Awareness of a Whereness – Part 2

Hosmer farewell sign

“I hear you bought 552 Compton,” Sally exclaimed as she approached me in the Fellowship Commons of our church. Her eyes and smile sparkled with excitement she could not contain. She continued, “You know I used to live right next to that house.”

“Of course, Sally, I remember visiting you and your husband when you still lived on Compton.”

“Well, I was delighted to learn you are buying that house. Do you know you’ll be living on holy ground?

With that, she had my full attention. She proceeded to tell me that the site of our home, before it was developed, was low enough for a small pond that neighborhood kids would skate on in a winter freeze. When the developer wanted to put a house on the property he needed a large amount of fill. So he obtained truckload after truckload of dirt from the nearest building site that involved major excavation. Sally told me that the pond and low ground was gradually filled in and then built up so that the landscape actually slopes away from the house in every direction. Where did the dump trucks come from with all that dirt? From 703 Compton Road, from the excavation that was being done for the new sanctuary of Northminster Presbyterian Church!

Sally and I agreed that it was marvelous that the Pastor of Northminster would be living on dirt taken from the ground below Northminster’s sanctuary. “It’s like you’ll be living on holy ground,” she repeated with a laugh. If our family needed any confirmation of the decision to purchase that home, we could seize upon this remarkable connection of 703 and 552 Compton Road. However, we eventually learned that holy ground did not prevent the need for a whole new sewer line to be installed from house to street! The backhoe pulled up Northminster dirt from 10 ½ feet deep, dirt that had not seen sunlight since 1965. The ground did not feel very holy during that project!

Holy or not, we’ve had a love affair with our home and church and neighborhood. We’ve been rooted in this community and the relationships in the northern hills of Cincinnati. I acknowledged in Part 1 of this “Awareness of a Whereness” the feelings of leaving behind the familiar, comfortable, wonderful elements of this location. Then I shared Richard Rohr’s provocative quote that, “Someone has to make clear to us that homes are not meant to be lived in—but only to be moved out from.” He challenges us to stretch beyond the familiar and settled places of our lives.

A survey published by the Barna Group earlier this month documents how most Americans expect to stay where they are or have no plans to move. Fifty-nine percent of respondents indicated they expect to stay put. Perhaps our famous American mobility and nomadic patterns are trending the other way, to local roots and building long-term community. If so, that could be very encouraging and wholesome for our souls. Not surprisingly, older adults are the least likely to move. The older we get, the more settled we become. Perhaps that’s why Richard Rohr is challenging his readers in the second half of life to venture beyond the familiar. And for exaggerated effect, he declares that homes are not for being lived in, but for moving out from! We know that both are true, but he prods us to let go of the assumptions, pursuits, and habits of our established lives to find out what God wants us to become later in life.

Seventy-five years ago T. S. Eliot voiced a similar thought in his poem “East Coker.”

Old men ought to be explorers

Here and there does not matter

We must be still and still moving

Into another intensity

For another union, a deeper communion.

I see myself now in these lines. My awareness of a whereness is filled with gratitude and wonder at the profound attachments of the past two decades. But now my home is a place to move from. And the holy ground is not in the dirt or address or whereness of any community, but in the presence of God, the everywhereness of the Lord who transcends place, who goes before us and meets us in the New. He Moving Day 001is the one who summons me to explore, to be still and still moving, to venture toward another intense union and deep communion. Farewell, Holy Ground … another Holy Ground beckons.

Awareness of a Whereness – Part 1

IMG_1907Most of the farewells have already taken place, the good-byes voiced, hugs exchanged, and relationships recalibrated for a future distance of 850 miles. The pastor leaves and the congregation steers forward with new leadership and resolve. It is a healthy, albeit difficult, separation. At least it’s difficult for me, especially in this time-between-times.

The responsibilities at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati formally concluded a month ago, and I’m a week away from starting at North Lake Presbyterian Church in Lady Lake, FL. During July, while doing research and writing for a doctorate, I’ve also been scrambling to prepare for the sale of one home and the purchase of another, not to mention all the logistics of moving out-of-state. This relocation accentuates the current gap of belonging, the peculiar sense of being NOT at home anywhere. My former office is a good example. All the books and files are packed and stacked and ready for the moving van. All photos and artifacts of ministry are missing from the walls and shelves. My nameplate is removed from the door. When I stop there to pick up something I need in this interim phase, I am starkly reminded that “this is not my place anymore!”

A similar feeling occurs in our house, now strangely barren. Framed art and family portraits are not hanging, but leaning against the wall for final packing. Shelves and cupboards and tabletops are empty. Boxes are piled high at the perimeter of almost every room. This is not my place anymore. I am readying for departure. When I mow the lawn or replace a lightbulb I feel more like the caretaker of someone else’s property. It will be theirs soon enough. I do want them to enjoy it as much as we have, to delight in this space, this location, this neighborhood. Yes, I have loved it, but I cannot call it mine anymore.

Perhaps the imminent departure stirs my keen sense of place, my awareness of a whereness. Our English language even provides a clever word, “ubiety” (rhymes with piety), to indicate the property of having a definite location at any given time, the condition of being in a particular place. The word derives from the Latin “ubi”, meaning “where.” These days I feel my whereness much like you feel the breeze. This is my location, or at least it has been for twenty-two years.

I am relinquishing a network of relationships in this community. Beyond treasured church relationships, I leave behind bank tellers and a manager who greet me by name. My haircut has become like a monthly reunion. The dentist and hygienist know what teeth give me problems. The optometrist loves to tell me about his young children and always asks about our family. And my primary care physician has accompanied me through swine flu and pneumonia, not to mention dengue fever. All of these are less than a mile from the church, just around the corner from where I live. I have been happily nestled in this Winton/Compton world, situated in a metropolitan area with a small town feel.

I know multiple ways to get to the same destination in Cincinnati, in case one of the major arteries is blocked. My wife and I can name at least four favorite Thai restaurants in the city. We have walked in most of the city and county parks. We are familiar with the best overlooks of the city and the Ohio River. We have acclimated to the Cincinnati perspective of the ferocious Bengals-Steelers rivalry, which is not easy for Pittsburgh natives! But this has been our home, where we have been based for more than two decades.

Those who grow grapes and produce wine speak of the terroir, the unique soil and climate conditions that yield a distinctive flavor. Terroir is the whereness of grapes on a vine in a particular vineyard in a certain region. It is the growing environment. Cincinnati has been our terroir. This is where our children have grown up and reflect a certain vintage of the neighborhood. This is where I have grown up as a pastoral leader; at this point more than 60% of my ministry experience has been grounded in the northern hills of Cincinnati. This has been our context for living and moving and having our being.

And now we are leaving. Leaving many beautiful people. Leaving a home with memories in every direction. Leaving ground we have tended. Leaving the sweetgum tree that turns deep crimson in late autumn. Leaving the massive cottonwood that snows on our backyard in early June. Leaving the mole that defies capture in the flower beds. Leaving the lawn where I have walked miles blissfully behind the mower. And in the leaving I am acutely aware of my whereness!

In the introduction to his book FALLING UPWARD, Jesuit priest and author Richard Rohr states:

The familiar and the habitual are so falsely reassuring, and most of us make our homes there permanently. The new is always by definition unfamiliar and untested, so God, life, destiny, suffering have to give us a push—usually a big one—or we will not go. Someone has to make clear to us that homes are not meant to be lived in—but only to be moved out from.

Rohr’s intriguing quote seems an appropriate place to stop Part 1 of this reflection, so that I can post part 2 next week while we are literally in the midst of moving out from our home. I’ll meet you again in the whereness of next week.

The Tricks of Caring

My dear friend Ted is a magician. Oh, he has many roles and talents: devoted husband and father and grandfather, distinguished neuropsychologist, elder and leader in his church, avid golfer, to name just a few. But he’Ted Barretts recognized by many around Northminster Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati as the man who’s willing to do a few tricks while he’s telling a story or speaking words of encouragement. He shows up at various congregational events in playful apparel to share an announcement, to speak a prophetic word of challenge or hope, or to punctuate the end of a meeting with a magic trick or two. The particular ministry team in which he’s been most invested, and which he has led several years, awaits his new magic trick each meeting. Their work is not completed until they have been tantalized by one of his mysterious feats.

Ted is not a professional. Those who know him professionally probably address him as Dr. Barrett. But he took up the hobby of magic a few years ago to connect better with his young grandchildren. How wonderful to see the charmed look of children as they study his twinkle-in-the-eye antics and puzzling dexterity. Of course, it is not only children who are enchanted by this practice. Ted’s magic draws out our adult curiosity and delight. And he uses his magic as a way of communicating a message, blessing others, and enhancing relationships. He’s mature in faith and secure in his identity with no need to show off or be the center of attention. But he hones his skills and cultivates new tricks so that he has new avenues to connect with people he cares about very much.

When I went to visit Ted to inform him that I was accepting a call to serve a congregation in Florida, we had a heart-warming exchange of memories and shared ministry over more than twenty years. We laughed about various moments with our children, who grew up together, and highlighted some of the things we have learned with and from each other. Ted posed excellent questions about my decision and next stage of ministry. He endorsed the move and the reasons that underlie it, even though it means big changes for many relationships, including ours. Then in his gentle, compassionate manner, he said, “In the last couple of years I’ve missed some of the playfulness and buoyancy in your preaching, as if you are carrying a much heavier load. I hope your new calling and the fresh experience of being a grandfather awakens that delight in you again!” It was a grace-filled invitation to discuss some of the soul work that’s going on and to compare notes on our handling of this stage in our lives. He cared for me with wisdom, intentionality, and more than a few tricks up his sleeve. I left his home knowing that when we are doing quality “one-another” work, there’s always something magical happening!

“Bashert”

“I never stop to talk to others when I’m out walking for exercise,” he remarked after we’d already been talking for more than fifteen minutes. We had converged on a water fountain at the base of a large water tower dominating Hilltop Road in our neighborhood. My wife Bobbi and I often make that our destination for an evening walk. We had just finished taking turns for a long drink before heading back to our home. A smiling stranger arrived for the same purpose, and his congenial, inquisitive nature got the better of him.

So we stood and talked. Cordial greetings became an engaging exchange about family, house purchases, community history, and a sense of awe or gratitude at how things work out in life. He was seasoned with a few more years, but active physically and mentally. I noticed how much I was enjoying his company even if it extended our planned time for the walk. Bobbi seemed to feel the same, and said so afterwards. Several times we started to pull away and head off in our different directions, and then some new point of contact or overlapping interest was discovered. Finally, after a half hour of delightful conversation, we happened to figure out that he was the uncle of a neighbor who had recently moved from across the street. It added another whole layer to our enthusiasm for the moment we shared at a water fountain.

By that point he knew my profession as a Presbyterian pastor. We also knew he was rooted in the Jewish faith. He reached his hand out to my elbow and held it as he said, “In Yiddish we have a word, bashert, that means ‘it was meant to be.’ I think our time here, our random intersection at the water fountain, is bashert. I am so glad I walked this way tonight and I met you both.” He knew of our impending move to FL and that we would not have any more chance encounters at the water tower. But the cheerful, hearty half-hour was enough. It was bashert. We bid farewell fondly, as if conferring a blessing upon each other.

Just a few minutes later, on our return walk, his niece (our former neighbor whom we had not seen for several months!) drove by and stopped to greet us. We were thrilled to report that we had just enjoyed meeting her uncle. How wonderful to sense the meant-to-be encounters and opportunities that God sets before us. Yet I wonder how many of them I have missed because I was in a hurry, or because I don’t stop to talk when I’m walking for exercise, or because I just don’t notice someone smiling or grimacing with pain. Let’s stay alert to the opportunities to bless one another in the daily walk of life!

One anothering

My occasional ventures into blogging at this site will intend to enhance our “one anothering” in the spirit of Jesus who said:

34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”      John 13:34-35 NRSV

The Biblical Greek word for the reciprocal pronoun “one another” is allelous, so that works as the title for this blog-site.  In one of my favorite chapters (Romans 12), Paul declares that we are “one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another.”  Then he proceeds to several imperatives:

  • Love one another with mutual affection.
  • Outdo one another in showing honor.
  • Live in harmony with one another.

This kind of allelous living is my prayer, my starting point for reflection, and a focus for pastoral leadership.  I also welcome your insights and experiences.  After all, one anothering is reciprocal!