A Sense of Place

October 26, 1997


A Sense of Place

I saved an article some time ago that I thought might be developed into a sermon some day. I forgot about it until some recent events made me even more conscious than usual of how beautiful this church looks, inside and outside, in sunlight and after dark when the lights on the front and on the steeple make it a kind of picture postcad for people passing on 29th or up on the 96 Expressway. A few nights ago, when a wedding was over, I went up into the balcony and looked down at the quiet elegance of the sanctuary, and all of a sudden that essay came back to mind and there was a sermon waiting to be spoken.
So I went back to look at the article again and realized that I would need to call the man who wrote it, to ask a couple of questions he had left unanswered. Dr. James Baker, a history professor in Bowling Green, Kentucky, who turned out on the phone to be as pleasant and helpful as his article had hinted he would be, told me how his article was born. He had driven over to Louisville one day, and found himself in an auditorium where a gospel quartet was singing to raise money for a new civic center. As a Baptist, Dr. Baker knew the quartet’s closing number very well. It was the one you heard a mment ago, an old campmeeting song found in all those softbound gospel hymnbooks with the shaped notes which country churches once ordered in boxes of a hundred from Dallas or Philadelphia.
Dr. Baker said that to someone that day who was determined to be cynical, the song would have sounded not merely sentimental and antiquated, but even hokey, especially since it was sung by four young men in orange suits, all of them with ostentatious beards and each one sporting his own unattached hand mike. They were all far too young to have remembered any such little churches in the wildwood as they were pretending to be sentimental about. For a sensitive observer, it was almost sacrilege for the four of them to perform the song as if it really meant something to them, to exploit its openly nostalgic message for the sake of milking emotion from the audience so they would dig a little deeper into their wallets. But the crowd itself that day certainly had no sense of being taken in. A little rambunctious when the song first started, they were suddenly sober. Apparently it touched a tender spot, this song about a distant rural past known to city people like themselves only through folk tales or TV documentaries about how life used to be: “No spot is so dear to my childhood/ As the little brown church in the vale.”
There probably weren’t a dozen people in that huge audience with any authentic memory of a little church in any valley at all, let alone a brown log church with a clear ringing bell that called them sweetly to come to worship. The best they could do with memory would be some faintly recalled trip to a grandmother’s farm, or an occasional dose of television’s Little House on the Prairie , but there they were, mourning the passing of an age and a lifestyle which they obviously considered, at least while the song was being sung, more romantic than the one they had at the moment. The history prof told me that as he watched it he realized he was seeing in that big basketball arena an authentic reflection of the needs of a rootless people to identify with some specific religious event, even if it were so long ago and far away as to be absolutely irretrievable. A sense of place, of holy ground, of a spot where one was able to commune somehow with the source of being — that’s what the crowd was remembering — or wanting to remember, and respond to.
That feeling is not limited to religious emotion. I can still recall how it thrilled me as a child when my father took me one day, on a vacation trip back to Indiana, out on a white gravel road in the country and stopped before a great red barn with a clear pond behind it and a white farmhouse off to one side. When he spoke, after a moment, his voice sounded strange to me. He said, “This is the old home place.” The words ran through me like music: “The old home place.” I didn’t understand the obscure impulse that had drawn him there, but I could tell that he filled himself deeply with something in those few moments we stood there, and that as we drove back he seemed tranquil and satisfied. I would not understand for many years that he had paid his debt to a sense of place rooted deep in memory — and that it felt good to pay it. .
Now, back to that place in Genesis for a moment, to the words Gary read earlier to set up the sermon. Jacob, the trickster, who has deceived his dad and cheated his brother, is running for his life, scared half out of his wits and ashamed, one hopes, over his shabby deception. The last thing he would have expected would be some kind of religious experience, however much he may have needed it. But in a lonely place as night came on he fell asleep, dreamed his famous dream of messengers of God going back and forth between heaven and earth on a celestial stairway, and heard the voice of God speaking to his guilty conscience. He woke up, surprised, and said with wonder: “The Lord is in this place, and I knew it not.” Surprised because, after all, he had come to one of the bleakest and most forbidding places most of us are ever likely to see. No pleasant meadow, no green oasis, no sheltered valley…..just a hilltop of barren rock. Nothing around to measure his own cheating little soul against except the silent immensities he could see from the height of Bethel: the empty earth, the dark sky, the cold and distant stars.
When he took the stone he had used for a pillow, and set it up as a sacred monument, he obeyed an impulse as old and deep as the instinct for religion. When one experiences a sense of awe, it’s natural to think that the place where it was felt and the things associated with that place are in themselves holy. One wants to make a shrine, at which the experience may be not only remembered, but repeated. There is a risk associated with that feeling, and I reconigze that even as I choose this morning to honor the sense of place. All too often a localized God is thought to be satisfied by localized honors. Pray a little on the premises, sacrifice a little at the altar, and with that your obligations are over. When you want to worship again, you have to go back and perform the proper rituals in that particular place where the divine seems to have touched your life. That’s why we have such a long history of relics in boxes, the bones of dead saints, the grotto at Lourdes, that magical tree in Mexico where somebody had a vision of Mary. It’s also, of course, why this place comes to have more and more meaning to those who come on Sunday mornings to worship.
The danger is, of course, that the sense of transcendence in our lives, of purpose and mystery beyond the mundane, may begin to be felt only in one place. Jesus met a woman once whose sense of place had limited God. She said, “Our fathers worshipped on this mountain…..” and he replied that God is spirit, and the time would come when people would understand that neither on that mountain, nor in sacred Jerusalem itself, was God imprisoned, but that wherever the loving heart goes, God is always close. It reminds me of Sir Thomas More’s famous statement: “All places on earth are equidistant from heaven.” There really is no reason why a living room, a workplace, a classroom cannot become a holy place if those who inhabit such places make them holy. Brother Lawrence, who was a cook in the monastery kitchen, created a shrine like that with convincing sincerity: “The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer, and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Sacrament.”
I believe him, but he was disciplined far more than most of us, so I believe just as strongly that the average person, caught in her noisy kitchen or office, would be eager to leave it at times and go to some special place to commune with her own deepest self and with the power she felt could respond. So the places people have regarded as holy, from cathedral to small parish church, are important. They are the places where faith becomes concrete. Those of you who have traveled through parts of the world longer settled than ours know how deeply people feel about places considered holy: the spot where a child saw a vision, where a saint was thought to have performed a miracle, where a church or a temple has stood since before we anyone kept records.
Many of the great cathedrals are actually built squarely on top of the rubble of earlier churches and shrines, as if that place were “warm” with religious power. In many of them, like the great cathedral at York in northern England — which I remember vividly from having spent an hour doing this — you can go down into a kind of basement and see the ancient foundation stones of churches that stood there long before the present one was even a dream. I noticed that even those tourists who thoughtlessly stepped inside with their drink and lunchbag were quickly respectful of that great brooding silence, and hurried back out the door to leave them on the steps. We haven’t such old, old places, and so many images of religion are now purveyed through television that I suppose it made sense for all those people in Louisville that day to yearn nostalgically for some place that was real in memory. An easy chair in front of a televised worship service in a modern megachurch can’t do much to provide a memory that has smell and shape and texture. I shook my head in amazement last week when I saw the outside and inside of Bob Schuler’s crystal cathedral in Garden Grove, California. Not because the TV story mentioned that the IRS has on occasion wondered if it had too many commercial operations going on to be tax exempt, but because I was suddenly fascinated by the thought of thousands in that ultra-modern building singing on some Sunday morning about the church in the valley by the wildwood. I should think it would be hard, in that glittering palace, to work up much genuine feeling about a place once dear to a grandmother’s heart, perhaps, but as foreign as the moon to most of us.
So what about this room? It takes a while to build a sense of place, but it is happening here. Some of you feel the presence of someone who used to sit beside you, some of you can hear a voice in this room on Sunday mornings that no one else can hear. Young as we are, we begin to feel a sense of sacred place. Already, many of you have been married in this room, brought your children to be christened, said goodbye to someone — and as the years pass the memories evoked by this room will touch more and more of us. I remember finding, one day, a little stone church in Ottery St. Mary in Devonshire, England where Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s father had been the vicar. I had found that tiny village on purpose because I had taught Coleridge for so many years, so I sat down in a pew and listened to silent hymns and silent sermons from centuries past, and for about 300 of those centuries past I could see the names of Coleridges, written in stone on the walls. What a sense of continuity, of enduring place, it must have given the young boy who would become a great English poet to feel himself in such close touch with all those generations of his own people.
Whatever it did for little Samuel Taylor Coleridge was not of his choosing. Sunday came, you went to church. You might not like it, but you went: the ritual became as familiar as breathing, the stately pause each week became part of the discipline by which your life was governed. I’m eccentric enough to think that there can be too much freedom. I told you once, years ago, about one of the most poignant stories I ever read. A sociologist was interviewing some teenagers about their impressions of their homes, and one girl told him that she lived in an apartment in a big city, her busy parents having moved often, and after supper in the summer the children on the block would gather in the streets to play. Then, after a while, one would say that she had to go home — because her mother had told her to be in before nine o’clock.
Or a father would whistle, and a boy would have to leave. A mother would call, and others would walk away. The girl said, “They would all go. It would get dark and I would be there alone, waiting for my father or my mother to call me in. They never did.” I would guess that as the other children went away she taunted them for being slaves to places, to patterns of behavior. But at heart she yearned to be bound that way herself. It would have assured her that somebody cared.
Cherish this church. Help it become proof that many people care. Keep it the kind of place to which, out of the chaos and confusion that sometimes overwhelm us, we can come back over and over for healing and for peace. Amen.

Blessed as we are by the beauty of this place, help us, Eternal God, to find ways
of creating beauty in lives that have too little, we ask through Christ our Lord.