The Ache of a Place

The bland Hebrew word is maqom–place. A man on the run named Jacob–running because he treated his family like dirt and so was getting out of Dodge–encountered God “in a certain maqom” (Genesis 28. 10-22). It was in this place, unnamed because it was seemingly insignificant, that Jacob dreams a world-changing dream in which he sees a stairway to heaven (yep, that one), and realizes God was with him, a wretched wreck of a man, a deceiver hoping to get away not only from his past but also from himself, a futile, often-embarked-on journey to be sure. Jacob dreams his dream in this “place,” putting his head on a stone “of that place” in order to sleep “in that place,” and, after he hears the voice of God, says, “Surely the Lord is in this place” and “How awesome is this place” and then takes the stone “of that place” and sets it up as a monument. Place place place place place place place. Elementary teachers (yay for you this week!) would have a red pencil field day with this dictionally-challenged author’s monomaniacal overuse of this bland little word.

And yet. There’s something about that word because there is something about place. You know this if you read Wendell Berry, which I certainly hope you do. Berry’s religion, such as it is, is about place, best exposited in his Port William novels (start with Jayber Crow and then just keep reading, binging like you did with Stranger Things but with a decidedly more salubrious effect). You also know this if you are human, which I certainly hope you are. Because we humans are always breathing, and talking, and buying, and swiping, and loving, and sleeping, and sweating, and eating, and living “in a certain place.”

Every certain place has a certain ache to it. One week from today I am leaving a place I love, perhaps even the place I love the most. This place is called Boulder, Colorado, and oh, what a certain place it is. The ache of this place is throbbing in my gut right now, toothache-esque, because of my immanent departure. Because I moved to this place when I was five, and left this place when I was 18, and came back to this place two years later, and met my wife in this place, and we lived in our first apartment in this place, and we moved back six years ago after being gone for eleven thinking if we had a place for life surely it was this one, this place, this certain place. Place place place place place place place. And now we are leaving, because, well, we have had a dream (no stairway, denied! but assurance, indeed) about a church that happens to be in another place, but, oh, Lord, the ache in my gut right now. Every nook and cranny of this town–these roads, these hills, these neighborhoods, these stores and restaurants–is crammed with memories, a veritable palimpsest of reminiscence, thirty-six years in the making.

This is to be expected, because I’m a sensy, weepy person. But this ache is more than emotion and nostalgia. It’s the ache of the place, an ache I’ve lived in and so has come to live in me. This ache is what makes places and lands “holy.” A place, like a person, becomes holy because of a history of accumulated events and experiences, good and bad. And although people in Fort Collins and Denver might deny it, Boulder is a holy place. Because it’s a certain place, and a certain people live here, and I have loved these people both en masse and en particular. These people are tied to this place, this maqom, and I have encountered the God of Jacob here, in this place, not least, I think, because I have loved these certain people of this certain place, and have been loved by them. I’m thinking about this as a pastor (for pastors are like shepherds who must think not only of sheep but also of topography, for the welfare of the former rides on their knowledge of the latter), but the implications of what I’m talking about extend well beyond the boundaries my vocation. To wit: does anyone ever fall in love not in a certain place? I’m pretty sure I could have fallen for my wife Heather just about anywhere, but I actually fell in love with her here, in Boulder, at that ice cream shop, and on that trail, and then unsuavely putting my arm around her on those rocks at that overlook on that windy night in this place.

Ahhrg. I’m rambling. Aching souls lack precision. I’ll end with this: what I’m rambling about can be learned with Jesus. For he, the fullness of God enfleshed in time, did not go on a world tour, and the incarnation in first century Palestine was not followed up by another in thirteenth century Wales and another in twentieth century Québec. One shot, one time, on place. What is more, although Jesus was itinerate, he itinerated in a fairly small area. Because he loved that place and those people of that place. He was that kind of Shepherd; it’s part of what made him Good.

Which is why I’m gonna put my aching heart and the body to which it is attached next Tuesday on a plane to Burbank, California, and then get in a car and drive down the 210 to a certain place called La Cañada, a certain place that has a certain people and a certain ache, all of which and whom I am certain to love. And this, too, is certain: God is in that place, just like God has been and will continue to be in Boulder, just like God is in your place. Places, people, aches–these are particular, thanks be to God. The God of these places, these people, these aches–this God is not particular; thanks be to God.


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  1. Shelley Irvine says

    This sensy weepy reader is moved to misty eyes on your behalf. I have often wondered if Jesus felt some of these things as he ascended to heaven and left the place, and the disciples from the place. I suspect he did, and so in that sense, I read your achey experience as an incarnational experience of having been Christ’s presence in one place, and being willing to be Christ’s presence in another place. Thank you for heeding the call. Indeed, thanks be to God.

    • Jeff Hoffmeyer says

      Thanks for reading, Shelley, and for what you said … yes, that surely is true of Jesus.
      See you soon!

  2. Chad Bartlett says

    “If you knew the place, if you had known it for long, you could not look at it without feeling that its life was being irresistibly pulled at by larger places. It was stretching itselfs farther and farther in order to hold together, traveling farther in order to stay in place. It was like a spider’s web that will stretch so far and then break. I thought, ‘Here once, forever gone.’ But then, in the flimsiness of time, in the moonlight, the presence of the town so strong upon me, I thought, ‘Now and forever here.'” -W.B.

  3. Alan Foster says

    The place is grace, and you have demonstrated this gracefully in your sermons at Fremont Presbyterian, with your marriage and your family, and in your blogs. An aside, is that you can get tickets to see the Broncos play at Stub Hub Arena much easier than at Mile High Stadium, Denver, and since Colorado is in the Pac 12, you can see them twice in the LA area, when they play USC and UCLA

  4. Anonymous says

    You will all be missed in this place, but a blessing in the new one. And the PRB isn’t going anywhere–you’ll be back someday.

  5. joel whiteman says

    You are already adapting to being a southern Californian. “the 210”. I’m so proud of you!

  6. Anonymous says

    This may be the most beautiful thing you have ever written. So says your senses weepy mother.

  7. Karen Ohlson says

    Well written Jeff! Prayers for you and your family as you face lots of big changes. Looking forward to having you in the “neighborhood”!

  8. Amy Hanson says

    I know this feeling. Leaving is hard. My gut always aches the same way. I always wonder how I will ever love the new as deeply as I loved the old. And yet, God meets us on the other side. Delighted to show us the secrets and surprises of the new place he has prepared for us. Now go and learn to surf Mountain Man!!!

  9. Wow, Jeff !!! And I wondered years ago what could you possibly ever do with an English degree !!!!

    I guess I was very wrong in asking that question, but you have been gracious as always in not reminding me of asking that question.

    The most important part of “your place” will be with you as you make the transition. Here, I am thinking of Heather, Eleanore and Andersen. And Mom and I will be in your place always in our thoughts and prayers. (Of course, we expect to be in your physical place often, especially when Boulder is -10 degrees in the winter). 🙂

  10. Charles Coffey says

    You will be missed, Jeff, while being used mightily in another place, I’m sure.

  11. Bob Thomad says

    Moving and profound, Jeff. Just found the Blog site. I look forward to more of these and ministering with you in this wonderful place.

  12. Bob Thomas says

    Guess it would help if I spell my name right! 🙂

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