It’s moving day.
My husband Jonathan and I had been wandering the not-quite wilderness of hipster domain in Charlotte for about four years while starting our church when we realized that a mid-century ranch house, while trendy and well-suited to vintage furniture, did not suit his 6’5″ frame. Our next home choice was not clear. We were either moving further into the city, simplifying life in a townhouse, or further out into a writing retreat. We were evenly split, and so began a now five month transition involving renting a condo uptown month by month until we could figure out what to do.
Thankfully, we realized after only 48 hours on the twenty-sixth floor of the high rise building that this was not us. The view was amazing. The walk to restaurants and basketball games could be addictive. But anything you have easy access to becomes overfamiliar almost immediately. And in the city, you have access to everything, especially people. So people stop seeing each other. People are no longer special and holy. Just people. People walking dogs. People working out. People on the elevator, silently looking at their smartphones even though no one has a signal. People in the garage, leaving nasty notes about how life will be easier for everyone if you can park straight. People in the room next door, so used to movement they don’t even note your novelty when they stick their head out to tell you to stop slamming the door as you move in.
Almost simultaneously, we found a house – our DREAM house – in the neighboring town of Gastonia, NC.
When I say dream house, let me clarify: 1990, a middle-aged couple decided to go to Salem, MA, buy an 1809 Federal home scheduled for demolition, bring the major architectural components back to NC, and build a NEW house using the original 1809 floorboards, stairwells, windows, trim, brick hearths, granite steps, doors, and hardware. In 1993 after three years of customization, the house looked exactly like a New England Colonial. (Who does that?) It had all the character the sterile landscape of urbania lacked.
The one problem: it was in Gastonia, a town my husband has affectionately nick-named the armpit of America.
Okay, he doesn’t REALLY feel that way. But it does make for good “preaching” as he would say. Our first ministry positions were as youth pastors in Gastonia to a little church called Linwood. Our ministry time there holds such amazing memories to me, some of my favorite in our marriage. We were naive and optimistic. The people were sincere, passionate, and hard-working. It was no more or less complicated than community Church life anywhere, but the challenges – and people – were more interesting. But Gastonia is a town overshadowed with poverty and haunted by the dominating and degrading culture of textile mill life. For much of the past 150 years, the people in this area of the piedmont were actively discouraged from pursuing education beyond what was needed to either farm or run their machine for the boss-man. And while Pentecost in particular thrives among such impoverished and downtrodden people, the dehumanizing conditions of such an environment make for a depressed culture. Like so many small towns of the South, Gastonia came to be a place of poverty in all forms. Racism thrived right along with Sun-Drop. And “redneck,” a term coined in insult, became embraced with ownership and distinction in an inheritance of the spirit of poverty.
So for two urban pioneers who have “moved on up,” there’s a little question lingering about our ability to adjust easily. It doesn’t help when I tell my friends about the house and after gushing they ask, “Where is it?” “Gastonia,” I say with a rushed explanation of equidistance from church and airport. Reactions range somewhere between ecstasy (we’ll be closer to them) and incredulity (‘What good can come from Nazareth?’). Even with the transformations taking place as a bedroom community of Charlotte, Jonathan and I wonder what life is going to be like moving back to Gastonia after six years in the hipster-haven of Plaza-Midwood. (Personally, I’m eager for a break from cool culture as a whole. I’m not really a food, wine, or clothing snob, but I am an entertainment, book, bakery, and culture snob, which really just means I’m luke-warm.)
But in this in-between place, as we’ve briefly tasted uptown life, I know one thing for certain: Christ is found in the low places, not the high ones- intellectually, materially, or physically. In fact, hardly any word combinations involving “high” that I can think have positive spiritual connotations:
high on the hog
As I sat looking out at the skyline this morning from “such great heights,” I read about God finding David alone among the sheep. And about Cuthbert, the shepherd orphan who found God looking up at the stars. We can’t even see the stars at night from downtown (or UPTOWN as the city officials have designated it, which reinforces the point nicely, doesn’t it?). If the magi had lived in a modern city, they would have missed the news of Christ’s birth completely. Who needs the stars when you have fluorescent lights in skyscraper windows?
I stared out at the Bank of America tower. How vulnerable it is, so tall and thin. Many times when I’ve passed it, I felt I could hear the very rocks crushed into the concrete structure crying out in terror. If rocks can praise, I guess they could be afraid of heights, too, right? In New York last week, some friends told us about the massive flight of families from NYC after 911. If the tallest towers in New York could be taken down by a handful of humans, I guess nothing felt safe. The appeal of “highness” is so great. I know nothing about survival skills or military strategy, but I know that if you can’t do anything else, get to the highest place. The top of the mountain is a universal archetype for spiritual transcendence. At our deepest place of longing, we yearn for “the heights.” It’s just so easy to confuse material reality and spiritual reality, the self-propelled heights for the Spirit-propelled.
Especially in ministry, where the integrity of everything is measured in “higher”: higher numbers, bigger name connections, flashier buildings, more “transcendent” spiritual manifestations.
In the dark one’s last temptation of Christ in the wilderness, he takes him to the top of the tabernacle, the “pinnacle.”
“If you are the Son of God,” he says, “throw Yourself down from here; for it is written, ‘He will command His angels concerning You to guard you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, So that You will not strike Your foot against a stone.’” Jesus replies, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”(Luke 4:9-11 NAS)
I’m sure there are fantastic commentaries on what this temptation really means, but as I read it this morning I am struck by one reality: not even Jesus was willing to defy the laws of gravity and spirituality. Even He understood the danger of climbing too high too fast. He walked on water. He certainly could have thrown himself down. But it wasn’t God who had taken him to the pinnacle. And it wasn’t for God’s glory that such a temptation was being issued; it was for Jesus to prove something. When Jesus would finally be lifted up into the heights, no angels “heard on high” would be sweeping down to rescue him. It would look like death, not domination.
The heights are dizzying, dangerous places. The view can be intoxicating. And those heights can appear anywhere. I’ve had friends on the mission field who were higher than I have ever been in UP-town Charlotte. These would likely be the same people who would read this post and say a move into a house you like in the first world is not a descent at all. And I wouldn’t disagree. In fact, I struggle with a lot of self-consciousness about such a move. Given our tendency to exact high-standards on ourselves and others, it is well past time for us all to come down. But the only place I can hear the song of God over the weekend marching band, the only way I see the stars proclaiming his authority over the fluorescent glare, is in obscurity. And from the 26th floor, I have a long, long way down.
So to my hipster and urbanite friends, come down and see me sometime. If not, I’ll drink a Sun-Drop for you.