Rooted in love and breaking down boxes

Breaking down the moving boxes was the hardest part. For three years, I’d kept them intact. Why bother breaking them down when in a few months I’d have to build them up again? But a year and a few days ago, I slid a pocket knife through the packing tape between the cardboard flaps, folded up the boxes, and took them to the recycling bin behind my apartment. I would not need them for twelve whole months, which at the time felt like an eternity.

Then, head spinning from the changes of the past few years and looking ahead to years that would be marginally more stable at best, I sat down and wrote about being rooted in love. I needed to hear it as much as I hoped someone else did. On this earth, we are exiles (1 Peter 2:11), seeking a city that is to come (Hebrews 11:13-16), and an exile is a lonely thing to be if you have nowhere to put down roots. There is immense comfort in being rooted in love rather than in a zip code. 

That still leaves the question, though, of what our rootedness means for our zip codes. Four years ago, at the start of college, I did not want to make any place home. If I care for other people here, if I make a routine and find a favorite park and go out for coffee and start wearing paths in the carpet, isn’t that putting down roots? Isn’t that making a home? What kind of exile does that make me? So I didn’t become a member of my college church, and I held onto my moving boxes. For a long time, it meant nothing for my zip code that I was rooted in love. 

And that is where this sequel of sorts picks up—because a year ago I broke down those boxes, and then for twelve months I looked out of the same window at the same trees rooted in the same yard and watched them grow. When they put down roots, they don’t curl in on themselves. They stretch toward the sun and shoot out green leaves and unfurl flowers. What is rooted in love does the same thing: it does not curl in on itself. Instead, it grows, bearing the fruit of love. To be rooted in love as an elect exile has the odd and almost counterintuitive effect of freeing you to love the very places and people where and in whom you are not rooted. 

When the Israelites were exiled to Babylon for their idolatry, God did not tell them to forget Jerusalem and make Babylon their home, but He also told them to seek the welfare of the city in which he sent them into exile (Jeremiah 29:1-11). As exiles today, we live in a similar tension. Against the backdrop of our yearning for a heavenly city are the people and places where we find ourselves right now. To be rooted in love is not a reason to wall ourselves off from those people and places, but to seek their welfare. 

From our roots we draw the strength to comprehend the love of Christ and to be filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:18-19), and this enables us “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called…bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:1-2). When we are at home in love, we reach out and love the people and places that God created. We make a place, a shelter for weary travelers and fellow exiles. We join a church and have people over for lunch and learn the name of the homeless woman on the street corner and make small talk with the barista at the coffee shop down the block. We are generous with all we have been given (1 John 3:16-18) and live in humility, gentleness, and unity (Ephesians 4:1-3). None of these actions are done in isolation. All of them involve making a temporary home.

Our greatest example of this is Christ, who teaches us how to love one another: “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing…This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:5b, 12). Christ gave Himself for us. He obeyed His father’s commandments and loved His people. And, in a way, He made Himself at home. He healed the sick and broke bread with his disciples and washed their feet and let Thomas put his hands in His side. He got to know Peter’s mother-in-law and asked John to take care of His mother. He never called this world His home, but He came and loved it anyway. 

To stick around and love like this is not always easy. Last month, a few friends and I read Christie Purifoy’s book Placemaker. At first glance, it is a book about trees, but when you read closely it is a book about the trees in different places, and when you read more closely still, it is a book about putting down roots and calling somewhere home. So naturally, it is a book that made me cry, especially at the end when she talks about remaining. “Remaining is not such an easy thing to do,” she writes. “To remain requires a stillness and a steadfastness in spite of the many things that will make us want to pick up and run” (p. 214).

That hits home. It is easier sometimes to leave than to love before we even know what we’re leaving. We know that some of the places we go will be hard and hurting places, and some of the people that we meet will wound us without repentance. We can protect ourselves from the possibility of all that hurt by curling in on ourselves, refusing to love in case it turns out wrong. But if we are rooted in love we are growing in love, and growing in love does not mean that we count down the days till death and wait for it all to burn, refusing to seek the welfare of this city. Instead, our roots in love free us to love the people and places around us. Our future is not in their hands, and we can love without fearing a lack of love in return. Neither their reaction nor our ability determines our identity, so we can open our hearts and hands. We are free to bear the image of Love and love His image-bearers. And we are free to break down the cardboard boxes, unpack their contents, and look forward to the heavenly city even while we call the space within our walls a shelter, an exiles’ inn, an almost-home.

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