For our April 6 Wednesday evening Lenten service,Rachel Twigg Boyce offered the following reflection on the surprising gift stability. Rachel the founding director/”abbot” of House Blend Ministries, an intentional community in the West Broadway neighborhood exploring the “new monasticism.” The reflection opened with a reading from the prophet Jeremiah.
A reading from the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 29:4-7, New Living Translation): This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says to all the captives he has exiled to Babylon from Jerusalem: “Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.
hen Jamie asked me to speak tonight he told me that the theme for this Lenten series was “Bread for the Journey.” And I thought, “great,” two things that I love – bread, and journeys. I have it on pretty good authority that next week we’ll be spending time thinking about “bread,” so this week I thought I would reflect a bit on the nature of journeys and “journeying.” People commonly refer to the process of living as a “journey.” Christians often talk about their “faith journey” or their ‘walk with God.” This is imagery that implies movement. You can’t take a journey by staying in one place, can you? We live in a world that values mobility, especially upward mobility.
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Lent is a time in the Christian calendar that invites us to take a journey into the desert. And to me, desert time also implies movement – if you stay still for too long in the desert, you will die. You need to move to find shade, to find water, to find food. Desert life requires a degree of mobility.
All of this imagery appeals me because I have moved a fair bit in my own life. When people ask me that classic “getting to know you question,” where are you from? – I have never really known how to answer. Do they mean where was I born? Where I have lived for the longest period of time? Which place has most shaped who I have become? Because all three of these questions will yield a different answer. I guess I am “from,” many different places.
Although some people find that moving a lot in their childhood was a traumatic experience, I didn’t experience it that way. In fact, I internalized moving as normal and assumed that I would move every 5-6 years for the rest of my life. That’s seemed to me to be the perfect amount of time to stay in one place – long enough to feel settled and get to know people, but not long enough to feel stuck.
I see clear advantages to having moved so often and have often found myself looking at people with pity thinking, “Oh, you’ve lived in the same city your whole life?” or “You’ve lived in the same house your whole life?” How sad for you.
Moving regularly taught me what it felt like to be the new person, the outsider who doesn’t know all the hidden rules – you know, those rules you only discover are rules by breaking them?
Moving taught me how uncomfortable it can be to be the only person in the room who doesn’t know anyone else and it taught me to have a deep appreciation for the person who takes the time to introduce themselves to the “stranger.”
Moving also taught me to broaden my perspective and understand that there is more than one right way to live in this world. It made me realize that my way is not the only way. I think it might be one of the reasons that it feels natural for me to identify myself proudly with the tribe I grew up in as a Mennonite Brethren, while feeling very comfortable camping with other tribes, including Anglicans.
I believe the things that moving taught me are things that many people, especially people who have never moved, should learn. It’s good to know that we sometimes have unwritten rules and ways of doing things that other people find difficult to understand. It is good to know how awkward it is to be the newcomer so that we can be inspired to stop talking to our friends and that new person in the corner. And it can be incredibly helpful to realize that not only are there people in this world who think differently than we do, but that they might actually have something to teach us.
Moving is good. Viewing our lives as a journey is good. Travelling into the desert with God is very good.
I led a workshop recently at St Benedict’s monastery where we focused on the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert – the period of time that mirrors this Lenten season. During the workshop – which allowed for a long period of silent meditation – many people said that were struck by the fact that Jesus stayed in the desert – he didn’t just pack up and leave when the going got tough.
One of the invitations of this Lenten season is to stay in the desert. To stay in this season. To stick to our commitment to give something up or take something new on, and not just quit when things get tough.
There is a wisdom in mobility – in movement, in journeying. But there is also a wisdom in stability. In being deeply aware and rooted in the place where you are, and in refusing to leave when things get tough.
In my life I have come to a deep appreciation for the wisdom of mobility.
But a funny thing happened to me a few years ago.
About 12 years ago, my husband and I moved to Winnipeg… temporarily. The plan was to live here for a year, maybe 2 at the most. As the years ticked by we continued to believe we would only be here for “another year or two at the most.”
It wasn’t that we didn’t like Winnipeg. In fact we have come to love this city. There were some very practical reasons we continued to assume we would move, but for me, one of those reasons was just that basic value I’d internalized that it’s good to move every 5-6 years or so.
And then about 2 years ago we realized that not only we would be perfectly happy to stay in this city, but that there was no reason to move and an increasing number of good reasons to stay.
So I started to learn, slowly, ever so slowly, about the value of not moving, about the value of staying in one place. I began to learn about the advantages of what Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove calls, “stability.”
I grew up in the Mennonite Brethren church, I pastored in a Mennonite Brethren Church for about 7 years and a few years ago, I was hired by the provincial denomination to help them “do something to help the poor in the city of Winnipeg.”
They didn’t tell me what the “something” should be and I had no idea what that “something” should be but I took the job.
One of the first things that I did was try to find other people who might like to not only figure out what this “something might be” but who also might want to do this “something with me.”
This wasn’t a journey I wanted to take on my own.
Slowly, ever so slowly it seemed at times, a “something emerged.” That something now has a name, property right here in West Broadway, and a charitable tax number – it’s called “House Blend Ministries.”
House Blend Ministries is a group of people who have intentionally chosen to make this neighbourhood their home. We are community who are inspired by the same questions that Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin were asking when they established the Catholic Worker movement:
Why have I arranged my life in ways that make it so difficult to do good? And how can I re-arrange my life in ways that make it easier to do good?
Some of the ways that I am beginning to answer those questions revolved around staying put – not just for the next couple of years – but for a long time, possibly even for the rest of my life. It involves choosing to live my life in a specific place and re-orienting my life so that when I make friends with my neighbours I am able to say, “I hope we can be friends and neighbours for life.”
There is wisdom to be learned in mobility, but right now, I am learning from the deep wisdom of stability.
In his book, Wisdom of Stability, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove writes, “The words of the prophet Jeremiah to God’s people in exile remind us how subversive true stability is. Rather than admit defeat, daydream of lost stability, or rise up in rebellion, Jeremiah exhorts God’s people to embrace a practice of revolutionary stability in the place where they are. “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters… 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.”
Simply making a life where you are may not seem radical to us, but for God’s people in exile, Jeremiah’s instructions could not have been more unexpected. Writing from home, he says to brothers and sisters who have been violently displaced by their enemies, “Love the land you can only hate right now. Love your enemies who dragged you there. Learn to see how your well-being is bound up with theirs. Don’t put all your hope in returning to a past that is forever lost. You can’t go home again because your home has been destroyed.
But God is faithful. Our God can meet us in the place where we are. The Maker of heaven and earth is here. If we are willing to believe it, this, too, is holy ground.” (Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove)
Unlike the exiles Jeremiah is speaking to, I don’t think of myself as having been exiled to this neighbourhood, but I do know what it is to believe that this is only my temporary home and to dream about the “next place” or the “new thing.”
Except, I’m not doing that anymore. I am looking at the people around me in my newly developing community and enjoying the place we are at – both our physical location and the specific point we are in our journey together – a journey we are taking by staying in one place. I’m enjoying meeting regularly to pray for our neighbourhood. I’m enjoying making plans to transform our yard into a community garden, and I’m also looking forward to what it might be like, 10, 15, or even 20 years down the road to still be in this same place, looking at these same faces.
And it feels good. So I’m staying put.