Coming Home | HOME IS WHERE WE MEET
Every year, somewhere around September, I ask my husband Scot the annual holiday question: “What are we doing for Christmas?”
Scot was a bachelor until he married me seven years ago. His father passed away in 2008, but his mother still lives in the house where he grew up in Arkansas. Over his entire adult life, unless the weather prevented his travel, Scot’s habit was to spend Christmas with his family of origin.
My history with holiday celebrations is very different from his.
As both a pastor and a pastor’s daughter and granddaughter, Christmas for me has never been about “coming home,” especially if, by those words, one means returning to one’s roots, one’s home of origin. My mother grew up in a parsonage. I grew up in a parsonage. I raised my sons in parsonages and rental properties. Although my parents have now lived in their current house, which they own, for more than a decade, it was never my home. As a family, we have no “home.”
Furthermore, even if we did have a family home, we were not a family that was ever able to get together with the extended relatives for Christmas. My dad worked on Christmas Eve, so when I was growing up, our family couldn’t travel to see grandparents and relatives at Christmastime. I’ve worked for the church since I was twenty-one, and so I, too, have always worked on Christmas Eve. I have never been able to visit family over the Christmas holidays. As a single mother raising two children, for many years, I also had to navigate the challenging road of helping my sons have ample time with both their father and with me over the holidays. Because we had to be flexible each year, as a family, we never developed many hard Christmas traditions.
Nowadays, with our parents aging and our adult children living far away, it is rare for Scot and me to spend Christmas with family. We do sometimes make the trip back to Arkansas to see our parents, but when we do, we usually travel either the week before or the week after Christmas, so that we can be in our own community and home for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Pastors and their families spend a lifetime building relationships with their church members, but trying not to get too attached because we could be moved. Every year, when appointment season rolls around, we contemplate the possibility of uprooting our lives once more, saying goodbye to the relationships we’ve established, the people we have grown to love, and the plans we have put in motion, and moving on to the next place God is calling us to serve. Sometimes the news that we are staying on comes as relief. Other times, it comes as difficult news. But the fact is, as people committed to itinerancy, we are never full members of the communities we serve. We are always outsiders, even if we serve in an appointment for a long time.
So, in some ways, I think it is difficult for us, as people committed to itinerancy, to fully appreciate the holiday traditions of the people we serve. Our colleague, Amy, shares her husband’s family tradition in the sidebar. This may ring truer to many people’s experience than our own.
No matter what the circumstances of our holidays, no matter how shallow and flexible, or deeply entrenched are our particular rituals and traditions, the holidays force us to confront ourselves, our relationships, and our lives in ways that the rest of the year does not insist upon. It is around the tree, around the fireplace, and around the table, that we find ourselves hurled back in time, immersed in emotions and behaviors that no longer define us. We become the child, the sister, the brother, the aunt, the uncle, the grandparent, the in-law, not only of the present, but of all our memories, both individual and collective.
In some families, when we “come down home” to visit, our whole selves are not welcome. We come home harboring bad feelings, unresolved conflicts, disagreements about identity, politics, religious beliefs, lifestyle choices, or other practices that must be hidden from family members. For many, the pressure to conform to the accepted family storyline is so great that the annual return becomes a thing to dread. Some refuse to participate. Others make family in different ways, as they create community with people with whom they have no blood ties, but who are, nevertheless, family.
What is it to come home? What is home? It’s different for each of us. Some find home with their blood relatives and long, established traditions. Some find home with the person they love the most. Patients in long-term care may be in a place and time where home exists only in deep corridors of their memories.
In the midst of all the destruction around the globe right now—destruction from hurricanes, typhoons, earthquakes, fires, tornadoes, droughts, and wars—finding a place to call home may seem more distant, and yet more critical, than ever before.
In last week’s Scripture lesson from Isaiah, God had turned away from God’s people because of their sinfulness. The people felt alone and filled with regret. They needed a sign, some kind of reassurance that God had not abandoned them forever. They needed to come home to their God.
This week, God has turned back toward God’s people. God has restored the fortunes of Jacob. God has been merciful and offered pardon for sin. God has spoken peace to the faithful, to those who turn to the Lord in their hearts. In other words, God has returned to be at home among mortals.
What is home? Perhaps home is simply wherever we meet. It is where we attend to the intersections, the various paths where our lives come in contact with the lives of others and with our Lord God. According to the Psalmist, home is the place where steadfast love and faithfulness will meet. It is the place where righteousness and and peace will kiss each other. It is the place where faithfulness springs up from the ground, and righteousness looks down from the sky.
Home is where we meet.
Home is anywhere we meet God, face-to-face and hand-in-hand. Home is the assurance that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, thus proving God’s love for us. Home is knowing that we are saved by the grace of God. Home is anywhere that we meet God’s people and welcome them in with the love of Christ.
by Amy Sigmon
The heart of my husband’s family is a quiet, unassuming brick home on an inlet of Lake Norman in North Carolina. Trimmed azaleas and rhododendrons surround a small patch of lawn out front. This is where they take their yearly Easter pictures before changing out of their church clothes. There’s a small fenced garden separating the driveway from the back lawn that slopes down to the boat dock and the lake. The garden grows green beans, to be canned by my mother-in-law and her sisters come mid-summer. Family enters through the slamming screen door to the garage, which has a blackboard with the brain teaser, “What’s the fastest thing on Earth? Answer: Lightning.” It’s written in Papa’s handwriting. That’s my husband’s maternal grandfather. My husband tells me it’s been up there for at least two decades. This is a house that seems frozen in time, the only changes made as concessions to his aging grandparents: the chair lift up from the basement to the first floor being the most visible. The most recent? The alarm system installed in late 2015. Papa and Mimi both died in 2015, eight months apart.
The yard is kept up by my uncles-in-law. The garden was planted by my brother-in-law. Even after their deaths, Mimi and Papa’s house is where the family gathers for most holidays and family events: Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving, birthdays, graduation parties. Summer holidays like Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day aren’t complete without a dip in the lake. For holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving, my mother-in-law and her two sisters haul bags and bags of groceries to the house to make holiday meals. We bring all the presents wrapped. I bring a Pack n Play and the video monitor so that my small children can nap. Then after our day is over, we wrap up all the extra food and put it in the cars. We bag up all the presents. The Pack n Play is put back up. The trash gets taken to someone else’s house to be put out. The alarm on the house is reset. We drive back to my in-laws’ in the dark.
As an outsider to their family, I don’t have years of memories in this house embedded in my soul. I confess that I see our treks to and from Mimi and Papa’s house, through expanding Charlotte traffic, with small children in tow, as somewhat of an inconvenience. Stressful and busy holidays are not my best moments in my Christian witness, and I often find myself detouring through the nearby Starbucks as a moment of respite. But in my best moments, I am grateful that Mimi and Papa managed to create this gathering place that represents family. I am grateful that they provided enough to keep the house for a while longer, as the family continues to grieve and miss them. I am grateful that my children, too, may have memories of their great-grandparents’ house that spills over with love.
Having grown up in Appalachia, I was always familiar with the phrase “down-home,” but my understanding of it was more experiential than one informed by a specific knowledge of how to articulate it. I would wager there are many people living in rural culture who understand that this is more a feeling and state of mind than a concept confined to sociology or anthropology textbooks.
There is a wonderful music venue in Johnson City, Tennessee, called The Down Home, which is labeled as an “eclectic music room.” Many people in southern Appalachia know about this place, which everyone understands to be a cultural watering hole by allowing the music of grassroots culture, whether rural or urban, to shine. Another important cultural marker of the area, just over the state line in Virginia is the Carter Family Fold, which is a community and music center named after the famous Carter family, who are largely responsible for the creation of what is known widely as country music. The fact that music and community go hand-in-hand is not lost on the people of southern Appalachia, and the concept of the “fold” (either an enclosure for sheep or another name for a church or closely-knit community) is also not to be divided from “down-home.”
Defined as a quality of life characterized by simplicity and familiarity, “down-home” is often referred to as a trait of the southern U.S., but “down-home” can exist anywhere. More important than geography is a commitment to simplicity and the forming of family bonds within the community. When those traits find a home there, “down-home” can be known anywhere.