Cameron Patterson writes as a Presbyterian. He's a long-suffering fan of the Chicago Cubs, a lover of good coffee, and he is a dear friend of all three of us. He is a seminarian at Beeson Divinity School.
What does it feel like to be without a home?
Can you put it into words?
What is it like to not belong? Strange isn’t a strong enough word.
It feels something like the tension of an unresolved musical line. You’re there, suspended between notes. Everything in you longs for a sense of finality, for rest and completion, but you don’t get it.
Home is a theme that runs through Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. I would argue that it is one of the dominant themes of the Bible. In the beginning God crafted a home for his people. He carved out a luscious garden from the chaos of the seas, and filled it with good things. When everything was just right he placed man and woman there to cultivate a quiet life of wellness and flourishing. They were home.
All that changed when our first parents overstepped the bounds. They stepped outside of the intimacy and peace they had with God, and bit into death. Shame, fear, distrust, and jealousy replaced innocence, trust, love, and peace. Home was no longer safe.
In a tragic act of mercy God removed Adam and Eve from the garden he made for them. They were forced to leave. Yet God did not send them away without a promise. One day there would be a new home, a greater home. In the midst of the cries of death and pain, God breathed the first whispers of true paradise. The rest of biblical history could be described as a search for this new home. The new home is often spoken of with the language of land, rest, or place.
As the melody of redemption progressed the motif of promised land, promised home, resurfaced often. Abram, Isaac, and Jacob, as well as with Joseph, and Moses after him all would receive words of the promise of return. God told Abram: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1).
After 400 years of slavery in Egypt God told his people: “I have observed you and what has been done to you in Egypt, and I promise that I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites” (Exodus 3:16-17). Again, leaving and returning. The people did go back to their land, but life was not as good as it was expected to be. They were not satisfied. They compromised on God’s command. Sound familiar? Once again, after many years of patience, God had to send his people into exile. He had to put them out of their home. Yet it was all with the promise of return.
During the time of exile, after the hopes of a united kingdom and monarchy under Davidic rule were dashed and the kingdom was fragmented and weak, God uttered his promise yet again. This time it was through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah: “The Lord will have compassion on Jacob and will again choose Israel, and will set them in their own land” (Isaiah 14:1).
Years of exile and ruin would eventually end in return. The people would have their land again; for a while. Persian, Greek, and Roman occupation (with a short period of Jewish rule) left the people of God again longing for a place of safety, rest, wellbeing, and flourishing. They wanted shalom. They wanted home, a home that would last and couldn’t be taken away. Their expectation is our expectation. We want a home where peace is the norm; where mom and dad don’t fight. We want a place where men don’t shoot innocent people, where prejudice and racism don’t exist.
God made his people for a home, but they are not yet there. Sin and death have left us alienated, estranged. Injustice is “normal” these days. Loneliness, anxiety, bitter relationships, abuse, sexual exploitation, the list goes on. I am arguing that this is all our experience of not being home.
This subject is constantly on my mind because I have lived my life in a constant pattern of leaving home. Far from being one of stability my life has been one of mobility. I have lived in eight states and I’m only twenty-five. Every year of high school I was in a different state, and one year I was two. Five states in four years. Two of those years my family lived in homes that were not ours. Suffice to say I often have no idea where I belong.
I grant that there is a difference between being homeless in the sense that many, sadly, are, and the feeling of being without a home. I’m not claiming to be homeless. I have a roof over my head, a job that pays well, and enough money to buy groceries. However, I think the subjective feeling of homelessness can be real, even when all the outward elements of home are in place. Some people who look like they are settled, at peace, at home, actually feel like refugees and not citizens.
Here’s one example. The hardest question anyone could ask me is “where are you from?” The question is popular, but I hate it. I don’t know where I’m from. I don’t know what it is like to live anywhere longer than six years (that was a long time ago). I have experienced so many different American subcultures I don’t know which one I fit in. I don’t know all the social cues, or idioms. I don’t know where the best burger place is. I have to use a GPS to navigate. I do not feel at home.
Somehow I don’t think I’m supposed to. I think there is a certain level of homelessness that Christians should feel. Not everything should sit right with us in this life. When Jesus entered the world he did so in the context of a displaced people. Yes, Israel was in their land, but they were under Roman occupation. The promise was not yet finally fulfilled; that is, until God moved in.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14).
God did not, and does not, wait for his people to come home, he brings home to them.
Before he left his disciples Jesus gave them these words of comfort:
“‘Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. 2 In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also’” John 14:2-3
Listen. Do you hear it? The motif of return, of coming home. There is a place for me, and for you; a real place; a place with a tree and a river. A place where we belong: home.
It is important to remember that God does not leave his people wandering about in the desert of their pilgrim days alone. The people of Israel had God’s tabernacle with them in their time before they entered the Promised Land. Now God’s people have the tabernacled presence of God in Jesus Christ. God is in our flesh. He is with us.
More than that, God is building a new home, though not with stones or wood but with people. Here, right now, God is building a home away from home: the church.
Ephesians 2:21-22 says: “In [Christ] the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” The main point here is that God is building a new temple for himself to dwell in by his Spirit. I’m not saying anything opposite of that; I’m actually making my point. The future kingdom of God is breaking into the present world through the church. God is giving his people a taste of what the earth will be like.
For me, and I trust for many others, the church has been and will be a home away from home. The church’s message spans the globe uniting people of all different walks of life together. A familiar element in an unfamiliar world, the liturgy of the church is a respite for weary pilgrims. It is in the church, in the sacraments of the church, that the people of God are lifted up in union with Christ and communion with others. In the worship of the church the people of God experience and participate in the final world. We are caught up mysteriously and glimpse our true home.
“Lift up your hearts”
“We lift them up to the Lord”