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A Place Worth Encountering and Abiding

“O my soul, I think that you exist more truly where you love than where you merely live since you are transformed into the likeness of whatever you love, through the power of this love itself.”1

The words of St. Bonaventure invite us to discover a definition of place from a new perspective. Far beyond a geographical location, our very existence is rooted in the presence of God in whose likeness we are transformed. Thus, the interplay of what it means to be human and space makes sense only in the realization of God’s inclusion of creation as the beginning of his love. Inner space shapes outer places, so the permanence and rootedness of our lives in loving God define our understanding of place.

As I spend every Saturday with my grandson, I notice that he enjoys being outdoors. In an open space, he is happy and free to run and play. Feeling free, for him, has to do with being less constrained than he is when in a closed space. In a similar way, Ilia Delio describes the geography of the soul as the changes a person undergoes moving from open to closed spaces.2 She also describes how one’s inner life relates to the spaces in which one lives and the spaces that one appreciates. In the example of my grandson’s love of open space, powerful dynamics set two directions for the soul—allowing either expansion or limitation. A need for wider spaces is inherently part of the human longing for freedom and growth.

The human soul continues to grow, but sooner or later becomes self-oriented, self-referencing, and indifferent to its surroundings. Many of society’s offenses toward the environment happen as people lose their sense of place. They view and define space as a receptacle or container. I will address this further later

Looking Inwardly

There have been many conversations about place in recent months at Fuller Seminary as we made the decision to move to Pomona. Moving, commuting, sharing space with others, adjusting to a new neighborhood—these were fervently discussed but became irrelevant once we learned that Fuller was staying in Pasadena. Excitement, relief, grief, hope, and expectancy then filled the conversation on many fronts.

What can we learn about place from what we have experienced in recent months? How could we engage and embrace new pathways in understanding what place is? What new perspectives can we learn about God’s ways as the creator and inhabitant of place? How might we confront our assumptions and definitions of place in light of our institutional reality? In what ways can we engage God’s hope for our future through the opportunities in front of us?

Encountering [the] Place

Abram heard the voice of Yahweh asking him to leave his place of origin; the destination was disclosed as he obeyed. The promise of land was at hand, and place and identity were part of such a promise (Gen 12:1–6). This narrative was at odds with the tradition and expectation of patriarchal cultures at the time. Sons of patriarchs inherited land, possessions, slaves, and animals to maintain the legacy of their ancestors. Because of this, Abram’s response to the thought of leaving his land possibly elicited feelings of insecurity, lack of clarity, and the fear of risking life in the unknown, especially at 75 years of age.

Encountering [the] place is a recurrent theme in the life of Abraham, the father of nations. The irony of this is that Abraham had to live in the divine promise without an heir of his own, and the constant reminder of being a foreigner in a strange land was neither comforting nor affirming. What a strange way to be assured after being asked to leave behind the familiar—a place full of stability, security, and comfort.

Institutionally here at Fuller, we may be experiencing these feelings deriving from preparations for a move that never happened. Where do we find our permanence and rootedness beyond physical spaces?

Encountering place is more than a mere geographical location. It is about renewed hope, meeting God anew in the ordinary, and listening to his voice amid crises. The assurance of the Presence along the human journey becomes the space of expansion of divine proportions.

Control and Distortions of Place

Humans and their environments, the places they inhabit, have always been subject to control and distortion. Two points in tension have caused either a sense of either expanding or limiting. The ones with more power will seek to move on, conquer, and divide, while the ones without power or privilege will experience a deep sense of stagnation and defeat. Let us look at the global migration by which men, women, and children flee to survive oppression and starvation. Denying refugees entry to our country by stating “We are full” is a lie based on dire selfishness. Humans become territorial in irrational ways at times, the reason for globally endemic conflicts and wars. A deep sense of identity correlates with the places humans possess and thus exert control. Senselessly, humans live in the chronic battle for a place to expand and monopolize for personal gain. Homelessness and displacement are the ironies of humanity in a time of great inequity of resources and unnecessary space travel.3

Beyond the consequences of the human condition, a definition of place is essential to identify biases in the way we describe and prescribe one’s right to a place. Amid an increasing global migration and displacement, Western culture continues to conquer, exploit, and question human rights for those in search of a place of refuge. This way of thinking still happens indiscriminately in our current political discourse, society, and Christian communities; it has become a source for hopelessness and disappointment.

Inner Space Shapes Place

Internal and external factors determine how the human soul construes the space (place?) it inhabits. The first factor Delio suggests is that the human soul can be suffocated by the lack of freedom due to constrained inner space—a diminished spiritual life.4 Correlating this with dire unhappiness, even among the wealthy and powerful, makes total sense because the human soul cannot find satisfaction only from living in affluent and large physical spaces. This explains the contentment found in the lives of many who live in spaces where poverty exists.

The second factor is the interface between place and a human sense of the Divine in the development of human spirituality. Specifically, the Judeo-Christian spiritual journey locates encounters with the Divine embedded in specific places. The Divine initiates and participates with creation and people in specific spaces throughout the biblical narrative and history. However, Greek philosophy has contributed to some of the distortions and excess in the human struggle for place. Aristotle defined an understanding of place as “receptacle or container notions of space.”5 This construct determines a rigid and limiting idea of what place is. Controlled and forced from external entities, our understanding of place becomes static and isolated.

Theologian Thomas Torrance asserts that this perspective of place repeated itself through time in Newtonian physics as well as in Christian theology.6 Both have struggled to define place as a container indifferent towards its content. Such a designation correlates with a monotheistic rendition of a removed god in contrast to “an early association between space and God in first-century Palestinian Judaism.”7 Furthermore, Torrance proposed a relational conception of a place, makom, which correlates well with one of the names for God in the Midrash.8

Psalm 139 captures the idea of makom originally elaborated by rabbinic and Kabbalistic concepts.9 While the Greek philosophers never used or considered the use of the term “place” as a description of God, the Midrash chose the noun “place” as a substitution for the “holy place” (makom kadosh), the place of the shekinah, the glory of the divine presence.10 Although there were objects and places related to Yahweh’s presence, they were temporary due to the exodus, exile, and destruction of the place God’s people dwelt in. The concept of shekinah meant more than Yahweh constrained in one place.

Where can I go from your spirit?
      Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
      if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.If I take the wings of the morning
      and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
      and your right hand shall hold me fast.
My frame was not hidden from you,
      when I was being made in secret,
      intricately woven in the depths of the
     earth.

Psalm 139:7–10, 15

This is a core scripture that sets off the control humans impose on place, and it counters the idea of the Unmoved Mover commonly used in Hellenistic cosmology. Conversely, Abraham Heschel adds poignantly that God goes and suffers with his people Israel. Moreover, Jürgen Moltmann infers that God’s shekinah “goes with them into the misery of the foreign land.”11 Psalm 139 speaks of the divine omnipresence and closeness to the human cry for relationship and redemption. Moltmann confirms, “God’s indwelling accompanied the people into captivity and helplessness, and the exile of a hostile world.”12 God continues to be embedded in the contexts of those who cry out to him.

Redeemed Displacement

A sense of displacement is a feeling that no human easily embraces. It makes a person aware of how powerless he or she has become. Without any control over circumstances, neighbors, and opportunities to settle, displacement accompanied God’s people as part of their formation and refinement. To help us feel what displacement is, let us think of the thousands of migrants detained and patiently hoping for asylum. Away from the familiar, women, men, and children are immersed in uncertainty and vulnerability, their future unknown.

While God’s presence sojourned in solidarity alongside his people in the past, he made room to be among the refugee, the outcast, and anyone left behind. It is this very act that brings redemptive activity only because of God’s shekinah amid human suffering. The sustaining power of the spacious and humble God is what preserved and strengthened the children of Israel with resilience and hope throughout history. Moltmann takes a step further and brings home the divine act of incarnation in the following:

The one who came to seek those who were lost gave himself up for lost in order to find them. From the manger to the cross, Jesus had neither a home nor a country. He was forsaken and excluded. “His own people received him not. But to all who received him . . . he gave power to become children of God” (John 1:11–12). And the people among whom he found a “dwelling” were the poor, and little unimportant people.13

Although displacement might be an uncommon experience to many reading this, perhaps it allows us to be mindful of how much we have depended on place following the limitations of a social construct that reduced our awareness of God’s shekinah in our midst beyond utter physicality.

A Humble God in Ordinary Places

God’s humility becomes concrete in the act of the incarnation.14 A preference for the lowly, humble, and disenfranchised flows from the words of Isaiah 57:15, “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit.” The Gospels locate these moments in many scenarios. In finding space to become incarnate, the Spirit of God descended and breathed upon an unassuming young woman to fulfill the promise awaited by generations—“a child has been born for us, a son given to us” (Isa 9:6a). God dwelling among humans in a specific place attests to a vulnerable descent. Thus, it is worth reflecting on the implications of place in the dwelling of the incarnate Son of God.

The Scriptures narrate how Joseph and Mary found no place available at the inn. A humble dwelling became the birthplace of the Son of God. A palace could not have contained such a divine humility; kings with all their splendor and riches could not have comprehended the reverence of the humble shepherds who witnessed the heavenly anthem. Such was the excitement that even the created constellations shone brighter. There was a unison of praise and celebration with earth, skies, and the humblest of creatures joining in unspeakable joy.

“The word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” according to Eugene Peterson’s rendition of John 1:14. Nevertheless, in his infant years before the collected words of the Fourth Gospel, the Son of Man had to flee with his parents to preserve his life. Without an intentional reference to the refugee’s narrative, the incarnate Son of God experienced displacement and the uncertainty of the unknown. “What does this tell us about God? It says that the Creator doesn’t just let his creation exist. He commits himself to it. He enters into it himself, so as to live in it; and that means to come to rest in it, and to remain there.”15

Embracing and Listening to the Place

Amid complex demands and changes, we must stay focused on where we are embedded, but let us not only think physically or geographically. Let us contemplate new possibilities ahead of us as a community on a pilgrimage of service in the reign of God. Let us keep our eyes on “the place” (ha makom) as we keep on teaching and building communities of learning locally and globally. Students and learners are hopeful to see the unfolding of God’s dream for Fuller Seminary in our resilience and resolve.

Let us remain engaged, willing to be stretched, and committed to trusting the one who fully walks alongside us. He is the makom kadosh—our most secured place, who will be with us until the end of the age.

Written By

Wilmer G. Villacorta is associate professor of intercultural studies in Fuller’s School of Intercultural Studies. He has served for over 15 years in pastoral positions in Paris, France, and for Latino congregations in New Jersey and California. He received the Leadership Award from the School of Intercultural Studies in 2008 and was recognized with the Outstanding Civic Service Award by the City of Los Angeles in 1989. He is cofounder and co-chairperson of the Network of Developing Latin Leaders (NDLL) and has translated several books into Spanish on theology of mission, leadership development, and mentoring.

“O my soul, I think that you exist more truly where you love than where you merely live since you are transformed into the likeness of whatever you love, through the power of this love itself.”1

The words of St. Bonaventure invite us to discover a definition of place from a new perspective. Far beyond a geographical location, our very existence is rooted in the presence of God in whose likeness we are transformed. Thus, the interplay of what it means to be human and space makes sense only in the realization of God’s inclusion of creation as the beginning of his love. Inner space shapes outer places, so the permanence and rootedness of our lives in loving God define our understanding of place.

As I spend every Saturday with my grandson, I notice that he enjoys being outdoors. In an open space, he is happy and free to run and play. Feeling free, for him, has to do with being less constrained than he is when in a closed space. In a similar way, Ilia Delio describes the geography of the soul as the changes a person undergoes moving from open to closed spaces.2 She also describes how one’s inner life relates to the spaces in which one lives and the spaces that one appreciates. In the example of my grandson’s love of open space, powerful dynamics set two directions for the soul—allowing either expansion or limitation. A need for wider spaces is inherently part of the human longing for freedom and growth.

The human soul continues to grow, but sooner or later becomes self-oriented, self-referencing, and indifferent to its surroundings. Many of society’s offenses toward the environment happen as people lose their sense of place. They view and define space as a receptacle or container. I will address this further later

Looking Inwardly

There have been many conversations about place in recent months at Fuller Seminary as we made the decision to move to Pomona. Moving, commuting, sharing space with others, adjusting to a new neighborhood—these were fervently discussed but became irrelevant once we learned that Fuller was staying in Pasadena. Excitement, relief, grief, hope, and expectancy then filled the conversation on many fronts.

What can we learn about place from what we have experienced in recent months? How could we engage and embrace new pathways in understanding what place is? What new perspectives can we learn about God’s ways as the creator and inhabitant of place? How might we confront our assumptions and definitions of place in light of our institutional reality? In what ways can we engage God’s hope for our future through the opportunities in front of us?

Encountering [the] Place

Abram heard the voice of Yahweh asking him to leave his place of origin; the destination was disclosed as he obeyed. The promise of land was at hand, and place and identity were part of such a promise (Gen 12:1–6). This narrative was at odds with the tradition and expectation of patriarchal cultures at the time. Sons of patriarchs inherited land, possessions, slaves, and animals to maintain the legacy of their ancestors. Because of this, Abram’s response to the thought of leaving his land possibly elicited feelings of insecurity, lack of clarity, and the fear of risking life in the unknown, especially at 75 years of age.

Encountering [the] place is a recurrent theme in the life of Abraham, the father of nations. The irony of this is that Abraham had to live in the divine promise without an heir of his own, and the constant reminder of being a foreigner in a strange land was neither comforting nor affirming. What a strange way to be assured after being asked to leave behind the familiar—a place full of stability, security, and comfort.

Institutionally here at Fuller, we may be experiencing these feelings deriving from preparations for a move that never happened. Where do we find our permanence and rootedness beyond physical spaces?

Encountering place is more than a mere geographical location. It is about renewed hope, meeting God anew in the ordinary, and listening to his voice amid crises. The assurance of the Presence along the human journey becomes the space of expansion of divine proportions.

Control and Distortions of Place

Humans and their environments, the places they inhabit, have always been subject to control and distortion. Two points in tension have caused either a sense of either expanding or limiting. The ones with more power will seek to move on, conquer, and divide, while the ones without power or privilege will experience a deep sense of stagnation and defeat. Let us look at the global migration by which men, women, and children flee to survive oppression and starvation. Denying refugees entry to our country by stating “We are full” is a lie based on dire selfishness. Humans become territorial in irrational ways at times, the reason for globally endemic conflicts and wars. A deep sense of identity correlates with the places humans possess and thus exert control. Senselessly, humans live in the chronic battle for a place to expand and monopolize for personal gain. Homelessness and displacement are the ironies of humanity in a time of great inequity of resources and unnecessary space travel.3

Beyond the consequences of the human condition, a definition of place is essential to identify biases in the way we describe and prescribe one’s right to a place. Amid an increasing global migration and displacement, Western culture continues to conquer, exploit, and question human rights for those in search of a place of refuge. This way of thinking still happens indiscriminately in our current political discourse, society, and Christian communities; it has become a source for hopelessness and disappointment.

Inner Space Shapes Place

Internal and external factors determine how the human soul construes the space (place?) it inhabits. The first factor Delio suggests is that the human soul can be suffocated by the lack of freedom due to constrained inner space—a diminished spiritual life.4 Correlating this with dire unhappiness, even among the wealthy and powerful, makes total sense because the human soul cannot find satisfaction only from living in affluent and large physical spaces. This explains the contentment found in the lives of many who live in spaces where poverty exists.

The second factor is the interface between place and a human sense of the Divine in the development of human spirituality. Specifically, the Judeo-Christian spiritual journey locates encounters with the Divine embedded in specific places. The Divine initiates and participates with creation and people in specific spaces throughout the biblical narrative and history. However, Greek philosophy has contributed to some of the distortions and excess in the human struggle for place. Aristotle defined an understanding of place as “receptacle or container notions of space.”5 This construct determines a rigid and limiting idea of what place is. Controlled and forced from external entities, our understanding of place becomes static and isolated.

Theologian Thomas Torrance asserts that this perspective of place repeated itself through time in Newtonian physics as well as in Christian theology.6 Both have struggled to define place as a container indifferent towards its content. Such a designation correlates with a monotheistic rendition of a removed god in contrast to “an early association between space and God in first-century Palestinian Judaism.”7 Furthermore, Torrance proposed a relational conception of a place, makom, which correlates well with one of the names for God in the Midrash.8

Psalm 139 captures the idea of makom originally elaborated by rabbinic and Kabbalistic concepts.9 While the Greek philosophers never used or considered the use of the term “place” as a description of God, the Midrash chose the noun “place” as a substitution for the “holy place” (makom kadosh), the place of the shekinah, the glory of the divine presence.10 Although there were objects and places related to Yahweh’s presence, they were temporary due to the exodus, exile, and destruction of the place God’s people dwelt in. The concept of shekinah meant more than Yahweh constrained in one place.

Where can I go from your spirit?
      Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
      if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.If I take the wings of the morning
      and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
      and your right hand shall hold me fast.
My frame was not hidden from you,
      when I was being made in secret,
      intricately woven in the depths of the
     earth.

Psalm 139:7–10, 15

This is a core scripture that sets off the control humans impose on place, and it counters the idea of the Unmoved Mover commonly used in Hellenistic cosmology. Conversely, Abraham Heschel adds poignantly that God goes and suffers with his people Israel. Moreover, Jürgen Moltmann infers that God’s shekinah “goes with them into the misery of the foreign land.”11 Psalm 139 speaks of the divine omnipresence and closeness to the human cry for relationship and redemption. Moltmann confirms, “God’s indwelling accompanied the people into captivity and helplessness, and the exile of a hostile world.”12 God continues to be embedded in the contexts of those who cry out to him.

Redeemed Displacement

A sense of displacement is a feeling that no human easily embraces. It makes a person aware of how powerless he or she has become. Without any control over circumstances, neighbors, and opportunities to settle, displacement accompanied God’s people as part of their formation and refinement. To help us feel what displacement is, let us think of the thousands of migrants detained and patiently hoping for asylum. Away from the familiar, women, men, and children are immersed in uncertainty and vulnerability, their future unknown.

While God’s presence sojourned in solidarity alongside his people in the past, he made room to be among the refugee, the outcast, and anyone left behind. It is this very act that brings redemptive activity only because of God’s shekinah amid human suffering. The sustaining power of the spacious and humble God is what preserved and strengthened the children of Israel with resilience and hope throughout history. Moltmann takes a step further and brings home the divine act of incarnation in the following:

The one who came to seek those who were lost gave himself up for lost in order to find them. From the manger to the cross, Jesus had neither a home nor a country. He was forsaken and excluded. “His own people received him not. But to all who received him . . . he gave power to become children of God” (John 1:11–12). And the people among whom he found a “dwelling” were the poor, and little unimportant people.13

Although displacement might be an uncommon experience to many reading this, perhaps it allows us to be mindful of how much we have depended on place following the limitations of a social construct that reduced our awareness of God’s shekinah in our midst beyond utter physicality.

A Humble God in Ordinary Places

God’s humility becomes concrete in the act of the incarnation.14 A preference for the lowly, humble, and disenfranchised flows from the words of Isaiah 57:15, “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit.” The Gospels locate these moments in many scenarios. In finding space to become incarnate, the Spirit of God descended and breathed upon an unassuming young woman to fulfill the promise awaited by generations—“a child has been born for us, a son given to us” (Isa 9:6a). God dwelling among humans in a specific place attests to a vulnerable descent. Thus, it is worth reflecting on the implications of place in the dwelling of the incarnate Son of God.

The Scriptures narrate how Joseph and Mary found no place available at the inn. A humble dwelling became the birthplace of the Son of God. A palace could not have contained such a divine humility; kings with all their splendor and riches could not have comprehended the reverence of the humble shepherds who witnessed the heavenly anthem. Such was the excitement that even the created constellations shone brighter. There was a unison of praise and celebration with earth, skies, and the humblest of creatures joining in unspeakable joy.

“The word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” according to Eugene Peterson’s rendition of John 1:14. Nevertheless, in his infant years before the collected words of the Fourth Gospel, the Son of Man had to flee with his parents to preserve his life. Without an intentional reference to the refugee’s narrative, the incarnate Son of God experienced displacement and the uncertainty of the unknown. “What does this tell us about God? It says that the Creator doesn’t just let his creation exist. He commits himself to it. He enters into it himself, so as to live in it; and that means to come to rest in it, and to remain there.”15

Embracing and Listening to the Place

Amid complex demands and changes, we must stay focused on where we are embedded, but let us not only think physically or geographically. Let us contemplate new possibilities ahead of us as a community on a pilgrimage of service in the reign of God. Let us keep our eyes on “the place” (ha makom) as we keep on teaching and building communities of learning locally and globally. Students and learners are hopeful to see the unfolding of God’s dream for Fuller Seminary in our resilience and resolve.

Let us remain engaged, willing to be stretched, and committed to trusting the one who fully walks alongside us. He is the makom kadosh—our most secured place, who will be with us until the end of the age.

Wilmer Villacorta

Wilmer G. Villacorta is associate professor of intercultural studies in Fuller’s School of Intercultural Studies. He has served for over 15 years in pastoral positions in Paris, France, and for Latino congregations in New Jersey and California. He received the Leadership Award from the School of Intercultural Studies in 2008 and was recognized with the Outstanding Civic Service Award by the City of Los Angeles in 1989. He is cofounder and co-chairperson of the Network of Developing Latin Leaders (NDLL) and has translated several books into Spanish on theology of mission, leadership development, and mentoring.

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Fuller Magazine

Eric O. Jacobsen, pastor and author, converses with Jude Tiersma Watson, associate professor of urban mission, about the significance of rootedness and the impact of built environments on communities.