Our three stories are alike in ways that may not be immediately obvious.
Having traveled the world, Dave and Jodi decided to do their staying in West Norwood, Ohio. It is not a landscape rich with color and beauty, nor a destination for those seeking the inspiration of the Muse. But Dave and Jodi have left their shoes at West Norwood’s front door and hung their coats, answering the call of Jesus to do a life’s work of re-imagining this place.
Having put himself through law school and landing a job that was sure to go places, Dan MacDonald would hear and answer a call from Jesus into the ministry. I don’t know his story well – only what he has shared in the small bits and pieces from the pulpit. But Dan, too, did a giving up for Jesus. His life as a pastor would mean of course less money, but also less social and cultural currency which which to build his life’s identity.
The faith and courage of Dave and Jodi and Dan have not necessarily been mine, but it has also been my experience to hear Jesus lead into places of greater invisibility and surrender. Being a mother has landed me in my own West Norwood of sorts: in years past, with five young children underfoot, I would spend many days, one after the other, inside the four walls of my home. And when it has ever the occasion to fill out a form and identify my life’s work, I will either check the box, “other” or “unemployed.”
I ran across a description of ascetic life in Kathleen Norris’s book, Dakota, which helped me see what each of these three stories shared in common, Dave and Jodi in West Norwood, Dan in the ministry, me as a mother. Norris describes in this particular section what landing herself in western South Dakota has meant for her life as a writer.
“The grim surroundings used to overwhelm me, and it was only when I began to apply what I had learned from the fourth-century desert monks I was reading that I found I could flourish there. . . I had stumbled upon a basic truth of asceticism: that is it not necessarily a denigration of the body, though it has often been misapplied for that purpose. Rather, it is a way of surrendering to reduced circumstances in a manner that enhances the whole person. It is a radical way of knowing exactly who, what and where you are, in defiance of those powerful forces in society – alcohol, drugs, television, shopping malls, motels – that aim to make us forget. . . A healthy ascetic discipline asks you to rejoice in these gifts of deprivation, to learn from them, and to care less for amenities than for that which refreshes from a deeper source. Desert wisdom allows you to be at home, wherever you are.”
When God asks us to give something up, this is good and necessary. Henri Nouwen refers to this process of relinquishing as God tearing down our “scaffolding.” We all seem hell-bent on making our lives depend on certain markers of identity: we depend on these to make our life meaningful, even admirable to others. And God will work, in His patient mercy and grace, to remove these false gods. I admit that even here, in this small corner of the web, I fight this same urgency to be something, to say something, and in some way, to find that I am at last, meaningful and useful. I confess this walking to school yesterday afternoon, admitting that I often want God less for Himself and more for the ways I can make Him useful in my own purposes.
The desert, West Norwood, pastoral ministry, motherhood. For all the ways they lead us out of our self-importance, they are the Jesus landscapes. And it’s here, we finally come home.