In July, our family spent two and a half weeks away from home, the longest separation from home we’ve had in many, many years. Driving west through white-bright afternoon sun outside Scottsbluff, Nebraska, under the wide, pale blue sky, we saw a green sign that listed Casper, some 175 miles away. We all cheered. We were coming home.
Ideally, coming home from time away arouses a deep cherishing and gratitude. Years ago, I wrote of this quiet joy of homecoming, of the familiarity and certainty of returning to your place, your life, located geographically and emotionally in the circle of many other lives.
[On the way,] we stopped in south-central Minnesota at a BP, which happened to be across the road from an implement business. We sat on the curb next to the pump, drinking Mountain Dew Throwback … listening to the quiet roar of traffic on I-90 and the periodic buzz of crickets in the surrounding fields. “You can tell the pace has slowed down already,” [Jon said], and I realized that I was breathing differently–more relaxed, slower. Sitting there, pointing out the occasional car, enjoying the silences that only family togetherness can create, I realized it felt like home, felt like here. We still had a few hours to drive, but it didn’t matter–the rush and bustle of the more metro areas we visited in the last ten days were fading. And I was glad. Really glad.
I think experiencing these kinds of homecomings is important. Despite their nostalgic, gooey emotional fervor, They portend, however dimly, of the great homecoming we await in Christ. As Martin Luther put it, we will go to sleep and awake to the gentle sound of our Savior’s voice and open our eyes to see His face. We will know we have arrived at our final Home–the place and endless time where we will never, ever have to leave Him.
Perhaps an even closer comparison to our final homecoming, then, would be a church homecoming. A short story: I attended a conference five years ago in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and several pastors and I who were driving to the airport together had some extra time to spare before our flights left. “Do you mind if we visit Zion?” one asked. “I did my fieldwork there.” During seminary study, Sem students are assigned to local congregations to be mentored by those congregations’ ordained and installed clergy, to participate in services by assisting with communion and the like, and generally to get a small taste of a church home. We all agreed to swing by the majestic church. No one was there, but the pastor jumped out and took a selfie anyway.
As we drove toward the airport, several of us realized that we were close to Redeemer, another beautiful church where another pastor with us had done fieldwork. Jon had been placed there, too, and he and I had attended there many times during his last year of seminary, so I was very familiar with it. We pulled into the parking lot and I ran to the back door, expecting no response, but after a moment, Pastor Petersen answered. He’d thought he was hearing things when he heard the bell on that slow July midweek afternoon, but he was thrilled to greet us and show us in.
We walked through the dim hall toward the sanctuary, the only light streaming softly through the stained glass. We paused in the narthex as Pastor Petersen opened the double doors that led down the center aisle of the nave. When he opened them wide, he turned to us and said quietly, “Welcome home.”
In all the years of referring to my church home, truly I had never quite connected the idea of home with church. Yet at that moment, hearing that welcome made sense. I realized that it was a truer description than any of a place where I could claim to rest and to know I belonged, forever.
In my life, I have been blessed to be a member of congregations in Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, Minnesota, and now Wyoming. Jon has been a member of congregations in Wisconsin. We both loved his vicarage year at a congregation in Connecticut. We have visited wonderful congregations in Indiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Missouri, and many other places. When we have been able to visit churches where we have been members, and even those we have not, we have cherished the common gifts we recognize and receive–the Word and Sacrament. Though our childhood homes have long since passed from our experience, our church homes have not.
Even more importantly, the immortal Truth they share will never pass away. We may be nomads, physically, while as sinners, we always wander away from God. Much of what we know here on earth is rootlessness, the unrest of the wanderers longing for our eternal home. Yet we can rest, in the knowledge that our Savior is the same yesterday, today, and forever. And He desires nothing more than for us to come home.
Coming soon: What happens when our earthly homes, particularly our churches, are broken?