Do you remember what it was like to be at summer camp or some other foreign place and be so miserably homesick that you thought, and perhaps wished, that you would die? The gospel song that says, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” describes that horrible feeling for me. And homesickness is not merely a childhood disease. Adolescence, mid-life crises, old age are all life interruptions that are ways of describing recurring outbreaks of homesickness—of feeling broken, alienated and alone in a strange world where we often wonder what we’re doing here?
We try to cure our homesickness with a host of home remedies—large doses of education, exercise—be it running marathons or climbing corporate ladders, accumulating friends and/or lovers who fill our time and the lack of peace we feel. Power, money, prestige, new cars, new clothes, new houses, new jobs, new spouses, booze, beauty treatments, Grecian Formula. We try it all don’t we? And for the most part it is all a huge waste of time and money. Because when we let our defenses down and find ourselves alone with nothing to do—remember those were the times the homesickness got you at camp too? When we’re not too busy to think and feel, then the old feeling sneaks up on us and we start feeling like that motherless child again.
The sad part is that we all feel that lack of peace frequently. But we rarely let anyone know. The world is full of homesick, motherless and fatherless children, and Paul tells us in Corinthians that our job as ambassadors or instruments of peace is to comfort the homesick and assure them they can always come home again—to God, the only reliable true source of peace. The homesick need to hear that word of reconciliation now—to know that peace is not off in the distant future. It didn’t help to have some well-intentioned camp counselor tell me that my parents would pick me up at the end of summer camp on Saturday when it was only Tuesday. I wanted someone to comfort me and hold me right then. I wasn’t sure I would even live till Saturday! That’s why Paul says we are already new creatures in Christ. The day of deliverance has already come in the Prince of Peace from Nazareth.
That’s the good news we need we are to give one another. But as you well know, one homesick kid cannot cure another one. The disease will spread like an epidemic once the tears start to flow. So, if we are to be reconcilers, we need first to be reconciled to God. We need to be at peace ourselves if we have any hope of being peacemakers. We need to be made whole, cured of our own homesickness before we can help others who are lost and afraid.
We need to hear and know that there is only one cure for deep, ontological homesickness, and that cure is faith–faith that is deeper and distinguished from mere belief. Belief is holding certain ideas about something, or about life. Faith, on the other hand, is a more total and deeper response of inner peace and trust. For example, it is one thing to believe a parachute will open properly, to understand the physics of why and how parachutes work. But it is quite another thing to have enough faith or trust in a parachute to strap one on your back and jump out of a plane at 5000 feet.
Faith, according to theologian Wilfred Cantwell Smith, is “a quality of human living. At its best it has taken the form of serenity and courage and loyalty and service: a quiet confidence and joy which enable one to feel at home in the universe, and to find meaning in the world and in one’s own life, a meaning that is profound and ultimate, and is stable no matter what may happen.”
To be at peace means to “feel at home in the universe,” to know as the “Desiderata” says, that “You are a child of the universe, no less than the rocks the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive God to be….and keep peace with your soul.” To be at peace at home in the universe is to be at peace with oneself and God.
I have cherished a very powerful and concrete image of what it means to be at home in the universe since shortly after the space shuttle Challenger explosion in early 1986. Part of being at peace is an ability to find meaning and truth in unexpected and even tragic circumstances. For me, the final words from Commander Dick Scobee before the explosion have become a mantra for me of peaceful living. About sixty seconds after blast off Mission Control informed the Challenger crew that they were going back to full power, and Commander Scobee’s confident reply was, “Roger, Go With Full Throttle Up.”
When we are at peace we dare to live life with full throttle up, knowing as those astronauts did that there are serious risks in living. We know also that there are far more serious risks in refusing to face life’s challenges honestly and courageously. Chuck Yeager, a test pilot famous for his description of those early space pioneers who had “All the Right Stuff,” said after the Challenger explosion that “every astronaut and test pilot knows that such a tragedy can happen anytime you go up. But you can’t dwell on the danger or you would not be able to do your job.” Then he added, “There’s not much you can do about it anyway.”
Life is like that. We are all travelers on spaceship Earth, and like the Challenger 7, we are all sitting on enough firepower to blow us all to kingdom come several times over. That’s enough in itself to make us a little queasy, a little homesick, isn’t it? Even if we didn’t have to cope with the routine hassles of living—the doubts, the fears, the guilt, and the disappointments. But we all do have to cope with those things every day. And we all need a faith that will help us feel more at home and at peace in the midst of our hectic and often chaotic lives.
When I was 6 or 7 years old I discovered one sneaky cure for homesickness. I remember coming home with my family from a visit to my grandparents’ farm or my aunt and uncle’s house late in the evening. I would often fall asleep in the back seat of the car after a hard day of playing with my cousins, but I would wake up when the car pulled into our driveway. Sometimes I would pretend I was still asleep because I knew that if I did, one of my parents would carry me into the house and tuck me into my bed. It felt so good to be held in those strong, l loving arms. I felt so secure, the direct opposite of homesick. Don’t’ we all long for that kind of security and closeness at every age?
Then we grow up. We lose that peace in our necessary attempts to establish our independence. We move away, physically and intellectually from the simple belief structures that once made sense of life for us. We become, for better or worse, independent, responsible adults. And with that independence often comes the feeling of homesickness.
How do we get in that situation? It’s like a conversation I overheard between my in-laws several years ago. They were talking about how my mother-in-law used to sit right next to Dad in the car before they were married. This was in the days before bucket seats, of course. My mother-in-law was asking why that changed after they got married. My father-in-law finally just smiled and said, “Well, I’m not the one who moved.”
So it is with our human and heavenly parents. We are the ones who think we want distance and freedom. And that’s OK. We are the ones who get embarrassed when our parents want to hug and kiss us in public, and we’re much too grown up for that kid stuff. And that’s OK too. It’s all part of growing up. And we’re the ones who think God’s rules for living are too confining, too old-fashioned, and certainly our parents are. We are very sure we can do much better on our own. And that’s OK too. So we go out on our own and we blow it, not once, but several times, and that’s also OK. We learn from those experiences. But what isn’t OK is when we are too proud or guilty to admit that we were wrong or that we really do need help.
It’s hard to admit we’re wrong. People just love to say, “I told you so,” don’t they? So we don’t even try to be reconciled with family or friends or even with God because we’re afraid we’ll be rejected or ridiculed. Paul is trying to tell the Corinthians and us that just isn’t so in this passage from II Corinthians 5. “God does not hold our misdeeds against us.” We are forgiven and loved by the essence of Being itself. “The day of deliverance has already dawned.” Peace is here, now, for those who humbly accept it.
Jesus told a story once about a very homesick young man. You know the story from Luke’s Gospel (15:11-32), but you haven’t heard the letter I found recently from that young man to his father. Strangely enough, it was postmarked in Chicago. Listen:
I’m sorry it’s been so long. You’ve probably been worried sick about me, haven’t you? Well, I’ve been meaning to write, but I didn’t have any good news, and I didn’t want to worry you. I was in Florida for a year after I left home. I lost the money you gave me on some bad investments. I got mixed up in some drug dealing and spent some time in jail. Please don’t tell Mom. I’ve been bumming around the country doing odd jobs and stuff since I got out of the joint. I was living in a half-way house here in Chicago for several months till I got into a fight with one of the supervisors last week. They kicked me out.
Things are bad here, no jobs, no money. I’ve been living on the streets, eating at soup kitchens or anywhere I can find a meal. It’s a lousy way to live. But I guess I don’t deserve any better. I know now that you were right about staying in school. I’d sure do things different if I had it to do over.
I’m real sorry I hurt you and Mom. I’m embarrassed to ask this. I’ll understand if you don’t ever want to see me again. But I’m sick and cold and would appreciate it if I could come home, for just a little while. Just till I can find a job. I’ll pay you back for my room and board as soon as I can, I promise.
Your son, John
By overnight special delivery, John got a plane ticket and a letter from his father that simply said:
You can always come home, anytime.
I love you,
(This sermon is included in my book, “Building Peace from the Inside Out: Stories for Peacemakers and Peace Seekers,” chapter 12)