I grew up on a small acreage in central Iowa, fifteen miles from the nearest town. I left home when I graduated from high school and I haven’t lived there for any significant period of time since I was 18. Now, you might find this strange, but I miss the landscape of central Iowa.
The part of Iowa where I’m from is a unique kind of beauty.
Mile after mile of gently rolling hills greet you clothed in shades of green so pure, you’re certain that reality has been photo-shopped.
And then there’s the soil.
Black. Clean. Did you know that dirt can be clean? Because it can. This dirt is clean.
When I look at that soil,
I think about glaciers
creeping slowly across the plains
300,000 years ago,
emancipating the minerals
that make that land so esteemed
That is clean dirt. Now you know.
When I returned to Iowa for the summer between my freshman and sophomore year at Hope College, I took some pictures of the landscape that I could bring back to Michigan.
I took pictures of things that I thought were beautiful – hills, fields, wide open spaces where you could actually see the gentle curvature of the earth on the horizon … and of course, dirt … clean, black dirt.
I worked in a custom picture framing shop at the time and so I decided to frame some of these pictures I’d taken. That way, I figured, I could hang them on my walls in my dorm room. Because, that’s what every college aged male does, right? They hang pictures of dirt on their dorm room walls.
When people came into my room they would look at the pictures. They’d just look. They rarely said anything, and if they did it was something like, “So … dirt, huh?”
But, every once in awhile, someone would ask, “What am I looking at here?”
And I’d say, “That’s home.”
Home is something that we all long for.
It’s a place that is ours, a place where we belong.
When you read the word “home” a few moments ago, it probably conjured up an image in your mind. And the image that each of us has when we think of home is as diverse as we are. No two people have the same idea of what, exactly, home is.
However, we all share at least one thing in common: we all long for it. Home holds a mythical power over us.
The story of the Bible is a story about home, and the longing for a place we can call our own.
It’s the story of Abraham, which begins like this:
Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. -Genesis 12:1
Basically: Leave home.
But there’s more, and it doesn’t get much better:
Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there.-Genesis 15:13
In short: Your ancestors will have to make a home in a place that is not their home.
Despite all this, however, the longing for a home never evades the Hebrew people. The promise of a land, a place, a home to call their own captures their imaginations and never goes away.
The rest of the Old Testament is the story of these people
searching for home,
fighting for home,
longing for home.
It’s a story about the journey toward home.
Of course, the journey isn’t easy for them. It never is. And that is in part because our conceptions of home are intimately related to place. Physical space matters.
The Israelites have a terrible time trusting God once they leave the slavery of Egypt. Even though they long for HOME, they make the journey very difficult on themselves and even ask to go back to Egypt. Why?
Because we long for what is familiar. As tormenting as it may be, even captivity can feel like home.
For 430 years, Egypt was the only home that any Israelite knew!
Let that sink in.
When they think of home,
they don’t think of a land flowing with milk and honey –
even though that is what they desperately want.
When they think of home,
they think of Egypt – the land of slavery.
We are deeply connected to what is familiar, to predictable patterns, to known places. Place matters, and, for good or for ill, it shapes us.
Sometimes, we remember those places as UTOPIA … a place where things were SO MUCH BETTER.
Of course, UTOPIA, by definition, doesn’t exist.
The word utopia is made up of two words ou, which mean “not,” and topos, which means “place.”
Utopia is literally “the nowhere place.”
Utopia – the place that is not.
Even though we know that utopia doesn’t really exist, most of us want to go there. The siren songs are strong in Utopia. If you have been paying attention to politics in the United States the past couple of years, you have watched this play out in real time with real consequences.
Here’s the thing about Utopia: God isn’t interested in sending you there.
God’s story isn’t about going back to a mythical time and place where things were magically better than they are now. While that might get you elected, it is ultimately a fool’s errand.
One of my favorite theologians, Stanley Hauerwas, says:
“As Christians we are at home in no nation. Our true home is the church itself, where we find those who, like us, have been formed by a savior who was necessarily always on the move.” -Stanley Hauerwas, The Servant Community
God’s promise isn’t just a promise of a place. It is the promise of a person. The person we receive in Jesus Christ, and the person we are becoming because our life is hid in him. (Colossians 3:3)
We become people who are formed not by the land we live in, but by the person we follow, and the adopted family to which we belong, the Church.
We become a people who find ourselves on the move
from death to life,
from old to new,
from darkness to light.
People who aren’t just looking for a new home, but who are looking to become new themselves!
Because God makes this incredible promise:
I will be your God and you will be my people.-Exodus 6:7
God offers a way for us to be at home no matter where we are.