By Steve Rose
Just when it seemed we were turning the corner toward “home,” and toward a state of something more normal this past Christmas, we now suffer yet another setback in our journey through this two-year long pandemic, as we face the rapid spread of the COVID-19 omicron variant in this new year. Over the past couple of months other events have further disrupted our journey, some of which have actually displaced many from their physical homes. Before Christmas we witnessed the destruction of homes and businesses, along with the loss of lives from recent tornadoes which ravaged Kentucky and the Midwest. Just a week or so ago uncontrolled fires swept through many homes in the Denver area. Following the political collapse in Afghanistan, thousands of desperate, starving families are still seeking desperately to obtain the basic necessities of life in this unstable part of the world. Weekly, if not daily, stories of gun violence continue to create fear in schools and communities. Supply chain woes, rising prices and economic concerns, stories about the political turmoil in our country and other parts of the world, and reports on the effects of global warming overwhelm us. As we sense fragility and instability in these uncertain days we long for security, healing and the restoration of the more familiar things we are accustomed to.
And as we find our way through our present difficulties, the road “home” is now unfamiliar, strange to many of us. In particular, the changing rules and guidelines regarding COVID protocol perplex us and make us navigate around new “detours.” During this time of Epiphany, Christians recall the familiar Matthew story of those also seeking “another way home.” The wise men who had traveled far, following the star that led them to worship the Christ child, were warned in a dream to return to their country “by another route,” thus enabling them to avoid Herod, who had commanded their return to him, and sparing the life of the young Jesus from the slaughter Herod had devised. Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus also had to flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s reign of terror, returning safely to their home only after Herod’s eventual death. The story of these important and dangerous journeys confirmed the revelation of God in the Christ child, which we now celebrate during Epiphany, and they made possible Jesus’ ministry on earth and the salvation of mankind. These journeys were not without purpose.
When faced with the inevitable hardships of life, we will each journey “home” in different ways throughout our lives. We’ll navigate physical roads, as well as psychological and emotional ones. One of my own many journeys since childhood has been a combination of those roads. While it’s only one of the interesting journeys I’ve taken during my life, I think the story of this journey helps explain why each of us seeks a special place, maybe a “happy place” that from time to time helps restore us. It may also help explain why there is much more to home than a physical place, and why the journeys themselves are important.
While Raleigh has been my actual and adopted home for most of my life, a place I have traveled to for many years is also “home” – my birthplace of Marietta, Ohio, a small town nestled in the hills of Appalachia along the Ohio River. Mostly rural, and not exactly a major tourist destination, it is nevertheless where I come from. Both Mom and Dad grew up and attended college there, and much of my extended family is from there as well, even though many – like us – have moved away. But there exists for me here a deep sense of identity and “roots.”
My own family moved from the area in 1963 when Dad went through a series of job changes, moving our family first to Georgia, then to Illinois, and finally to Raleigh, North Carolina over the course of the next seven years. By the time I was 16, I had lived in about ten different houses in six different cities. My mother, perhaps sensing a lack of permanence in our somewhat unsettled lives throughout those years, made sure our family returned to Marietta at least once or twice every year. While the routes changed during that time, some over memorable, twisty mountain roads before extensive interstate highways shortened the time to get there. When we arrived we stayed with Grandma and Grandpa on the farm where Mom had grown up and where I had also spent many happy days as a young boy, gathering eggs from the hen houses, rounding up the cows for milking, and performing other chores. Being there provided a sense of peace and stability for us. Mom has always referred to it as “home,” even to this day.
But much has changed about that “home.” Grandpa became suddenly ill and died in 1969, and Grandma had to sell the farm and move into town, where she eventually died in 1985. The once-idyllic farm became a housing development. We now drive wistfully past Grandpa and Grandma’s old farmhouse, which is now the only part of the farm left, to my cousin Rick’s farm a couple more miles down the road to gather for an annual family reunion on Thanksgiving Day – at least on the years we can make the trip. Other relatives make the journey as well, from towns nearby or from far away states. The 150-year old farmhouse on Rick’s farm, a third generation farm with its own rich history (where my Grandpa as a boy had grown up) stands there still, although now vacant. At another farmhouse on the same property, Rick and his wife Theresa have more recently hosted this gathering of nearly 100 people. We share a splendid potluck dinner, walk the hills, take a hayride, visit the milking barn, and marvel at how much the kids have grown up since the last time we saw them. Most importantly, we share photographs – those in old photo albums and boxes or those now on our phones – and the stories that connect us. In many ways this place had become, even if only temporarily, our “home.”
Unfortunately, COVID made gathering there in 2020 impractical. Hoping to make the trip this past Thanksgiving to Marietta, however, tragedy intervened. Rick died from severe injuries he sustained from a tractor accident during the summer. Theresa, their children and grandchildren were devastated, as were their many friends in the close-knit farming community of nearby Reno. When my wife and I were able to visit Theresa about a month later, the once-bustling farm had acquired an uncharacteristic sadness and emptiness, not the place we had fixed in our minds as a place of joy and celebration. Falling dairy prices and financial concerns had already forced the sale of the large herd of dairy cows prior to Rick’s death. He had purchased beef cattle, hoping to begin a new chapter in the family business. Now grieving, Theresa was left to comfort her family, to manage the farm, continue with her job in town, which had become necessary during the past couple of years, and find another way through life without her husband, companion, partner and best friend.
As we grieved with Theresa for Rick, we also mourned the loss of our sense of this “home,” for we had become aware how fragile and vulnerable it was. It helped us realize, however, that the purpose of our journeys there was never so much about the farm itself as it was about our need to be together, to sense our common bonds and deep affection for one another, and so that we might build each other for our own individual journeys ahead.
Sadly, the places we call home are never as permanent as we’d like them to remain. At various times we will each find it necessary to reimagine home – either to navigate different paths to this “destination” or to reconstruct a different context for our lives. Our experiences are not unlike others who have faced many hardships in their journeys. The Israelites after many years of struggle and wandering in the wilderness to escape oppression and find a new homeland, eventually established a home, confirming God’s promises to them. In the journeys of the wise men and Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, God provided a way out or through hardship toward freedom, revelation, and restoration for those who were faithful.
Perhaps, as the fictional Gandalf testifies to Frodo, in one of JRR Tolkien’s stories, “all who wander are not lost.” The struggles of our journeys are never without purpose. Even on our wayward detours and missteps through life, we will experience life and gain insights in ways we would otherwise miss. “Another way” might just be “the way” we experience God’s greatest blessings.
May this Epiphany be a time for reflection of our own journeys. May we be courageous enough to let God reveal to us new paths to follow – ones that may seem different, challenging, or unusual. As a faithful people, let us be present for each other in these journeys. May we respond not with fear but with the assurance that God will be present with us as well.