LONGING FOR HOME
October 20, 2019
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Dubuque
Out of the stars in their flight
Out of the dust we have come
Stardust and sunlight, mingling
Through time and through space
This is the wonder of time,
This is the marvel of space
Out of stars swung on the earth
Life upon earth rose to love.
This is the marvel of life
Rise to see and to know
Out of your heart, cry wonder
Sing that we live
from Mark Doty’s “Atlantis”
The Lighthouse says:
Here is the world you asked for
Gorgeous and opportune
Here is nine o’clock, harbor-wide
And a glinting light: Promise and Warning
The morning’s the size of heaven.
What will you do with it?
From the Letter to the Hebrews, Chapter 11
From FAMILY –
I realized years back….
I would overpay for an apartment and carry a mortgage and fret about money, just like my dad. He and my mother would accompany me through a lift that would be much like theirs, and at every step I would compare myself especially to him, would judge if I was doing better or worse than he had done at being middle-class and putting the kids through school and not terrorizing my family and staying between the lines while trying not to forget what it is I actually want to do. And unknown things would happen, and sooner or later I would die, too—I understood that now, clearly, the way you suddenly become aware of the sky and the diving board after the person in front of you has jumped—and my kids would perhaps see me off as I had seen my parents off, or perhaps not. And soon all the people who had accompanied me through life would be gone, too, and then even the people who had known us, and no one would remain on earth who had ever seen us, and those descended from us perhaps would know stories about us, perhaps once in a while they would pass by buildings where we had lived and they would mention that we had lived there.
And then the stories would fade, and our graves would go untended, and the graves of those who had tended ours would go untended, and the graves of those who had tended ours would go untended, and no one would guess what it had been like to wake before dawn in our breath-warmed bedrooms as the radiators clanked and our wives and husbands and children slept. And we would move from the nearer regions of the dead who are remembered into the farther regions of the forgotten, and on past those, into a space as white and big as the sky replicated forever. And all that would remain would be the love bravely expressed, and the moment when you danced and your heart danced with you.
Like the majority of humankind, I don’t know much about wholeness, about “being whole,” at first hand. It is something that, at most – like Abraham and Sarah and Moses and the rest of them – I have, every once in a while, “seen and greeted from afar,” as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, but that is about all. I like to believe that in a disorganized way it is what I am journeying toward, but the most of have to show for my pains is an occasional glimpse of it in certain people who had clay feet more or less like the reset of us but who struck me as being at least a good deal more whole than I have ever managed to become myself.
I think particularly as autumn stains the skies russet and gold of my maternal great aunt, a kind of legend she was in our family, as autumn stains the skies with russet and gold. She so loved the change of seasons recollected from her childhood in Brown County, Indiana. Like everybody else, she had her happy times and her sad times, her weaknesses and her strengths, her good luck and the bad. But what made her unique in my experience was that no matter what happened to her, she seemed remarkably and invincibly herself.
Even when her life was shattered by the deaths of people she loved and by other losses and failures, she remained serene and intact, as if she lived out of some deep center within herself that was beyond the reach of circumstance. My clearest memory of her – other than that of an youngster red-faced at being crushed to her powdery and ample bosom perfumed with Evening in Paris—is of her in a white linen dress sitting on a veranda on my grandparents farmhouse in southern Indiana, reading a yellow-backed French novel and smoking a Chesterfield – something my mother found funny beyond belief. Aunt Alice Stubbs had, in middle life, married a Jewish fellow from Florida – a man of means, she told us– that I adored and others –certainly those on farms in Indiana – scorned. By then, however, he had lost most of his money and they had come back home to Indiana, leaving all their old friends and their old life behind them. As far as I could see, it never caused her to turn a hair. She made new friends and a new life and she made do on the money they had, saying only that she wished she had spent more of it on herself because then she would have had something left to show for it.
She was entirely my dear Aunt Alice…always as she had been as the hills around her were the same hills…as when she was almost an old lady and I was still a boy and we drew up a list of most of the people we knew and entitled it – Stubbs Crackpots, amiable (my newly discovered word) and otherwise, by two of their number. WE did not for a moment believe that we were crackpots ourselves, mind you. But added that part in hopes that if the list were fall into the wrong hands, the note of humility might save us.
I remember her again some 30 years later lying in her bed in a nursing home within a few months of her death, by which time she was in her 94th year and too old and frail with a broken hip to live anywhere else but intact in every other way. I had gone there with my daughter, Melinda, in tow and when we got home she wrote a letter to thank us. Here handwriting had gone loose and spidery by then, but with effort we read it:
“Dear children, it was a noble deed to make the long journey back here, and the joy of seeing you more than compensated for the ignominy of substituting an old crone in a dark little room for the Aunt Alice of legend.”
She was indeed an old crone in a dark little room as she said, but because she knew who she was, because she could see clearly and without either bitterness or complaint that that was what the years had reduced her to, because there was something in her that was half amused by the sight, she was a good deal more than that. There was a room inside her that was neither dark nor little and in that room she continued to be – how to put words to it without tarnishing it – full of wit and eloquence and a bit of the brazen to the end.
It is a glimpse of at least some important aspect of wholeness that I carry to me to this day, a bit of a banister to hold on to as I prepare myself for a final coming home.
To be whole, I think, means among other things that you see the world whole Aunt Alice wrote of having become an old woman in a nursing home instead of my Aunt Alice of legend, but she still revealed herself as the Aunt Alice of legend, even so. In other words, she was “all there,” as the saying goes. She saw both the light and the dark of what the world was offering her and was not split by them. She was whole in herself, and she saw the world whole.
The world floods in on all of us. The world can be kind, and it can be cruel, beautiful and appalling. It can give us good reason to hope and good reason to give up on all hope. It can strengthen our faith in a loving God, and it can decimate that faith. In our lives in the world, the temptation is always to go where the world takes us, to drift with whatever current happens to be running strongest. When good things happen, we rise to heaven; when bad happens, we descend to hell. When the world strikes out at us, we strike back, and when in one way or another the world blesses us, our spirits soar. I know this to be true of no one as well as I know it to be true of myself.
I know how just the weather can affect my whole state of mind, how getting stuck in a traffic jam or having a flat tire can ruin an afternoon that in every other way is so beautiful it dazzles the heart.
For me, it is in Jesus and in the people whose lives have been touched by Jesus and in ourselves at those moments when we are most touched by divine, that we see another way of being human in this world, which is the way of homecoming, the way of wholeness. For you, it may be in Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, or one of our national heroes.
Whenever and in whomever, we glimpse that wholeness in others, we recognize it immediately…and the reason we do is that no matter how much the world shatters us to pieces, we carry in side us a “VISION” of wholeness that is our true home and that beckons to us. It is in part what the book of Genesis means by saying that we are made in the image of God.
I picture Jesus at the Last Supper when he had every reason to understand that the end was upon him—not as an old crone in a dark little room saying good by to her grand-nephew and his daughter, but as a young man in a dark little room saying goodbye to life itself and every thing he had lived for and was prepared to die for. I picture him looking around at the twelve friends and making an unforgettable utterance. “Peace I leave with you” he says, when you would have thought he had no peace at all anywhere. “My peace I give to you not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27).
The kind of peace that the world gives is the peace we experience when for a little time the world happens to be peaceful. It is a peace that lasts for only as long as the peaceful time lasts because as soon as the peaceful time ends, the peace ends. The peace that Jesus and others who speak from another place somehow offer, on the other hand, has nothing to do with the things that are going on at the moment they offer it – tragic and terrible things mostly.
It is a peace beyond the reach of the tragic and the terrible. It is a profound and inward peace that sees with unflinching clarity the tragic and terrible things that are happening and is not shattered by them. All his life long, wherever Jesus looked, he saw the world not in terms simply of its brokenness – a patchwork of light and dark calling forth in us now our light, now our dark – but in terms of the ultimate mystery of the divine buried in it, like a treasure buried in a field— fields, seed, pearls, leaven, the human heart – all carry within them something of the holiness of their origin. Even a sparrow fallen dead by the roadside is transparent to holiness.
To be whole, I believe, is to see the world like that. And sometimes, I believe, that people like you and me see it like that. Sometimes, even in the midst of our confused broken relationships with ourselves, with each other, with the transcendent and the earth beneath, we catch glimpses of that holiness and wholeness which, no matter how buried and unrecognized, are still part of who we are.
It gets to be 6:30 or 7 in the evening, say and we switch on the TV to NBC, Brian Williams or Wolf Blitzer or PBS News-Hour if we are really serious about it, and then settle back and listen as they tell us the news of the day. It is way of keeping in touch with reality, of maintaining perspective, of staking stock. It is a way of reminding ourselves that beyond the little world we live in, there is another, wider world that we are all a part of although we get so caught up in the business of our own worlds that we tend to forget about it.
Every evening the news. Every evening we sit in our living rooms and watch on the flickering screen what has gone on in the world that day. But beyond what goes on in the world that makes the headlines, there is also what goes on in the small, private worlds you and I move around in and the news of our own individual days in those worlds. Some of the things that happen in them are so small that we hardly notice them. Some of them shake the very ground beneath our feet. But, whether great or small, they make up the day-by-day story of who we are and of what we are doing with our lives and what our lives are doing to us. Their news is the news of what we are becoming or failing to become.
Maybe the best time to look at the news is at night when we first turn out the light and are lying in the dark waiting for sleep to come. It is a time to look aback at all that you and I have been engaged in during the last 24 hours. We lie in our beds in the dark. There is a picture of the children on the bureau. Our clothes hang in the closet. There is a patch of moonlight on the carpeted floor. We live surrounded by the comfort of familiar things, sights, sounds. When the weather is bad we have shelter. When things are bad in our lives we have a place were we can retreat to lick our wounds and pull ourselves back together again, while tens of thousands of people, thousands of them children, thousands of them wander the streets of cities far and near looking for some doorway to lie down in to get out of the wind.
But for many of us, there is something missing. In a novel that Frederick Buechner wrote some years ago, called Treasure Hunt, the narrator, a young man named Antonio Par, has been away for some weeks and on his return, finds that his small son and some other children have made a sign for him that reads WELCOME HOME with the last little leg of the “M” in home missing so that it turns into an “N.”
It seemed oddly “fitting,” Antonio says, when he sees it. “It was good to get home but it was home with something missing or out of whack about it. It wasn’t much…but even a single stroke can make a major difference.”
If we are lucky, we are born into a home or find a home somewhere else along the way during childhood, or failing that at least, one hopes, find some good dream of a home. And if our luck holds, when we grow up, we make another home for ourselves. It is the place of all places that we feel most at home in, most at peace and most at one in…and as for Antonio…a place to which one returns after a long absence. Antonio was enormously glad to be at home at last, but he recognized that there was something small but crucial missing, which, if only for a moment, made him feel that he was in some sense a stranger and an exile there. It is when he comes home that he recognizes most poignantly that he is, at a deep level of his being, homeless, and that whatever it is that is missing, he will spend the rest of his days longing for it and seeking to find it.
Almost all the photos I have managed to save of my grandparents’ home in Mooresville, Indiana show simply the house itself. There is a view of from the front with the long porch and French windows. There is another from the rear with the sleeping porch over the kitchen porch beneath it and the bay window of my grandparents’ bedroom. There is an interior shot of the living room with family photos gazing out over a piano which has a fringed shawl over it. But there is one photo that has a person in it, and the person is my Aunt Alice herself.
It is winter and there has been a snow. Wet snow clings to the bare branches of the trees, and the air is full of mist. Aunt Alice is standing on the front porch in profile. She is looking pensively out toward the lawn. She is wearing a short fake fur jacket and a matching hat with her hands in the jacket pockets. She has on galoshes. The brick walk to the porch is covered with snow except in the foreground where it has melted away in patches and you can see her reflection in the wet brick.
When I look at the photograph, I can almost literally feel the chill Hoosier air on that winter day in 1934, or whenever it was, and smell her wet wool mittens and hear the chink of the galoshes when she walks in them without doing the metal fasteners all the way up.
If it’s true that you can’t go home again, it is especially true when the home in question has long since gone and been replaced by another and when virtually all the people who used to live there have long since gone and are totally beyond replacing. But sometimes I can almost believe that if I only knew the trick of it, I could actually go back anyway, that just some one small movement of memory or will would be enough to transport me to that snowy scene where Aunt Alice would turn to me in her fur jacket and would open the front door with a mittened hand and we would enter the cinnamon, lamp-lit dusk of the house together. But it is a trick that I have never quite mastered. I have to accept my homesickness as chronic and incurable.
Where do you look for the home you long for? How do you deal with that homesickness of the spirit, that longing for whatever the missing thing is that keeps even the home of the present from being ”true home”? I only wish I knew. All I know is that like Buechner’s Antonio, I also sense that something is missing which I cannot easily name and which perhaps can never be named by any of us until we find it. And, like Gideon and Barak and the others, I also know the sense of sadness and lostness that comes with feeling that I’m a stranger and an exile on earth. I suspect you do as well.
In the winter of 1960, I was in New York City, lonely and depressed. Next door to where I was staying there happened to be a church whose senior minister was a man named George Butterick and, with time heavy on my hands, I went to hear him preach. He said something in a sermon that has stayed with me for nearly 60 years. He said that on the previous Sunday, as he was leaving the church to go home, he happened to over-hear somebody out on the steps asking someone else, “Are you going home for Christmas?”
And I can almost see Butterick with his glasses glittering in the lectern light as he gazed out at all those people listening to him in that large, dim sanctuary. and asked it again—-Are you going home for Christmas?—and asked it in some sort of way that brought tears to my eyes and made it almost unnecessary for him to move on to his answer to the question which was that home…finally…is the manger in Bethlehem, the place where at midnight even the oxen kneel.
Home is where the Christchild is or God is or eternal meaning resides was what Butterick said that winter morning, and when the next autumn I found myself to my great surprise (not to mention that of my wife and my parents) putting aside whatever career I thought I might have as an actor or professor or whatever and going to seminary instead….at least partly because of the tears that kept coming to my eyes, I don’t believe that I consciously thought that “home” was what I was going there in search of, but I now believe that was the truth of it.
I don’t have time nor the inclination to tell you where my homeward journey has taken me. Enough to say that all too often over the unnerving years, I have felt slow-witted and tongue tied and hopelessly square in comparison with the bright and articulate and quick on their feet. All too rarely, I regret to say, has my search taken me to a sacred and profoundly silent place inside myself where it is less that I pray than that, to paraphrase St. Paul, the Spirit itself prays with me and for me “with signs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26)
I cannot claim that I have found the home…the wholeness… I long for every day of my life, not by a long shot, but I believe that in my heart I have found, and have maybe always known, the way that leads to it.
To be homeless the way people like you and me are apt to be homeless is to have potential homes all over the place but not to be really at home in any of them. To be really at home is to be really at peace wherever we are, and our lives are so intricately interwoven that there can be no real peace for any of us until there is real peace for all of us. I now believe that that is the truth that underlies not just the evening news of the world but the news of every one of our days.
I believe that Butterick was right and that the wholeness and the home we long for and belong to is finally where Christ by any other name the same is. I believe that home is His Kingdom, which exists both within us and among us as we wend our prodigal ways through the world in search of it.
May it be so…