Our house is officially on the market.
I finished my last project at the little yellow house which was patching up holes in the plaster walls, painting, and concealing the memories that had been etched on the walls. The baby room’s lavender walls are now stark white—a blank slate prepped for a new memories.
Future owners won’t know that we painted almost every square inch of the place. Then, painted it again. Or, that we landscaped the backyard and I got a rash from poison ivy once a month during the summer—that a cherry tree almost fell on me after it was struck by lightning. We remodeled the bathroom, which is where we discovered that our lives would be remodeled by a child. And then, another. When we arrived we walked on sub-flooring, but we put down new hardwood floor, and later taught Eden how to walk on it.
The house was a beautiful mistake—my wife and I didn’t expect to sign the papers for a small, yellow house in West Asheville at the ripe age of thirty. But I went on personal leave from the United Methodist Church.
Our denomination operates with an itinerant system, as clergy persons are sent to congregations by a bishop and cabinet—usually too frequently. Churches afford pastors parsonages, and increasingly housing allowances, until you’re sent to serve elsewhere. We’re in ministry for an undisclosed period, called to put down roots but remain ready to pull them up and replant them elsewhere. The pitfall of itinerancy is the temptation to put the roots in vase of water and not the soil—to become a tourist or treat each place like a layover. This is unfaithful, I know, but you can only give out so many pieces of your heart before it starts to thicken.
We place ourselves in the tradition of Jesus who travelled from place to place or sent out the seventy-two to be in mission. But even Jesus remained in one geographic area, Galilee, and spent the first thirty years of his life incarnated in a particular community. Or, maybe it’s fashioned after Paul who rarely stayed in a solitary place for more than a couple months. Though, Paul wasn’t knocked off his horse by a bishop and then told where to be in mission.
We ignore that the Hebrew narrative isn’t centered on just the calling of a people, but also a specific calling to a place—a land flowing with milk and honey—to finally belong and call home.
“If you don't know where you are,” says Wendell Berry, “you don't know who you are.” This is true theologically, too, and it’s docetic to say otherwise. One can’t understand Jesus without understanding his place, Israel. But many of us are placeless. Our nostalgia for home is so deep that old houses are fashionable. We install shiplap and paint furniture only to beat it up to give it a faux, lived-in history. We're longing for a place to belong. Urbanologists cite that the first question young adults meeting one another ask is “Where do you live?” We no longer ask, “What do you do?” “The 20th-century American dream was to move out and move up; the 21st-century dream seems to be to put down deeper roots.” Place is as essential to our identity, even Christian identity, as vocation. And for some folks, their place is a vocation.
There’s been a sense of displacement in my life since graduating high school, or even longer, like many children of baby boomers. Walter Bruegemann says that there is a different between space and place. A geographical area is a space until we give it a story, and it’s then that it becomes a place. An identity has been established across generations, who have shaped the place and been shaped by it. There is history and memory. If this is true, then most of my life has been spent in spaces, as I sought to understand and become incarnate in the places of others.
I spent my entire childhood in a little town outside of Savannah, Georgia; we only moved once and I'm very grateful for the sacrifices my parents made to give us stability. But neither of my parents hailed from the south. We spoke without an accent and didn’t eat grits or cornbread. We couldn’t walk through a church yard and see gravestones that shared our last name. I didn’t value the land for the sake of the hours and sweat that our grandparents poured into the soil. When I left, though I missed it, I knew that I probably wouldn’t go back there to start a family and raise kids. And I didn’t. Neither did my two siblings.
I (naively) thought this might change when we bought a house. It could be an answer for our innate longing for community and a commitment to the work of building a neighborhood. The place we entered and put down roots could signify more than a commodity from the church as a container for souls and disciples. And so we began to make an effort to learn something about belonging and community. To learn the rhythms of the place—when the dogwoods should bloom or when it's safe to stick a tomato plant in the ground. It was the good slow work of planting a tree—we would stay long enough for it to bear fruit and taste the goodness of a place.
But it was a fool’s errand.
Just over three years later, the little yellow house is on the market for a whole slew of reasons: change of ministerial appointment, growing family, a hot market and the lure of paying off our student loans. Such is the nature of my vocation, a transient culture, and economics.
We live in a parsonage a few miles away, but I feel less attached. The expiration date of our time in this place is palpable. Our rootedness was all an illusion. The reality as a United Methodist pastor is that every place will have an expiration date.
And this is why it’s hard to sell the little, yellow house. It’s not that it’s particularly nice. Or, spacious. It’s not even the memories of holding Eden’s hand through the bars of her crib as she fell asleep. But it’s the realization that we’re continuing the cycle of generational displacement and the fear that my kids (or me) will never have a place to belong.