A Theology of Place.
Or, how a coffee shop can change who you are.
Initially written Sunday, Jan 5th.
An Average Day in the Life.
Today I got to Portland Brew around 2:30, and grabbed a mug of coffee. The front room has these huge windows, and I grabbed a seat facing them.
By the time I was half a mug deep, I had finished a few chapters of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile, and the orange glow of golden hour was just starting to show up on the buildings across the street.
By the bottom of the first mug, I moved on to journaling, and the light was just deepening, lighting up the face of the houses across the street.
Halfway through the second mug, I picked up one of my textbooks as the light coalesced into a band of orange across the very tops of the houses.
At the bottom of the second mug, my hands were a bit jittery typing this, and the buildings had darkened, backlit by a pink eastern horizon.
This is far from the first time I have watched the exact same sunset.
In August of 2018, I was starting a Master’s degree that was largely online, and I needed somewhere to work other than my house. I chose this random coffeeshop, and since then have spent an ungodly amount of time here.
Most of those hours were spent listening to music.
To this day, Mac Miller’s Swimming tastes like drip coffee.
If I hear anything off of Joji’s BALLADS 1, it is December of 2018 and I am depressed, walking through the freezing cold into Portland Brew with an armful of books.
Hannah Hunt by Vampire Weekend sounds like a spring day spent sitting on the porch and reading for fun.
Bon Iver’s RABi takes me back to the many times I have hid tears (of sorrow, of joy, of loss) in one of the corner seats here.
Just as much as this coffeeshop has fit my life into it,
the place exposes me to the lives of those sitting around me. I’ve seen regulars ordering the same thing for the millionth time, or first dates that go really well, or breakups over a cup of iced coffee.
I’ve glanced down a row of people, all sitting alone, to see every single one of them swiping through Tinder. People have both sealed business deals and lost jobs, all in the same small space.
Throughout these two years,
I’ve consistently found myself reading some thick textbook at my favorite table here, feeling maybe more than a little impressed at my ability to understand the book, but then looking up to see the people in Portland Brew, and wondering if any of what I’ve learned actually matters to them.
There’s good reason to ask these questions. It can seem like most of what one hears in a sermon is “believe in God, be a good person, and go to heaven when you die.” Hardly the kind of thing that matters that much when you’re on a first date in a coffee shop.
Throughout grad school, I’ve learned big concepts like non-foundationalist epistemologies or big words like inaugurated eschatology, but none of those things matter unless they touch down in the real places where real people live real lives. I think God has consistently used Portland Brew to remind me of that fact.
Today, I find myself thinking about place, and it’s role in the life of the people of God.
As a kid reading the Bible, I always mentally skipped the names of places, from Judah to Philistia, or Galilee to Corinth. It just never quite seemed important, in large part because I didn’t know any of those places.
While I may never visit them, Philistia, Judah, Galilee and Corinth all played host to the work of a God who is saving the world. They sit amongst the ranks of places like Jerusalem, Ramah, Bethel, Rome, or Nineveh, all of which are forever written into the exposition of God’s story.
Eugene Peterson makes the point that theology abstracted from place is always empty. Put another way, God’s work is inherently geographical. While I may skip the place names, you cannot tell the story of God’s work without mentioning where it actually happened.
When I tell the story of God bringing about wholeness in my own life,
I will have to mention the summer camp I grew up going to, Forest Home. I’ll talk about Lipscomb University’s campus, and the Flathead valley of northwestern Montana where I did a summer internship, and now, the house on Grandview Ave where I’ve lived for the past year and a half.
And then, Portland Brew. I have interacted with God in this one coffee shop maybe more than I have in any church building. That’s not necessarily even a knock on church; it’s just that I’ve spent so much freaking time here (although no church has drip coffee as good as this place).
God’s Place in Our World.
I find myself thinking that maybe good theology starts not with big words and even bigger concepts, but with place. Asking not “who is God?” or “what is God up to?”, but “what is God up to here?”
Good theology exists to lead the people of God to faithful action that leads to a good and flourishing life. We’re meant to tangibly participate in God’s mission of restoring the world to wholeness, and that always happens in place.
However, that theology can easily get lost in a theoretical realm, and I don’t blame people for not being interested when that happens.
Still though, I find myself convinced that God is up to something, and that something is happening in places ranging from Portland Brew to Jerusalem and back again. Seeing that work always starts by looking where we are.
At Portland Brew, I’m still looking through those big windows in the front room, and the sun is down. I can already tell my hands will freeze on the bike ride home, but I look forward to it. I’ll bike home, cook some dinner, and then get some sleep, all before coming back tomorrow.
I won’t pretend to fully understand it, but I just get the sense there’s something holy in that.