In early primary school I remember composing the beginnings of a poem in my head. It went:
I was born in Ballarat, some miles away from Melbourne,
People always said to me, “Oh my, you must be well-born.”
While I chose to prioritise rhyme and rhythm over truth (no-one has ever called me “well-born”, it shows that, from an early age, place was important to me. Growing up in southern Queensland, I was determinedly Victorian. It was very important to me that I was born in Ballarat, even though I moved when I was one year old and have no memories of living there. I would never now say that I am from Ballarat. That hardly seems true. But where am I from? Ballarat for my first year of life, early childhood and primary school in the Gold Coast Hinterland, secondary school in West Gippsland, then various parts of Melbourne for most of the twenty years since I finished school. I have never had a single place to call home.
This means that I have often found comfort in the biblical texts that speak of God’s people as pilgrims, exiles, sojourners. Having no deep sense of belonging to one place on earth, I can easily focus on the belonging I will have in the new creation when what a good friend of mine describes as my semi-nomadic life will finally find a home.
But spending the last few days in the town of my birth with my family I have been reflecting on the ways that place shapes us and how we can likewise shape place. An older town, one of Victoria’s oldest, Ballarat feels much more European than my home of Werribee, for instance. There’s an abundance of deciduous trees, a huge artificial lake at the centre, English architecture everywhere, and while it’s all incredibly lovely, I can see how the landscape was changed dramatically by European settlers during the gold rush of the late 19th century. To make this new foreign place feel like home the Europeans changed it indelibly, and in doing so had a lasting impact on how the traditional custodians, the Wathaurong or Waddawurung, could engage with their country.
This week is NAIDOC week in Australia, a week for celebrating Australia’s first nations people. The theme for this year’s celebrations is “healing country”. As I have reflected on this theme, it has struck me how the Bible’s vision of the new heavens and new earth is one of renewal and restoration not of replacement. And that renewal works on so many levels, reconciling those in enmity with one another, healing broken relationships, ending hostility between land and people, between animals. It also involves a restoration of home. The new Jerusalem is, I suspect, less about a literal political state than it is about God dwelling once more on earth with His people, their home and His dwelling restored.
If we believe this earth will not be replaced but renewed, then as kingdom people we should be working for that renewal now, as a sign of the kingdom that is coming. And that means, among other things, healing broken relationships within the land and healing also our relationships to the land.
Place matters to God. Land matters to God. Relationships matter to God. I want to live my life in a way that works towards healing in all these things.