I sat on the couch, alone in a room, staring at a handwritten sign barely legible in the candlelight. I was in my early 20s and teaching English in Uganda for a few months, living at the boarding school. The scrawled sign was a quote from Rich Mullins: “I’m home anywhere if you are where I am,” written about God, a statement of worship and trust. At the time, taping his words on my plastered wall felt adventurous and daring.
I came from a place of deep, deep roots. My mom and dad were living within a mile of where my mom was born in the small town where generations of my family members have tilled the land, sat in city council meetings, and eaten watermelon on their porches. I had chosen to leave Texas to go to college out of state and, later, to go to Africa; both decisions had scandalized and worried my parents. This scrawled sign was simultaneously defiant, naïve, and faithful. I now see more than a little narcissism in my wanderlust. Full of youthful swagger, I was after some wisdom and good stories, and didn’t have much to lose. But this sign was also a confession of faith, however fumbling or feebly, that “home” was not a place but a person, the person of Christ. And that following him meant that I had no idea where I might end up.
I ended up moving back to America and eventually married a graduate student, whose professional pursuits have moved us to five different states in our twelve years of marriage. With each move, the loss of home felt sharper. “Home,” which once felt confining as I longed for more risk, now seemed like something I lacked and desperately needed. I would tear up reading Wendell Berry, longing for his vision of stability, eager for a lived “theology of place.” I missed my deep roots. I wanted to plant a garden and watch it grow, to have friends who I walk through different stages of life with, and, once we had kids, I longed to give my children the gift of rootedness, history, and community that I was given. I ached for that place where everyone knew who my dad was, where I could bump into someone with my mom whom she introduces as a beloved distant cousin, where I know how the air smells in the late fall and a back way shortcut to every place. So, eventually, we moved back to Texas. The prodigal daughter returned, and fatted calves were killed and slow-roasted in a Texas barbecue.
Three years later, I sat in the passenger seat as my husband Jonathan drove through the open ranchland near my parents’ house. It was a gorgeous day with evening light on early autumn hayfields and the sky stretched out to eternity. But the air was tense. I was trying to convince Jonathan that we shouldn’t move away from Texas. Both newly ordained priests, we’d received a call out of the blue, asking us to move across the country to be associate pastors at a church. We had fretted, prayed, and met with our community for guidance. They prayed, listened, and told us, lovingly, to go, and I wept. This call to the church and to my marriage was, I realized, a bit like signing up for the military-- I had given my life over to a mission that was bigger than me. I knew God wanted us to serve the church as priests. But I desperately wanted to stay in Texas.
I’d hatched a plan to showcase the glories of Central Texas to my husband, roots and culture, hayfields and sky. As we drove, I decided, we’d listen to Lyle Lovett—because you can’t get more Texas-glorious than a slow drive with Lyle singing about flour tortillas or whiskey --and we’d watch the Texas sunset. And there’s no way, after that, that we’d ever choose to leave. But when I put my plan in motion, a song came on that I’d never heard before.
It was a hymn that I pictured Lyle pounding out on an old piano in a plain-faced church:
“Lord, keep us steadfast in thy Word; Curb those who fein by craft and sword Would wrest the kingdom from thy Son And set at nought all he hath done.
Lord Jesus Christ, thy power make known, For thou are Lord of Lords alone; Defend thy Christendom that we May ever more sing praise to thee.
O Comforter of priceless worth, Send peace and unity on earth; Support us in our final strife And lead us out of death to life.”
Again, I wept. Despite my hopes, I somehow knew in that moment that we were leaving Texas again. We were going to go learn to be priests in a new place, a foreign land, far from home.
And I remembered that sign on my wall in Africa, but read it differently. Back then, the reality of Christ as our true home felt somehow triumphant and exhilarating. Now, it came with some pain. If Christ alone is our true home, no other place ever quite is and in this fallen “meantime” on our old earth, we never quite belong. Any swagger, any thrill in being a rolling stone, was gone. If God calls us to himself, he may call us anywhere, and there is goodness but also heartbreak in that.
Deep roots and a long-time home is a gift, one I still long for. But I now see that both wanderlust and rootedness can become idols and that neither can be what ultimately guides us. Some are called to stay; some, at times, are called to leave. And, whichever the case, home is ultimately the place where Jesus meets us, where he calls us, where he is.
Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. After eight years with InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries at Vanderbilt and The University of Texas at Austin, she now serves as Co-Associate Rector at Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh, PA. She writes regularly for The Well, CT Women (formerly her.meneutics), and Christianity Today. Her work has also appeared in Comment Magazine, Christ and Pop Culture, Art House America, and elsewhere. She is author of Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life (IVP). She and her husband Jonathan have two young daughters.
Welcome to a guest series I’m calling, “Home: Musings and Memories.” I’ve invited writers from all over the Internet to share their stories from home—in part, because later this year, I’m publishing a book called, Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home (IVP, May 2017). I believe home is our most fundamental longing, homesickness our most nagging grief. Most of all, I believe that the historic Christian faith has something to say about that desire and disappointment.
The story of Jesus is a home story.
Thanks for joining me and these other fantastic writers in the months ahead in our search for home—and the God who makes its hope possible.