Sermons

A Sense of Place: A Message for Earth Day; Rev. Dee Ledger; April 22, 2018

Like many of you, I moved around a lot as I moved into adulthood.  At one point, I counted approximately 11 different moves—north, south, east, and west, from one place to another.  Each time, the boxes would be packed; each time I tried to remember what had helped me to feel settled and more “at home” in my previous moves and then swiftly did that.  I never liked to unpack gradually; contrary to all good sense, my back, and moderation, I simply had to unpack quickly, hang the pictures, stack the dishes, order the books, and put clothes in the closet or my soul would feel out-of-kilter and amiss until that time when I did.

Compare this to my friend who lived for a couple of years out of boxes.  Never truly settled in his mind or in reality, it was as if he were waiting for the next stop, next state, or next place to which he would finally belong and all would be finally unpacked.  He lived out of boxes for 2 years or more. To each his or her own, but this was definitely not me.  I could not wait around in my head for a moment to begin life when life was already teeming around me.

Like others, I’ve also temporarily put down roots in places that never truly felt like home.  Only in retrospect have I discovered why and that it typically had less to do with the place and more to do with me.  In Genesis, Jacob stops briefly in the midst of fleeing to Haran where he will eventually find a wife and preserve his life away from his angered brother.  But on the road, he stops for the night and dreams of a ladder transporting angels to and fro.  For him, it was an unlikely dream in an unlikely place. So, in the morning, he exclaims, “Surely the Lord was in this place and I did not know it.”  He names the place Bethel, and believes it to be the very gates of heaven, the very house of God.

Had Jacob taken the time to stroll thru the neighborhood and to question the other residents of that place, he might have discovered God, in that place, thru them.  Which is to say, that before the dream, before the ladder with angels ferrying back and forth, before he chose to rest there for a spell, Beth-el was just a waystation to Jacob, just a place among other places, a utilitarian piece of ground to meet Jacob’s needs for peace and safety, a landscape that offered him a rock for a pillow and seemingly not much more.  Until.

Until he saw, or could see, God in that place—and angels to boot.

We are creatures who sometimes lack a sense of place.  And our lack of knowledge and love for the places we live have made our shared planet sick and endangered.  That is, we value some places as more worthy of our attention or financial resources than others, and often we only consider a place in terms of its utilitarian function or role.  In brief, we think about what we can get out of a place instead of what we might improve upon.

Social scientists and urban planners consider “sense of place” to be related to a strong identity which visitors and residents alike feel deeply when they are in a certain area. This feeling emerges not only from landscapes, flora, fauna, and climate, but also from history, legends, spiritual beliefs, music, architecture, and language.[1] We are like Jacob, always on the run, fleeing one area for another—because of a job, a downsizing, a change of circumstance, a change of health, or change in our usual well-being.  We go from one place to another and carry all the other places with us, but usually comparing these new places to something that social scientists call our primal landscape.

Our primal landscape is that place to which we were bonded as a child—where all five of our senses came alive… the taste of grandmas’ pie on the counter, the vision of trees blooming in the Spring, the bite of the cold against our skin on a January day, the smell of hay being baled or of salt-breezes coming in from the wharf, the sounds of the city breathing beneath our window, or the crunch of leaves like a noisy carpet beneath our feet in October.

In childhood, a primal landscape develops as a first impression of a sense of place, and our perception of it includes the surrounding community:  the church that hosted strawberry suppers, the library that first introduced us to Judy Blume, the post office where our Mother got stamps and packages, and the grocery store with the clerk who always asked how we were doing.  Scientists tell us that our primal landscape becomes part of lifelong self-identity.  It is a baseline for later experiences. Adults that have moved away from their home region will often experience longing for their primal landscape— the mountains, desert, forests, or fragrant meadows of their youth.  Our primal landscape remains with us well into adulthood as one of our primary sources of spiritual nourishment, nostalgia and comfort.”[2]

What “feels” like home to you?  Where do you feel that warmth and sense of belonging, not just to a group, but to a place, a time, and even to yourself?  Speak to someone about their childhood community and you will learn something about their sense of home, their sense of place.  And yet we often don’t take the time to get to know the other places around us—places that are no less important to God, to her peoples, or to the earth.  We don’t often dig a bit deeper and understand the history of the people whose lives intersect with our own beyond utilitarian needs, or the way in which our sense of place informs or engages with other places, which are vital, teeming with life, and even endangered.  How much do we know of the plants and animals that are native to this place?  How much are we aware of the environmental impact on the streams we love to walk by, or the Bay near which we vacation, or the land on which we reside?  Where have we let places be adversely impacted over time by our collective decision-making and mixed-up priorities?  Where have we refused our help to Mother Earth or turned our attention from the succeeding generations who are even now reaping the after-effects of ill-gotten gains in business, industry, farming, or land-use?

As a child, I learned quite a bit about reusing, reducing, and recycling, the three “R’s.”  I learned less about evoking change— in myself, in my neighbors, and in my community—and how to properly LOVE a place, truly love it for the place it was and is, and not simply look to it to fulfill my material needs or goals.  A sense of place is so much more than a land, its cuisine, or what it offers to our senses or material well-being.  It is a living breathing entity that connects us to ourselves, our memories, our potentialities, and our well-being.  To harm it, to exploit or to ignore it, is to distance ourselves from ourselves.  It is a different kind of self-harm, one that exponentially adds to our own destruction.

And yet—there are signs of hope around us.  In 1 John, we hear, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”  Apply that question to sister earth, brother sky, and sister waters and we find that we are challenged in our Christianity to practice environmental justice and to do what we can to build a sense of place with all those who traverse these doors, looking for a place to lay their heads like Jacob.  What can we do to foster closer roots to this land, this place that our President calls the “swamp,” and this locale?  How do we build a sense of community—not just in the church—but to look to this community and to add to it by fostering a sense of place that will carry succeeding generations?  What can we do to ensure that future generations have a primal landscape that includes beloved memories of this community in Montgomery County—memories that cherish diversity, that take our environment seriously, celebrate and foster connections in this neighborhood, and build upon the practice of truly loving a place in the way that we live, work, and play?

The writer of 1 John continues: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”  There was a time in my life when I might have rebelled against the notion of being addressed as a little child.  And yet, now, as an adult, I see where the children among us are often more clear in their priorities and in their way of caring than the adults.

An example—my sons and I are on the way home from some errand or other when we see a man—homeless—asking for money on the corner.  “Mommy, let’s give him some money.”  I can tell the man is tired.  He is differently abled and weather-worn.  Rather typically, I have no change.  At least 4 other reasons leap to mind of how to answer my child and refuse this request.   And yet, I am tongue-tied.  I can’t help but to feel that this man on the corner is a reminder of all our failed policies and my inability to keep some change in the car.  But my son, he simply sees a human being first and that we have the capacity to make a small difference.

Likewise, in 2015, a group of 21 young people sued the United States Government in Juliana vs. US for failing to adequately protect the Earth from the effects of climate change. These youth claim the federal government’s promotion of fossil fuel production and its indifference to the risks posed by greenhouse gas emissions have resulted in ‘a dangerous destabilizing climate system’ that threatens the survival of future generations.[3] We have taught these children (and ourselves) that we have a fundamental constitutional right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.  We have rights with regard to property. They, in their reflection, have realized that these rights are deeply endangered and they persuasively argue that the government—thru multiple administrations–has violated the public trust doctrine.  The public trust doctrine is a legal concept grounded in ancient law that holds the government is responsible for protecting public resources, such as land and water (or climate) for public use.[4] U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken has said, “Exercising my ‘reasoned judgment,’ I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.”[5]

One of the plaintiffs, Nathan Baring, is high school junior in Fairbanks, Alaska, which is about 120 miles south of the Arctic Circle.  He has a strong sense of place and attachment to his community.  He has said, “I can deal with a few days of rain in February when it’s supposed to be 40 below,” he says. “But I can’t deal with the idea that what my parents experienced and what I have experienced will not exist for my children. I am a winter person. I won’t sit idly by and watch winter vanish.”[6]

Sisters and brothers, your challenge this week is to deepen your sense of place – here.  How can you strengthen the way in which you interact with your immediate neighborhood, or the community outside of your doors?  Can you, perhaps, begin to go for a nightly walk with your family?  Can you visit a local park and contribute to efforts to preserve it?  Can you add something to the vitality of the community by stepping outside of your comfort zone and engaging in a way that gives people opportunities to strengthen their ties to this land, the stories and people who live here, and the promotion and preservation of the beauty that resides here?

“For surely God was in this place and I did not know it,” Jacob says.

But we say that we do know.  So let us act on that knowledge.

May it be so.

 

 

 

[1] “A Sense of Place,” http://www.creationjustice.org/

[2] “A Sense of Place,” http://www.creationjustice.org/

[3] Laura Parker, “’Biggest Case on the Planet’ Pits Kids vs. Climate Change,”  March 17, 2018.

https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/03/kids-sue-us-government-climate-change/

[4] Laura Parker, “’Biggest Case on the Planet’ Pits Kids vs. Climate Change,”  March 17, 2018.

https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/03/kids-sue-us-government-climate-change/

[5] https://www.ourchildrenstrust.org/us/federal-lawsuit/

[6] ibid.