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.
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.