. What do we learn from Jesus about “standing in place”?


Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is an Associate Minister at St. John’s Baptist Church and directs the School for Conversion in Durham, NC. Jonathan and his family live at The Rutba House, a new monastic community, and is the author of numerous books including New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church.


The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.

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