My sister moved this last week, and I got to help just a little. She and her family had been living in the same farm house my grandfather was born in, the same place I spent Thanksgiving, and Christmas, and Easter (and Labor Day and Memorial Day) almost every year growing up. A bedroom set from my great-grandparents needed to be moved into storage, and I was willing and able. I wish I could have helped more…
It was really great to be back at the farm one last time; to see the cornfields and the woods; to smell the farm dust in the garage that brings back so many memories. How is it that the dust of a place can smell so unique? I’m not sure, but opening up that door to the garage brought back all kinds of memories: wooden baseball bats and old leather gloves, a Duncan Donuts® Frisbee™ and a fiberglass bow, a forbidden workbench and a classic croquet set.
What a strange feeling to come home to a place that has changed so much! The tire swing is still there, though the rope and the tire have both been replaced, part of the tree is dead, and the rows of grape irises that used to perfume the air while we played have long since reverted to lawn. The kitchen window that overlooks the tire swing is still there, and although the window was upgraded years ago and the white lace curtains with bright red strawberries moved out in the 1980’s, I can still see Grandma at the window and hear her voice calling us in to eat.
The whole house is like that: home, but not home. The same place I know and love and hold in my heart, but not the same.
Returning to the family farm awakens a deep longing in me and powerful memories of what once was. The corner where Grandpa’s recliner always sat is now empty; the stove where I remember my great-grandmother sautéing asparagus (that grew among the grape irises by the tire swing) with breadcrumbs and butter in a large iron skillet—that stove has been replaced, and in fact the whole wall is gone; the old barn, if left to its own devices, with likely fall down in a few years, as the granary did a few years back; for now, you can still read my family name in weathered letters above the broad barn doors.
Home, my home; but not the same, not what I remembered—though exactly what I remembered, just not the same…
A few days before I made what could be my last visit to the family homestead, I got to take my college freshman on a field trip to Eastern Market, downtown Detroit. Her class is studying Detroit City history, so we got some information on the neighborhoods that used to cover what is now a combination of highways and Ford Field (Go, Lions!).
So much history, so much change from the time when greats like Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald, and Dizzy Gillespie, and Ethel Waters performed in local Paradise Valley theaters, and the African American families who had come north for work in the automotive industry mixed with the whites in nightclubs and music halls before the race riots of 1943.
To stand on an overpass and take a picture (selfies are now assigned by college professors, it turns out) and to see the football stadium and lanes of highway where houses and music halls once stood is to remember home, a place of belonging that doesn’t exist anymore, a history we can access by standing on that same ground and remembering what once was. Home, but not the same; the same place, but changed.
Those experiences of simultaneous homecoming and displacement remind me of a theme that runs throughout Scripture. From the time Adam and Eve left the Paradise Mountain that was Eden, we—their heirs—have been longing to get back home. And we catch glimpses of being home, with God, in the Land; but it’s not quite the same. More than once in the history of God’s people, we get back home only to find that the place is less than perfect, and the people leave something to be desired. And, soon enough, our sin brings another wave of exile. And God’s grace once again calls us back and invites us home.
Peter writes his first letter to “God’s elect” (that’s us), but he also calls them (that’s us) “exiles” and “sojourners,” strangers and foreigners in this world. Paul also tells us “our citizenship is in heaven, and we eagerly await a savior from there.” We are not at home in this world the way God intended us to be.
But before we all start singing, “Heaven is my home,” let’s remember that the Paradise God created as a place for Adam and Even to call home and live in his presence was not some non-physical dimension populated by angels and spirits. Adam and Eve (and you and I) were created as spiritual/physical beings placed in a physical Garden where God himself dwelt by his Spirit. This physical creation is our home, the home we are longing for: just not the way it was, not the way it’s supposed to be, not the way it is going to be.
It’s like the longing I felt visiting the family farm, a pining for what was, except in this case, it is just as much a longing for what will be. The fond memories of a place to really belong are not just a way of looking back to how life used to be; we look forward to a time when it will be that way again.
Our citizenship, Paul says, is in heaven; and we eagerly await a savior from there, even the Lord Jesus, who will make our lowly bodies to be like his heavenly body. That doesn’t merely mean he will take us to a spiritual place without physical bodies or physical existence (he’ll do that, too, but the interim between death and resurrection is not our final destination). What Paul is talking about is the full hope of the story arc of Scripture: the Day of the Lord, when God will restore both our bodies and our home, so that in resurrection bodies we might enjoy the New Creation, a physical existence even better than Eden, because this time around the Creation will bear the marks of the crucified and risen Jesus.
We long for something past, but even more, for something future. This is our home, but not the home it used to be; and even more, not yet the home it will be again. We are foreigners and sojourners, but foreigners and sojourners who are already living in the Land of Promise, just not the way it is going to be when the Land of Promise is ours the way God fully intends.
In that sense, I think Abraham is a great example of our longing for a future home. Abraham received a promise from God, and Abraham believed God’s promise. God said, “Go!” and Abraham went. Abraham was a foreigner and alien and sojourner… but the place of his wandering was already the Land of Promise. The Land was his, but only by faith; he was a foreigner in his own country. He was home, but not yet home; and he longed not merely for the past but for the future fulfillment of the promise.
I may not have an excuse to go back to the family farm ever again. My memories of the farm will endure, though they will never be as strong as when I stand on that particular plot of land. I remember that place and those people with longing: not just longing for the past, but longing for the future. The barn will rot; the tire swing will decay; the old farm house will not stand forever.
But the Grandpa who always sat in that corner, the Grandma who called to me out of that window, the Great-grandmother who fried asparagus in the kitchen, and who taught me to play euchre, and who sat in her rocker by the front window and let me jump over her cane—those people I remember and love and long for will one day stand again, not on that old farmland, but in the New Creation.
And I ache, and weep, and long for that day.
Come quickly, Lord; I need a place to call Home.