Can We Go Home Again?

Home is a spiritual space and place.

You can’t go home again is the title of a Thomas Wolfe novel published posthumously in 1940. Since then the line is frequently used as a caution whenever someone longingly and wistfully begins to reminisce about the days of childhood; perhaps when life was thought to be simpler and better. But is this conventional wisdom true? Is it impossible to go home again?

Of course time cannot be reversed; one’s childhood home does not stay the same. Space, too, is also frequently altered; familiar landmarks have been razed, and new, unfamiliar monuments raised. Time and experience also change us; we who try to go home are also not the same. For some, going home is painful. But are there moments when going home is both possible and rewarding?

I left my parental home a number of decades ago and my home is now elsewhere, close to our children and grandchildren. I have gone back many times over the years to visit my parents, visits that have now come to an end with the death of my mother last July. I was honoured and privileged to conduct her funeral service in the congregation I grew up in (though not in the same building) and I experienced a homecoming. I was home.

As I’ve reflected on that realization for a few months now, I conclude that “home” is above all a spiritual space and place. Home is where our human spirits connect with and become attuned to other human spirits. Without such a connection, long-standing familiar places will not be “home;” with such a connection, unfamiliar places with new people can be home to us. Anyone who has travelled away from home and still participated in vital worship with new brothers and sisters in Christ, even in a language that is truly foreign, can experience this deep sense of being at home.

That being said, we are all pilgrims here; we have no abiding city. Our primary citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20), and as such, this world can never truly be our home.

Yet our earthly homes, especially our childhood homes, remain important. They shape who we become. Our home communities – family and friends, churches, schools, neighbourhoods and towns – nurture us into the adults we will be. These childhood homes and their significance ought never to be disparaged; they are the means by which God the Holy Spirit engages and shapes our spirits. As Christians have known since New Testament times, we are dual citizens.

My own homecoming reminded me that there is a sense in which we can go home again and, for some of us, perhaps, we should. Maintaining or re-kindling the spiritual connections of our past helps us to navigate the present with greater clarity, and to face the future more confidently. My own sense of being at home in the place I grew up is undoubtedly influenced by my frequent returns and the continuing relationships I enjoy with childhood friends; but the heart of it is the spiritual reality of the communion of the saints that does not change over time for those who are in Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and forevermore.

In our whirling world of change, our secure and safe home base can never be found in nostalgic trips to our childhood homes, but only in that which is eternal and lasting: the promises and steadfast love of our God. That is our true home to which we can always return – even when we have wandered.

  • John is the Jean and Kenneth Baker Professor of Systematic Theology, Emeritus, of Calvin Theological Seminary.

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