Creating Place

by Marilyn on February 7, 2018

In recent years, authors have released a plethora of Christian books about home and place. From Jen Pollock Michel’s Keeping Place to Tish Oxenreider’s At Home in the World, many have a lot to say about roots, feeling at home, and stability.

I read these books with both appreciation and cynicism. I’ve lived in 28 houses on three continents and can’t count the hours I’ve spent moving or in airports.  So I appreciate that writers take time to explore home and place, but I also read with skepticism. Do they really know what it’s like to be uprooted? Do they really understand what it is to be separated from family and friends by oceans and continents for long periods of time? Do they honestly know what it is to try to create home when everything ‘home like’ is gone? I’m well aware that this is arrogant, that to long for home is human, but there are times when I still feel it.

The ALOS community knows all about pulling up roots, transplanting, and working to feel at home where we don’t belong.

In truth, I believe that one of the most important things we can do overseas is create place and home. Living as if this world is not our home may sound good in a hymn, but it neglects the important truth about who we are as humans. In the words of Paul Tournier, we are incarnate beings and to be human is to need a place, to be rooted and attached to that place.  Spending years in borrowed housing, eating from borrowed dishes, and living on borrowed furniture is not healthy when our goal is to enter a community overseas. If everything around us shouts “temporary”, it’s hard for us to feel rooted.

But how do we do that? There are two areas that I want to discuss: The first is a theology of place while the second is a purely practical look at how we might physically create space.

Theology of Place: 

First off, I think we need to recognize the importance of place and home. We can’t create a home if we don’t think doing so is important.

A year after I graduated from college, I decided to go overseas to work as a nurse. It was summer and I was living in the city of Chicago. Since I was leaving for Pakistan in September my roommate and I decided to get rid of most of the things in our apartment in June. We blithely rid ourselves of all the things that we owned. Down came curtains; out the door went furniture; into the hands of friends went dishes and precious items. It was a horrible summer and I ended up in tears in a counselor’s office. As we talked, the counselor began quizzing me on my living situation. When she discovered that I barely had a bed and a few dishes, she gently informed me that this was one of the problems.  I had assumed that getting rid of all my earthly belongings three months before I left was the best way for me to prepare. I was wrong. I lived as a temporary, friendless person that summer. My disconnection from place was profound and I suffered because of it.

In coming to us through the Incarnation, Jesus attached himself to time and place. He was a human who lived during a specific historic time period. He was son of Mary and Joseph, a carpenter. He was John’s cousin and he lived in Nazareth where he inhabited a physical home. I like to imagine that Mary delighted in creating earthly space for this son of hers; the one who was present at the creation of the world when God the Father created our physical home; the one who would dramatically bridge the gap between heaven and earth for the rest of us so that one day, we would have a permanent home.

In an interview with A Life Overseas, Jen Pollock Michel writes: “At the beginning, Genesis 1 drives toward this idea that God is making a habitable world for his people. ‘It is good’ is a way for God to say, ‘It is homelike. People can live here.’ And then of course in Revelation, we see God bringing heaven to earth and welcoming his children to dwell with him.” 

I think it’s easy for us as Christians to disavow the importance of home and place; to perhaps see ourselves as more spiritual because we live in rented homes, or serve in far off places and aren’t as tethered to place as the friend with a five bedroom house and full basement. But perhaps that tethered friend has something to teach us about creating space. In leaving homes and families to work in communities that are different from us, it is important to write our names in the land and learn how to live well in those places. One of the ways that we live well is by creating home and place.

While this earth may be temporary, in creating us God called us into a particular space and time – we honor that when we create place. Place will change, but the character of God will not. He will always be a God who values home, who invites us to his eternal home. This understanding is foundational to using the practical tools that follow.

Practical tools:

It’s important that we combine a theological discussion with a sense of how to practically do this. An important caveat is that we are not talking about creating designer homes. We are talking about creating space and home as a vehicle by which to share our lives with our spouses, our children, our friends, and our neighbors. Mismatched furniture, books, and candles can do this beautifully. I know because that’s what I have.

Here are a few suggestions. As with anything I write – take what is useful and blow away the rest!

Go green with plants and flowers! It’s amazing how much plants can create a sense of home and place. A beautiful way to create place is by investing in a couple of plants and an occasional bouquet of flowers. This may be easy if you live in a tropical location, but a bit more difficult if you’re in a desert or in a frozen tundra. Even then, a couple of small fake plants take very little space in a suitcase.

When I first arrived in Egypt, I felt like my world couldn’t be more brown. The desert and dust felt overwhelming at times. A few weeks after I arrived, I discovered that you could buy roses at the local market for a dollar a dozen with an extra one thrown in just because. What a gift! I would go weekly to buy roses and feast my eyes on their beauty. They transformed our living space. In the middle of a dusty city, I found this small, weekly act a redemptive task. God is an artist creator, and in discovering beauty around us and inviting it into our homes we reflect our creator God.

Buy your own stuff. There are various cities around the world that rent fully furnished apartments, complete with the most ugly furniture and dishes you’ve ever seen. You’re a missionary right, so sacrifice a little! What are ugly dishes and furniture when it comes to sacrificial living? Here’s the thing – those things might be a tangible obstacle in you feeling like you can share your home. Is it a huge deal? No, but investing in some pieces of furniture that symbolize home, and buying a set of dishes that you like could go a long way in creating place.

Framed artwork and pictures. Framed pictures of family and friends, landscapes of places you have lived and love, pictures your children have drawn that look oh so much better when they are framed…all of these when arranged can create a sense of place. My mom had a framed picture of a New England winter that she hung wherever we lived. I loved it long before I ever saw snow. Her past and her own sense of place were connected to that picture, and hanging it on the wall was symbolic of place.

Local handicrafts for the win. The best way to create place may not be bringing the latest deals from stores in your passport country. Don’t try to model a designer home in a suburb. Instead embrace the beautiful pieces from your adopted country. My friend Bettie could turn a mud hut into a mansion. She had a gift for finding treasures in the bazaars in Pakistan. Brass, pottery, and textiles that were inexpensive and beautiful found their way from a crowded, dusty shop onto the shelves of her living room.  Buying them was a tangible way to focus on the artistry and artisans in Pakistan. Every piece was unique and had a story.

Buy cheap, but get lots of it. If you’re making curtains, don’t go for expensive material that you skimp on because of the price. Your curtains will look better if you buy lots of material that’s cheaper. That way you can make them look full and rich; not skimpy and expensive.  Several framed prints with inexpensive frames will look better on your walls then one expensive frame. Several cheaper pillows will give you a much more homey look than one expensive pillow.

Get help! In every community you will find an artist and a decorator.  Here’s how you find the decorator in your community: You walk into their home and take a breath – how do they manage to create such a lovely space? But instead of asking them, instead of allowing them to use their God-given gifts of artistry, you secretly harbor feelings of resentment. They might sound like this “Well, if I had money, I too could….” “Well, their landlord takes better care of their place….” I’m sorry to tell you – even if you had more money, your place wouldn’t look like hers. Because he or she has a gift. So ask them for help, get them to walk through your space and give suggestions. Even though the differences may be small, they’ll make a big difference in your space. Helping you will delight them – trust me on this one.

Our physical space may change more than we might like, but God invites us into this journey of creating place and home and it is a gift.


How have you created place and a sense of home in the countries where you live and serve?  

Blogger’s Note – I am grateful for our sister site, Velvet Ashes, for the inspiration to write this piece.


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About Marilyn

An adult third culture kid, Marilyn grew up in Pakistan and then raised her own 5 third culture kids in Pakistan and Egypt. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts 15 minutes from the international terminal. She works with underserved, minority communities as a public health nurse and flies to the Middle East & Pakistan as often as possible. She is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and you can find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries.
  • Deb Mills

    I love this so much. Funny that you mention Tournier. I still have his book from my college years, A Place for You, on my bookshelf (along with yours). Place is important – and creating place (along with space) for ourselves and those we love matters! As always, you make me think and you give me hope.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Me too! That’s when I first read it – straight off the boat from Pakistan. I love it. Thanks for reading and taking time to comment!

  • Donna Lindhagen Hanchett

    This is so important for missionaries to know. After being back in the States for a number of years, I find that two of my favorite rooms of the house are the ones that have the most ‘artifacts’ of our life abroad. It makes my adult kids feel at home when they visit too. Three out of the four are involved in artsy vocations, and incorporate their third culture into all of their work. It’s simply a part of who they are.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      We are the same with our treasures from Pakistan and Egypt! I love it – tangible reminders of our lives and that those lives mattered and shaped us!

  • Bettie Rose

    Thanks Marilyn. Home. A place. There were always work/ministry related responsibilities and demands for us missionaries. These could be heavy and exhausting. Early on I realized how important home was to success or failure in our calling. Creating an oasis, a safe haven if you wish, became important to me. I figured a restful and attractive home provided restoration and renewal to our tired and weary souls. Looking through the Guest Books we maintained while living in many different houses over the years I find signatures of other tired and weary souls. We welcomed strangers, the bedraggled sick hippies, the missionary community, Pakistani Christians and Muslims, the VIPs. Home. Wherever it was, it was the heart of our being. A long time ago I heard or read this: “Home is where the heart is and that’s where it should be. Make your home beautiful, beautiful to see.” To this day, upon returning from a trip away from home, with thanksgiving I say, “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.” Oh, I have to add a post script. I didn’t mention the huge challenges we missionaries encountered in maintaining a home!

    • Marilyn Gardner

      You taught me more about this than you will ever, ever know and I thank you!

  • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

    So good, Marilyn. As a non-decorator, non-gardener with little aesthetic skill, I rely on friends to help! I love this so much, and I’ve asked those same questions about the ‘home’ books too, appreciate your honesty.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Thanks Rachel – I think we downplay space way too much – obviously because I just wrote about it 🙂

  • Denise in Kenya 2

    Thank you so much for sharing this today. I have been wrestling with the idea of creating a home for myself here in Kenya as though I don’t deserve to be settled because I am single and on a tight budget. I long for color and beauty and Pottery Barn. I have difficulty reconciling spending donor money on “luxuries” such as well-made furniture that doesn’t poke you because the springs are broken and doesn’t bite you because it is crawling with critters! After one year of moving from place to place, house-sitting, God has heard the cry of my heart for “home.” Next month, I am moving into the house I have always wanted, with a view of Lake Victoria and a screened-in porch. I am looking forward to decorating the place with lots of colorful African fabric, local artwork and second-hand furniture that is bug-free.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      I learned so much from single friends who created amazing spaces. I felt like they had a lot to teach married couples about creating space – I am so glad you are going to move forward in a home you love and create that space! And I love the comment about bug-free furniture…..

  • Lisa Enqvist

    I don’t know how my mother did it, but she managed to create a feeling of Home wherever we were, while at the same time she gave us the deep longing for the eternal home in Heaven.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Love this! That’s exactly what I long to do.

  • Yes! And furniture seems to be my Murphy’s Law thing. If we buy our own couch–the cheapest we can find, because “it’s just for this apartment, there will be one in the next furnished place we move to”–then that stupid, uncomfortable couch will stick with us forever, because there just happens not to be a couch everywhere else that we move to. If we actually put time and money into buying a nice bed, there won’t be room to set it up in the next three places we live, because they all come with beds.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Oh my gosh – just too sad! The “well, we’ll just have to live with it forever” scenario is too real sometimes. On another note, one of our priests and his wife have live by this phrase “We’re too poor to live cheap” and I love that mantra. I love that – the idea that often buying quality is the best value for our money and lasts the longest.

  • Krista Horn

    This has been especially important for me as a stay-at-home mom on the mission field. There are days when I literally never set foot outside the house, and a huge part of what makes it tolerable is because of the comfortable furniture and decorations on the walls. Our home is a place I love to be, not a place I feel depressed in. But it requires intentionality and the willingness to spend a little money on whatever makes it feel like home.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Yes! This is so critically important and I appreciate you using the word “intentionality.” That is so true, and would be a good addition to this piece. Start with intentionality.

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