25 Years in the Same Place

What I have learned by twenty-five years of staying in the same place

This summer has been crazy like most summers. It was so busy that an important milestone was passed, and I missed it. I just realized this week that this is my 26th summer in the same place. For some of you, that sounds unattainable. For others, I’m just getting started. It has been a battle, and it hasn’t always been easy. Growing up, my family moved every three to six years. It wasn’t awful. I made some good friends and learned things I couldn’t have learned any other way. But the thing that was hard for me my whole life was that I never had a place to go back to. A place that defined me, a place I called home.

We came to Utica, New York, and stayed for twenty-five years in the same job at the same church and have lived twenty-one years in the first house my wife and I bought. We have made a life and have old friends. We have cried lots of tears and have laughed till we cried. We raised kids away from family, and it wasn’t easy. My wife worked from home so we could give our kids a home and a place. Somewhere that is imperfect, but when our kids close their eyes when they are forty, they all will have the same picture of the home. They will remember the same church and old friends.

In a hyper-connected world, we think we are shaped by what we know, who we know, or who’s posts we like most often. Instead, what shapes us is particular places and particular people. Our culture has become more connected and more transient than ever. We don’t allow place to shape us. We are shaped by the time and place where we have been sovereignly planted. What job you work for is not an accident. The neighborhood where you buy a house is not an investment; the town where you become a part is not a fluke. These communities of time and place are the tools God uses to chisel and chip away at the unformed exterior of which only God can see the beauty of what it will become.

We see jobs, homes, and communities as tools for personal fulfillment and happiness. When we view a home as an investment and a job as a career, it shapes us. We move to a bigger house because our kids want their own rooms; what our kids need is proximity. They need to be forced to respond right in proximity to community, not retreat in the face of adversity to their curated spaces. What we need isn’t a new job; it’s to fight for joy while being misunderstood. It’s to do the right thing when others don’t. Remaining in a particular place forms your soul in a way that career advancement never can.

When you stand still in the middle of a world, gone crazy, you proclaim that your priorities are not shared, you bear witness to a different set of priorities that have shaped your loves.

Eugene Peterson was asked, “What do you like best about being a pastor?” The question came from a young woman, Stephanie. “The mess,” he said. A group of seminarians from a nearby school—there were ten of them—had asked him to lead them on a thirty-six-hour retreat. They were about to graduate and enter into the vocations they had just spent years preparing for. For three of them, being a pastor meant starting over in a second career. They wanted to spend a couple days in prayer and conversation as they anticipated what was ahead of them.

Petersons’ answer, “the mess,” was unpremeditated. It stopped the conversation. But sometimes, a spontaneous response reveals something important that had never surfaced just that way before. But mess wasn’t quite the right word. He backpedaled. “Well, not exactly a mess, but coming upon something unexpected that I don’t know how to handle, where I feel inadequate. Another name for it is miracle that doesn’t look like a miracle but the exact opposite of miracle. A slow recognition of life, God’s life, taking form in a person and context, in words or action that takes me off-guard. Theologian Karl Rahner was once asked if he believed in miracles. His reply? ‘I live on miracles—I couldn’t make it through a day without them.’ Still another name for it is mystery. Pastors have ringside seats to this kind of thing. Maybe everyone does, but I often feel that pastors get invited into intimacies that elude a more functional and performance way of life.”

When I was in my twenties, I thought the key to success was recognition and struggled when it never came. The miracles and the mysteries of life are seen not in the spectacular but in the ordinary. The ordinary looks like us showing up for our friends without being asked when they are hurting. When we remain when everyone leaves, when we stand in the middle of a world wracked by anxiety as a non-anxious presence, when we allow the people of God in the place, God has placed us to be the tools that shape us more and more into the image of God. Stay in your small house, work through the offenses caused by family and friends, and don’t think that that next job will make you happy and whole. Allow yourself to be shaped and formed by time and place.

Eugene was right. We want spectacular miracles, and those do happen, but most often, God’s miraculous work is A slow recognition of life, God’s life, taking form in a person and context. Twenty-five years of staying have taught me that God most often works and speaks in the every day and the mundane. That when you stay, you proclaim God’s grace, not your spectacular ability, is what makes you and what keeps you. My plea to you is to stay in your small house on your small street in your small town near your small church and love the people God has placed in your life to form you into his image for his glory alone.

Helping Kids Deal with Sorrow and Death.

One of the more difficult things I have had to do in my years of pastoral ministry is talk with kids about death. Explaining death and sorrow to kids has a profound influence on kids and a refining influence on us.

Recently a friend of mine gave me a book to read written by Jonathan Gibson entitled The Moon is Always Round. The book tells the story of his family dealing with the loss of their baby at 39 weeks. Dr. Gibson, a professor of theology, explained to his three-year-old son the goodness of God through a powerful metaphor of the shape of the moon we can see versus the shape the moon is always.

Dr. Gibson would often ask his son what is the shape of the moon and he would respond that it was a crescent; his dad would ask, what shape is it always? His son would reply, “Dad, the moon is always round.” Dr. Gibson would ask what does that mean? His son would say, “God is always good.”

What a profound metaphor. To have a metaphor that is biblically faithful and continually available is a gift and mercy. There is a part of the moon that we can see, the sorrows we face, but no matter the shape, the reality is that the moon is round because God is always good.

What Gibson is saying is that we see the face of the moon as half, full or crescent. But the shape of the moon we can see is not always the shape of the moon. The moon, no matter what we can see, is always round. He uses this illustration to show us that we don’t always see everything God is doing. We see parts but what we can’t always see is what is really true. Just like the moon’s shape never changes, God’s nature never does either. The moon is always round, and God is always good.

In a recent podcast, Jonathan Gibson recounts the conversation that led to the creation of his book. I highly recommend it.

Talking to our kids is important because death and sorrow are unavoidable and inevitable. We live in a culture that avoids death, but even in our greatest sorrows, we can and should point our kids to the goodness of God.

We live in a world that deifies youth and runs from death. We live in a culture obsessed with cheating death because they are convinced that this life is all there is. We have this idea that God is limited if he exists at all, but we are limitless because of medical advancements and scientific discoveries. Scripture tells us the truth that we are limited. Our days are literally numbered by God, and God is limitless in his care and in his person.

Christians fall victim to this thinking because the materialistic secular worldview is the air we breathe. C. S. Lewis said that everything in this life is marked by death. In A Grief Observed, Lewis talks about how his life was marked by the death of his wife.

“You tell me, “She goes on.” But my heart and body are crying out, come back, come back. . . . But I know this is impossible. I know that the thing I want is exactly the thing I can never get. The old life, the jokes, the drinks, the arguments, the love-making, the tiny, heartbreaking commonplace. On any view whatever, to say “H. is dead,” is to say “All that is gone.” It is a part of the past. And the past is the past and that is what time means, and time itself is one more name for death.”

Lewis is talking about something he had grown to understand because of the love he had for his wife. That death is pervasive that death will eventually claim everything and everyone we love. The problem is not if we will die but when. This is not something you hear much about in our modern culture. We don’t want to admit that we are dying and the thing we love will all pass away. Death reminds us that this world is not our home that this world is not all that there is but we avoid death in the hope that death will avoid us.

Matt McCullough in Remember Death, points to the power of life over death. Death’s power has been destroyed and even had its hold turned back on itself because of the resurrection of Christ. McCullogh says, “Jesus draws our attention to the grave to break our attachment to foolish hope in false gods, but not to pull us back from joy. He would rather return the good things of life to their proper place in our minds and hearts: they are gifts, not gods.”

One of the best things you can do to your kids is to take them to funerals, take them to visit people in the hospital, and talk to them about the reality that one day you, as their parent, will die. We live in a culture that is so unprepared for the reality and eventually of death that they don’t know how to live. The church in North America doesn’t talk about death. As a result, far too many Christians are filled with fear of their deathbed. This is a fear that should not be for a Christian. We have a sure and certain hope. Because your days are numbered because you belong to God, we do not have to fear. Nothing can take us from this life until God says we are done. When God says we are done, nothing can keep us.

How to talk to your kids about death?

  1. Tell your kids the truth. – In the podcast I referenced earlier, Dr. Gibson does not lie to his son. He doesn’t give him false hope. He tells him the truth and points his son to God’s goodness. “What shape is the moon….always?”
  2. Don’t speak for God; point them to God – God is always good, but what he does will not always make sense to you and me. There are mysteries that we will never fully understand. Don’t tell your kids what God should have done. Point them to the Word and teach them to trust God more than their eyes can see. 
  3. Do not minimize difficulty or simplify God’s glory or majesty. It is easy and tempting to give our kids pat answers to difficult questions or too difficult problems. Point them to the majesty of God. Remind them of what Mr. and Mrs. Beaver told the Pevenacy kids in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe that God is not safe, but he is good. In trying to understand why people die and how people die, it’s important to remind ourselves that God isn’t safe, sin is real, but God is always good.
  4. Point them to the comforts of God and the assurances of scripture. – Another well-meaning but pernicious lie people tell kids after the death of a loved one is “God didn’t do this.” This may make them feel good for the time being but will inevitably produce insecurity, anxiety, and fear. If the devil’s ability to take life is more real than the power of God to preserve it, we are all in lots of trouble. In Deuteronomy 32:39, it says, “Now see that I, even I, am He, And there is no God besides Me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; Nor is there any who can deliver from My hand.” This should not cause anxiety but give us great comfort because nothing can take us from God hand.

How do we live lives marked by joy in our present moment and filled with hope for the future? We realize that this life is but a foretaste of the glory to come.

“Jesus’s death and resurrection have purchased freedom to enjoy what you have even when you know you’re going to lose it. Enjoy your vacation even though it’ll be over in a flash. Enjoy parenting your preschoolers even though they’ll be grown in the blink of an eye. Enjoy your friendships. Enjoy your marriage. Enjoy your productivity at work. Enjoy whatever health you have left in your body. Of course these things won’t last. Yes, it will hurt when they’re gone. But they don’t have to last to be wonderful. They are delicious, God-given, God-glorifying appetizers for the hearty and satisfying meal that’s still to come. They are true and worthy foretastes of the banquet spread for all peoples. And Jesus saves the best wine for last.”

Matt McCullough