It has been said, “that  there is, quite simply, no more emotionally evocative, powerful, or important idea than home,” and we will all, in some way,  over the next four weeks, go home—as we carefully rehearse customs precious in our families, as we bake the cookies, decorate the tree, we create home.

How do you know when you are home?   In college I knew I was home when I could walk to a kitchen, as opposed to a cafeteria and open refrigerator full of food.  In seminary as I commuted by train every week to Chicago, I knew I was home when I was in my own bed.  As a child, I knew I was home, when everybody in my family was also home. Food, shelter and family from a physical needs perspective are indicators of how you know you  are home.  But how do you know when your soul, your spirit is at home?  That is a very different question.  You can be at home and not really feel at home.

I recently read a wonderful novel by Iowa author Marillyn Robinson, entitled Home.  The reader quickly realizes that this story is an allegory to the Prodigal Son.

The story is about two adult children Glory and Jack, who return home under different circumstances. When the story opens, Glory, the youngest of eight children, has returned to Gilead to nurse her ailing father. In her time away she suffered the disillusionment of a false love affair, but being home is a trial for her. “I hate this town,” she says. “Because it reminds me of when I was happy.”

Soon after her return, a letter arrives from Jack expressing his desire to come home. He’s been gone 20 years. Ten years earlier he missed his mother’s funeral. Glory fears that once again Jack will disappoint their father.  As a teenager, Jack impregnated a farm girl and had a daughter who died before her fourth birthday. His indifference to this tragedy shocked and bereaved his family. He now has a son by a black woman whom he met during his stay in St. Louis. His pain that he cannot make a life with the mother of his child becomes an important undercurrent in the story, reminding us of what our society looked like, mid-20th century, in the years of Rosa Parks and Emmett Till.

As the story is woven, the reader sees how broken Jack is by this inequity and by countless other sorrows and doubts. Here is a man who doesn’t know how to live in the world, torn as he is between belief and unbelief.

After a troubling incident with Jack, Glory worries, “Her father and brother were both laid low by grief — and she had nothing better to offer them than chicken and dumplings.” Then she recalls her mother filling the house with fragrant smells of food, restoring harmony when discord threatened. “It would mean this house has a soul that loves us all, no matter what,” thinks Glory.

Robinson uses her considerable talents to explain her religious belief that love is neither earned nor deserved.

That’s what it means when your soul is at home. Your soul is at home when it is at a place where you are loved and accepted no matter what.  The tragedy in this story is that Jack is never able to accept that he is loved unconditionally. He wants to believe it, but he just can’t and so for him home is always a place of exile.

Advent always begins in a place of exile, and the call to come home.   You understand that home is not the place where your clothes are kept and books are stored.  Home is how close you are to Christ.  If you are with Christ, no matter where you are, you are home.  So are you going home for Christmas?    How will you know when you have arrived?

You will be home when the power of Christ is in you and you are Christ like to others. It is to extend grace to them. To love them, not for what they do, but as they are.  The home we long for and belong to is  finally where Christ is.  And Christ exists both within us and among us as we wend our prodigal way through the world in search of it.

Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come; tis grace that brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home.

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