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A post-homiletical discourse delivered by the Rev. Dr. James R. Beebe
Rector, St. Patrick’s Church, Incline Village, Nevada, January 2, 2011
"You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame, back home to exile…back home to the ivory tower, back home to places in the country…back home to the father you have lost and have been looking for, back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time--back home to the escapes of Time and Memory."
That from Thomas Wolfe, author of You Can’t Go Home Again. In the last 250 years we’ve even coined a word for it: “nostalgia.” It started in 1688, when Johannes Hofer, a Swiss scholar, used this word to describe a new disease that affected young people far from home. Its symptoms included "continued sadness, meditation only of the Fatherland, disturbed sleep ... decrease of strength, hunger, thirst, ... cares or even palpitations of the heart, frequent sighs, ... stupidity of the mind—attending to nothing hardly, other than an idea of the Fatherland." The best remedy was to return sufferers home, for nostalgia was thought to prove fatal.
It reminds me of Heraclitus’ image of a man stepping into a river: “You never step into the same river twice.” It speaks of the nature of things: unrelenting, unremitting change. Is that true? That change is the nature of things and that you can never go home again?
Depends who you ask. One of the lessons I’ve learned from reading endless golf magazines is that there’s a lot of contradictory advice out there: keep your arm straight (no, a bent left arm is OK); take a wide stance for stability (no, take a narrow stance for a better turn); the pitching motion is just arms and hands (no, you should rotate, just like a normal swing). Oy!
So maybe I’ll quote one more literary genius to see if I can get a better take on going home. This one’s from T.S. Eliot:
“We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.”
There, now that’s sorta better, don’t you think. Sure, you can’t quite go home again, but at least this time home is possible, albeit with a different set of spectacles.
So Wolfe thinks there’s no chance and Eliot’s answer is asterisked. Who do we have as a tie-breaker? Let’s look at old Jeremiah. He’s writing in the 6th century B.C.E. and anticipating his peoples’ return to Judah after 40 years in exile. He describes “home” as only a Hebrew farmer could: “I will let them walk by brooks of water….They shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden.”
Another prophet – one from the city – talks about the final restoration of Israel as a sort of “going home,” only he uses the images he’s used to: a heavenly city, somehow transported to earth. It’s hard not to notice that both he and the farmer have associated the feeling of being “home” with being somehow “restored” to an idealized former condition.
Even Jesus uses the “home” metaphor in his attempt to calm down the disciples: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am, you may be also.”
Theologians insist that this fragile earth, our island home, is not our permanent address. That we are sojourners in a faraway place. I suspect that, in the end, we’ll find this out. If you want to get all Buddhist about it, Stephen Levine talks about “home” in his book, A Year to Live: How to Live This Year As If It Were Your Last. Only he talks about death as the experience of “going home”:
“It is, just a little way into the process, the moment when something is suddenly remembered that it seems impossible to have forgotten. We ‘remember’ how safe death is, we recall the benefits of being free of the limitations of the body, and we ask ourselves, somewhat incredulously, ‘How could I have forgotten something so important, and what was it again that made me want to stay in a body?’ No longer holding back, we feel ourselves dissolving safe and sound into an increasingly joyous, even youthful, sense of heading home.”
That almost gets it for me. Almost.
The only thing missing seems to be the relational part. The reason Jesus is so hard on families is his unrelenting insistence that everyone is family. And what if – in the end – it’s all home? I know that’s a hard thing to grasp. So let’s take a stab at something a little more modest.
OK – think this thought: “I thank my God for all my remembrance of you.”
* Now think of a name. You choose the name. Remember it. Think of another name. And another. And another.
* Do you have some names? Keep the list your head. Keep it in your heart.
* Till the day you die, keep it.
And when you get to the Pearly Gates, St. Peter’s going to say, “Now, look, you went into the world with nothing, you’ve got to come out of it with nothing. Now, what’ve you got?”
And you’ll say, “Well, it’s just some names.”
“Let me see it.”
“It’s just some names of folks I worked with and folks who helped me.”
“Let me see it.”
“This is just a group of people who, if it weren’t for them, I’d have never made it.”
And he’ll say, “I want to see it.”
So you give it to him. And he’ll smile and say, “I know all of them. In fact, on my way here they were painting a great big sign to hang over the street. Just for you. And it said…