Did Father Abraham get Homesick?
What homesickness teaches us
My wife and I live in a perpetual state of being a little homesick. We both grew up rooted in our hometowns, and our families didn’t move around a lot. Being nomadic isn’t second nature for us. We live in Japan and really love our home, but there are often other places that feel more like home. We can long for a home away from home, but the trouble is we have multiple homes. We feel at home and away from home wherever we are. Dallas will never have the salty air of Myrtle Beach, and Orlando never had the gorgeous autumns of Greenville. Dallas is full of family and our church home, and Orlando is where we started marriage. And when we are in the US, we miss Nagoya. Each of these cities is home and not home at the same time. In any place we can quickly miss something about another; homesickness tags along wherever we go.
We don’t normally think about it much. There’s just a gentle missing-ness that tags along. Occasionally it hits one of us like a wave, but it normally doesn’t stay long. This can be really discouraging, but homesickness isn’t all bad. Homesickness reveals genuine love and attachment to a place. To make a place “home” is to risk missing it if we must leave.
Homesickness is grounded in a genuine delight and belonging to a place. It can be tempting in any new place to avoid rooting ourselves in any meaningful way. As Wendell Berry reflects on his life before returning to live forever in his hometown: “When I lived in other places I looked on their evils with the curious eye of a traveler; I was not responsible for them; it cost me nothings to be a critic, for I had not been there long, and I did not feel that I would stay.” Homesickness is in many ways a sign of healthy living and appropriate attachment to the places we once lived. We ought to connect to a place in such a way and to such a degree that it will be hard to leave if God calls us away.
This way of living is reflected in the theology of “home” that we find in the Scriptures.
But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:7)
Wherever we find ourselves and whatever occasion brings us there, we are called to seek the benefit of the people and the place itself. That requires rootedness and connection..
Homesickness can be a kind of gravitational pull away from the present. If our current home feels challenging or difficult we may find our minds drifting back to memories of better times and better places. This can lead to discontentment where we are, which will prevent us from living here well now. And when you have multiple homes like we do, your heart can feel suspended between them all.
But our response to homesickness does not have to be disdain for the feeling. There is something homesickness is doing that is profound and beautiful. Consider the story of Abraham as reflected in Hebrews 11. Abraham left his extended family and the home where his family had settled simply because God called him to do so. He left “not knowing where he was going” (v. 8). He was led to a land which he and his family were to inherit, but he dwelled there in tents since it was not yet time for Israel to form permanent dwellings in the promised land (v.9). Abraham surely longed for the place of his kindred as he sent a servant on a bold quest to find his son a wife from his home country (Genesis 24:1–4). Yet, the sojourning of Abraham is no loss, “For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10). Abraham lived and died as a sojourner and a willful exile in a strange land of promise, surviving by seeing the things to come by faith and greeting them from afar (v. 13). He looked toward a “homeland”, but not his hometown.
If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11:15–16)
Thus, the homesickness Abraham felt for the city he saw in faith, outweighed the homesickness he felt for the country he left in faith. And now we can begin to understand what homesickness actually is.
Homesickness is longing for something and everything at once. It is a wishing that can be a hopefulness. There is a better country and a city built by God. Heaven might be well imagined as the combination and consummation of all the different kinds of things that make us feel homesick. Our longing is for the future even when it feels like it’s for the past. In reality, our future country will be much more delightful because the God who orchestrated the delights that now visit or haunt us while we are away will be there again welcoming us into eternal bliss. The sound of the ocean nearby, the pool in the backyard, the view from the balcony, the energy of the city, and the relationships imbibed by all these things. They are all there. Only better. Homesickness is but a shadow of our great homesickness.