Although I never met him and he died nearly forty years ago, I thought of Hal Borland this morning. The last few chapters of the Biblical book of Joshua are concerned with laying out the geographical boundaries for the eleven tribes of Israel. As ministers to the spiritual needs of the people, the tribe of Levi received no physical inheritance, so after having been pilgrims in the wilderness for forty years, the land was invaded and divided between the remaining eleven tribes.
Laying aside the ethical issues surrounding what today would undoubtedly be termed the genocide of the previous inhabitants, there remains for us mobile and transitory Americans the question of why possession of the land was so important. We increasingly live in multiple locations over a lifetime in buildings we don't own and communities to which we have but fleeting attachments. The idea of sending down roots seems archaic and antiquated.
In my profession, I am the anachronism, that rare creature who was planted in a small community some thirty six years ago and stayed put, albeit in three different houses. When I began preaching back in 1970, it was common for Methodist pastors to move to a new church every three or four years. The system was our version of advancement and punishment. If you were good, you could expect to be moved to a larger and more prestigious church; if you were capable and well connected, even to the status of District Superintendent. Incompetence was rewarded by lateral transfer at best, or banishment to some backwater outpost where you could do the least damage. Rarely was someone drummed out of the business. Methodists were itinerant; we moved. We didn't have the luxury of attachment to people or places. Perhaps we were harbingers of the twentieth-century American mobile lifestyle.
Which brings me back to Joshua. And Hal Borland. And the land.
Borland was a New York Times journalist born and raised in Kansas and Colorado who made the decision to move to rural Connecticut back in the '50's. He wrote books and articles on rural life, twenty of which from 1963 to 1968 were quarterly reflections on life itself gathered into a little book entitled "Homeland." Time slows down in the country he knew back then; today country life has succumbed to the paces of our urbanized society and the demands of instant and continual connectivity via electronic media. The world he was able to choose nearly forty years ago has nearly vanished from North America.
In one of his essays, Borland reflects on having gone out one morning in the autumn to walk the lines of his hundred or so acres of field and woodland. As a countryman, he knew his property lines well, and occasionally walked them to make sure the markers were still there and all was well. His observation however, was somewhat different from what we might have expected. He didn't speak of his ownership of the property, although as a bona fide taxpayer, he was entitled to do so. Instead, he said that walking the lines gave a man a sense of belonging. It was here, on the land that he knew his place. It was home; where he belonged.
In our modern transience, we've all but forgotten this. We live in a building, but even if we own it, have no sense of belonging. Even our property is little more than a commodity, something to be bought and sold, bartered away for whatever tickles our fancy at the moment. When my mother in law passed away five years ago, the daughters had to decide what to do with the house and land. It wasn't an easy decision. Finally, the land was divided among several grandchildren and the house sold. In some ways, it still feels as if we have fragmented our souls.
For ancient Israel, the land was their security, where they were grounded, where they were home. Along with their faith, it helped tell them who they were. The Babylonian captivity not only uprooted them from their homeland, it deprived them of their identity. And for nearly 2,000 years following the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, they longed for that identity to be restored. Land is land; there is nothing particularly significant in this piece of real estate, except that it tells them who they are.
We live behind a grove of towering firs on 2 1/2 acres of lawn, surrounded by steep hillsides and a creek. I wish we had more land. I feel somewhat constricted. But this small homestead is defining me. It doesn't really belong to me, and someday when I'm gone, my mortal remains will be planted on the hillside overlooking our house. Because no matter where I travel, this is where I belong.