“This place is like somebody’s memory of a town, and the memory is fading.”
— Rust Cohle, True Detective
My wife and I were called to be missionaries overseas before we started dating. In fact, that calling was one of the many things that drew us to one another. We were certain of this calling, and all of our life was directed towards realizing it—our marriage, our studies, our (temporary) job choices, our relationships, and even our church involvement. But when you are so certain about God’s calling on your life, what should you do when such things do not come to pass?
Post-college life was difficult for us. We found ourselves marooned in the small city in which we studied. We had set sails for Jackson as a stopping point on the journey of our lives, but at some point during our stay, others hopped on the ship and left without us. Or at least that’s how it felt for a long while. We tried every possible route of leaving for overseas. We took jobs, rented a home, and joined a church—all with reluctance. We knew what God wanted of us, and Jackson was just an obstruction preventing us from living out our calling.
Despite our kicking and screaming, God revolutionized our paradigm of mission and calling. And oddly enough, it was an offer to teach in China that led us to stay put. The opportunity to leave provoked us to consider what we would leave behind. When Paul preaches to the men of Athens on Mars Hill in Acts 17, he says,
From one man he [God] made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. (v 26)
Granted, this verse can be used to spur international mission fervor, but for my wife and me, it generated an epiphanic moment in which we recognized our reluctant home as a place of divine providence rather than wasted time.
Reflecting on the truth that God ordains the places we dwell sanctified my experience in Jackson—and I fear that this truth can be easily lost for those in my generation. We are told our entire lives that we can go anywhere and do anything, but with such affirmation comes undue entitlement and the danger of bending God’s will to match our own. I believed God had called me to international missions because that was what I wanted. While there is certainly a level of personal desire, passion, and skill that helps illuminate God’s will for our lives, we must be careful not to make God’s purposes more about us than they are about Him. For me, I lived my life in such a way that only affirmed what I wanted, and I justified it by giving God the credit. Even the best of our intentions can be selfish pride. And given the angst I often hear from students wanting to leave—to get out and do better things—I assume my false hermeneutic for God’s will is common to others. The grass is always greener, right?
Reflecting on the truth that God ordains the places we dwell sanctified my experience in Jackson.Looking ahead for the next transition oftentimes diminishes the importance of what we have in the present. Years of anxiety and stress in discerning God’s will has led me to believe that God’s immediate calling is clear and direct for all believers: preach Christ where you are. I had lost sight of this in all my kicking and screaming to go preach Christ elsewhere. (The measure to which our will can blind us to simple truths is quite ridiculous!) Having accepted that God purposed for me to live in Jackson, I now understand it in the context of my calling. I am called where I am, until God moves me. The beautiful outcome of embracing such truth is that God stirs up love for a place once considered insignificant.
The opening quote of this article comes from the character of Rust Cohle, played by Matthew McConaughey, in HBO’s excellent series True Detective. During an investigation, Cohle comments on a small Louisiana town as being a faded memory. For many who desire to leave where they are to do great things for God, their current residence is often a forgettable stepping stone to the next important destination. But such a view minimizes God’s sovereignty and neglects the worth of community. To prevent such indifference, then, we would do well to adopt a theology of place that ordains one’s present context as a dwelling place of divine purpose and importance.
When I let go of striving for where God was calling me next, I was able to embrace where God placed me in the present. No longer did I see Jackson as a launchpad for the next major life transition, but as a good but broken place in need of redemption. The poverty, crime, and segregation that stands in stark contrast with the churches on every corner compels me to stay and witness God at work. The great things I desire are not elsewhere for me to chase—God is making beauty from ashes in my own backyard.
True Detective takes place in Louisiana, and throughout the first season’s progression, the show’s location comes alive in such a way that it becomes no longer just a simple setting, but an integral character in the overall narrative. A theology of place has helped me recognize that the context in which God has located me is providential. Jackson is no longer an insignificant place of transition for me. God has written her as a character in my story, not to fade as a memory, but to be sought and redeemed.
photo via ellenm1.