The Idolatry of Place

Rainbow Row

I loved Charleston!

Even though I was not a native, I loved living in the place where “the Ashley and Cooper Rivers come together to form the Atlantic Ocean.”  I confess, it didn’t take me long to fall into the arrogance that comes with living in the best city in America.  Don’t believe me? Just ask the 32 people moving to Charleston every day!  Just ask Conde Naste who says it is one of the best places to visit.  Don’t believe them? Just ask the hundreds of thousands who make their way to the city on vacation.

But I wasn’t a tourist.  I lived there!  Well, actually in Mt Pleasant, just across the river, but if anyone asked you said Charleston.

I loved Charleston, every bit of it.

I loved walking through the market in the summer when you relished the small historic section that now had air conditioning.  I loved it in the winter when you could dash in and get a stocking stuffer, or if you were really extravagant purchase a sweet grass basket from one of the Gullah women who are as much a part of the scenery as the cobblestone on Chalmers Street.

I loved walking along the Battery, looking out over the waters of Charleston Harbor to Ft. Sumpter, or back into the city to the mansions along East Bay where people gathered to watch the bombardment during the Civil War.  Now people come to watch boats traversing the rivers, to catch a picture, to just be.

I loved the food!  Ahh, the food!  Arguments would break out whenever you mentioned that you had taste the Best Shrimp and Grits in the city!  And it is not just restaurants that have turned the city into a foodie haven, it is the little places off the grid.  Sure you want to go to Magnolia’s, of Husk, of Halls Chophouse, or Peninsula Grill (especially if someone else it paying!)  But to miss the oysters at Bowen Island, or the Chicken Sandwich at Boxcar Betty’s, or the view from Vickery’s as you watch the remnant of the shrimp fleet docking after a long day at sea is to miss Charleston!


I loved Charleston!  Every quirky bit of it.  I loved taking friends who came to visit on Ghost Tours hearing stories that were as good the 10th time as they were the first.  I love hearing tour guides tell stories that I knew were not in the official guide book!  The stories about Charleston are so wonderful in fact that you need not embellish them.  They are so contradictory—like the Declaration of Independence being read from one balcony next door to a building that hosted a slave auction the next day, a city built by African Americans where race is alway bubbling just beneath the surface in a polite mannerly manner.  It is who we are in Charleston, the most mannerly city in America!

I loved the bridges.  I remember the terror of driving over the Grace Bridge, knowing that it was not wide enough for two cars.  I loved sailing under it, looking up and seeing the sky through the it.  Knowing that at any moment it could plunge into the river just added to the thrill!  When it was replaced by the new Ravenel Bridge, our arrogance surged again that it was the longest cable stayed bridge in the country.  To walk or bike it was a challenge, and a joy.

But it wasn’t just that bridge.  I loved them all!  My normal bike ride was across the Isle of Palms Connector where you had time to enjoy the marsh, then down to Sullivans Island and back across the Ben Sawyer draw bridge  where you could see the boats making their way down the Intracoastal Waterway.   It was almost a joy to be stopped on one of the bridges in traffic as it gave you time to let your eyes wander over the rivers and marshes which you never had time to do when you were rushing across on your way somewhere else.


I loved Charleston!  The oppressive heat in the summer when you thought about hibernating till fall; joining the crowds to see the Christmas lights at the James Island County Park; wandering down King and Market Streets, or any of the side streets South of Broad which at night made you think you might be in London—Charleston just invites you to fall in love with her.

And I did!

I gave her my heart.

And that was the problem.

When I was 12 years old, I had given my heart to Jesus.  I had sung the songs, “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back;”  “Wherever he leads, I’ll go.”  The Bible story that haunted my faith was “What shall it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul.”  To me, the unforgivable sin was to sell your soul.

But now I was faced with just that prospect!  I loved Jesus, but I also loved Charleston.   I could stay in Charleston, in the city I loved, if I would just stop talking about the Jesus who called me.  It felt that is what people wanted.  They never said that.  They would never say that!  But the feeling was there.


And I tried.  God knows I tried!  I tried going into the pulpit week after week saying nothing about whatever had happened in the world—no mention of global warming that was causing the streets of my beloved town to flood at high tide on a full moon; no mention of openly welcoming the gay youth who read the litany on Easter morning; not talking about the racism in the town that started the Civil War, where a majority of African Americans can trace their family history to the slave ships that brought them to the New World; no mention of the gun violence that killed 9 worshippers at Mother Emanuel AME, that killed individuals weekly one by one.

Just be quiet.  Don’t say anything.

And I did.  For over a year.  I listened to those who came to me and said, “I agree with you, but…..”  I said nothing.  And each week a bit of my soul died.

See, for me, the unforgivable sin is to sell your soul.  That is my theology.  I think I can forgive just about anything, but selling your soul?  Knowing what should be done and choosing to do the opposite, or nothing, just to get ahead, to maintain your comfort….  

Yet that was exactly what I was doing.

I loved Charleston.

But my soul?  Jesus?  He had a prior claim.

What do you do when a place becomes your idol, the thing that you worship, the thing to which you give your ultimate allegiance?  It might be a geographical place.  It might be a political place, a philosophical place, a theological place.  

What do you do when that place begins to get in the way of following Jesus? The Jesus who said, “Foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lie down and rest.”  The Jesus that said, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.”  The Jesus who calls, “Come, follow me!” 


I loved Charleston.  But I wanted my soul to rest so I could sleep.  

I loved Charleston.  But I felt I had to choose which master I would serve.

I loved Charleston.  But I couldn’t escape the call to follow Jesus.

So now I am in Canada.

And I am falling in love all over again!


Florence From Afar

Same Song? Different Tune?