Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Introduction: Letters from Home?

Last Friday, as I sat at a “S’mores and Sex” Sunday School party, I realized something was terribly wrong. The party was not the problem: despite the provocative name, I was enjoying the tame but happy gathering of other graduate students and young professionals.  Our Sunday School class has recently welcomed a new couple as our teachers, and they had suggested our class should have social events in addition to our regular Sunday-morning Bible studies. So far, so good. After mingling over s’mores, cider, and snickerdoodles, one of our teachers introduced the night’s discussion topic, “Singleness,  Marriage, Sex, and Everything In Between.”  He asked a number of questions about what it means to be a young adult--especially an unmarried young adult--in today’s churches.  As I listened to my peers’ answers--which ranged from dating to family, hermeneutics to vocation, and beyond--I realized that my own concerns about how churches treat young adults were not merely idiosyncratic worries. The lawyer sitting next to me, the sociologist across the room, the seminary student--they also had realized something was amiss. 
Even if I wanted to, I could not transcribe Friday’s long conversation. However, the refrain of our questions and stories was this: very few of our churches had taken an active interest in the spiritual formation of young adults, especially if they are unmarried.  
Ours was not a bitter conversation, nor a session of complaints.  We all lead meaningful, satisfying lives. Some there are involved in serious relationships, others who attend our class but were missing Friday are married.  However, I heard many substantive, moving questions about how our churches train young adults to be part of the Body of Christ. I came home thinking about many of my own (usually-unvoiced) concerns about what it means to live the life I am living: the life of a teacher, a scholar, a daughter, a deacon, a friend, an unmarried twenty-something.  Questions about what it means for you to live the lives you are leading. Hopes about how these lives are meant to come together. 
On Saturday, I decided to start this blog. Admittedly, I am a little late to the blogging bandwagon, but my mother taught me to keep quiet until I have something to say.  
I have a few things to say. I think you probably do, too. Somewhat to my surprise, I think I intend to write a blog about relationships, and about how life in Christ upsets many assumptions about our  friendships, marriages, parenthoods, and more. For years I have been pondering the idea of “home,” and I want to use this electronic chronicle as a place to work out questions about what it means to be at home--with one another, with ourselves, and within our churches.  
 Many of the things I have to say come from my experiences and observations as a single person in a church culture that tends to worship the nuclear family, but I am not writing this blog only for single people, or for young people, or for women.  Many of the things I have to say have been gleaned from my generous, and wise married friends.  Indeed, much of what I hope to do here is pose questions that you, my friends, can answer, extend, and complicate.
I thought about several titles for this blog, including
“The Single Person’s Guide to Abundant Living” (too narrow in its audience, and it sounds like something from the self-help aisle at Barnes & Noble)
“The Married Person’s Guide to Keeping Single Friends” (again, too narrow, possibly snarky, and it sounds like a pet-owner’s manual)
“Radical Hospitality” (better, but “radical” is becoming dangerously trendy)
I have settled on “Letters from Home” because it best captures the sense of both sadness and hope I feel when I look around my church, my city, my country, and this world, hoping to glimpse the Kingdom of God.  We have been promised a home, but we are not there yet.  A letter signals both presence and absence: I can cherish the envelope in my hand, knowing that the sender also held it, but  holding an envelope is not as sweet as holding someone’s hand. Letters are sent when distance interferes with complete communion. Letters provide our records of the early churches.  I’m attempting a to send and receive a few letters from this promised, obscured, real, imagined, holy, humble home. I want to gather ideas, questions, and meditations on how we can create home for one another.  Like my other ideas, this title has its dangers. To some, it probably seems sentimental.  So be it. I don’t mind thinking of this blog as a kind of cross-stitched sampler I am hanging on the internet’s cluttered wall, and if “home” has become a sentimental word, I would rather fight sentimentality with honesty and laughter than with cynicism. 
With all these hopes and questions in mind, I intend to post entries in the following categories: 
Abundant Lives: Profiles of people whose lives overflow with grace, love, humor, strength, and courage
Making it Home: Ideas about what it means to practice hospitality, ranging from the lofty (Sabbath-keeping) to the mundane (bread recipes)
Life Undivided:  Questions, thanksgiving, complaints, and meditations on what it means to walk alongside each other as fellow pilgrims

To review: I hope to use this blog as a forum for questions and thoughts about how life in Christ affects the way we live as friends, children, spouses, parents, siblings.  Because of own stage of life, many of my posts will relate to my experiences as a young adult and an unmarried person, but I am interested in hearing from all my readers, even (especially!) if you are in a different season of your life.   
Coming up next time…..”Making it Home”: How a Crockpot May Have Saved My Life
You have patiently listened to me thus far, and now I want to hear from you:   1) What does the word “home” mean to you? 2) Does your current church provide a sense of home for you? If so, how? If not, what could your church do differently? 


  1. 1) the first is a much longer answer for me than the second. I don't know how to define home, but I know it when it happens. I know it because I'm somewhere else, such as out of town, and I say "I'm going home." Sometimes this happens at my mom's house and I'm headed back to Waco. Sometimes it happens talking about church and I say "I am going to my home-church this weekend." I never said "home" regarding the room I lived in while I visited Iraq, even though I was there for a good while. Home is mine, it's something I take ownership of. I can change it, and it can comfort me. It's usually a wreck because I find refuge there, and there I am surrounded by people who love me and whom I love. Cliche? absolutely - but that doesn't diminish the veracity of the statement.

    2) no, not really. And I don't know why. And I'm really struggling with this.

  2. 1) I like that first answer awfully well; it reflects my experiences. If I may formulate a little: Home is the place I may venture from, to which I may return. It is not strictly an origin (one even usually "goes home" some time after birth) nor a destination (only metaphorically do we speak of going to a home we haven't seen yet; witness the elegiac feeling and the sense of cyclical return in "Home, sweet home / Home, sweet home / Where I'll never roam" -- as though birth had been a wandering from a home we've never seen). I am brought home; I go home; I leave home; I return home; home is a place of cessation in transit.

    I long to be at home along the way,
    And yet I long for discontent so deep
    That nothing I can see could bring on sleep

    2) no. They want to. But they can only do so for school-job-married [effectively secular] people who "go to" church to pursue a common interest in "matters of faith." For those who feel alienated within the world, or want to leave it, well, there are extra hurdles they don't seem to know how to process. I long for a properly liturgical, properly lived being of the Body of Christ in which we *dwell* even as we are "sent out" on our various mundane missions from week to week, in which the members of the Body are extended into the world as members, not expected to reside in the world and "go to church" as well as "go to school" and "go to the mall" and "go to work" and "go to Disney World."

  3. Not a place but a state of mind: where I feel belonging, comfort, acceptance, and can express pain and joy. This implies there will be another individual in my 'home' space, but I have learned that the other person should be Jesus. It makes the relationship with Christ all the more important when things go wrong with people, because He is the only perfect companion. Other people can certainly be part of the home concept and can be relied upon to provide the needs of home, which is where the church ought to come in. Unfortunately, the church is full of unreliable people like everywhere else and often fails to teach and facilitate relationships that help us feel like we are at home.

  4. First, I am *so* excited that you have ventured into this world of blogging. Your first post already has four times as many comments as I usually garner, and I've been blogging for nearly eight years! :) You are one of the dearest friends I have, and I can't wait to have more frequent glimpses into your heart and mind and soul. Yippee!!

    Quick introduction from me to new community: I'm Lindsay, childhood friend of Bethany's. I'm married with two young children. I am very much a lover and follower of Jesus Christ, and I do my best to allow as much of my life as possible to flow out of that love and allegiance.

    So, to your questions, Bethany:
    1.) I'm increasingly realizing what the Bible means when it calls us strangers in a foreign land. Heaven is my true home. I can feel it in my bones and in my heart. As such, I generally feel the most "at home" when I am in relationships that give me a small glimpse of my true home.

    Therefore, my parents and my siblings will always feel like home. They are the people who introduced me to Jesus Christ, and they are some of the only people who have loved me unconditionally for my whole life. In them, I can see God and His love for me.

    Similarly, my husband and my children will always feel like home to me. My love for them and their love for me is a great picture of God's love.

    Lastly, whenever I feel like I'm with people who have a common love for God and a similar dedication to His praise and glory, I feel very much at home.

    That leads to the next questions:

    2.) No, my current church doesn't feel like home to me. Part of this is due to the fact that we've only been attending for about three months. Part of it has to do with the fact that 1800 people attend services every Sunday, and it's very easy to get lost in the crowd without forming any real relationships.

    And, honestly? I don't think there's anything our churches can do to fix the fact that we don't feel "at home." I'm not sure that the modern local church was ever really God's intended purpose for His people. I think He intended for us to have real, honest, sometimes messy relationships with each other. I think he intended for us to meet together and to share our belongings (but not in order to fund a big building and the overhead associated with the building and a staff and the overhead associated with the staff) in order for us to reach out to those around us...to start and nurture real, honest, sometimes messy relationships with the people around us, so they could see and experience the love of God, the feeling of "home."

    Until we renew our commitment to love each other, really love each other, and to forsake all else for Christ, I don't think any of us will ever feel at home in the church.

    (Can you tell that I'm longing to start a home church?)

  5. 1. Being a Midwestern Yankee twice transplanted to the South, I frequently feel like a stranger and an alien, and I suppose I am. In a sense, “home” right now is my little house on my quarter-acre lot—the house contains my family, my bed, my books, some furniture I have built, as well as the tools I used to build them. Outside is the garden I planted, the porches I mended, and the grass I mow every week in the summer. But there are also large trees on the lot, old trees that were planted before my parents were born. The house was built before my grandparents were born. So there is still a feeling of estrangement when I pull into the driveway.

    So while I “come home” from work every day, I also “go back home” when I return to Northern Illinois where I grew up. The small towns, the tall trees, the cornfields—LOTS of cornfields—the little creeks and wide rivers, the humid summer mornings and the icy winter wind are the landscape in which I feel at home. I want to return there some day for good, but not now.

    Then, clichéd as the sentiment is, there is the world-weariness that Augustine identified as the desire for our true home in God. As a child and a teenager, the sentiment made no sense to me, and I thought it rather silly. Now a few years later, I get snatches of it myself. The older I get, the more it will weigh on me, I’m sure.

    2. No. I haven’t really felt at home in a church in years, and while I suppose it has been somewhat the fault of the various churches I’ve attended over the years, it is also largely my own problem. Having been in church leadership, I’ve learned the folly of trying to remake a church in my own image. A church in which I really felt perfectly at home would be a church in which almost no one else would. I am an intellectual, and the things that appeal to me do not often appeal to other people. Our current church is the closest I’ve come to feeling “at home” in quite some years. While some elements are not to my taste, I have found people there with whom I can have meaningful conversations. It’s a relatively big church—1,000 or so each week—and while that has its disadvantages, it also means that the brain pool is larger. I am more likely to meet other people with intellectual tendencies. However, church should no more be an intellectual clique than it should be a social club. Church forces me to associate with people whom I would never choose to associate with, and so I have to learn that loving my neighbors means loving all of them, not just the ones who read the right books.

  6. (note: this is not Bethany-the-author-of-this-blog, but Bethany-the-grad-school-friend-of-the-author-of-this-blog)

    I'm still trying to think and feel my way into a definition of "home" that makes me say, "yes, exactly, THIS is it!" Right now, what I've got is that home is a certain kind of community. (Like sharon2k, I would include physical solitude with Jesus as a type of community.) Home is a place where you can feel free to make mistakes, to be different--or the same--and know that you will still be unconditionally loved and cherished. Your actions may not find unanimous approval, but even in the disagreements, love remains the guiding principle.

    Reading the comments above, I'm reminded anew how very grateful I am for my church (Chapel Hill Bible Church). I wouldn't say that I feel completely at home in the larger, many-hundreds-of-people congregation, but within the huge group I have a couple of smaller circles of brothers and sisters who have been teaching me for the past year what "home" can really mean.

    One of these circles is our "Young Adults" (twenty-/thirty-somethings) community. It has taken several months to feel fully integrated into this group, because we're all so busy and we have a pretty high turnover rate, thanks to the numerous grad schools that have drawn most of us here. But yesterday, for example, I had to miss our monthly leadership team meeting (I'm the Communications Director) for personal reasons. Within 40 minutes of my sorry-I-won't-be-there email, I'd already gotten two phone calls and an email. Another group member texted to see if she could visit me, and she ended up staying for an hour, just listening to me talk. And since then, I've gotten two more emails offering prayers and support. I'd only emailed five people about the situation! But this is the level at which my church loves.

    Because my church is in an area with three major universities, we've got a fairly transient congregation--many of us will only be here 1-5 years. My church's leadership team has responded to this constraint by deciding to face it head-on. We see our mission as one of "gather[ing] and scatter[ing]." While we welcome seekers, we're not primarily a seeker-oriented church. Instead, the focus is on deepening spiritual maturity among already-committed believers. There's an intentional drive to mentor university and grad school students, especially. Enter my second "home" circle: I have several people who are investing in me and my growth right now, helping me to develop spiritual strength and leadership. They're mentoring me not just for my own sake, but with an eye towards preparing me to then use these experiences in whatever situations I might be called to after grad school. From these people, I'm learning so much about the love and grace of God; the wisdom of the faith; what it looks like to live an authentic, fully engaged Christian life in a world filled with very real sin and suffering, etc. These mentors are patient with my mistakes and continually supportive and encouraging as I stumble through an imperfect life with a perfect God.

  7. I've come late to your blog, Bethany, because it took me until fall break to have time to read it. Sorry!

    1) More and more lately, I have come to realize that nowhere in this wold is ever truly going to be home. I love my family, my house, my job, and my church, but those things also all involve work and stress. Home to me is the place where we can truly rest and be one with God, and except for brief snatches, that just doesn't happen here. I'm not suicidal, so don't take this that way, but sometimes, when the boys are fighting, Tom is distracted, and I have a pile of writing and grading and housework to do, I can't help praying inwardly, "Dear Jesus, when can I come home? I want to go home!". But I know his answer is not yet. He has things for me to do here--a husband to support, children to rear, students to teach, and, I believe, a mission field in a college setting somewhere here in America. So I have to wait--but somehow I can't lose the longing.

    2) As I said above, I love my church, but it doesn't completely feel homey, either. It's just too big. I have friends in my Sunday School class, and I know they care and would help if we needed it. But I don't always feel comfortable asking. So the sense of isolation I sometimes feel is probably my fault. But I miss going to a small church where everyone knew each other, where my church was my community. At this church, we're just too spread out.

  8. You've all given me a lot to ponder. I won't try to respond to everyone's excellent comments right now, but watch for replies in future entries--I think the question "What is home?" will be one that continues to yield important questions and hopes.

    I will say, though, that many of your comments have made me think of my "Philippians Room." My last year of college, I memorized to book of Philippians for a project in my "Spiritual Growth and Development" course. The culmination of this project was to recite the book in front of my classmates. The class "experimental" (in the lovely 17th-century sense) more than theoretical, so by the end of the semester, we all had walked alongside one another through many spiritual conversations, disciplines, and questions.

    It was amazing to speak the words of Paul to Philippian Christians while looking into the eyes of those friends. As I spoke, the room seemed to stretch in all directions, and I imagined it filling up with all the others who give me cause to rejoice.

    There are many components to my sense of "home," but especially when I think of home in terms of church and community, the image of my Philippians room is always first in my mind and heart.