Coming Home | JOY IS OUR TRUE HOME
The year was 2007. I had just completed my coursework in my PhD program, and I was exhausted. I had a few months before I needed to begin the next stage of my doctoral journey: preparing for my comprehensive exams. As a single mother with a full-time job in a growing church, I needed a break. My church was very gracious to give me a month off. But unfortunately, my finances were not quite as gracious. There was no way I could afford to take my two teenage sons on a month-long luxury vacation. So we had three choices: we could take a month of staycation; we could go to Arkansas and hole up with my parents; or we could travel, if we kept our expenses to a minimum. We chose option three.
And so we began to beg, borrow, and in a very few cases, buy, a basic set of camping equipment. We borrowed an old tent. I practiced setting it up and sprayed the seams with waterproofing gunk. We washed our sleeping bags. We put together a cooking box. We borrowed an old Coleman Stove. We borrowed a rooftop bag, filled it up with pillows, sleeping bags, and backpacks, and strapped it to the roof of my Honda Accord. We loaded up the trunk. Finally, on a hot July Sunday afternoon after worship, we set out on our journey west.
We didn’t have much of a plan, other than to –at some point –see the Grand Canyon. By the end of our first day, we had made it to a state park in Missouri. My sons had never really camped before, but we managed to set up our tent and unload all of our belongings—and I mean, ALL of them—into our tent. We’d made a rookie mistake our first day out: we arrived at the park just as the sun was setting, leaving us to try to put together our first dinner in the dark. Our campground was situated next to a river, and the bugs were out in full force. My fourteen-year-old son hates bugs, and we managed to capture some footage on film of him frantically slapping them away as he tried to eat a lukewarm hot dog and some lukewarm canned beans. But we managed to eat and get things cleaned up and put back in our storage boxes, even with all the bugs and even in the dark.
After such a long day of traveling, I thought a hot shower might be just the ticket to a good night’s rest, so we headed for the campground showers. As we emerged afterward, clean and wearing pajamas, I felt a wonderful cool breeze blow across my face. I though, “Ah. Yes. This is the life. It is going to be a wonderful first night.”
It was right about then that I noticed that other campers were running, literally running, from all directions, toward their campsites. The lovely breeze suddenly became a hard wind. I saw a crack of lightning, too close for comfort, and heard a crash of thunder. My sons and I made a beeline for our tent, managing to throw ourselves inside and zip the door closed just as the heavens opened up and the rain began pouring down.
Well, it stormed all night long. At some point in the wee hours of the morning, after not sleeping at all, I started to feel water dripping down along the newly waterproofed seams. Soon, water was soaking through from underneath the tent. I tried to position myself in the center of my sleeping pad, but it was a losing battle. I began to hear the boys stir as the water reached their skin. Since we had unpacked everything we owned into the tent, it wasn’t long before our pillows, our sleeping bags, and our backpacks full of clothes were soaking up water like giant sponges.
About daybreak, with no sign that the thunder, lightning, and pouring rain were going to let up, I began to formulate an exit strategy. I would don my rain cloak and run the boxes of hard camping gear we had left outside to the trunk of the car. The boys could pack things up in the rooftop bag inside the tent. Then, the three of us would carry the bag over to car, hoist it on top, and strap it down. We could then quickly dismantle our tent, throw it in a garbage bag, and be on our way.
As the sun rose over our drenched campground, together we carried out the plan. Soaking wet and covered with mud, I barked orders and the boys scrambled around until we somehow managed to get everything in the car to leave our God-forsaken campground by mid-morning. Later in the day—day two of our month-long journey—we made our first of many trips to a laundromat, where we washed and dried everything we owned. Only this time, we packed all our pillows, clothing, and sleeping bags in heavy-duty garbage bags before stuffing them into the rooftop carrier, just in case we had to drive all day in the rain.
It was a rough start to what ended up being– for all three of us –a life-changing journey.
The season of Advent is a journey that begins with a rough start. Our journey toward the cradle started this year with the people of Isaiah’s time feeling lost and distant from their God. As we listened to the dire reading from the prophet two weeks ago, we contemplated our own sinfulness and acknowledged our desperate need to realign ourselves with the One who not only created us, but who alone is able to save us.
Last week, we heard the assurances of the Psalmist that in spite of our sins, the LORD was favorable to the land and forgave the iniquity of the people. We talked about the meaning of home for each of us, concluding that home was the place where we meet. Home is where we meet our God. Home is where we meet and welcome one another. Home is where we meet to hear peace spoken and where we know that salvation is near. Home is the place where steadfast love and faithfulness line up, and where righteousness and peace kiss each other.
This week, we have heard from the Apostle Paul, writing in his very first letter to the Thessalonians—the earliest piece of writing in the New Testament. What is the subject of Paul’s letter to the earliest Christian community? Joy. Specifically, joy in the midst of difficult nights.
The Psalmist writes,
Sing praises to the LORD, O you his faithful ones,
and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger is but for a moment;
his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning. (Psalm 30:4-5, NRSV)
Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning! As I think about the season of Advent, and read from Thessalonians on this third week into our journey, I can’t help but hear traces of the Psalmist in Paul’s words:
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing,
give thanks in all circumstances;
for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
Do not quench the Spirit.
Do not despise the words of prophets,
but test everything.
Hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.
May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely;
and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless
at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
(1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, NRSV)
My friends, nobody said the journey was going to be easy. Maybe it is for the best that Advent always starts off with a hard dose of reality. But as we enter into the homestretch of the season and begin final preparations not only to celebrate the birth of Christ into the world and his coming again in final glory, but also to welcome friends and family members who are coming down home, some of whom might not be gathering with good intentions, let us not quench the Spirit. Let it be in a spirit of grace that we acknowledge that for many of us, welcoming guests or going home will never resemble in any way the pictures of perfect familial bliss that we see in the constant holiday barrage of Photoshopped advertisements, holiday television specials, and Christmas movies. Nevertheless, let us enter into this time with rejoicing, prayer, and giving thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for us. For no matter how hard the journey may be some days, we know that joy is our true home.
And finally, let us not just hear the blessing of Paul for the Thessalonians as a nice closing remark, but as a blessing for each one of us.
May the God of peace sanctify us entirely.
May our spirits and our souls and our bodies be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.