A Stubborn Sense of Place: Hebrews 11: 8-16
This started as a devotional I gave in our prayer time at the library where I worked while in seminary. That was almost 40 years ago. Through the years it has gone through various changes. I have preached it as a sermon and have used it as an article. I last posted this in October, 2007. A lot of time has passed since I first gave this as a devotional. I have gone from a young doctoral student to an aging old man. And yet, I still find this idea to be true. In fact as I have gotten older, it is more relevant to my thinking.
Recently, I started reading Eugene Peterson’s book, The Pastor and he wrote about the importance of place in his calling as pastor. He reminded me of the truth of this essay where I expressed a similar idea. I needed to revisit it. One may recognize the influence of C. S. Lewis in my thoughts. And it was Peter Berger who wrote about signposts and rumors in his book The Rumor of Angels. Both fired up my imagination so many years ago. Imagination produces subjective experiences of an objective reality. The objective reality is God of course and his love for his people.
All of us need to dream. I don’t mean those nocturnal visitations that roam our minds when we sleep. As important as those kinds of dreams are to our physical health, they are not the most important dreams. I think that the most important dreams take place in those moments of idleness, when our minds wander through our desires, accomplishments, and failures. In those brief moments standing by the window or staring at the ceiling, we remember where we have been and where we would like to be. We discover whatever has become our heart’s desires. There are dreams of what our children will grow up to be, or fears of what they might not be. Some dream of the ideal home or the kind of car that they want to drive. Most of all, we dream of what makes us happy and satisfied.
I believe that all our future dreams are rooted in the soil of our childhood. Our childhood should produce for us a stubborn sense of place, a sense of belonging. Even those with bad childhoods can dream of what should have been. Childhood can be a terrible time for some. But even then we dream of what should be and how things will get better. Children are optimists. We may lose our optimism as we get older, but our childhood dreams are always optimistic, dreaming for something better.
I first became aware of this stubborn sense of place while I was a doctoral student in seminary. I had just lost my father in a farm accident and I was reminded of how much of a dreamer my father was. His dreams drove him to buy a farm and to move his family out of the city and back to the country, back to his home county and his roots. It was the perfect place for his sons to develop dreams of their own. Soon, I found that dreaming can be contagious. I became a dreamer. My dreams were a time of remembering and reminiscing. Dreams are powerful moments in which we remember the past, but they are also an opportunity to discover the future. Those dreams were my mind’s attempts to answer the question, who am I?
I had a desk assigned to me on the second floor of the library at seminary. It was on the north wall over looking the chapel and the grounds around the chapel. Sometimes I would stop studying and look out the window at the birds and the squirrels in the trees and I would begin to dream. I would remember home. I would remember moments mid-morning when you could hear a quail calling to its mate or dove’s soft, mournful cry at dusk. Sometimes I would be reminded when the silence of a moonlit night was broken by the repeated wail of a whippoorwill.
I would even dream of those cold, crisp mornings when I would be awakened by my mother to go feed the cows. I would put on my clothes and boots and go outside. The ground would be hard and glazed over with frost. You could stop and listen in the twilight of the morning and hear a beautiful silence as the day was about to begin. As I stood there in the quietness, I had a sense of belonging. Soon the silence would be broken by the crunching sounds of the cows making their way over the frosted fields looking for the bale of hay and the bucket of corn that I was about to give them.
I would dream of people that I love, of familiar sights and smells. I would smell my father’s Old Spice, supper cooking on the stove, and even the smell of the pasture as a light breeze would stir in the late evening. I dreamed, I dreamed of a time when life seemed less complex and more real. I dreamed of that time when I had few worries. And I sometimes dreamed of going back home.
But the strangest thing happens when I go home; it doesn’t quite satisfy. It doesn’t fill the longing of my heart. It’s like a drink from a cool spring but afterward you thirst again. You might call it a stubborn sense of place, but I really think it is a stubborn sense of call.
I have decided that these day dreams are special; I think they are gifts from God! They are guide posts, hints, suggestions, they are “rumors” of a far off country. It really is a stubborn sense of call to a future place, a future time. It is not just a wish dream, but a mystical moment when God gives us a hint of our own proper place.
The writer of the book of Hebrews knew of such dreams. He talked about some of the heroes of the faith, and in particular Abraham and his family. God had given Abraham a dream. He would make him a great nation and would give him the land to do it. And based on just that promise, Abraham left his home in Babylon, in Ur and followed the Lord. It was a very long journey and it required a lot of faith. It was not a perfect faith. If you go back and look at the life of Abraham you will see that it was not perfect, but he was faithful. All he had was a promise and his memories.
I imagine that Abraham thought of home, not to go back there, but because it was the only measure he had in his experience from which he could imagine the future. That’s the way we are. We only have our past and it is in terms of the best of those times that we think about the future. How else can we think of heaven except in terms of the past? My dad always thought that heaven was going to be acres and acres of green rolling hills where he would ride his favorite horse and herd a bunch of white-faced Herefords. It is in those moments of dreams that, remembering the past, we get a sense of the future.
God has promised us a future and he is waiting for us. Notice what the writer of Hebrews said about the heroes of the faith; they were seeking a dream of their own. There was a better country. They had a strong sense of place that was calling them to another time. They sensed that they were aliens and strangers in this world. Oh, they enjoyed life even if they did not quite fit in. But, for those who followed God and for those of us in Christ, the specter of death is really a promise of a better country. Sometimes our very best memories are just tiny windows to the future.
In the meantime, God has called us to live out our life before him and there is no reason not to enjoy it. Our joy turns to longing because our future is secure. We know that a wonderful inheritance awaits us.
Until that day, we are called to be faithful. Let us consume what the writer of Hebrews said about the faithful ones in verse 16, “Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them.” It is a wonderful thought that God is not ashamed to be called our God. When we are faithful to him I think that it is accurate to say that God is proud of us, like any father is proud of his child. Notice that he has prepared a city, a dwelling place for us. That is his promise to us, a place where we can dwell with him forever. Our stubborn sense of place is not in the past after all.
The next time you begin to slip away to some far away or forgotten place, listen carefully, God is near. He may be sharing with you a sign post, a hint, a stubborn sense of call to a truly wonderful place.