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By Brian Keepers
My family and I just made a move from southwest Michigan to northwest Iowa. Our house is currently littered with partially unpacked boxes and artwork is strewn everywhere, leaning up against walls, yet to be hung. It’s all a bit of a mess and overwhelming, to be honest.
While unpacking a couple days ago, I came across a piece of artwork that I had forgotten about. It is the first piece of original artwork I ever purchased. A watercolor of a beach marker staked in one of the Lake Michigan sand dunes near where we had lived. I bought it not only because I like the painting, but because it was painted by a dear friend. It was actually the title she gave the painting that most captivated me: “You Are Here.”
That little phrase, those three simple words, spoke powerfully to me when I first saw the painting on display. It was a time in my life when I was feeling a sense of disconnect, a restlessness, and I hung this painting in my study to remind me of the inescapable significance of place. And people. And story. These three things—place, people and story–are inextricably connected.
“I live not only in a place, I live in a story,” writes the poet and essayist Jack Leax. “We have become a placed people….All of us, whether we dwell in rural backwater, a suburban sprawl, or an urban neighborhood must choose to be a people of story and place.”*
This painting was a constant reminder that life is not lived in the abstract, and that if we are to find the connection we long for and become aware of the story we’re in, then it requires us to intentionally choose to invest in the people and place where we are. I appreciated Luke Hawley’s post here on the Twelve about not being a very good “joiner” and what’s he’s learned about connection with his own place.
So now I’m in a new place, among a new people, being drawn into new stories. In many ways it’s a place that is familiar to me. This is the place, or at least the region, where I grew up, came to know Jesus, discerned my call to be a pastor, was formed deeply as a Christian and given a theological imagination.
It’s been twelve years, though, since I’ve been back in this place. And I’ve needed to fight against sentimentality. For I know that our knowledge of a place is always limited, based on seeing through a glass darkly. I also know that while much seems the same, I am not the same person I was twelve years ago; nor is this the same place it was twelve years ago. This is both good and bad, and the truth of each will become clearer in the months and years to come. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was adamant that idealization can be as great an obstacle to true community as the refusal to engage when it comes to knowing and loving a place and a people.
So I’ve already scoped out a spot to hang this painting in my new study. It may look a bit out of place, a painting of a beach marker in a sand dune out here among a green sea of corn and bean fields. But it will do for me here what it did for me in Michigan. It will call out to me, “You are here.” Which turns out to be not only a fact of location but, even more so, an invitation to intimacy and discovery, to know and be known, to inhabit a shared story. Place. People. Story.
You are here.
I see this place by word
and grace a new creation.
That word is what I’ve found.
That grace is where I live.
– Jack Leax
*From Grace is Where I Live (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing, 1993), p.39
Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.