During the Civil War, a Union soldier inscribed the words to a song of uncertain origins on the wall of his prison. “I am a poor wayfaring stranger. Traveling through this world below…” The Libby Prison Hymn, as it was known for a time, was credited to this soldier even though the song was widely circulated already at this time. Regardless, the words are powerful and there is a haunting, plaintive sense to it that perfectly compliments the lyrics so that it is still widely covered in modern times, from Johnny Cash to Neko Case to Jack White. This song has traction and staying power. No doubt in large part to the way in which we all can identify with this feeling of separation from our home.
The concept of home is hard to define and it can evoke very different emotions. For some, it is a feeling and a sort of knowing; an indefinable state of being that is confirmed only by a deep sense of belonging, of contentment and satisfaction. It is the place where you are best understood. Where shared meaning and experience create a sense of security. The problem is that even this idyllic sense of home is fickle, elusive, and at best, transitory.
There are many people for whom shared experience and meaning are the shared experience of trauma that creates a sense of meaninglessness. To talk of home with any intonation of nostalgia evokes only panic, tightness in the chest, and a deep sense of anxiety. Home as a positive construct is not a universally shared experience, but I think it is universally desired. I believe this is with purpose. It is the vacuum created by the fall that consumes all and devours all unless filled with the only being large enough to fill it.
I have spent my life on the move. I simultaneously experience nostalgia for West African tropics, South Dakota winters, Lesotho mountain campfires, and paddling out into the surf on South Florida’s eastern coast. Each one of these places and the experiences I have had there has created a temporary sense of belonging. Even so, there has always been a sense that I am a guest. Like an Airbnb that is great for a weekend, but would be miserable to live in permanently. It’s all some semblance of home or at least it was at one point, but what it lacks is permanence.
For the Christian, whether our shared experiences are traumatic or idyllic, we really shouldn’t feel at home. We are travelers in a world in which we don’t belong. We are temporary diplomats of a country we have not seen or experienced except the distant sense of standing in the presence of the God who inhabits all time and eternity and Who is our home. The Christian is not to feel at home in a world that is hostile to its Creator.
Like nesting dolls, we are eternal, housed in temporal cases and living on a temporal planet in a universe that will melt with intense heat and dissolve. No wonder we feel restless. No wonder we long for the eternal. No wonder we lack the words to describe what we are looking for. We have never experienced or inhabited what we know to be home, but the spark of the eternal that is Christ in us, calls out to that reality in a deep and almost primal spiritual reality.
What it is, is divine discontent and what it is not, is a longing for martyrdom or a premature “shuffling off of the mortal coil.” It is possible to be fully engaged in the matters of earth, of family, career, friends, and ambitions, but with an eternal focus that cultivates a distaste for the miasma of death, decay, sickness, and disappointment that comes with our time on earth. I want to live with eternity in mind. I want to walk with my eye to the horizon, like Reepicheep in Lewis’, The Voyage of the Dawntreader, who moved with one purpose throughout his life which was to reach Aslan’s country, and when I crest that final wave, to be home.