Reflections on the Meaning of Home
I am currently in my forties and yet have never been fully or finally at home.
Throughout our childhood, Mom and Dad moved us to a new city every two years because of corporate job transfers. Childhood was followed by four years of college, six months teaching tennis in Kentucky, a three-month hiatus in Atlanta, and three and a half years in Saint Louis for seminary. After that, we spent twelve years planting two churches in two different states, followed by five years in New York City and, to date, almost five years in Nashville, Tennessee.
My wife Patti and I swear that we are never leaving Nashville. We are in full agreement, the two of us are, that we are finally home.
But are we?
We also swore, early on, that we would give more lasting roots to our kids.
Bud did we?
Recently, our oldest daughter graduated from high school. To commemorate her accomplishment, Patti and I wrote her long Letters from Mom and Dad. In those letters, we walked down memory lane reflecting upon and getting nostalgic about her eighteen years of life. As we reminisced, it dawned on both of us that, while we gave the girl opportunities, we never gave the girl roots…at least not with respect to place. To date, she has lived in seven different homes and attended eight different schools in five different cities.
Contemplating the quasi-nomadic upbringing that we imposed on our daughter, Patti wrote in her Letter from Mom, “I am so sorry…and you’re welcome.”
The “I’m sorry” part makes good sense. Moving of any kind is disorienting, especially in childhood. It uproots a child from friends, teachers, neighborhoods and familiar spaces. It digs a hole in the heart, uprooting and re-rooting like that. For better or for worse, our daughter’s story has become the same as mine. It’s a story with no lifelong friends or neighbors or houses from childhood. Instead, it’s the story of a traveler.
What good could come from seven homes and eight schools and five cities in eighteen years? Why on earth would my wife feel compelled to say “You’re welcome” right after saying “I’m so so so sorry” to our daughter? I believe it’s because regret and hope don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In our daughter’s case, the two can run together for three reasons I can think of.
First, home is more than a place. Home is also the people you travel with and live alongside as you move from place to place. And, for those who travel with Jesus, family is everywhere—surrogate daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, grandmas and grandpas await us in every city and town to which the Church has been scattered.
Even more than this, Home is Three Persons versus a single place. The God of nomadic travelers is our Home. He is the God of Abraham, who left country and kindred and his father’s house to the land that God would show him. He is the God of Israel, who wandered in the wilderness for forty years. He is the God of the Jews, who were taken captive to Egypt, Assyria and Babylon after their homes were taken from them by conquest. And he is the God of Jesus Christ, who, in his most “displaced” moments, cried out to his Father for wisdom, comfort and presence. This Father—this traveling God who also never leaves, and whose dominion and presence covers every single person, place and thing—is also our Father. He is never away from us, and we are never away from him. Wherever we go, his goodness and mercy follow us for all of our days. If we ascend to heaven, He is there. If we make our beds in Sheol, He is there also. And? He is not merely with us; he is within us. He will never leave us or forsake us. In that sense, we are never not at home.
Second, while there are immense benefits to putting down roots in a particular place among a particular people (contrary to, and perhaps because of my immensely poor example, I highly recommend it), there are also some potential liabilities—namely, the narrowing, blinding effect of never being exposed to cultures, peoples, places, skin colors, economic brackets, dialects, philosophies, experiences and perspectives that those who are other can offer to us. For it is only in drawing near to the other that we gain a fuller appreciation of the Imago Dei. For the Imago Dei, or the Image of God, is not contained in any single people group or place, but rather in the faces and stories and triumphs and sorrows of every nation, tribe, tongue and generation. Rather than lock us down into a single place and perspective, the nomadic way increases our exposure and broadens our horizons.
Third, and perhaps most relevant, Patti’s “You’re welcome” to our daughter for the quasi-nomadic life that we have “given” her is that a quasi-nomadic life confirms that none of us is home…at least not yet. Said another way, traveling from place to place stirs our longing for the home that is truly Home.
Indeed, none of us has arrived. Even the most “rooted” among us are, as the Apostle reminds us, aliens and strangers who are traveling through a land that is, by its fallen nature, foreign to us. We are, as it were, exiles. The place that Jesus has gone and prepared for us is not here, but There. Not even the “faith heroes” of Hebrews 11 got to see or experience the “better country” while they were living. So then, neither should we expect to see or experience Home fully or finally until Jesus returns. This is the same Jesus who will make all things new as he transforms this weary world into a Garden-City—New Jerusalem, with a tree rooted down deep right in its center, planted there for the healing of the nations—that we will forever call Home.
Until Then, even the most solid homes, and the deepest roots, will merely be appetizers to prepare us for an everlasting Feast, road signs to prepare us for an everlasting Destination, temporary dwellings to prepare us for an everlasting Home.
Like every good gift from God, the places and people that we call “home” are pointers, but they are not the point. Until we understand this, I daresay that we will not only be wanderers, but aimless and rootless ones. “Aim at heaven,” C.S. Lewis said, “and you’ll get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you’ll get neither.”
It was also Lewis who said, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
It is Lewis’ observation, coupled with my own, sometimes lonesome and sometimes wonderful nomadic years, that make me so grateful for writers like the one I’m now going to introduce to you. Her name is Jen Pollock Michel…who releases a book this week on the subject of home. (Full disclosure: With Jen’s permission, the words you are reading right now are from my Foreword to her new book, Keeping Place:Reflections on the Meaning of Home…I know. Sneaky of me, right?).
The following recommendation, then, represents my “You’re welcome” to you…
Keeping Place is Jen Michel’s second book. I would be remiss not to also recommend to you, with highest praise, her first—Christianity Today’s Book of the Year—called Teach Us to Want.
Keeping Place is like a buffet of appetizers, each of which points to the Feast that awaits us at the banquet table of God. It is like a series of road signs, each one serving as a reminder that, though we are still traveling, our final destination is just around the bend. It is like a series of stops along the journey—none of which we own but are merely paying rent, and yet, all of which we are meant to savor—as each season and step gets us closer and closer to the Home where Jews and Gentiles, Pharisees and prostitutes, smug sons and prodigals, urban dwellers and farmers, the rooted and the rootless, will all find welcome.
Keeping Place is both memoir and rich biblical theology, and is, in all of its parts, an aroma of the Home for which we are made and for which we are destined. With wit, candor, a good bit of humor, and with transparent glimpses into her home, her history, her travels, her travails, her worship, her marriage, her table, her rest, and her longings—Jen offers an oasis for all of us who are homesick. Most of all, she teaches us to better discern the sights, smells and tastes of Home that are all around us right here and right now. In other words, she helps us aim at heaven, so that along the way, a little bit of earth gets thrown in too.
I pray for you, and I pray for myself, that we would be given eyes to see as Jen does.