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May 6, 2010

Christopher L. Heuertz: Staying is the new going

The “Neighborhoods Issue” of “GOOD” magazine is packed full of captivating articles on the value of living well in the space your home occupies.

The editor writes, “We want to communicate our fear that Americans’ sense of community has been dissipating, and we want to bring it back. . . The way we interact with our neighborhoods helps to define us and the places we live—all those beautifully diverse places around the world.”

I love my neighborhood, but I travel a lot to many of those “beautifully diverse places around the world.” I’m out of Omaha anywhere from five to seven months a year, and have logged over 500,000 airline miles since 2005. Living local is a value to me, but one that seems more like a hoped-for ideal teasing me from a distance. I’ve not been able to really be as good of a neighbor as I desire.

I also picked up a copy of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s newest book, “The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture” (Paraclete). Jonathan takes this dissipating sense of stability head on: “To practice stability is to learn to love both a place and its people. The twelfth-century Benedictine Anselm of Canterbury compared a restless monk to a tree that, after being ‘frequently transplanted or often disturbed,’ will not take root anywhere, but only withers and dies. ‘If he often moves from place to place at his own whim, or remaining in one place is frequently agitated by hatred of it,’ Anselm observes, then the unhappy monk ‘never achieves stability with roots of love’.”

Jonathan, in addition to being the most prolific Christian author under 30 (I think this is at least his sixth book in the past two and a half years, not to mention the other dozen or so titles he’s edited, compiled or contributed to), has become the publicist of the New Monastic movement. Living in Durham, North Carolina, at the Rutba House, a new monastic community he co-founded, Jonathan also pastors at St. John’s Baptist Church in his own neighborhood.

Reading through the text I found myself remembering the glory days of my own childhood. On Sunday afternoons we’d go to my grandparents’ house and play street football with the other kids from the neighborhood. Things looked very different then. My grandparents had lived in that same house for almost 50 years; my grandfather had one job spanning the time he returned from World War II until his retirement. The predictability of it all made it feel safe.

Today, predictability seems stifling.

The US Census Bureau notes that nearly one in six Americans moves each year. The average American will move almost 12 times in her or his lifetime. The US Labor Department estimates that the average American will have as many as five different careers during her or his lifetime. Ironically we complain about having to endure long delays in airports, when the journeys we make today in mere hours used to take several days to complete.

For Jonathan, “Staying is the new going.” North American Christians seem to have a credibility crisis in our theology and practice of “location.” And this is reflected in how we’ve come to understand our vocations of service.

A vocation of cross-cultural service can become little more than sanctified tourism. Raised as opportunistic individuals, we bounce from one emersion experience to the next. We keep our options open and avoid committing to any one community or set of relationships -- so much so that many of us would rather work 20 hours a week pouring coffee than give our lives to helping secure safe drinking water for others.

The challenge for our communities of service is working with those who are culturally conditioned to subvert stability, those who are brilliant yet doctrinally conflicted and so they avoid plugging into local churches; those who feel alienated and lonely yet community-resistant; those who are cause-driven while unable to commit themselves to fighting for justice; idealistic yet cynical; magnanimous yet suspicious; and, not least, over-educated yet deep in debt. To challenge them to establish stability in their faith, vocations and communities by cultivating authentic friendships and relationships sometimes seems impossible.

“The desert mother Amma Syncletica said, ‘If a bird abandons the eggs she has been sitting on, she prevents them from hatching, and in the same way monks or nuns will grow cold and their faith will perish if they go around from one place to another’.”

I’ve appreciated this book more than any other I’ve read this year. The Wisdom of Stability couldn’t be more timely.

Christopher L. Heuertz is International Executive Director of Word Made Flesh. He is based in Omaha, Nebraska. His most recent book, co-written with Christine Pohl, is “Friendship at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission” (InterVarsity).


How to resolve

Chris I'm grateful for this. I write this from a hotel room in Washington, in one in Grand Rapids this weekend, was in Chicago two weekends ago and will be again in two weeks, with plans to be in Missouri and California later in the EARLY part of the summer...It's not Heuertzian, but it's too much. Yet I admire Jonathan's work so deeply, and love his promise to a specific neighborhood, when, 'in the parlance of our times,' he could have written his ticket and gone wherever he wanted. So what do we make of the tension between living virtual lives and hotel lives and wanting to be in a single place? Not even sure how to ask that question...j

when to go?

Thanks, Chris, for your kind reflection. And thanks to you, Jason, for a good question. I am, indeed, captivated by stability's wisdom. But, as you know, it doesn't mean I never leave. But how to know when? I asked folks here--mainly my wife and the folks at Rutba, to whom I've made life-long promises. They told me they can see the good of some of the stuff I leave to do. But they also agreed that if I'm gone more than 4 days a month, my responsibilities here are too much for them to carry.

My son, JaiMichael, and I have been watching a mother bird sit on her eggs the past few weeks--my favorite image of stability. Now that they've hatched, she leaves quite a bit to get food. But she doesn't stay gone too long. Their little chirps let her know when to come back. I reckon we have to learn to listen to the chirps of the ones we love.

Census stats


Thanks for this article. I'm currently doing some writing on this very subject, and have had a hard time finding stats like those you quote from the census department, above. Can you tell me where you found these? You can email me directly at the above address.

Thank you,


Good words friend....


I love what you have said here. I've read a couple of jonathans books and I am definetly wanting to read his latest now. You are articulating what I myself have been experiencing over the past several years. Both a deep desire to get out and do something, coupled with a restlessness that seldom could be tamed. It seemed I was always looking to what was next, always wanting to learn more and yet seldom was I really living what I was learning. The best and shortest I could articulate a significant change in my focus came through a few of the following....

1. Parker Palmer in Let your Life Speak - something about this read allowed me to tap into a deep desire to put down roots somewhere. While it sound unspiritual, as my wifeand I read this book, we looked at each other and said- let's go home, and we both meant North Carolina (even though I grew up in Canada).

2. I was begining to feel like 10 years in an accedemic community was creating a disconnect in me. I could talk a great deal about faith and theology, but I was drifting from an authentic journey. Ministry started to feel like it was flowing from memory (things I had learned in the past) verses true imagination which come through vital connection to Christ and community. I was speaking with Leroy Barber one day after he spoke in chapel and I was sharing with him some of the tensions I was feeling. He said to me, " I don't think I could be doing or saying what I am today without 20 years of just being rooted in a neighborhood.". Something in that moment clicked for me. I simply knew I wanted nothing more than to be rooted in a community. Long enough to fall in love with it's people, long enough for meaningful friendship, and the kind of accountability that a community brings.

3. Our family moved to Koinonia Farm in Georgia for a summer internship. It was super good for me to work in the dirt, play with children and eat common meals in community. One of the things the farms founder loved to say is that people shouldn't try to give testimony to what they themselves haven't experienced.

I guess what I'm saying here is this. We moved to North Carolina because it felt like home. I took a job in a local church because I felt like it would ground me, and for this season, maybe the first in my life, I'm grateful and mysteriously content. While I would love to change the world and all, I really want to start by loving my family, a few friends, and some neighbors well, or at least be around long enough to learn how to love.


mark b

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