Thursday, July 7, 2011

Place matters--how do your surroundings affect how you see the world?

How does where you live--culture, environment, physical surroundings and their corresponding relationships affect how you look at the world? How does it affect how you look at faith and congregational life?

My passion for these questions took a sabbatical over the past few years. After living for 20 years in the Midwest, I moved with my family to the Seattle metro, where I grew up before taking off for college and early adulthood. I am thankful for the relationships (where I met my wife), mentoring and opportunity in the Midwest (I lived and worked in rural and urban areas in KS, MN, WI, SD and IA). However, there was always some dissonance about my perceptions (particularly of faith and congregational life).

That dissonance runs both ways. I watched it last night at a grant planning meeting, where my Minnesota-native wife raised a particular point to the group. Someone responded, "is that a Midwest (church) thing?" No, Melanie responded, the congregational cultural attribute was part of her Las Vegas congregation, where she served her internship. She hears this kind of question/response loop in her work with congregations. In the particular expression of Lutheranism in the Pacific Northwest, it is common to hear about the church prowess of the Lutheran Holy Land of the Northern Great Plains (MN, ND, SD, IA), with the implication that the Pacific Northwest expression is somehow inferior. It appears from folk culture to church structure to leadership orientation.

One of my colleagues in South Dakota and I discussed this dissonance of place and perception on occasion. I had perceived that sometimes the Midwestern ethos is connected to a moral superiority. I had collected a series of op-ed pieces and letters to the editor that rejected the values of the West Coast and espoused the life in South Dakota. I was attempting to interpret what was behind that understanding. She responded that a Coastal ethos often depicts a cultural superiority. It was hard to disagree with either observation.

In congregational life the diversity of backgrounds is hard to ignore. For every perception of a degree of homogeneity, there are several divergent variables that affect perceptions and relationships. I remember seminary days with scholars and students who espoused some kind of pure faith and theology where culture didn't matter, and that somehow that pure theology could exist in a vacuum. To say there is a pure Christianity apart from culture reeks of gnosticism, where only insiders get to know and understand the "pure" theology.

Today's reflection was inspired by Kansas native Chris Suellentrop and his thoughts on the Kansas City sports landscape. Maybe you're interested in sports and place. If not, what caught my attention was one particular observation about the intersection of place and life, and one that didn't come from a Midwest outsider like me (if you don't want to read the entire article):

"Combine this romantic, backward-looking vision with the traditional Midwestern delusion that you are more American than the rest of the country, and you're left with a strikingly insular self-conception, a sense that you are in a place in righteous decline."--Chris Suellentrop,, 7/7/11

That post re-awakened in me the importance of place as a variable to understanding our relationships with God and one another. It made me think about what it means to be a Lutheran Christian in the United States. Who once lived in the Midwest and married someone from the Midwest. Who loves everything about the geography of the Pacific Northwest (reacquainting myself with this love has distracted me from the deeper questions--they're now back). All of these things affect my relationship and vocation. The question is how? What does it mean?

Place matters. For a person of faith, place matters. The Bible features several stories and reflection about the land--think about the Promised Land. Even buildings receive special billing--the Bible features several stories about building programs. There is lament and hope intertwined with building destruction and reconstruction, and all that goes into the construction and recognition of place.

The question for me about the intersection between place and life is not that it exists, but how and why? What do you think?

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