How spaces become places

Have you ever thought about the difference between places and spaces?  A place (as I would define it) is a location with determined boundaries.  A space is the opposite; it is a location with undetermined boundaries.

Examples may help here.

Take sanctuaries.  Their boundaries are determined with brick and mortar, walls and ceilings.  They’re also laced with memories, rituals, rites of passage, storylines, and moments of sadness, joy, and celebrations.  They’re marked (by each congregant) with an energy that cannot be erased.  The Celts call this a “thin place.”  They believe that the veil between heaven and earth gets “thin” enough in some places that heaven can actually be felt on earth.  Mountaintops, vacation spots, front porch swings, bedrooms, ball fields, and breakfast nooks are more good examples of places.

Spaces, on the other hand, are void of content, memory and energy.  They’re filled with emptiness (if that’s even possible), bareness and purposelessness.  But the irony is they are also free to be engaged – open for meaning and substance.

And I think this is what we as human beings ultimately want to do – turn spaces into places.  There’s a reason why the Dixie Chicks’ song “Wide Open Spaces” went to #1 on the Billboards in 1998.  Its lyrics, “Wide open spaces / room to make big mistakes” captured the essence of how humans desire to seek after and fill spaces with meaning and memory.  Or take the up-and-coming band NEEDTOBREATHE.  Their hit song “Keep Your Eyes Open” reads,

‘Cus if you never leave home, never let go
You’ll never make it to the great unknown
Till you keep your eyes… open my love

In both instances the listener is encouraged to seek after the great unknown, to find meaning where there used to be none, to make mistakes, to create memories, to chase after hope and to discover the thin veil where heaven touches earth.

In other words, we’re interested in a process called meaning-making, for it helps us experience the depths of what life has to offer (as well as turn spaces into places)!

And I believe, if done well, the church is the best conduit for this meaning-making, for it helps us experience the sacred in the midst of the mundane, find hope when faced with despair as well as learn to keep our eyes open!  This may just be the best gift the church gives.

So may the church of today be the voice of influence and change needed; may it learn to teach people how to turn unknown spaces into incredibly rich and meaningful places!

Barrett Owen

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About the Author
Barrett Owen is the associate director of admissions at Mercer University's McAfee School of Theology and pastor of National Heights Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Ga. He blogs weekly at Liminality: Exploring the holy, in-between spaces.

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