“The sense of being lost, displaced, and homeless is pervasive in contemporary culture. The yearning to belong somewhere, to have a home, to be in a safe place, is a deep and moving pursuit. … This of course is not a new struggle, but it is more widespread and visible than it ever has been. Nor is this sense alien to the biblical promise of faith. The bible itself is primarily concerned with the issue of being displaced and yearning for a place.”
So begins Walter Bruggemann in his moving and scholarly book, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith.
I already invited Zion people to let 2023 be a year of receiving. Bruggemann offers compelling answers to the questions, “Receiving what?” and “What can receiving mean, for our lives and faith?”
Place not Space
The world offers space. God promises a place. The gift of a place is richer and also demands more of us than mere space. If space is about freedom–”free of pressures and void of authority”–place is quite different.
“Place is space that has historical meanings, where some things have happened that are now remembered and that provide continuity and identity across generations. Place is space in which important words have been spoken that have established identity, defined vocation, and envisioned destiny. Place is space in which vows have been exchanged, promises have been made, and demands have been issued. Place is indeed a protest against the unpromising pursuit of space. It is a declaration that our humanness cannot be found in escape, detachment, absence of commitment, and undefined freedom."
It’s almost as if space is junk food to the nourishing meal of place. A place is full, not empty. It includes people and the risk of knowing and being known, the challenge of loving and being loved. Ultimately, it is a place with God.
a Land of Promise
“Land is a central, if not the central theme of biblical faith.”
The biblical land of promise is, as Bruggemann shows, a place, not mere space. A place with history, identity, continuity; a place with people (Israelite and Canaanite), commitment, promises; a place with God. In the bible, the land of promise is both literal and figurative. It’s “actual earthly turf” and symbolic of wholeness, joy, peace, and thriving human community.
This is what we get to receive in 2023: God’s gift of a place. That may mean many things in our individual lives. In our communal life, it includes receiving Zion as a place and Zion in a place. We are rooted here with each other and our neighbors.
I experience Zion people as already living with these questions, so to repeat them honors and encourages our receiving of this place of promise.
- What meaning and identity does belonging to Zion give to you? What important words and promises were spoken to make it so?
- What do we owe each other? What are the practical ways we make ourselves accountable to each other?
- What meaning and identity does belonging to this neighborhood give Zion? What important words and promises were spoken to make it so?
- What do we owe our neighbors? What are the practical ways we make ourselves accountable to them?
a Promise for the Landless
The story of Israel–a story we also belong to–is a story of learning what it means to receive a gift, rather than grasp at what we want to secure. That is the story of Israel, says Bruggemann, and the story of Jesus’ gospel. Both Old and New Testaments are full of the invitation to receive a gift. This, in contrast to the way many understand them, as full of judgment (Old) and forgiveness and grace (New). But I will save a fuller conversation about that for next month. For now, remember it is in letting go of a place that we receive it, and grasping after it that we lose it.
Receiving a place of promise–whether Zion, Zion’s neighborhood, or any other–includes discovering within and around us that sense of being lost, displaced, and homeless Bruggeman started with. It includes surrendering “our” place. It includes noticing a sense of entitlement to a place or a fear of losing a place or a blame of others for taking our place. The biblical truth is, we are more rightly sojourners, wanders, exiles.
We’re on the way to a land that God gives as a gift. It’s not ours to take, only ours to receive.
With Paul, “We are treated…as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (1 Corinthians 6). As we follow the One who “has nowhere to lay his head" (Matthew 8:20), who came “to have first place in everything” (Colossians 1:18).
Thanks be to God.
Pastor Clark Olson-Smith