A Journey Home: Cultivating a Theology of Place

by Dustin Moody

Something seemed…off.

It wasn’t so much that I was dissatisfied where I was; I had a home that I was proud of, a job that was sufficiently enjoyable and professionally challenging, and family and friends that helped to create a community that I loved. But in 2014, I found myself feeling a bit disconnected. Over the previous few years, significant relationships had morphed as friends moved on from central Florida to pursue other goals: being closer to family when their own babies arrived; professional opportunities that required a cross-country move; missions opportunities overseas. Consequently, I found myself dreaming about new adventures. Should I head to Washington, D.C., and fulfill my undergraduate dreams of working in politics? Or maybe a stint in Nashville was in order, as it seemed to be one of the more popular and trendy places in the southeast.

As I contemplated a few different options, C.S. Lewis’ quote kept coming to mind: “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” While Lewis was referring to our spiritual “homes,” I had no problem (mis)contextualizing the notion to my own circumstances: perhaps I was made for another world. That “world” turned out to be Colorado.

A People Displaced

Since moving west, I’ve learned that a sense of displacement isn’t all that uncommon for believers and nonbelievers alike. Admittedly, I had the privilege of pursuing my own displacement and volunteering to be an “exile” in a new land. My journey pales in comparison to refugees fleeing war-torn countries, migrants searching for a better future, or those without permanent homes searching for shelter. But it wasn’t until I was in a new place and experiencing the (self-imposed) alienation that comes with new surroundings that I fully appreciated how prominently the theme of displacement shows up in Scripture.

In Genesis, we see Adam and Eve displaced from the Garden of Eden as part of the curse and their consequence for sin. To be sure, they are still tasked with the cultural mandate: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:28). But after eating from the tree that God commanded them to avoid, the task of cultivation now comes with thorns and thistles as exiles in a land they weren’t meant to inhabit: “So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken” (Genesis 3:23).

With Adam and Eve now outcast east of Eden, the storyline of Scripture reads as one long journey home. Israel wanders in the desert before reaching the promised land. The prophet Isaiah envisions the mountain of the Lord’s temple where the curse of sin is broken and God’s people use their weapons of war to cultivate the earth. In Revelation, we see a garden-city coming down from Heaven where peace and a permanent place for Christ’s bride are ultimately achieved.

But as Christians know, we’re still waiting for that garden-city to arrive. And it is precisely this waiting that creates the sense of displacement. We know that we are on a journey home, but what do we do between now and then? With no disrespect intended to C.S. Lewis, Christians may have been created for another world, but we still have to live in this one. 

Exiles in Waiting

Perhaps the best example of exiles waiting in displacement can be found in Jeremiah 29, an exhortation to exiled Jews living in captivity under the pagan Babylonians after years as slaves in Egypt. While Jeremiah was writing to a specific people at a specific time and for a specific purpose, we can learn a lot about God’s intention for his people to pursue shalom wherever they are.

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

Jeremiah 29:4-7

The translation of welfare originates from the Hebrew word shalom, repeated three times by Jeremiah. As Tom Nelson explains in Work Matters, “Shalom, or peace, conveys not merely the cessation of hostility or war, but the flourishing of all of God’s creation. Shalom encapsulates God’s brilliant design and benevolent desire for his good world. God’s heart is that the city of Babylon might flourish and that his covenant people might flourish with it.” 

It must have been jarring for the people of Israel to hear that they were to seek the peace and prosperity and the common good of Babylon–a place geographically and psychologically far from home. Today, the directive to seek the flourishing of our cities–the physical places where we live–might sound similarly strange. But if Christ is reconciling all things to himself (Colossians 1:20), and we are Christ’s agents in that work of reconciliation, perhaps the welfare of our cities isn’t inconsequential for Christians in the 21st century.

Loving Our Place

As Nelson once again explains, “Shalom is also God’s desire for the people we work with, the workplaces we inhabit, and the broader society of which we are a part. The good news of the gospel is that true shalom is now possible, for the Prince of Shalom has come to earth and will one day come again. In and through the gospel we experience shalom. Living out the gospel of shalom prompts us to foster the common good.”

If Jeremiah’s admonition to seek the welfare of our cities is an example for us today, what role can Christians play in the actual issues facing our communities? What does it look like to “love my place” and work for the common good? For the children of Israel exiled in Babylon, this looked like going about their normal lives, planting gardens, working hard, raising families, and praying for the flourishing of their cities.

In Colorado, seeking the welfare of our cities could involve a variety of causes. Perhaps it means learning about the wickedly complex issue of homelessness and working to address affordable housing or serving in a local shelter. You may be concerned about the influx of residents, more cars on the roads, and the impacts on our infrastructure. Perhaps you’re motivated to explore the balance of caring for creation in light of the role that oil and natural gas exploration plays as a local economic driver. Or “loving your place” could mean finding ways to serve in local schools and mentor at-risk students.

An old hymn has been coming to mind as I’ve thought about what it means to love a place from a biblical perspective. “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through…” While I can appreciate the sentiment, I’m not sure the lyrics are entirely accurate. If Scripture is any indication, God cares deeply about the physical places that we inhabit–our neighborhoods, our communities, and our cities. If we are Christ’s “hands and feet” in those places, we should care about them, too.

Editor’s note: If you’re in the Denver metro area and interested in learning more about a theology of place, join us on Thursday, June 9th, for “It’s All Local: Learn to Love Your Place.”

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Dustin Moody

Dustin oversees the marketing, publications, social media, podcast, and website as the director of communications for the Denver Institute of Faith & Work. He has previously served with the University of Colorado Boulder and Wycliffe Bible Translators. He holds an M.A. in Communication from the University of Colorado Denver and a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Florida. Dustin also serves on the board of the Colorado chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. He and his wife, Laura, attend Storyline Fellowship in Arvada.