“Home is a human place. Instinctively, each of us, male and female, knows the sound of its welcome – and the joy of our possible return.
This community knows the challenge of creating home in odd spaces and places around the globe. We also know what it is to be homesick, to long for familiar sights and sounds, to occasionally cry during the dark of night, reaching out to a God who created place.
In her newly released book, Keeping Place – Reflections on the Meaning of Home, Jen Pollock Michel writes about this human longing. The back cover eloquently conveys what the book extends to the reader:
“Keeping Place offers hope to the wanderer, help to the stranded,and a new vision of what it means to live today with our longings for eternal home.”
I had the privilege of reading an advance copy of Keeping Place. Throughout my reading, I thought about my upbringing, as well as the many moves I have made in my adult life. I also thought about this community and the ways we leave one home and create a new one, always aware that in home and place, the temporal and the eternal meet.
I asked Jen if she would meet with our community here at A Life Overseas and talk about the book – which really means have a conversation about home and place.
I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did!
Interview with Jen Pollock Michel
Can you give us a sense of how you came to write a book about place and home?
I feel like I’ve spent my entire life searching for home. This is partially because we were a very typically mobile American family during my childhood: my dad chased the tail of opportunity, and we moved for those opportunities. And although I wanted to give a more rooted life to my own children, we’ve also moved a lot for my husband’s career, including a move to Canada six years ago.
But it’s not just mobility that has left me longing for home. I’ve also experienced a lot of loss in my life: the premature death of my father, the suicide of my brother, a sometimes emotionally distant relationship with my mother. It’s these life experiences that springboard a Scriptural exploration throughout the book.
You currently live in Toronto, Canada – a place where you didn’t grow up and a country where you don’t legally hold citizenship. How has living where you are a guest shaped your view of home?
It’s now been six years that we’ve had no permanent immigration status in Canada, so I’m writing about home from the “stranger” perspective, for sure. In an ex-pat life, the longings for permanence and belonging are particularly acute, and it’s easy, of course, to nostalgically think of the place we’ve left behind as the home that would settle those longings.
But truthfully, I’ve realized in writing the book that these longings aren’t just characteristic of the ex-pat life. It’s not as if we’re the only ones to feel dislocation in this world. No, I think it’s most true to say that exile is the human experience and has been since Genesis 3 when we left the Garden behind. This exile can be dislocation geographically, but it can also be estrangement in our relationships with others and most importantly, with God.
What truths (characteristics) of God did you learn through writing this book?
Probably most importantly, I’ve begun to see God is as “homemaker.” That word tends, for many Westerners, to connote a woman who abandons career to stay at home with her children, and this conception has given us a very narrow view of homemaking. But to look carefully at the arc of Scripture (which begins and ends at home) is to see a homemaking God. At the very 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.
For me, a view of God’s homemaking inspires a whole new affective quality to his work of redemption. It’s not just that God has sent Jesus so that he can “acquit” sinners in a kind of impersonal legal transaction. It’s that God has made His own Son a stranger for our sake.
Salvation isn’t just pardon: it’s welcome. It’s homecoming.
In Keeping Place, you speak of God as a “housekeeping” God. How did you come to this description?
I didn’t expect that “housekeeping” would become as big a theme in the book as it did, but I started to see that it was a word that could make sense of the tension between the “now” and the “not yet.” In one sense, we are experiencing “home” with God now through the work of Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. In other sense, we’re waiting on “home”—groaning, along with the rest of creation, to see this broken world put to rights. Housekeeping is a word that seemed to speak to the activity of the in-between. In other words, we may not have “home” in the fullest sense of that word, but we do have the “housekeeping”—the call to embodied, emplaced acts of love in the world.
I think we can fairly say that housekeeping is work that God himself took up through Jesus Christ when he took on flesh and entered the world, eventually to suffer death. He didn’t love at a distance. He implicated himself in the world’s grief. As the prophet Isaiah says, Jesus was a suffering servant.
This is what I’m thinking of when I say that God is not just a homemaking God but a housekeeping God.
How has Keeping Place shaped your practical view of home?
As I’ve just said, “housekeeping” is a concept that became central to the book and has been very meaningfully to me personally. In my own experience, displacement has sometimes left me feeling stuck. To feel impermanent in a place, it’s easy to choose disinvestment and to idealize the “far” over the near. Housekeeping is the word that draws me back to the near. Who is God calling me to love and serve in the place that I’m in? What is the particular suffering of the people closest to me—in my family, my neighborhood, my city? And to borrow from Henri Nouwen, what are ways that God is moving me into the role of the prodigal father in order that I might express his love and welcome? I can get stuck in my own feeling of homesickness—or I could work to help others discover the gospel promise of home.
Housekeeping is also a word to remind me about the nature of love. It’s not usually going to be glamorous. It’s often going to go unnoticed and unappreciated. It is never a once-and-done work. But when the church of Jesus Christ takes up the “housekeeping” for their cities, when we do it for the love of God and love of neighbor, I believe we witness to the reality of a homemaking God and a permanent, eternal home.
In the article “Refugees don’t need your pity” the author says this: “Rootlessness — the implied weakness of it — is treated as a failure. That is plainly schizophrenic: In a world where one in seven people is displaced, the failure must be of planetary scale. It belongs to all of us. This is a century of dislocation not merely of body and home, but also of empathy, dignity, compassion.” How does Keeping Place address this statement?
In Keeping Place, I’ve tried to say that all of humanity is suffering from homesickness. If we acknowledge the three biblical dimensions of home that I draw out in the book (home as geographical connection, home as social bond, home as friendship with God), then at some level, we’re all feeling rootless. We’re feeling displaced. We’re all suffering the nostalgia of what was lost in Genesis 3. This could be because we’ve moved. But it might also be that our parents are divorced or we’re spiritually unmoored.
One temptation that Christians often face is to downplay home as geographical connection, which is why I do want to say that physical rootlessness is a very real grief in our age. We don’t have the connection to land that previous generations did. Wendell Berry is a contemporary novelist, who draws out the kind of suffering this produces. It’s easy sometimes as Christians to approach home in a very “gnostic” way: we make it mean our connection with God or human community. But from Scripture, I don’t think we can avoid that place is a very important dimension of home. When the kingdom of God comes to earth, we’re not going to live ghostly lives in the clouds. We’re going to live embodied lives in a city.
The gospel gives credence to the importance of physical place and roots.
The ALOS community is a community that knows what it is to pack up their luggage, homes, and hearts. How might your book on home encourage them?
I’d go straight to chapter 4 and the story of Jacob. When I was studying the life of Jacob, I was so fascinated that the Hebrew scholar, Robert Alter, called him a man of the “liminal places.” Alter was the one who helped me see that every time we find Jacob in the book of Genesis, he’s at a border of some kind.
Who’s meeting Jacob in all of these in-between places? God. God himself. God is the stability that Jacob doesn’t have. I can’t think of a more consoling thought for those of us whose lives have included a lot of packing up, crossing borders, and leaving things behind.
Someone is there to meet us on that journey. And one day, he’s bringing us home.
Jen Pollock Michel is the award-winning author of Teach Us to Want and Keeping Place. She writes widely for print and digital publications and travels to speak at churches, conferences, and retreats. Jen holds a B.A. in French from Wheaton College and an M.A. in Literature from Northwestern University. She is married to Ryan, and they have five school-age children. Their family attends Grace Toronto Church (Canada). You can follow Jen on Twitter @jenpmichel.