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.
We had a small window of time between rain showers to get our hands in the dirt and deliver the plants to their forever home—soil that would give them ample space to plant their roots.
This is the first year that Eden can participate in our garden. And by participate, I mean that she will make the whole enterprise more difficult. Gardening with a two year old sounds romantic, or maybe it doesn’t. Either way, we gave her a shovel and told her to get her hands dirty because this is how we learn to become human beings—Adam, from the dirt, or adamah. My own dad tolerated the muddy boots, squashed plants, endless questions, and hampering hands when we were children, and I will do the same with mine.
Norman Wirzba, one of my professors at Duke, calls gardening a form of catechesis, or instruction about becoming humans. Or, it’s Wendell Berry who says that gardening is a habit of the mind, though I’m not sure where it’s written. When we start to play in the dirt, we are reminded that we are made from it, created to serve it, and remain dependent on it for our survival. One day we’ll return to it. "For dust you are and to dust you will return." Gardening is not utilitarian for my family. We only have a few plants that will not produce enough fruit to justify the labor and headaches, not to mention the expense.
It’s the beginning of a long lesson in discipline, patience, and attention.
I grabbed a hoe and Eden grabbed a small, plastic rake to start to break up the soil and remove the weeds. There’s already a lesson here—deep care must be taken to provide the best conditions for something to grow strong and produce fruit. Weeds grow effortlessly, while it takes tremendous care and attention to nurture something delicious. If you don’t tend to your life, your soul, the next time you turn around it might be full of briars.
Our collaborative labor didn’t last long; she took two or three swipes at the ground before discerning that ‘this is hard.’ It was humid from the morning’s rainfall and obvious that it would be much easier to drive two miles to Ingles and get a perfectly round, red tomato. Or better yet, we could pinch both sides of a bag of goldfish crackers and pull it open.
Why are we digging in the soil?
I'm afraid that the work won’t get easier. Just wait until a groundhog comes and takes off the top of the plants or the aphids get hungry for a little sap. If it were easier to grow food, then millions wouldn’t go without every day. We learn to thank the hands that care for our daily bread and harvest each fruit—drive it from farm to market. The self-emptying of others keep us full. It’s an act of prayer. Our hands fold in the dirt we offer thanksgiving for the goodness of lives, creation, and our particular place in the world.
As we dug a hole for the first plant, I accidentally struck an earth worm with the shovel. It began wiggling and writhing around in the dirt, much like I had pulled a fishing hook through it. I picked up the worm, held it, invited her to touch it. This was traumatic. She took off toward the opposite end of the yard. It’s hard to look at suffering. We'd rather pretend that our food doesn't have to die--that we won't suffer or die. You can ignore this inconvenient fact at the supermarket, but on the farm you become an active participant in life and death. The worm may live, but countless other microorganisms will die. As my professor said, “How do we become worthy of receiving another’s death?”
We place the plants in the dirt, which is Eden’s favorite part of the whole experiment. She pushed the mound of dirt closer to the stem, and pated it down. The dirt became wedged in between her fingernails and skin. It is good, even when navigating fungi, infestations, and temperamental heat and rain, because something delicious will emerge. It’s an act of hope. There will be seed, a plant, and then a bell pepper will hang from a stalk in her own backyard. And she may not care for the taste, but she’ll learn about hope—it only takes a seed for new creation to bloom.
When I was a little older than Eden, I planted a green bean plant in a small container and cared for it and watered it all summer. The plant sprouted one bean fruit by the end of the season. But I was the mediator of the whole miraculous process, seed to fruit. I harvested the bean and told my mom that “I wanted to be a seller of green beans.”
Isn’t this our vocation? Our Gardening God brought us forth from the dirt of the ground and we’re called to participate in the miracle of life. We serve the soil and it serves us. We become more human, or more of whom we were intended to be, reflections of God.
Every day we go out and check the plants. “Nothing yet,” I say. “We’re still growing.”
Our director of music recently asked me “what are we doing for Pentecost?” It was a warranted question. I am, after all, the pastor and she always keeps me on task. But I’m at a loss. I’ve tried everything and I’ve yet to crack Pentecost. This day, like the Holy Spirit, is mysterious and hard to package in a box with a nice bow. I’ve asked folks to wear red, which is cute, and we all look like we’re getting ready to tailgate for an NC State game. I’ve ordered a cake and had the congregation gather out on the lawn to celebrate the ‘birthday of the church.’ But no one really wants to eat a glob of sugar before they’ve had their grilled cheese and tomato soup.
There are many sentimental, even creative, ways to celebrate that quaint day when the Spirit erupted like a volcano spewing fire and chaos. On Hawaii’s Big Island, trees are being uprooted, homes are melting, and the whole topography of the landscape will change. On Pentecost, a group of frightened and ill-equipped followers of a charismatic preacher start proclaiming gospel resurrection in the streets. The shape of the world was altered forever.
So what are we doing for Pentecost, pastor? How do you plan to catch this violent wind that ‘blows wherever it pleases’ trap it in our church? How can we speak with tongues of fire and go out to set the world ablaze? Have you discovered a way to capture that dove and lock it in a cage?
Planning Pentecost is about as useful as trying to force a volcano to erupt and then figure out how to make it stop.
But wait! Here’s a new banner and a video I found on youtube.
It’s an incredible weight to bear—to believe that the Spirit’s presence rests on our shoulders. It’s functional atheism, or maybe responsible grace without the grace. And really, it resembles most of the modern philosophy of church growth that there must be a perfect recipe to woo the Spirit into the church. Here’s some foolproof bait to catch the Spirit: put away the pipe organ and get out the guitars. Hire a young pastor who (preferably) wears skinny jeans. A thirty minute message with a few jokes. That should do the trick.
Come Holy Spirit, come.
Meanwhile, as we’re cajoling the Spirit to show up, grace is erupting in the places we least expect—where folks are most afraid or where the world is most hungry for life. God doesn’t need our permission to show up. But maybe God finds more space to move in places that aren’t as comfortable and cozy as our lives.
I pray for the Spirit to come, even though I know that the better prayer is, “Come Ryan Snider, come.” Sure, our bodies will occupy space in a pew, but we’ll fail to stoke the spark in our hearts. Worse even, we won’t bother to adjust our sails when it starts getting a little windy. We’ll walk out the doors into the same unenchanted world, way too leery to go to places like Judea or Samaria and the ends of the earth.
So happy Pentecost! Any Pentecost plans? I have no idea. I hope that we’ll be expectant and hopeful, with eyes to see and ears to hear. Perhaps, there will be a brush of wind or maybe something will catch fire.
But please—don’t forget to wear red. I’ll hang the streamers in the sanctuary. Maybe we’ll find a way to catch the Spirit this time around. Or, maybe we’ll shoot and miss.
But hey, at least it will look like we tried.
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My first house was at the end of a cul-de-sac on a quiet street that was woken up by big wheels and tackle football. It was the late 80s, just before the term helicopter parenting had been coined. According my (romanticized) memory, our street stretched eternally and we were free to roam while our parents remained indoors drinking coffee. We cast lines into the pond and played Super Mario 3 until the sound of crickets called us home and lulled us to sleep. Those years felt like one endless summer, though I suspect it’s because I hadn’t yet started school.
I learned this about neighborhoods: adults may construct the houses and streets, but the children are the ones who take the pavement and brick and build neighborhoods. The laughter in the streets, bicycle bells ringing, and basketballs pounding against the pavement are the sounds of a street birthing a community. My own kid reminds me of this when she drags me into small-talk and play dates. I think this is why Jesus says the kingdom of God belongs to children—they’ve yet to ask the question, “who is my neighbor?” A neighbor is whoever happens to be walking down the street. And if you’re up for a game of hide and seek, then come, let’s be friends.
Fences were curious to me as a child—they were only good as a wall to scale. It's basic psychology, right, that if something is important enough to be enclosed, then it must be significant enough for another to find. These tall wooden planks arranged side by side as soldiers to keep others at bay. It must have been a grown up’s idea. Who cares about property lines, privacy, and protection? The kind of people who read John Locke, that’s who.
In other words, me.
How did this happen?
Every morning a Golden Retriever walks straight into our front lawn and takes a squat. Suddenly, privacy has moved to the top of my dream home wish list and I’ve begun googling “BB guns.” I wasn’t always a curmudgeon who complained about the neighborhood dog. Maybe it was hammered up one plank at a time from wood of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, as innocence was lost. We so quickly change from happy, naive children into hardened and cynical adults in a mistrusting and fearful world. There is creation. There is fall.
The first wall must have been erected in the bedroom that I shared with my older brother. He took masking tape and planted a line right down the middle of the room. At last, He-Man, Skeletor, and GI Joe were safe from little brother’s hands. Then another: don’t go past the stop sign. My siblings and I were hedged in away from places like 37th and Bulloch or Bolton, Lincoln, and Duffy Streets. Another day, a childhood friend called and told me that he wasn’t allowed to play with me anymore because a drug lord threatened our family. My dad later showed me a picture of said drug lord’s collection of assault rifles lined up against a wall in his house. Yikes. The only gang I knew about rode on big wheels.
New walls emerge, others grow taller—around a house, a heart, and a life—as we become cynical, guarded, paranoid, and fearful. The problem is that once you start building them, you might not feel safe until there’s a big, beautiful wall around your entire life. One can never feel too safe. What would this zoo become without its walls? All of these animals need to be in cages for their own good—and ours, too. Let’s impose some more order here, and some more over there. That's better. Now, I can rest with ease.
With so many walls, who has become the prisoner?
I wonder if these partitions are as effective as we hope, or if they make promises that they can’t always keep. In my first neighborhood one of our neighbors had a wooden fence, and to a six-year old boy it might as well have been the Great Wall of China. But the neighboring dog was a terror and we needed to be protected. One day my cat, Rags, well, she became an afternoon snack. I didn’t learn this until college. At the time, my brother and I were told that Rags had run away. Every evening for a week we went looking for her in thickets and holes in the ground. I came home from school one Christmas and asked about Rags. My dad snorted and then broke the news, “She didn’t run away. It was the neighbor’s dog.”
According to the Scriptures, God isn’t crazy about walls. God even takes a sledgehammer to them, starting with the one between earth and heaven. In Jesus’ own body, the walls of difference are broken down and a new humanity is created. He spent his life sitting at a welcome table shattering boundaries between enemies and friends, Jews and Gentiles, clean and unclean. All of this radical hospitality persisted until a group of neighbors turned out to be hostile. He’s put on a cross, enclosed tomb, and the world is protected from subversion. But even the great wall of death was shattered when the stone was rolled away.
It wasn’t the safest way to make a living, but God, as it turns out, isn’t all that worried about ease and protection.
We learn from Jesus that every encounter is potentially harmful—hostility is etymologically built into the word hospitality. You can’t have one without the other. A philosopher, Jacques Derrida, coined the term “hostipitality.” Every encounter with a stranger holds within it potential for hostility. This is true in our lives, in our country, in our hearts. Welcome someone into your house and something might get stolen; let another into your heart and it might get broken. So we hope to strike the right cord between welcome and security, or inclusion and exclusion. But we must decide whether encounters are worth the risk, or whether she are better off closing ourselves off.
Where’s the line?
I follow Jesus because I think he’s the one who might release me from the walls I’ve built and am tempted to construct. He offers forgiveness, which is about tearing down past fences I’ve built—grudges and resentment. Chains are broken and I am free to be the kind of person who sees the other as image of God. He grafts me into the vine and asks me to do the same with my life. Jesus imparts the love that opens up heart and life to create more space at the table for others to take a seat. I’m not sure I’d have the rationale or heart to live this way otherwise.
In the end, Revelation speaks of a holy Jerusalem and its gates will never be shut. People are free to wander in and out of the city, without fear and trepidation. One early theologian said that the end will be like the beginning. I hope he’s talking about the beginning of our lives— that one day we can return to a kind of childhood naïveté. We’ll play all night with no fear of being snatched and the street lights will never flip on because the sun won’t stop shining.
It’s a neighborhood without stop signs and old men telling you to ‘keep off my grass.'
If that's true, it must be heaven.