I’m going to try to express how important I think geographical proximity is to just about everything in life, including following Jesus in community. However, I also wrestle with coming across as preachy or judgmental and taking the risk of offending people who live a farther distance away from their church/community/friends/family/etc. So…please forgive the rambling and circular discussion.
Earlier today I was able to help some new friends move into their home. Before I went over to the house, I was distracted some bickering between my two daughters, and I almost forgot to head over to the house to help unload the truck. By the time I remembered, I only had 45 minutes or so before my wife had to be at a preschool meeting. I was still able to cruise by the house and spend a good amount of time unpacking, meeting new friends, and talking with old friends. In that time I had short conversations about tattoo artists, our preschool, racism, the lack of closets in my house, how busy my wife is this week, and the potential for my 5 year old boy to be good friends with another 5 year old who would now be living in our neighborhood (they both love to play with balls and sports). I was also able to joke around with a few small children and show off my new tattoo. I was then able get home and kiss my wife and wish her a good meeting before she left the house.
How was all of this possible? The house with the moving truck was only a few blocks from my house, and our preschool is only another two blocks away. The commute time to those places is in the 1 to 5 minute range.
What makes this reflection enjoyable for me is that I can see a philosophical belief of mine play out in real life. As I was speaking with an old friend recently, he said, “Oh, so you’re like Jonathan.” I took it as a compliment. He was referring to Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove, who wrote The Wisdom of Stability. The last few years I have gravitated towards movements, authors and organizations that believe in the sacredness of location and neighborhood. I’ve deeply enjoyed my time with the leaders of the Parish Collective who inspire, resource and link communities in the pursuit of being rooted in a particular neighborhood. I sincerely hope and plan to live in Oakland in my neighborhood my entire life. I believe deeply that living close to another person and group of people can allow us to love one another and help one another follow Jesus in a unique way.
On the flip side, we live in an incredibly mobile culture. Life is complicated and often far from ideal. Last night I was at a party and a friend told me that her husband is in Paris for a few days for business. I remarked that I should have visited Paris when some good friends lived there for three years. We all know people who fly around the globe on a regular basis. When we are away from home we can stay connected through video chats and the like. We can even look at our friends of family’s faces on our iPhone (if we choose to own one, that is). We keep in touch with college friends on Facebook and see their adorable pictures of their babies. Some people think that a Facebook church is the future. We cringe to see our cousin’s political views on Facebook, even though she may live across the country. We can drive from Oakland to San Francisco in 15 minutes without traffic. It’s a crazy connected world out there.
The reality is that sometimes the job that truly seems the best for us is many miles and neighborhoods away. Perhaps the school we choose for our children is just as far away. I have to admit that I’ve spent plenty of time listening to sermons from a certain pastor in Michigan. I also have to admit that I would rather have my right hand chopped off than move back to the town where I grew up.
But…I still believe that the land is sacred. I still see that, practically speaking, location matters. Being rooted in a particular place with a particular people has special benefits for oneself and for that neighborhood. In the narrative of Scripture, “the land” is emphasized over and over again. When I live close to someone, I can see them more often. We hear the same gunshots. We go to the same stores. We see the same guys dealing drugs on the corner.
So, how do we seek to live together and grow together as followers of Jesus in community while we all live a far from ideal, geographically stretched life in one way or another?