For Christmas Listening
The Real Wonder Years

The Curse of Homelessness


"When once again Christmas comes and we hear the familiar carols and sing the Christmas hymns, something happens to us... The hardest heart is softened. We recall our own childhood. We feel again how we then felt, especially if we were separated from a mother. A kind of homesickness comes over us for past times, distant places, and yes, a blessed longing for a world without violence or hardness of heart. But there is something more--a longing for the safe lodging of the everlasting Father. And that leads our thoughts to the curse of homelessness which hangs heavily over the world." (Dietrich Bonhoeffer).

Seventeen years ago my wife and I went on a two-week mission trip to Prague, in the Czech Republic. Prague is a historic city, one of the few European cities not bombed during World War II, the pulpit of Reformer Jon Hus, and yet despite its historicity we found this new democracy still under the shadow of modernity, the historic center city ringed by dehumanizing Stalinist era apartment buildings, the newly free people still under the pall of the secular state, not sure yet what to do with their new freedom. The rankest pornography was openly sold on Wenceslas Square, and all sorts of bohemians, misfits, Goths, and shady underworld figures lurked on the streets. At times, evil was palpable. One night a group of us were standing on the Charles Bridge, a pedestrian concourse over the river lined by statutes of saints. We were singing folk songs while others of us were trying to converse with people in the crowd. At one point a strange man with puppets dangling on a string came right up to us and shook what looked like demon puppets in front of us, hissing things in some unknown tongue. Then, and at other times, I was possessed with a compulsion to run, to go home, to shake the dust off my feet and leave a God-forsaken place filled with people who, at their best, were melancholy, unsmiling, or at their worst, devils. Or so I thought.

We were profoundly and deeply homesick in a way I had never felt before. I didn't belong. As I walked to the street car stop each day, I looked into the sullen stares of people who neither looked like me, talked like me, or seemed to have any warmth at all toward me. We felt alone, alienated, and even oppressed, the weight of a foreign land bearing down on us. Menus and signs were indecipherable. Waiters in restaurants seemed to ignore us. Even the church we visited seemed distant. We were aliens and strangers, in a scriptural sense, and despite what we did each day --- mostly street evangelism --- we carried around in our consciousness a ticking clock that measured how long it would be until we could return home to all that was familiar, to a people we knew, to places where we were comfortable.

Although the sense of homelessness is most acute when we are in a strange land like The Czech Republic, the condition is chronic and, in a sense, blessed for any Christian. I feel it when I read the newspaper accounts of war, economic decline, and famine. Driving to work, stopped at a traffic light, I'm overcome by a sense of heaviness, of the weight of sin, and yet I remember the promise that "[b]lessed are those that mourn [for sin], for they shall be comforted." Facing some difficulty, I want to run home, home to my childhood home where I could be fed, housed, pampered, and comforted, and yet I can't really go home like that anymore. None of us can. I can drive the streets of my old neighborhood, stop in front of my now smallish looking brick homeplace, try to imagine it as it was. . . and yet I can't go there. It's gone, peopled by strangers. There is no comfort to be found in a past home, only nostalgia.

At Christmas, this sense of exile, like being in Babylon with only a memory of Jerusalem, is even more profound. I want to go to bed waiting for Santa to come, unable to sleep, willing myself awake, sure that I hear reindeer hooves on my roof. I want people who have died or moved to come back, to all be there in my childhood home again, around the fire. I want the world outside to be set right, the headlines to broadcast good news, everything to be undone, or remade, as the hymn says, "as far as the curse be found." I want back every single one of my childhood pets --- my dog (who died on Christmas Day 1965), my longsuffering cat, my poor cat-eaten hamster. Every single one of them. It's neither right nor good nor natural that they are gone. It wasn't meant to be that way.

For a Christian, the blessedness of being chronically homesick is that we have a final Home for which we can hope, a familiar and yet newly rich place in which everything that should not have happened will unhappen, where what was wrongly done will be undone, where even remembrance is turned to good in some mysterious way. "We long for a city whose builder and architect is God," says the Apostle Paul (Heb. 11:10), and I do. I want a place where we'll wake each day expectant at what gifts will be left for us, for what old friends we'll be reunited with, for singing and magic and laughter. Where the footfalls we hear will be the sound of Jesus at our door, to sit with us for as long as we want. Where even the melancholy Czech will let loose and smile. And where I get my cat back, with a full and dignified tail this time.

Everywhere we turn it'll look like Home --- "the safe lodging of the everlasting Father."