“Be still, and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46.10 KJV)
After my girlfriend and I finished up our formal education (we thought), we were invited to be the pastor and pastor’s wife of a little church in southwest Arkansas. We had been living in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area, a land of cloverleafs and megamalls. In that vast metroplex, we learned the art of navigating six lanes of traffic: put on your blinker, pray, and merge. And whenever we needed a Blockbuster or a Barnes & Noble or a Coldstone, all we had to do was turn around.
Then God prompted us to do an inverse Beverly Hillbillies thing; we packed up the truck and moved to Stephens, Arkansas - population 1000. There was one flashing red light in the center of town, one supermarket that closed each evening at 7pm, and if your wife was taking an abnormally long time to pick out a video (VHS) in the town’s one rental shop, you could walk about three feet to the back of the same store and lay on the tanning bed while she made up her mind. No Dorothy, we weren’t in Kansas anymore.
The strange people of this little pocket of timberland gave us a grand welcome. In the first week, we experienced something that would become all-to-real to us; well, it became that over time. One morning while we were unpacking boxes, the phone rang and the conversation went something like this:
THEM: Well heeeyyyy! How ya’ll doin? You got everything you need?
ME: Well, ahem...heeeyyy to you too. We’re doing fine. No, I can’t think of anything we need.
THEM: Well, we just wanted to welcome ya’ll and tell ya’ to be sure and call if ya’ll need anything. And we mean anything!
ME: Thanks so much. We’ll be sure to do that.
THEM: We’re soooo glad to have a new preacher. Bye!
ME: Thanks again. Good-bye.
I put the receiver back on the base and turned around to face my naturally curious First Baptist pastor’s wife.
“John, who was that on the phone?”
“I have no earthly idea.”
“Whaddaya mean? You don’t know who it was? Didn’t they identify themselves?”
“No, honey. I really think they assumed I knew who it was. They said to call if we needed anything.”
“So what’s their phone number?”
“They didn’t say.”
At this point I realized that I was not sounding like the newly hired, competent preacher of the First Baptist church but rather a recently discovered Cro-Magnon man who would be showcased on weekends at the local fair. But in about an hour, the same “Heeyyy, how ‘ya doin’?” happened to her. And when she hung up the phone, she had a very Cro-Magnon woman look on her face.
I just smiled, grunted and said, “Me go outside make fire.”
We decided to stick around and see what happened. Fortunately, due to the infinitely tender hand of God, in the weeks, months and years to follow, we learned the dance. We began to eat the greens from their gardens and the cornbread from their kitchens. We would spend half hours talking with them at the post office each morning. We wept and held their hands as we buried their mothers and fathers. We sat and prayed with them as pacemakers and bypasses were installed; we counseled their sons and daughters for marriage; we picked up their kids for Vacation Bible School; we slowed down for their dogs and cats in the middle of the road; we rejoiced in their newborns regardless of parentage; and we sat on their porches and drank coal black coffee and walked away with bags of shelled pecans and windowsill-ripened tomatoes. We shopped at the supermarket until 7pm with them, we rented videos alongside them, and broke down one summer and even got tan with them.
And then one day the phone rang and the voice on the other end said, “Heeyyy, how ya’ doin’?”
And I said, “Hey, Thomas, I’m great. How are you?”
And soon after that the phone rang and the voice said, “Heeyyy, how ya’ doin’?”
My girlfriend said, “Hey, Shelda. We’re fine. How’s your mom feeling? She didn’t look so good this morning at the post office.”
And we realized that we’d been given a gift, the art of dancing in place. God wants to love us. And He’s probably going to do that in and through a particular place and people. And for that to happen, you’ve got to hang around for just a bit.
We live in a wireless society. No one needs to be tied down or stay put. Being mobile, on the move, and on the run seem to be an unholy trinity we now worship. And we wonder why we don’t feel more love, more fulfillment, more significance, feel more...and you feel in the blank. Maybe, just maybe, it’s because we don’t stay put long enough to be loved by someone, filled by something, and significant to some place. And although it surely crosses cultures, it feels specific to America.
My nation’s history does not encourage me, or anyone, to belong somewhere with a full heart. A vagabond wind has been blowing here for a long while, and it grows stronger by the hour. I feel the force of it, and brace my legs to keep from staggering. My father left his native Mississippi at age twenty and spent the rest of his years on the move, following the grain of marriage and money and jobs. He kept tasting the dirt in each new place because, after childhood, he never again had a settled home, never lived anywhere with the intention of staying.
-Scott Russell Sanders, Staying Put
To belong somewhere with a full heart. What a redolent phrase. It almost sounds biblical. I looked up the word “stay” in my friendly neighborhood concordance. Other words in the same family include - remain, abide, endure, live, dwell, and belong. I was surprised to find quite a few references (italics mine):
GOD appeared to him and said, “Don’t go down to Egypt; stay where I tell you. Stay here in this land and I’ll be with you and bless you.” Genesis 26.2-3.
Ten days later GOD’s Message came to Jeremiah. He called together Johanan son of Kareah and all the army officers with him, including all the people, regardless of how much clout they had. He then spoke: “This is the Message from GOD, the God of Israel, to whom you sent me to present your prayer. He says, ‘If you are ready to stick it out in this land, I will build you up and not drag you down, I will plant you and not pull you up like a weed...” Jer. 42.7-10.
Then Jesus went with them to a garden called Gethsemane and told his disciples, “Stay here while I go over there and pray.” Taking along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he plunged into agonizing sorrow. Then he said, “This sorrow is crushing my life out. Stay here and keep vigil with me.” Matthew 26.36-38.
As they met and ate meals together, he told them that they were on no account to leave Jerusalem but “must wait for what the Father promised: the promise you heard from me. John baptized in water; you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit. And soon.” Acts 1.4-5.
Good things come to those who wait, not forever necessarily, but “for a bit.” And did you hear that the staying had specificity to it? in this land; the garden of Gethsemane; with me. For many of us blown so long by the vagabond winds, this could mean the ground beneath our feet, if we’d just open our eyes.