We will be starting the return trip home in about four days. Our time is now filled with saying goodbye to new friends and taking a last look at favorite places. We will also welcome 8 new SGI team members over the next three days and will be working to help them get acclimated.
This all has brought on a season of reflection about home. We have been feeling waves of homesickness all summer which lead to an eagerness to return to our familiar life. But those waves are interspersed with a profound sadness to be leaving this ministry and the people that we have come to love. In the middle of our eagerness to re-enter life and ministry in Pittsburgh there is a growing awareness that we will now be homesick for Greece.
Our own experience has been interwoven with the profound experience of sharing life with refugees and the simple joy of an extended Lord of the Rings/Hobbit marathon. Each day we have listened to stories of people who have fled their homes in fear. Their cars and houses have been flattened by bombs and family members have been killed. Most refugees that I have talked to would love to go home if they could, but the the cities that they love are deeply changed and in some cases they barely exist at all.
We have also been shaped by movies. For the last 2-3 weeks many of our nights have been used to watch segments of the stories from Middle-earth. Of course it is all fantasy, but it is an excellent movie series based an extraordinary series of books. The heroes are admirable and the story telling is beautiful. Honor and bravery are celebrated. After watching several times, I still find the movies enjoyable.
What I had not noticed before is the way themes of "home" are so central to each of the movies/books. It seems that the peculiar strength of Hobbits is linked to their willingness to be content with the simple joys of home. I could write an entire article exploring this theme, but I will draw out two memorable points. First, when Thorin Oakenshield is dragging his friends into a needless war in his lust for more treasure, Biblo is quietly longing to go home to his Hobbit hole and plant a tree. Second, when Frodo and Sam are at their lowest they find strength to continue their quest in memories of their home. Sam finds strength to push through the last boiling steps up Mt. Doom by remembering the Shire.
"Do you remember the Shire, Mr. Frodo? It'll be spring soon and the orchards will be in blossom, and the birds will be nesting in the hazel thicket. And the whistle in the summer barley in the Lower fields. And eating the first of the strawberries with cream. Do you remember the taste of strawberries?'
All of that is beautiful, but as much as Tolkien explores the theme of homecoming, the books (and the movies) don't end at the happy homecoming that you might expect. Sam, Pippin and Merry find peace and happiness in the Shire, but Frodo still bears the burden of the One Ring and Ring-Wraith's sword. Frodo cannot truly return to the Shire. "We have saved the Shire, Sam. But not for me." Frodo's home now lies in the West. Not in the Shire, but with the Elves in the Undying lands.
Sometimes you can't go home.
This is the case for many of my refugee friends. Their houses and cars have been destroyed by bombs. In some cases, their home city has been reduced to rubble. Family members were killed and the delicate social fabric of peaceful society was shredded by war. Recently, a Syrian friend told me that he didn't see how Syria could ever recover from this conflict. The indiscriminate killing and brutal tactics of both the regime and the rebellion have fanned ethnic tensions. Sunni and Shia Muslims look at each other with increased suspicion and the Christian minority is being scattered to the wind. Before the war, Syria was known for having a pretty tolerant Middle-eastern society with different religious and ethnic groups living in relative harmony. It is hard to see how that can be reconstructed in the near future. Even if the fighting stopped tomorrow, Syria will not be the same again.
Sometimes you can't go home.
I have been thinking of this in a more personal way. As I get older, I find myself increasingly homesick for the places that no longer exist and the people who no longer live. Being in a Mediterranean country has stirred memories of teenage visits to Spain. The food, the climate and the culture bear striking similarities. But, as I reflect on this longing I confront the reality that the Spain of my memories no longer exists. The society has changed and many of the people that I remember are no longer alive.
In a way, this is also true of my own hometown. The vibrant little Appalachian community that my parents moved to in 1980 has encountered one economic downturn after another. Each year businesses close, class sizes shrink and fewer graduates stay in the community. The physical landmarks are the same, but the social fabric has shifted dramatically. The people are different.
Sometimes you can't go home.
It is now just over a year since my father died and memories of his life loom over all thoughts of home. I realize now that home was never really a place, but it was located in the people. The house of my youth is mostly the same. My mother's warm and welcoming presence still lights the home and embraces the wider community. But even this home feels profoundly different. As we prepare for a major transition back to Pittsburgh, I have found myself returning to memories of other homecomings. My father is part of all those memories. I remember his chuckle and his kind words. I remember the unique ways that he would talk. I know that I will not see those expressions or hear those words again in this life. He would have loved to hear all about out trip. I long to share with him the things we have learned on this adventure. But I can't.
As we talked about some of these things at breakfast the other day, I thought about the way the Bible talks about homelessness and homecomings. From the beginning, when our first parents were cast out of the garden, humans have been looking for their true home. Moses was a stranger in a strange land. Daniel spent his entire prophetic career in the palace of a foreign king. The book of Hebrews tells us that the great heroes of faith were looking for a home that they would not find on this earth.
When Jesus entered into our situation he embraced homelessness. He told one would-be-disciple that "the Son of Man has no place to lay his head." (Matthew 8;20) As Rich Mullins sang: "Birds have nests, foxes have dens; But the hope of the whole world rests; On the shoulders of a homeless man." Ultimately, he was rejected and cast out of the city, left to die alone on a cross for criminals.
But the beauty of the story is that his rejection brings our inclusion. By paying the price for our rebellion, Jesus opens the door for our return to the heart of God. With sins forgiven we pass through the veil into the Holy of Holies, into the presence of our heavenly Father (Hebrews 10:19-22). And so we find home... not by looking back, but by looking forward. The book of Revelation ends with a prophetic picture of our great future homecoming. All who have trusted in Christ will enter into the New Jerusalem. "And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Behold the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God." (Rev 21:3)
If we are looking back at what has been we cannot truly go home. Places change and people pass away. But, the great feeling of homesickness is a gift from God. It stirs us out of our present complacency and teaches us to long for completeness. We will find it, not by looking back, but by looking forward... and looking to the bloody sacrifice of "the homeless man." (Matt)