A Tended Place

On cultivating peace

Twice I have leaned against the split-rail fence that circles our few acres while a man from another country told me our place “reminded him of home.”

One of those men was from Mexico. The other was remembering Vietnam. Such different countries, such varied cultures, but both men became a little dreamy-eyed as they told me ours was a peaceful place.

Twice I have leaned against our split-rail fence while a man from another country told me our place “reminded him of home.”

This farmhouse is not a standard home. Built at a time when just about everything was handmade, the house was uniquely shaped by the gentle hill on which it rests, the materials available, and the particular desires of one Pennsylvania Quaker who first dreamed of his family living on this land. The house is fashioned of stone from the fields, wood from nearby forests, and, finally, red bricks from the brickworks that used to bustle with activity in the village down the road.

While the farmer who first lived here raised Guernsey cattle, we merely keep a garden and a few chickens and ducks. And though I would not call this a cookie-cutter place, I would say, with affection, that it is common. Red bricks, wood, and window glass. Many homes are made of the same. Some of our visitors here have eyes for what is unique. They marvel at the size of the maple trees lining the long driveway. They cry, “What is that smell?” when the scent of manure from the neighboring mushroom farms drifts in on the breeze. But some of our visitors seem to notice only what is common. The bricks, the soil, the chickens clucking in the bushes—perhaps even the smell?—these things speak to them of a shared idea of home, a home that is “common” to us all. This shared home can’t necessarily be found on a map, but somewhere in the geography of the heart.

 

Before my conversations with those two men, I would not have guessed we had much in common. Their countries of origin, the cadence of their voices, the color of their skin—all of these things marked us out as different from one another. I struggled to see past superficial differences, but their loving responses to a place I also loved proved revelatory. For a moment, I saw perhaps more in the way God does and remembered that “man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

Their countries of origin, the cadence of their voices, the color of their skin—all of these things marked us out as different from one another.

I know the biblical injunction to welcome strangers. I feel the fault lines in our communities and even our churches that keep us separated from those who dress differently, worship differently, work differently, speak different languages, or live in different parts of town. On most days, these fault lines feel far too wide and jagged for me to cross.

Yet those men remind me of the power in a well-tended place and how even the earthiest, most grounded pursuits can be a means of welcome. If peace between people feels impossible to make, perhaps we can begin by making a place where peace can dwell—and then trust God to guide those in need of rest to our doors.

Around here, the efforts of early American Quakers to end slavery and heal the nation’s racial divide are marked in roadside placards, documents at the local library, and even living memory. A friend born in this community more than 80 years ago once took me on a car tour. Though I had offered to do the driving, she handled her vehicle with ease while pointing out the various old houses with hidden staircases and concealed trapdoors. With each story my admiration grew: Could there be a more radical welcome than building a secret room for a desperate stranger?

 

The marks left by abolitionism on local architecture are singular and uncommon, yet those men who said ours was a peaceful place remind me that even the common qualities of home can be powerful. Tending a house or a garden is often solitary work, but it is far from selfish. We wash the dishes in order to prepare another meal for our family or friends. We sprinkle sand on the front steps so the mail carrier won’t slip in the next winter storm. We mow the grass so our children can play tag with the kids who live next door. If you are my father, you plant a fruit tree at the homes of your children so grandchildren in four different states can sticky their hands with peaches and taste their grandfather’s love. There might be as many creative ways to tend our places with others in mind as there are crisscrossing lines on a globe.

If peace is a state of harmony, if it is a kind of wholeness or completeness, then peaceful places are spacious places where our whole selves can abide. They are places with room enough for our joys and our sorrows, room enough for our neighbors and all those in need of comfort and rest. But how does one cultivate such a place?

 

I’m afraid that too often we endow the notion of peace with an unattainable aura. It’s the stuff of Nobel Prizes. It is the work of great men and women. It might require complicated treaties. Or, if not those things, it isn’t of our making, instead raining down from heaven, like grace. But I am beginning to see peace as a common thing. Of course, by common, I mean shared. I mean that because of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, peace belongs to us, and it bridges every gap—those that exist between ourselves and creation, between ourselves and other people, and between ourselves and our Maker.

Too often I fixate on the divisions that separate us from one another.

Peace is never solitary. It bridges the divides caused by sin. It is the gift of the Prince of Peace, in whom “all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). Too often I fixate on the divisions that separate us from one another. I observe the strangers on the other side of town, the strangers on the other side of a border, the strangers on the other side of some debate, and I believe that such divisions require elaborate solutions, if they can even be solved at all. I feel inadequate, sure that I do not possess the brilliance to build bridges. And, truthfully, I do not. But the ultimate Bridge-Builder, the ultimate and final Peacemaker, lives in me.

I have come to believe that I am not meant to worry over divisions that seem insurmountable. The Prince of Peace has already made a way, and I know others in His church have been gifted to make Christ’s bridges visible in the world. But where will these bridges take us? I hope they take us to some well-loved place. I hope they carry us to well-tended homes with open doors and tables set with extra chairs. I hope they bring us to peaceful gardens infused with the distinctive personalities of their makers. I pray that more of us can cross bridges in order to gather in local schools made beautiful by volunteers, community gardens that have transformed empty lots, and churches where praises are sung in many languages and sunlight sparkles through glass.

 

Our differences are real and can feel insurmountable, but the language of the earth’s places is more universal. It is a language we all know, its grammar centered on warmth and shelter, beauty and sustenance. Homemaking is more than a gift we offer our immediate family—more than a nice way to pass the time. Our own Lord spent more years in carpentry than in public ministry. Why shouldn’t our own lives reflect the significance of making, tending, and cultivating? With hammers and saws, shovels and brooms, we can reap a harvest of peace.

Tending places with others in mind might mean digging more deeply into the ground beneath our feet. It might require opening our door or tearing down a fence. It might mean packing our bags and moving, perhaps in the direction of places we’ve long seen as undesirable or unsafe. Though it can look like a thousand different scenarios in countless unique places, placemaking is peacemaking. It is the holy pursuit of common ground.

 

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What happens to my notes

7 But the LORD said to Samuel, Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart."

17 He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.

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