The New Liturgist on Parish and Place

place[Guest Post: Len Hjalmarson, excerpted from Immerse Journal]

It was the spring of 1981, and I was living in the west end of Vancouver while attending Regent College. The trees were alive with light, and the rhododendrons were opening their buds. I was driving a bright orange, 1976 Honda Civic. It was aging, temperamental, starting to smoke a bit and the front shocks were frozen—time for a new car!

A friend was selling a 1973 Renault. I had never seen one before, and I was impressed by the handling. The car felt tight and responsive. I bought it and a whole new world opened up. When I first saw the Renault, I assumed it was a rare car. After my first few days of driving, I saw them everywhere. My seeing had changed overnight. Richard Rohr says, “The mind only takes pictures using the film with which it’s loaded.”1

Humans develop mental maps as orienting tools in a complex world. It isn’t only our attention “span” that is limited, it’s also our attention bandwidth. Mental maps are like lenses with which we see the world, and they vary in breadth and detail. With time and engagement and work, our lenses gradually expand and our scope increases.

Most of our mental maps are updated in small increments, like my experience with the new car. Other times our maps are upgraded wholesale, and we experience something like a conversion. In these cases, the entire map is rewritten and any landmarks that remain are reoriented.

In 2003, I had one of these conversion experiences. My wife began work that required her to make appointments all over our city, which meant, as a one-car family, my appointments either had to be local or required public transportation. So I began using my bicycle, and that’s when things changed. The speed and openness of a bicycle transformed my way of seeing the world. I discovered a richer texture to my neighborhood than I had noticed in a car, even as the boundaries of my neighborhood expanded. I began to notice rhythms and people I had not seen before. I was perceiving my neighborhood for the first time. This prompted a question. Why does the ordinary so easily become transparent?


In certain Greek traditions, the idea of a thing was more real than the ordinary thing itself. The Western church has been, and continues to be, heavily influenced by this dualistic spirituality.2  For a lot of us, this means we are formed in a church culture that privileges heavenly space and denigrates the earth (ordinary place).

Yet. Walter Brueggemann writes of the biblical view of land: “Land is a central, if not THE central theme of biblical faith. Biblical faith is a pursuit of historical belonging that includes a sense of destiny derived from such belonging . . . ”3  We are wired to belong somewhere. While some systems of thought are based upon speculation that our final destiny is purely spiritual, the biblical narratives have always affirmed a good creation, loved and upheld by God, and a movement in history from creation to new creation. The final destiny of humankind is to rule with God in a renewed physical world.

Holy is the dish and drain
The soap and sink, the cup and plate
And the warm wool socks, and the cold white tile

Showerheads and good dry towels
And frying eggs sound like psalms
With a bit of salt measured in my palm
It’s all a part of a sacrament
As holy as a day is spent . . . 4

One of the reasons for the postmodern resurgence of the arts is the rediscovery that earth and heaven belong together. God is active all around us, and artists are beginning to look for ways to lift the veil. Unfortunately, the church has been delayed in this thinking and, thus, has some catch up work to do.

An absence of good art is symptomatic of another problem: the absence of presence. Growing up, church culture mediated place identity for me. Considering that place was transparent in most theology and practice, I had no way of really seeing my neighborhood as a place God could dwell, and no way of engaging the call of God to place. The sacred could intersect with the concrete realities of my world, but that intersection was rare, or dramatic. The Church’s interaction with the world? Rarer still. Yet I have now come to believe that place has rich missional significance, and one way that we may become biblically grounded is through the recovery of parish.

In her book Christianity for the Rest of Us, Diana Butler Bass does a great job of describing the village church (parish). Historically, the practice of parish has meant that a local church served its community. The priest or pastor, and the core of people who called the parish home, were intimately connected in the life of the neighborhood. The parish was God’s house—with the church at the center—offering hospitality for pilgrims in a strange land.5

But the old way of parish that makes the concerns of the village its own concerns is far less common in the dualistic, insulated, and protective mode common to Western evangelical churches. Neither is parish recognizable in the church’s current mode of individual conversion, because the goal of parish is not only the conversion of individuals—though this is a good thing—but more so the transformation of the village.6

Locality constrains and enables and, as Eugene Peterson says, “All living is local: this land, this neighborhood, these trees and streets and houses, this work, these people.”7  Futhermore, all love is particular. We name this person and love them. We invest in this place, in this soil, and watch life grow.


In order to love well, we must slow down and see our local contexts. My bike riding forced me to do this. But we need other disciplines to draw us deeper and carry us over the long haul toward the prize. We need disciplines of resistance; prayer and solitude will slow our pace and reconnect us with the Center. We also need disciplines of engagement; justice and hospitality will push us beyond the ego toward the “other.” And we need disciplines of cultivation; practices of earth care and gardening will connect us with the land.

God calls us to a people and a place. His kingdom is both a rule and a realm. A recovery of place will be strengthened by a recovery of parish: an inclusive vision of God’s mission in a particular place that he loves—a place we love along with him.



[1] Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (Crossroad Books, 1999) 98.
[2] A detailed history of place is offered by Craig Bartholomew in Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011)
[3] Walter Brueggemann, The Land (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977) 3-4.
[4] Carrie Newcomer. “As Holy as a Day is Spent.” The Gathering of Spirits. Philo Records, 2002.
[5] Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006) 38.
[6] Jeremiah 29:7 fits better as a mandate for the village church. More needs to be said regarding the built environment, and in particular, the city as place. See Philip Sheldrake, Spaces for the Sacred (Baltimore, MA: John Hopkins University Press, 2001) 147-171.
[7] Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005) 47.

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