Just Die Already, Part II -or- Home Is Where the Heart(ache) Is(?)

I preached the following sermon to Circle of Hope East in December 2004, just 8 days before Samuel was born four months premature and our lives were changed forever.

John 14: 1 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” 8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

Home. For some of us the word evokes fond memories of a nurturing family, especially at this time of the year. For others, including me, the word is fraught with a tension we can hardly describe. We want to be part of a meaningful and nurturing home, but the one we grew up in wasn’t at all like that, and so we struggle to redefine what home means to us as we grow up and make our own dwelling places. But I wonder, and maybe you do too: just what is home, anyway? Frederick Buechner describes home this way:

The word home summons up a place…which you have rich and complex feelings about, a place where you feel, or did feel once, uniquely at home, which is to say a place where you feel you belong and which in some sense belongs to you, a place where you feel that all is somehow ultimately well even if things aren’t going all that well at any given moment. To think about home eventually leads you to think back to your childhood home, the place where your life started, the place which on and off throughout your life you keep going back to if only in dreams and memories and which is apt to determine the kind of place, perhaps a place inside yourself, that you spend the rest of your life searching for even if you are not aware that you are searching. I suspect that those who as children never had such a place in actuality had instead some kind of dream of such a home, which for them played an equally crucial part.

As I alluded to a moment ago, I would definitely fall into the latter category. I did not grow up in the kind of home that Buechner describes, though I have always longed for it. In fact, I have spent all of my adult life thus far trying to create such a home, and it has been an exceedingly difficult task.

I think the thing that is so meaningful and important about the dream of home that Buechner talks about it is this idea that it belongs to you, or maybe more importantly that you belong to it, and that somehow, no matter what is happening presently, the result is that all is well or you can rest assured that all will be. Home, for me, is an idea that evokes a sense of safety and security, even though I never knew such safety growing up, and I think that’s often how things work. Sometimes we know things by their presence, but sometimes it is only in the absence of something that we come to know and long for it. This is especially true of God, I think, and you may have heard talk of the “God-shaped hole” that many of us experience in the absence of the abiding presence of Jesus, but I’ll say more about that later. In the meantime, let me say this, and I warn you that this is a spoiler for where my talk is going, but here it is anyway: I believe that whatever kind of home you grew up in- whether you knew a loving home or knew only the absence of one and so yearn for it, like me- either way such a home is a far cry from our true home. That true home is with Jesus, the same Jesus that John says is the Word by which all things were made and in whom all things hold together. God, who is love, so overflows with that love that he made a world. He made us, and breathed into us the breath of life, literally inspiring us to be, to exist. He made us in love, and for love, for right relationship with him and all creation. Ultimately, Jesus is the home we were made for, but like the animals in Narnia we’ve fallen asleep and lost our ability to talk. We don’t remember who we are or what we were made for, but every once in a while, sometimes in the best of our earthly homes, we catch a glimpse of the mystery that lies just beyond our awareness; we see a doorway open for an instant, and we are blinded by the love that waits to make us whole again, and so we set out on a journey- we begin to make our way to our final and true home.

Of course, the hard thing that we find along the way is that this journey to wholeness and home is finally impossible. If Jesus is the home we long for, then like Thomas we do not know where he is going or how to get there. We know only that the lasting peace and rest that we so long for is just beyond our grasp, and so we conclude that we couldn’t possibly be home yet. We are broken, fractured by our freedom to choose because we so often choose that which takes us further from home, away from love. We do not love as we should and do not really know why. We are lost, unable to find our home and in some ways unable to find even our true selves, because as I said before, we’ve forgotten who- and whose- we are. We do not know that we were made in and for love, or we know it only by the absence of such love in our lives. We do not know that we belong to the King, Jesus, and so we bend the knee at any impostor king who comes along and is able to capture our imagination, or at least distract us for a time from the emptiness inside. In the end, lost and alone, yearning for a home we have only dreamed about, we realize that we cannot save ourselves, and we begin to come undone. It’s a hard thing to learn, but I think it’s an essential part of our journey, because in our weakness God’s strength is revealed.

Realizing that I cannot save myself- that I can not create out of my own force of will the kind of home I never had- has been terribly hard for me, but ever so slowly, I am learning. You see, as I’ve alluded to, my home growing up was a pretty messed up place, and those of you who know me or have heard me talk before may know that all too well. My father was very loving, but that love was drowned in the sea of my mother’s abuse, and that abuse marks me deeply and has gone a long way toward making me the man I am today. In fact, I’ve recently begun to imagine the abusive home of my youth as an image. In this image I see my mother, a vital, raving lunatic, trapped in a dungeon deep in my psyche. This is a deep, dark place inside me where no one ever goes, but there she is, locked in a cage, railing at the bars, cursing at anything that moves. And there I am, as a child, about five years old, sitting just outside my mother’s cage, curled up in a ball, sobbing and rocking back and forth. I think that image is the emotional center that I live out of most of the time, though I’m hardly aware of it. I know it’s true, though, because when Jesus actually gets to me- when I see him for who he really is and remember who I really am, that’s the immediate place I go to. I begin to cry, overcome with the experience of his love and care for me even though I’m just a small, broken, weeping child.

So I’ve sort of been living a double life. As an adult I’m even-keeled and intellectual, and though I have moments of passion I’m mostly disconnected from my emotions. I’m fractured that way because I had to be in order to survive my mother’s abuse. I couldn’t keep feeling the way she made me feel at five years old, or I would simply have died. So I became very skilled at hiding and suppressing those emotions and living as if I didn’t have them, and the result is that today, standing before you, I am only half a person, at best. I’m out in the world, looking for home, and I haven’t even brought all of myself along. I don’t know how to be whole, because the part I’ve left behind is a small, weak five year old, who is scared and crying in front of a cage.

But I recently had what I can only describe as a vison, and I think this vision holds the key to my journey to wholeness and home. In it I see myself kneeling before Jesus- as he might be pictured in Revelation, in full warrior garb, eyes blazing, with sword at the ready. I kneel there before him, and he keeps pressing me, asking me over and over again: “Will you yield?!” Each time I am unable to comply; though I want to- I want to say “yes” and acknowledge his lordship over all creation, especially over me. I want to submit to him and trust that he loves me and can keep me safe, but I can’t. I remain stuck, frozen in indecision, trapped in a halting reply. Finally, exasperated, Jesus simply cuts me in two (think Darth =ader and Obi-Wan Kenobi in Episode IV of Star Wars). He cuts me in two and I ‘m gone- obliterated….and then, I ‘m there again. Somehow changed. Whole. Complete. No longer kneeling, I see Jesus, and he is different too. With his warrior garb gone, he says to me, “Behold, I make all things new!”

I think that in this vision Jesus offers me a way out- through death, and into new life, but in order to receive that life, I must tread the path that we all must journey down in order to be made whole. If I am to find my life, I must lose it. If I am to be born again, I must die, and God must endure labor to give life to me anew. Jesus offers me a chance to put an end to this identity I have made for myself as the dispassionate intellectual, an identity rooted in my experience of abuse, an identity which consequently is all about self-protection, and so is all about self. Jesus is giving me an opportunity to be that five year old again and live his life over. This time, however, instead of being overwhelmed by the lack of love and abuse that he suffered, I am carried along, as that child, in the loving arms of Jesus. His enduring love is the home I never knew, and that love abides with me day by day as I learn again what it means to live and love and trust and make a family.

This is the task that Mary and Joseph were faced with, I think, as they learned what it meant to carry the baby Jesus, give birth to him, and raise him. Somehow they knew, of course, that their child was different. An angel had come to each of them independently to describe what was to be and reassure them that it was God’s doing, and there were some pretty big moments along the way: like when Mary magnified the Lord after John the Baptist, still in Elizabeth’s womb, leaped for joy at the presence of Jesus, still in Mary’s womb, and later the Magi came, and the heavens opened to announce the birth of Jesus to some unsuspecting shepherds in a field. Likewise, after Jesus was born, they took him to the Temple and an old man named Simeon proclaimed that seeing the infant Jesus was the very thing that made his life finally complete, as he had been promised that he would not die without seeing the Lord’s Anointed One.

All of these things had to have been pretty significant to Mary and Joseph, but these were the high points, the big moments that capture the headlines of the Bible, and we actually know very little about their every day life, about what happened between the lines of the Bible’s pages. And so we wonder about those times when no one was looking, when Mary and Joseph looked into each other’s eyes and wondered what the future held, and what they held in Mary’s belly. The Bible doesn’t capture the secret things they said at night when no one was looking. We do know that Joseph nearly called the whole thing off, but the angel took care of that, and so, like us, Mary and Joseph spent their days watching, waiting, and wondering. They watched Mary’s belly grow, and they waited for Jesus to come as they wondered what it all really meant.

What a magical and mysterious time that must have been. I especially appreciate this Advent season because I get to enter into the story in a new way, as Kirsten and I are expecting a son in the Spring. Even with the very real experience of watching Kirsten’s belly grow, I still can’t imagine what Joseph must have felt, but like him, I hope, I struggle to put it all in perspective and find rest in the midst of it. You see, I think, for a numer of different reasons, that Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said that you have to be like a child to enter his kingdom. One of the ways that I think this works has to do with belief. Many children, even in our jaded culture, haven’t yet learned to disbelieve. When watching a movie they don’t have to be convinced to suspend their disbelief because their belief hasn’t been suspended yet. Children who have been loved and nurtured well see wonder and magic everywhere- they have “eyes to see” the kingdom. That’s what’s so great about Christmastime, even the commercialized version of it. For six weeks or so, or longer- depending on who can make a buck off it- as a culture we give ourselves permission to be children again. We wait, expectantly, for something magical to happen. We hope, even if we can’t quite believe it, that families will gather and try to love one another. It’s a time when, if only we would stop and be still and listen quietly, we can catch a glimpse of the impossible. You might step through a wardrobe and be in Narnia. The creator and King of the Universe might come to be with us as a helpless baby.

I think Kirsten and I had an experience like this when we decided to move back to Philadelphia and be a part of you all again. We had sojourned in Minnesota for five long years. It was a hard time for both of us, but especially so for me. As you know, I grew up abused and was terribly marked by that experience. While in school I did Kingdomworks, which brought me to Philly to serve in the inner-city, and I was marked by that too, and so I got married and left school and moved here, where we found Circle shortly after it started. We were here for two years and then moved to MN to be with Kirsten’s dying father. My mother died the day after he did, and that weekend of funerals was, for me, a study in contrasts between the consequences of a life lived attempting to love and serve others, like Kirsten’s dad did, and one lived in the absence of such love and service, like my mother. I went to seminary while we were out there, which was a wonderful but terribly hard time for me that wound up looking a lot like the desert that Joshua described last week. It was out of that deserted, desert place that I began to hear that still, small voice calling us back to Philadelphia, and when Kirsten and I decided to go for it, I told her that it was time for us to believe again.

It was time for us to believe, at a most basic level, in Jesus again, and don’t be alarmed- it’s not like somehow we stopped believing along the way; it’s quite the contrary, in fact. I am firmly convinced that, despite the rhetoric of some Christians, doubt is not the enemy of faith, but its partner. As Buechner says:

There are times when all of our explanations ring false even as we make them. There are times when it is hard to see how any honest, intelligent person can look at the world without conluding, like Macbeth, that the whole show is a tale
told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing. Many of us have faith in God and yet have doubts too, and in the long run perhaps it is just as well that we have them. At least doubts prove that we are in touch with reality, with the things that threaten faith as well as with the things that nourish it. If we are not in touch with reality, then our faith is apt to be blind, fragile, and irrelevant.

Even so, coming back here, to you, was a step taken in faith, in the belief that ultimately hope is something that happens, and love is something you do. Coming back here, was, for us, another step forward in the long journey home. We keep taking those steps, however halting they may be, because we know in some sense just beyond our perception or understanding that we are of course home already, because Jesus is the home we yearn for, and he has come to live among us. This is the promise of Immanuel, of God with us. Through his birth, life, death, resurrection, and the ongoing life of his spirit in you and me, God has made a “big space of grace” in which we can live, and move, and have our being. Our home is wherever Jesus is, and Jesus is with us always. Like Thomas, we wonder how to see the Father, to see God and by doing so find the home that we long for, and so to us, too, Jesus says: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” But Jesus will not coerce us into acknowledging this. He will not force us to receive his love. God hides in the weak and powerless, in babies and AIDS patients, so that when we find him there we can begin to understand his love- and his judgment. Jesus stands at the margins, with the least of these, wooing us to follow him through death and into new life. I leave you, then, with another quote from Frederick Buechner that has been so meaningful to me because I think it sums up what it means to find a home with Jesus in everyday life. He says:

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, and smell you way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis, all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.

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