I am writing this, not from my home of four months in Curve, TN, but from the familiar window seat at the Ryan Center for Biblical Studies at Union University. I chose this seat for my studies often during my four years at Union, because the view from the third floor of Jennings Hall allows the viewer to look out over much of the campus that is so precious to me. I see the long, sturdy treeline, towering over the flat West Tennessee landscape and blazing with the yellows and reds of early November. I see the path I ran so many times when I was clearing my mind as a student. I see the maintenance shop where I worked like Jacob for Rachel to earn money for my upcoming wedding, and where good friends are still at work right now.
Looking again on this place that was my home for four years stirs me not only because of the peculiar physical beauty that I find in it as a lifelong west-Tennessean, and not only because I have such rich memories of good times with friends here. It is mostly because the Lord found me here, trembling, confused, self-destructing, and overtook me in his mercy. He disciplined me as a son, painfully and lovingly rooting the sin out of my heart and replacing it with broken adoration for him. . . here. I learned to fear his holiness, and love his glory, and cling to his grace, and bow before his word . . . here. I observed how a Christian man ought to walk, savored the fellowship of true brothers in Christ, and was poured into by wise, godly men . . . here. I met and pursued and fell in love with my bride . . . here. The Lord was so, so good to me . . . here.
So conscious of my current failures and challenges, I remember the sweetness of this bygone grace here and am overcome by an unmistakable feeling of homesickness. Even though there is some pain in it, I think it is appropriate for a place to hold such a place of affection for us, and unless it gives way to despair and an obsession with the past, I think it is in fact very good. It reminds me that I am not nearly as strong and self-sufficient as I deceive myself into thinking so often – I am indebted to a certain place, a certain people, at a certain time, through whom God in his providence richly blessed and shaped me. It also reminds me of something instilled deep within me as one created in the image of God – I was made for a place. I was made for fellowship. I was made for the presence of God. And because this is so, it is appropriate that I should long for it, sometimes quite intensely. This longing is not high-schoolish nostalgia. It is deeper than that. It is more mysterious than that. The writer of Ecclesiastes says it has everything to do with eternity. He seems to look into my own soul as he writes, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done form the beginning to the end.” (Eccl 3:11)
This longing is there in Paul’s voice when he writes to the Philippians, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” (Phil 1:23b) And again, “But our citizenship is in Heaven, and from it we await a Savior, Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorified body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” (Phil 3:20-21) The writer of Hebrews makes the same point: as exiles here, we are to be found “seeking a homeland,” to “desire a better country, that is a heavenly one.” (Heb 11:13-16) I’ve grown fond of thinking of this as a kind of “theology of homesickness.”
The Puritans were a people who thought much about “the saint’s everlasting rest,” crossing over Jordan into the Celestial City to be with the King, so much so that it wrapped their work and words in the sweet aroma of eternity. When Bunyan’s Christian is asked how he ovecomes his corruptions, he speaks of what he saw at the cross, and the roll he was given when he was sealed as a son of God, but then he goes on to say, “and when my thoughts wax warm about whither I am going, that will do it . . . there I hope to see him alive, that did hang dead on the cross, and there I hope to be rid of those things, that to this day are in me, an anoiance to me, there they say is no death, and there I shall dwell with such Company as I like best. For to tell you the truth, I love him, because I was by him eased of my burden, and I am weary of my inward sickness; I would fain be where I should die no more, and with the Company that shall continually cry, Holy, Holy, Holy.” (Pilgrim’s Progess, Oxford Press, 50-51) I confess that I do this far too little, choosing instead to seek comfort and security and status on my own, in a place that is not my home.
I know as I look out this window that the place I see is no longer my home. I live instead about 40 miles west, where the church God has given me to pastor is right now as I study here. But my dear wife and I have both agreed that although it is a warm and loving place, it still has an unfamiliar feeling about it that disappears when we return here to Jackson. The discontinuity there will likely fade with time as God grants us new relationships, new affections, and we desperately pray, new experiences of his grace in this new place. But the feeling of homesickness for a place we were made for, but are right now separated from, may never leave. In fact, I hope it grows stronger each day.