God is at home, it’s we who have gone out for a walk. — Meister Eckhart
What is home to you? No, not where your stuff is currently. What is home in those moments when it’s all going wrong, when you’re not sure you can take another step or perform one more task that’s expected of you?
I went to my 30-year high school reunion some years back. I hadn’t returned to that little town in almost that long and was pretty hesitant to go even then. For one thing, I didn’t actually graduate from high school in that town. When my parents split, mom, my sister, and I moved to a larger town. However, I’d gone to school in that little town for most all my school years, with the exception of the last year or so. Too, I was hesitant because I wasn’t certain I wanted to see those people with whom I’d grown up. I didn’t have particularly fond memories of childhood and was pretty sure I wasn’t well-liked – perhaps not even remembered.
It had been home. At least I thought it had been. I drove down the street where I grew up and drove right past the house I’d lived in for about twelve years of my young life without even seeing it. Everything had changed. Or, maybe it’s just that I had changed. About a block from that house, the town basically ends. Even now, that’s pretty much where it ends. So, I knew I must have driven past the house. But where was it? In my vacant lot a half-block from the house now stood a Methodist church. At lot of memories had been paved over – taken over, even. I was still years away from returning to church and I was not particularly happy with this intrusion on my own sacred space. I’d built a little rock altar on that lot decades ago. I’d even accidentally set the whole block on fire once. Sure, I’d walked away, but I still carried that sacred space with me. And they had taken it.
I turned the car around and, very slowly, began to drive back the other direction. Oh, there it was. 1405 Mercer Street. Oh, my God, what happened? It was so small. It was so drab. Where was that big front yard I’d played in? Had I merely gotten bigger? Perhaps I’d just gotten angrier over the years and everything in my life looked smaller. I was so thankful, at that moment, that I’d remembered to bring an ample supply of alcohol for the weekend – I was pretty sure I was going to need it. This place was still in a dry county. It was also still about eight or nine miles to “Trash Hill” at the Oklahoma border where you could stock up on what you’d need to wet your whistle. It was dusty when I’d grown up there. It was dusty still – and my whistle was feeling pretty dry.
I’m still not certain why I went to that reunion. There was some curiosity, for sure. But there was also a longing. Somewhere in the alcohol-soaked haze of my life, I wanted to reconnect with something I wasn’t even sure still existed, or had ever existed.
I got to the school auditorium just at the end of the opening ceremony. I’d gotten a late start that morning. Had a little trouble getting moving. The hangover I was working to correct wasn’t helping, either. As people were filing out, a woman I’d known as a child recognized me, came over to me, and gave me a hug. She was a nurse and told me to stand up straight whenever she saw me. I probably should have taken her advice. I didn’t then. I still don’t. But it was good to see her. So, something good must have happened occasionally. Here, at least, was a fond memory.
A while later, I arrived on the town square where some festivity was going on. There were people sitting in lawn chairs on the grass and strolling around the square. I have to admit I don’t remember any of it very well. I drank a lot that weekend and a lot more for a couple additional years after that.
As I approached old schoolmates, they called out, “Ben! You haven’t changed a bit!” They were lying, of course, but it’s a lie I enjoy very much so I didn’t try to dissuade them. What it really meant was that they were happy to see me and I wasn’t sure why. They remembered me. They remembered a “me” I didn’t remember. And, apparently, I still looked like Ben, whoever that was. I recognized some of them instantly. It’s hard to forget some faces you grew up with. On the other hand, some of them looked like no one I’d ever met. If you’ve ever been to a school reunion, I’m sure you know what I mean. A lot of them had gotten older – grandparents, even! I guess I’d never really thought about it.
I left that reunion more confused than when I’d arrived. I no longer knew who I was, but I was pretty sure I wasn’t the guy they seemed to remember fondly. I couldn’t have been, could I? I remember being teased relentlessly. I remember being on the outside looking in. I remember a pained existence.
My junior high annual, however, appears to tell a different story. Even then, there were many times I was in the center of things. Even then, there had been a place for me that allowed my picture to appear frequently in that annual despite the fact that I wasn’t any sort of athlete – not part of the “in” crowd. You know, classroom president, on the annual staff, later in drama class – that sort of stuff. The problem is that I remember other things going on at precisely the same time in my life. Even then, my thoughts frequently drifted toward suicide. How could I reconcile those memories with this experience and that Ben they seemed to know? My answer was very much the same one that had become so very familiar to me. I drank more. I couldn’t allow myself to look too carefully at that time because in order to look at good times (if there had, in fact, been good times), I’d have to remember the bad. I just wasn’t willing to do that. I just wasn’t able to do that.
It would be another eight or so years before I was to return to that little town. By then, I’d been sober for a while and was in therapy trying to deal with some of the same things I couldn’t deal with at the time of the reunion. A friend from high school was going to be there and he invited me to join him there for the weekend. He had some other obligations, but we’d have at least part of the evenings to do some catching up. This is the guy who’d helped me stick around all those years ago when I’d called him after an overdose. God has blessed me with friends who are willing to help me remember home.
I spent a lot of that Saturday driving alone slowly up one street and down the next. I wanted to remember whatever it was I was going to remember. It was a tough day. But it was a start. I learned that allowing myself to remember whatever there was left of my memory didn’t kill me. The memories were fragmented. So much seemed to be gone forever. My friend remembers so much better than I and was willing to fill in some of the blanks for me. Here and there, the things he told me sounded familiar. Others sounded as though he was talking about someone else. But I trust this friend. I believe this friend. And I was one step closer to finding home.
As you may recall, I accidentally arrived back in church in early February 2009. So much happened in the next few months. I joined the church, was baptized again at age 56. Every Advent season, Lake Shore members contribute to an Advent booklet. There’s a personal story for each day of Advent. The theme that year was Home By Another Way. I was asked if I’d like to write something for Advent. I was honored to be asked to be a part of a tradition in a place I knew very little about. The topic seemed custom-fit for me, though, as I was in the process of finding my own way home. Here’s what I wrote for that first Advent. My entry was for December 3, two days after my fifty-seventh birthday.
Sometimes, the journey home takes a wrong turn or three along the way. At least that’s been the case for me. Stumbling upon the labyrinth behind Lake Shore last February, I was struck by how beautiful, yet sad, it looked – overgrown, neglected. It was by the grace of God that the labyrinth became a metaphor for my own life. I arrived full of anger, hurt, selfishness – in a word, fear.
But, before discovering the labyrinth, I showed up in church one day. It seemed so harmless – just a decision to surprise my stepmother, Charlene, by showing up and sitting with her in church. I honestly don’t know where the thought originated, but there I was. And again, the grace of God was present. I knew nothing of Lake Shore, had never been in a church whose services began the way Lake Shore’s do, did not know the pastor was a woman.
I realized later the importance of having the voices of women inviting me back home. Women had been the enfolding presence in my life as a child, protecting me, though unable to protect me because I knew no words to explain how I needed help. But isn’t that a part of the grace of God – meeting us exactly where we are?
There was Rachel Sciretti and Children’s Time that Sunday morning. I almost bolted as the children gathered in front. The message that morning was “sometimes we need help.” The tears started as I thought to myself, “Why wasn’t I taught that?” The miracle of it all is that my next thought was, “How wonderful these children are being taught that.”
The journey home had begun, though I had no way of knowing it at the time. The sermon was “The Tearing that is Teaching”, a part of the “Tearing and the Light” series. The message I heard was that the light enters through the places torn in our souls. And I ran. The tears hurt too much. The next week I was back. I didn’t know why. For once in my life, I’d decided not to question why, but simply showed up. I contacted Dorisanne and asked if it would be okay if I did some weeding in the labyrinth. I felt a strong attraction to that place and knew my soul needed as much tending as the labyrinth. Each Sunday, I returned to sit with Charlene. And each Sunday, I knew a little more of why I was there. This frightening place with its scary and comforting music and message had begun to feel like it could be home. But I walked away from church forty years ago. How was I supposed to know what home looked like anymore?
So, I listened. And I cried. And I laughed. Gradually, I realized I didn’t have to have all the answers in order to recognize home. Every week there were people coming up to me before and after services to welcome me. They seemed genuinely happy I was there, though I had no idea why. I decided I was happy I was there, also.
One tiny step. It truly is all that’s needed to begin the journey.
Those last two lines. That’s the point, isn’t it? It finally came down to either continuing a long, exhausting journey to nowhere or stepping out on faith and beginning a journey to somewhere. And perhaps it wasn’t even a beginning for me, rather a continuation of a journey interrupted so many years before.
It had taken me over forty years to realize home wasn’t back in that dusty little town. Home wasn’t any of the houses I’d lived in all those years. Home wasn’t even any place my parents lived while they were alive. No, I’d been carrying home around within me through it all. Home was buried, of course, beneath years of pain, years of fear, years of anger. Little by little, though, the fear began to fall away as I faced both the anger and the pain. Not all the fear has left me, nor the anger nor the pain. Funny thing about pain, though. When there’s been so much, you tend to forget that it’s pain. Some of it had to be pointed out to me – still does. As with the anger, I’d convinced myself there really wasn’t that much pain, after all. I thought it was easier on me that way. Again, I was wrong.
As it turns out, home consists of fond memories, of people you’ve loved – even if they are no longer with you. Home travels with you in the form of the love that’s been extended to you, even if you chose not to acknowledge it at the time. Home is never really a place, is it? You may have to or choose to leave one place for another. So we take home with us on our travels once we’ve realized home is portable. It’s realizing that’s the problem.
So, home traveled with me through all the pain, all the joy, all those annoyances of life – big and small. I believe in a God I cannot adequately imagine or describe. If you think you understand God, I personally believe your God is too small. The God I know carried me through hell and back. And it’s so much more a knowing than an understanding. It’s so much easier to take a breath now that I’ve given up the job of taking care of you. Frankly, I’m just not up to it. Through God, however, I can reach out a hand and perhaps help make your life a little easier if that’s what you need. I can extend an understanding hand because I’ve been there. In one way or another, we’ve all been there. I know now I don’t have to do it all as long as I can do it with community. Just my little part. I never really had to do it alone, though I’d forgotten that.
And so, I rediscovered home. I frequently sit now in worship with a lot of other people who perhaps already knew they were home. They shared that important secret with me – home is where you are, even if you’re not sure who you are. It’s not always easy, but it’s that place you know to which you can return despite anything that happens. So, I can go to where my stuff lives and discover home is there, also. It’s filled with good intentions and sometimes bad decisions. But most of all, it’s the place where there’s always another chance.
It’s good to be home again. Thanks be to God.