Sacred Places

Sacred Places

There are no unsacred places;
There are only sacred places
And desecrated places.

–Wendell Berry, from “How to Be a Poet (to Remind Myself)”

Just a few miles from my house there’s an intersection that always makes me happy. If you ever want to go there, it’s a four-way stop at the intersection of Old Franklin Road and Cane Ridge Road. Here’s the link, if you want to see it on Google Maps. If you end up doing the Street View you’ll notice that it’s not terribly interesting. This isn’t a scenic overlook. The houses aren’t gigantic. But it’s a strangely pleasant place. I don’t know why, but I feel a rightness every time I pull up to that intersection, and I tend to look around as if I’m on the verge of solving some bright mystery—until the driver behind me honks and I’m forced to putter up the hill.

I’ve mentioned it to Jamie and the kids, and they agree. It’s a nice spot. To them, it’s probably just that. But my mental wheels start turning and I want to know what about it makes me feel that way. Is it the shape of the land? Is it the fact that the stop sign forces me to pause for a moment and consider my surroundings? Does it remind me of some lovely childhood drive? I can’t put my finger on it. There are other intersections in more beautiful locales that don’t make me feel the way this one does. Psalm 16:6 says, “The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.” I know the psalmist wasn’t thinking of country roads when he wrote this, but I always think of this verse when I sit at that intersection. “This, surely, is a pleasant place,” I think to myself. And in some ways, a pleasant place is better than a breathtaking one, isn’t it? I love the Grand Canyon and have hiked into it a handful of times over the years, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

LL12 Which brings me to last weekend. I just got back from Laity Lodge, a retreat center in the hill country of Texas. It’s a two-hour drive from the San Antonio airport, and for the last hour there’s nothing to see but squat junipers and twisting oaks and hills that stretch into the distance, white with limestone. When at last you turn off the main road and onto the property, you descend into a canyon that’s been carved over the millenia by the Frio River. The road, in fact, leads straight into the river, which on its banks is a few inches of frigid spring water running over a flat shelf of stone. The truck bounces through the river for a quarter mile until the road leads out and up again to the lodge. I always feel like one of Israelites passing through the dry bed of the Jordan and into Canaan.

The place isn’t necessarily luxurious, but oh, is it pleasant. The borders of the walkways are well-tended, and they lead down to the shoulder of the canyon where the Great Hall sits perched over the blue-green pools of the river, on the other side of which is a cliff wall that changes colors as the sun glides overhead. Written on the stones that border the fountain and the paths are lines from all manner of poets, theologians, authors, philosophers, each of which declares the glory of God and asks the traveler to stop and consider that glory. Great minds have been coming to Laity Lodge for decades, including Frederick Buechner, Walter Wangerin, Jr., Madeleine L’Engle, Eugene Peterson, J.I. Packer, and N.T. Wright—but not just theological types. There have also been musicians, painters, dramatists, authors, chefs—and attendees no less intricate, wise, or thoughtful, Christians hungry for rest and peace and the time to encounter the Gospel in a place dedicated to it. When I step onto the grounds at Laity Lodge, I sense something like that intersection near my house. It is, in the best sense of the word, a pleasant place. It is sacred.

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Now, I realize of course that if the Wendell Berry quote above is true, then Laity Lodge is just as sacred as the grass on your front lawn. As David Dark wrote, “There isn’t a secular molecule in the universe.” But isn’t it true that some places feel right, just as surely as other places feel wrong? I have been to desecrated places, and have sensed a brooding darkness without knowing why. I have, at times, had to speak aloud what I believe to be true about God’s presence in and around me in order to silence the voices of fear that clamored in my head—I have, in other words, been spooked. I have whistled in the dark. I don’t know how all this works. I only know that we’ve all probably been in houses that felt dark and disquieting, and by contrast there is a sense of peace that seeps out of the walls of some houses. I want my house to be a house of peace. I want people to sense God’s presence when they roll up our gravel driveway.

But how?

I think it’s a matter of dedicating to God the world within our reach. Jamie and I are blessed with two wonderful neighbors, Tommy and Becky. When they built their home, sweet Becky wrote scripture verses on every 2×4 she could find. You can’t see them anymore now that the house is finished, and of course they don’t work as charms or anything weird like that; Bible verses on the studs don’t do anything magical. Still, every sacred word that Becky wrote on every sacred plank of wood was a reminder to her that it was not her house, but God’s.

The Christian’s calling, in part, is to proclaim the Lord’s dominion in every corner of the world—in every corner of our hearts, too. It isn’t that we’re fighting a battle in which we must win ground from the forces of evil; the ground is already God’s. Satan is just an outlaw. And we have the pleasure of declaring God’s kingdom with love, service, and peace in our homes and communities. When you pray, dedicate your home, your yard, your bonus room and dishwasher and bicycle and garden to the Lord. As surely as you dedicate your heart to him, dedicate your front porch. Daily pledge every cell of every tool at your disposal to his good pleasure. It’s all sacred anyway, if old Wendell is right, and I think he is. I think that’s why Laity Lodge feels so peaceful.

I wonder if the Holy Spirit is rambling around in the temple of my heart, scribbling promises on every exposed bit of lumber, declaring my sacredness so that I will remember that I belong to him. And maybe when I’m old and I cross paths with some weary traveler, they’ll sense a rightness, a pleasantness of place, and will experience a peace that they cannot understand or explain.

Stop a moment and look around. This is our father’s kingdom.

We are sacred, you and I.

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Here’s a video of me and Ben Shive in the library at Laity Lodge, performing a song called “Planting Trees.” I wrote this song after hearing Eugene Peterson speak there—and after my sweet wife Jamie reminded me about the great calling on her life.