We all want to know where we stand. It is an ancient human need. Our souls are bound to our bodies and the spiritual realities are wrapped up in the temporal, physical ones. We feel both the hints of eternity and the ache of death in our bones. And so we are driven to anchor ourselves to something solid. We have names. Our first name describes us. Our last name links us to our family and the generations that lead the way like a long afternoon shadow, the setting sun at our back. We have an address where correspondence can find us in cities or towns with postal codes. The concentric circles of county, state, nation and continent build from the center where we eat and sleep and grow. A social security number verifies that we exist in the system. A phone number, uniquely ours, allows others to find us and give us information. There is a certificate of birth, placing our arrival specifically (day, hour, and minute) in the continuum of time- that significant day each year celebrated, giving numerical value to the breaths we take. We want to know where we are.
My son was born in Ethiopia on an unknown day about three years ago. His adoption precipitated the printing of a birth certificate. A birthday was assigned based on his height and weight and the number of teeth he had. If he was going to become American, his birth, significant already in the eyes of God and his family, would need the augmentation of date and time.
The power of place and our hunger for it was reaffirmed the other day when Moses brought me the globe. I had been riding the stationary bike in the playroom while he contentedly exercised his imagination building a train track. He spotted the globe, tipped on its side behind a chair, forsaken in the haste of a different day. He brought it to me. “Show my ‘opia,’” he asked.
“O.k. First we have to find the continent of Africa,” I said in my teacher voice, looking to assess his level of interest. “Africa is a continent made up of all these countries here. Can you see the shape it makes? Once you find Africa, you can look for Ethiopia on this side. See how it is right inside Somalia’s sharp elbow over here? Ethiopia is pink on this globe, so you can find Africa, look for the pointy elbow and the pink one.”
He was captivated, tenderly hugging the globe to his side, keeping a finger on Ethiopia as he found a spot on the carpet to sit and inspect. He sat there a long time, spinning the globe and letting his finger drag across its latitude. In the process he misplaced Ethiopia and asked again. From across the room I coached him back to the place he was looking for. Once again satisfied, he returned his attention to mapping.
And I returned to riding the bike, the prayer I had been praying abandoned for a prayer of place. I asked God to give my son deep roots, here and there. Asked that he would feel his home deeply in his heart and carry the contentedness of place within his chest. I asked also that my son would himself know God and the rich reality of a heavenly home, the promise of which would anchor him in moments when he, like all men, feels alien on this soil.
“The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.” Isaiah 40:8