Almost a month ago my family flew out to visit my sister and her family in Seattle, Washington. It was a short trip of just four nights and three days, but it was well worth the late nights and early mornings that our travel schedule entailed. We love to spend time with my sister’s family, and, for me, it was a rare treat to visit this far off and much beloved city.
Seattle is one of my places.
Just over twenty years ago I spent one year living in Seattle. It is remarkable to me that two decades have wildly whirled past, yet my heart still aches for the place like home. Each and every time that I return to Seattle a similar moment occurs, usually on a walk with my sister through her neighborhood. As we charge up a hill, or around another corner teeming with rosemary bushes nearly as big as cars; as we ogle the Monkey Puzzle Trees so different from the trees in any part of our childhood, and as the damp air fills my bursting lungs, I feel that familiar tug at my heart.
Seattle reaches out. It calls to me. And every time, my heart responds. Without effort, a space formed inside me while I lived there — a Seattle space — quietly maintained and cared for until each subsequent visit to the city. It sparks to life each time that I am there. My Seattle space is a space that understands, inherently, the value of place. You may also have a space like that in your heart. It is a space within oneself that, when in the right location or the right frame of mind, aches with familiarity, and gratitude, and even a unique kind of remembered expectancy.
I always admit that I only lived in Seattle for a short, short time, and it was, now, quite a long time ago. But, places are significant and it really doesn’t take much for a place to take root within us. To be sure, some of us spend a lifetime in one place, while some of us seem to make a hobby of collecting new places, but either way the places of our lives mark us and make us.
Our places hold us. When I first moved to Seattle to participate in a youth ministry internship after graduating from college, I knew nothing of the place and had zero personal connections there. I am not exactly prone to adventure, but I did trust that God’s clear voice calling me to that place, that experience, was not to be ignored.
Seattle absorbed me. I was methodically drawn into its slow, winding lines of patient traffic as I drove in to work each morning. I was pulled, almost magnetically, to “The Ave,” just a block down from the church where I worked. It was such a cross section of coffee and Thai food, expertly hand-tossed pizzas and ice cream mixed on a marble slab with all the excellent flavors of life. There was the most intriguing vintage clothing store, and an excellent stationary shop.
And, there were so many people who were different from me — so different that I fit right in, somehow, even hailing from the midwest. There were tall, breath-taking mountains just beyond the city, and there was Puget Sound near my house. While wide-eyed and sampling all that was different, I was out-of-place only briefly, and then my heart settled in and found itself at home.
Our places make us. I know that I am who I am because of Seattle (and certainly because of many other places too.) I know this because when I go back there, I recognize myself anew. I may have only been there for a year, but it was a deep and rich time of independence, exploring, growth, and bravery.
It hadn’t been my plan, but out of necessity and gratitude I learned to drive the stick-shift Subaru that my Seattle host family bequeathed to me, and it is still with pride that I boast how I tackled even the steepest and scariest hills. I also put in my time driving church vans (never something for the faint of heart) on the same hills, and up into the snow-storming mountain passes, and up and down the west coast.
I gave my first sermons, or sermonettes, really, or “talks,” as we called them. Our little congregation of a hundred or so junior high students trained me to share God’s word from my heart because they heard it better that way. Seattle shaped my calling, and it shaped my identity. I came out of my shell there, as vulnerable as that sounds, and presented myself to the world as God’s servant.
Our places provide for us. Our places are a shelter and a solace. In my prior life I had bumped around a bit due to family moves, and also attending college out of state. In some ways I had kept myself at arms-length in new places as a sort of a protective measure. But, the more life I lived in Seattle, the more it gave to me.
First, it gave me all its beauty. Seeing the plant life, the lakes, and the Sound, the towering mountains, and the islands all around, it helped me breathe deeper. It filled me with new life. And, in the midst of all that life, I had a home — two homes, in fact. I lived with a family in West Seattle, and then with a woman in the U-District, and then found my way back to the family in West Seattle (once I could drive that stick-shift.) They opened their homes and lives to me in such a way that my trembling uncertainty ceased. I knew safety, and warmth, and generosity.
And, Seattle gave me friends. They were mostly associated with my youth ministry work, but they were honest and true, consistent and steady, and those relationships were filled with the best kind of laughter, hilarity, and fun. Seattle provided beauty and sheltering relationships that helped me live and grow.
After a year, and then twenty years past, I don’t have any right to try to encapsulate this place. In fact, my ‘ownership’ of Seattle was so fleeting that I almost always think of it like a dream until I stand on a sidewalk there and realize I’m at home again. Seattle will always beckon me toward itself, and somehow, when I get there I still belong. Inside of me, a space was made for Seattle.
Do our places ask something of us? I’ve thought much about our fascinatingly tight-knit, global community recently as the world grapples with COVID-19, near and far. Whether the most recent outbreak is just outside our door or on the far side of the globe, we are impacted by the places touched by the virus. Our hearts ache over it all. We have been shaped by a lifetime of places. Encouraged to stay put, we cannot go to these places, but in our minds. Our hearts cry out. If nothing else, let our beating hearts pray for all the places of our world.
Lord God Almighty, Creator of the universe, and lover of our souls, Hear our prayer for the world. We pray for those who are sick and suffering; for all those who need healing. We pray for many who are isolated, alone, or lonely. We pray for those who are stranded, or stuck, or stir-crazy. We pray for those who are afraid. We pray for those who help all the rest of us, those who provide medical care, those who do research, those who clean and sanitize, and those who sell supplies, for those who keep the world operational when we are told to shut down. Grant wisdom and patience and health to the world. Fill us with kindness, we pray. O God, in your great love and mercy, bring healing. Preserve our hope. Amen.