“The captain has turned off the seat belt sign.”
My wife and children are at home, but I am not. The conference has been long, the flight has been delayed, it is late, and I am longing to see the lights of Louisville.
Sparkling crystals of light unfurl beneath me, not evenly scattered across the midwestern plains but clumped and clustered like the time when I let my seven-year-old sprinkle the colored sugar on a cake. Each of these clusters is a place with a story and a gathering of people I will probably never meet. Beneath the belly of this aircraft, hospital patients are taking their first steps down the dark hallway of death; a new life is taking root in the warmth of a mother’s womb; people are marrying and burying, dreaming and despairing, making money and making love. Some of the souls in these clusters below me can hardly wait for the moment when they will be able to find a path to some other place; others have lived lives so entwined in one location that they could never dream of spending their lives anywhere else.
There are story lines that have uniquely formed each of these sprinklings of light, and each of these stories frames the lives of those who live there.Settlers found a spring gurgling up from the earth, and this spring turned settlers into sojourners in a particular place.
A railway company built a settlement every ten miles along the steel rails.
A red line on a map set the terms for bank loans and segregated lives.
And decades later, here they are, sprinkles of light scattered in clusters across the prairies and plains.
“Place,” Walter Brueggemann has pointed out,
is space which has historical meanings, where some things have happened which are now remembered and which provide continuity and identity across generations. Place is space in which important words have been spoken which 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 … 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.
No one knows the whole story of his or her place, and some have never considered the story of their place at all. Those who do not know the story of their place see the rundown trailer houses on the other side of boxcars that await locomotive messiahs to take them away, but they do not know why this segment of town is marked by tied-up dogs in dirt-patched yards while the brick and stone domiciles on the other side of town tower over yards mown in velvety-green crisscrosses. They see their place, but they miss the meaning. Their sense of place is limited to their own story, and they cannot see the larger story that makes them who they are. “If you don’t know where you are,” Wendell Berry once said, “you don’t know who you are.” I suspect he was right.
Revelation, Worship, and Remembering Our Place
Not only in a local sense but also in a cosmic sense, this is all of us some of the time and some of us all of the time.
Our primeval parents wanted to rewrite the story of their place so that they stood at the center of the story. “You shall be as gods,” was the story and the identity that the serpent promised. Ever since that uprising beneath the tree, we humans have been prone to forget our place within the larger story of the cosmos. When we forget where we are, we also forget who we are, and we—like our first parents—begin to believe the lie that we stand at the center of the story.
What divine revelation does is to provide us with a reminder of the story of our place—not of our local place but of our cosmic place. Sometimes, this revelation comes in a momentary glimmer in which we unexpectedly realize that the ordinary experiences of our world aren’t nearly as ordinary as we assumed. The sleeping child’s hand splays on the pillow like a starfish as her chest rises and falls like a gentle ocean tide, and the ache of love you feel is more than natural selection alone can comprehend. A sunset splashes the horizon with hues of tangerine and blue that no interior decorator would dream of mingling together, and a deep sense of your own smallness slips across the surface of your soul. The vastness of the Grand Canyon unfolds before you as far as your eyes can see, and suddenly a mist drifts inexplicably along the edge of your eyelid. “General revelation,” God’s revelation within the natural order is sometimes termed—but what could ever be “general” about the terrifying exhilaration of a cosmos that will not stop pricking our souls with reminders of our smallness in the shadow of the Shaper of sunsets and seas? They are “news from a country we have never yet visited,”cross-pressures that challenge the hegemony of the buffered self. These epiphanies are anonymous, but their anonymity does not make them any less real. Each of them reminds us of our place in a story that we have forgotten. They may not tell us the whole story but they tell us enough that we know we are not the center of that story.
In other instances, the epiphanies come with greater clarity, in ways that seem unintelligible—even ridiculous—to those who do not believe. This revelation is explicit in its recognition of Jesus Christ as the center of the cosmic story. Each week when we gather in worship, we brush against this clearer and more scandalous revelation through the Scriptures and the sacraments. The repetition and proclamation of the Word, the gathering at the table and the drowning of our old selves in the waters of baptism—all of these acts tell the cosmic story not through passing impressions but through the scandal of the spoken and enacted Word.
What we do in these sacred moments is to rehearse anew our place in the cosmic story. And thus, Christian worship is an act of remembering—remembering what our primeval parents lost and their progeny forgot, recalling that there is a vast and beautiful story at work with a burning center that is not us, renewing our memory of who we are by recalling the story of that surrounds us. Without the Word and sacraments, we misplace the memory of our place in this world, and—in the process—we forget who we are. Worship is no mere reception of information—like some sort of science lecture for the soul—but a repetition that results in a remembrance that narrates our identity and leaves us with a reminder of who we are.
Think About Worship and Place
Consider your most recent gathering with God’s people for worship. What in that service called your mind to the metanarrative of God enacted in a particular place?