Keeping Place Book Discussion: Our Fellowship of Strangeness

Two weeks ago, I visited a local farmers market with a friend as part of my commitment to buying local from people I could actually talk to, visit, or maybe even call neighbors. I personally knew one of the vendors there; my friend knew another. As we walked around the market, I looked at signs for clues or asked directly, “Where are you from?” And in almost every case, it was a small town within 50 miles of where we were standing.

But there was a problem.

I went to the market expecting a small variety of late spring berries and vegetables: peas, lettuce, asparagus, green onions, strawberries. Since I’m from this part of the state and grew up with gardening parents, I know what’s in season. But when I saw piles of tomatoes, summer squash, broccoli, even green beans, I grew skeptical. Those are usually the bounty in mid- to late summer. “That’s pretty suspicious,” I whispered to my friend. “I don’t think they grew these themselves … at least not around here.” To me, bringing produce to the local farmers market that was grown elsewhere is a cardinal sin, entirely unforgivable, or at least unpurchasable.

But after inquiring about particular farming methods, I realized I had failed to account for modern techniques that were never part of our family garden. With heated greenhouses, plastic tunnels, and hydroponics, even central Indiana has an almost year-round growing season now. We can buy local and still eat juicy, ripe tomatoes and buttery corn on the cob in the middle of June.

With that mystery solved, we continued making our way around the market square, shopping bags bulging with all things local. Along the third side, we were met with an unexpected booth filled with exotic colors and fabrics, with tables full with food I had never tried. The Indian Association of Indianapolis assured passersby they weren’t selling anything but simply offering the opportunity to try some Indian dishes and learn more about the culture. We stopped, and I tried a delicious stew and something I think might have been made with curry. The people were wonderful, urging us to try everything.

As we walked away, I thought about the strange juxtaposition, that a foreign culture was being introduced and promoted in a setting where extreme localness was being celebrated, where someone like me questioned even the presence of tomatoes a few weeks too early. But then again, maybe it was the perfect place. Because though we’re experiencing a bit of a resurgence in the appreciation of particular places — an obvious pendulum swing after decades, generations even, of nomadism in our country — that appreciation too often resembles obsession when it takes the form of xenophobia, nationalism, even racism, both in the United States and around the world.

I hadn’t put it together until that trip to the farmers market that my obsession with buying locally raised honey and in season tomatoes could be contributing in some small way to the “us versus them” divisions that seem to grow wider by the minute.

In a recent On Being podcast, Enrique Martínez Celaya, Provost Professor of Humanities and Arts at the University of Southern California, talks about this chasm and how oversimplifications miss a crucial aspect to the way we connect with each other.

“I do feel that this is a moment in which the conversation has been narrowed to sort of create this sort of simplistic opposition between ‘locals’ and ‘the other.’ And I think that it’s more complicated than that. I mean I think one of the things that I’m most interested in is to find the strangeness in each of us,” Celaya said.

“The strangeness,” host Krista Tippett repeated.

“The strangeness,” Celaya said, “the sense of otherness in us. I mean I think that we all carry a burden of otherness, of not being a local, so to speak. And I think getting in touch with that will make this simplistic opposition disappear somewhat — or completely, if it we look at it closely enough.”

As I listened, I was reminded of Jen Pollock Michel’s book, Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home. It seems the innate desire to belong—to find and be at home—that we all carry around with us has led us to gather those closest to us and hunker inside of some imaginary protective barrier. When in fact, the ultimate call to home—to be safe and protected in the presence of God—actually makes us strangers in this world. And even more, we’ve been given a mandate to go to the other “others,” to invite them in, to do the work of housekeeping by playing host to those who are lost.

“If home is God’s welcome, then each of us must work to make sure everyone belongs. God has a home, and he is looking to share it. As the Psalmist describes him, he is ‘Father of the fatherless and protector of widows … God settles the solitary in a home’ (Ps. 68:5-6),” Michel writes.

This is the most difficult form of housekeeping to me: to make my home a place where others feel they belong. Sure I can throw a dinner party where visitors are impressed and grateful. I do a lot of running around, trying to make things perfect, and in the process making the people I’ve invited feel every bit the guest. But have I made room for them to stay, to become part of the family. Have I offered them a position of permanency?

Of course this is about more than refrigerator rights and a key to the front door. I’m actually talking about making room in my life … not just my house … where people feel at home. All people, even those very “other” from me. Too often I keep myself at arm’s length, or I pick and choose who comes—and definitely who stays.

Michel’s book has invited me to this part of housekeeping, as well. To the hard work of making a home for people of all kinds. This work has become odious in the world, and even in the church. But keeping house for others is as much about the “burdens of home” as the blessings, Michel writes. And “housekeeping—acts of service to God for the sake of the sinner—is still required if everyone is to find his way home.”

I’m going again to the farmers market this weekend, and though I’ll be looking for fruits and vegetables grown locally, I’ll be preparing them for a table where friends old and new, near and far will gather. And if I do my job right, even when the friends go home that evening, they’ll know they always have place here with us.


Discussion Questions for Your Consideration from chapters 6-11 of Keeping Place

1.) Can you give examples of occasions or seasons when the practice of love has felt like “intimate drudgery”?

2.) How can  your local church begin to take more seriously its call to the housekeeping of its neighborhood? What practices will be needed to overcome insularity?

3.) What friend, family member, neighbor, or colleague would be deeply consoled to know that there is a homemaking God who sent us his Son to rescue us, his homesick people?

4.) What do our experiences of displacement and despair teach us about home? How can grief be a surprising source of encouragement?


It’s been an honor to lead a book discussion of Jen Pollock Michel’s Keeping Place here on my blog during the month of June. Thanks for reading and thinking along with me. If you haven’t read the book yet, you can use this 30% off promo code (READKP) at ivpress.com.

I hope you’ve enjoyed thinking more about what home means. This isn’t just a book or a discussion for women. According to Jen, “The message of Keeping Place is bigger than gender roles and responsibilities. It’s about the human longings for and losses of home, the human labor and love that’s required for God’s people to ‘keep place’ in the world until Christ comes.”

*I received a free preview copy of Keeping Place from Intervarsity Press. Any comments or opinions about the book are mine.

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