The desire for ‘my place’
You may not have been there in 1939 when that glorious film The Wizard of Oz was first screened. Chances are, though, you’ll recognize its music and know its story in detail. Who can forget a young Judy Garland looking wistfully across the Kansas cornfields singing those dream-like words ‘Somewhere over the rainbow’? The film version is based on L. Frank Baum’s story by the same name. It’s a good read. Not long after Dorothy’s arrival in the land of Oz and at the beginning of her journey along the yellow brick road, Baum recounts a conversation between Dorothy and her new friend, the Scarecrow.
‘Tell me something about yourself, and the country you come from,’ said the Scarecrow, when she had finished her dinner. So she told him all about Kansas, and how grey everything was there, and how the cyclone had carried her to this queer land of Oz. The Scarecrow listened carefully, and said, ‘I cannot understand why you should wish to leave this beautiful country and go back to the dry, grey place you call Kansas.’ ‘That is because you have no brains,’ answered the girl. ‘No matter how dreary and grey our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home.’ ‘Of course I cannot understand it,’ he said. ‘If your heads were all stuffed with straw like mine, you would probably all live in beautiful places, and then Kansas would have no people at all. It is fortunate for Kansas that you have brains.’
‘There is no place like home.’ Home is a potent word, a word that carries such a weight of meaning, memory and longing that our ability to articulate it is rare. That’s because the idea of home speaks out of and into the deepest part of who we are as human beings. Its beauty and meaning are not measured so much by what we see but by how we feel and who we are when we are there.
In his book, What Makes Us Tick?, the social researcher Hugh Mackay details ten desires that drive us. Based upon decades of listening to ordinary Australians talk about their hopes and beliefs, Mackay holds up a mirror, helping us to see the longings that most define our daily lives. In this series, we are exploring six of these desires from the perspective of Christian faith–evaluating and critiquing these desires in light of our belief that life is a gift given to us by God. Last Sunday we explored the desire for something to believe in, and today, the desire for ‘my place.’
Mackay describes home as a ‘multilayered concept,’ invested with a host of meanings and associations. Home might speak of where we currently live, or our place of origin–a house or neighbourhood from childhood. It might describe a particular set of relationships to which we return periodically. It might have to do with a sense of personal territory or comfort, a back shed, a Sunday pew, a park bench to which we return again and again–a place in which we feel secure and at home. In the land of the great Australian dream, the aspiration to home ownership is deeply connected to our sense of citizenship and belonging in a way that is almost unparalleled in the rest of the world. According to Mackay, this longing for home, whatever form it takes, is ‘a desire for a place that is unambiguously ours; a place that is in harmony with us; that welcomes and comforts us; that says things about us we’re pleased to have said.’ Mackay describes it as an anchor in our lives, a refuge, a stable reference point in a world that is complex and constantly changing. At its best, it’s a place of belonging, identity and security. For Mackay, the desire for a place to call our own sits at the heart of what it means to be human. It is only when we are deprived of such a place we begin to understand its importance. It’s all this that makes the experience of homelessness so violating.
Who can ever forget the fires of Black Saturday here in Victoria. Night after night we heard on the television news the stories of those who suffered such terrible loss. We wept with those who stood awkwardly before the television cameras, their decimated homes still smouldering behind them. Repeatedly we heard these brave people dismiss the loss of their homes and possessions as nothing compared to the sacredness of life itself: ‘At least we’re still here; that’s what matters,’ they said. Of course, they were right and profoundly so. Yet as they turned away from the cameras to look back at what was gone, the tears and bewilderment betrayed the fact that it did matter, and deeply so. Places count. Bricks and mortar they may be, but our homes are us. They speak deeply of who we are and where we belong.
From a Christian perspective, the importance of home is only underlined. Certainly, in the biblical narrative the idea of home features prominently from beginning to end. The story begins in Genesis with the garden of Eden, a place given by God to humankind, a home in which to flourish and prosper. The story of the people of Israel is a journey from nothing to nationhood, from homelessness to the promised land, a place flowing with milk and honey in which the people find their identity and security. In today’s reading, Jesus reassures his bewildered followers that he goes to prepare a place for them, a house with many rooms. It’s a grounded promise, a promise that understands our need for place and belonging. What’s more, Jesus’ story of the prodigal son returning home to the embrace of his waiting father is the moving story of salvation for all humankind:
‘Come home, come home,
you who are weary, come home;
earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
calling, o sinner, come home!’
And in Revelation, the final book of the bible, we have described that place of eternal home, a neighbourhood lined with houses and trees and its streets paved in gold. From beginning to end, according to the scriptures, we are made for place; we are made for home, at home in Christ and destined for homecoming.
But this affirmation of home and our in-built need for it is not the full story from a biblical perspective. Neither is it for Mackay. Mackay goes on to say that our sense of home is only complete when we understand that our desires for ‘my place’ and ‘our place’ are linked. The needs for home and community go hand in hand. Home is never home in isolation. According to Mackay, ‘If we lose our sense of being connected to a local community, we lose a significant part of our sense of home.’ If our sense of home is only about what happens within the four walls of a house, or within the walls of memory or personal security, then home becomes a fortress, a place defined more by fear and boundary than by relationship and community.
The rise of gated communities is testament to this; people retreating behind walls and secured gates for the sake of personal safety. The result, however, according to the most recent studies, is not a greater sense of security for these residents but an even more heightened sense of fear. While the residents of such communities attests to a very positive feeling of security while at home, whenever they venture beyond the gates their perceived fears skyrocket.
An old maxim of the urban planning community is that as we shape our neighbourhoods, so our neighbourhoods are shaping us. According to Mackay, ‘This is why local neighbourhoods–the actual places where we share the experiences of living in communities–play such a crucial role in our moral formation. The local neighbourhood is the test-bed our our values.’ Similarly in our Christian calling, the most fundamental ethic of the home is that we should love our neighbour as we love ourselves, that we should love those beyond the front door as intentionally as we love those behind it.
In his celebrated book Sense of Place, Sense of Time, the late and respected social geographer John Brinkerhoff Jackson describes the role of the home using the metaphor of the hand:
‘It is the hand we raise to indicate our presence; it is the hand that protects and holds what is its own; the home or hand creates its own small world; it is the visible expression of our identity and our intentions. It is the hand which reaches out to establish and confirm relationship. Without it we are never complete social beings.’
Jackson’s metaphor is helpful. The purpose of a good metaphor is that it helps us get a handle on something difficult to grasp. It helps us understand better the roles that the home plays in our lives and, even more, the interconnectedness of these roles. First the home is the hand we raise to indicate our presence in the neighbourhood; it’s an expression of our identity as a household or family. Second, its the hand that enfolds and protects; its a place of refuge, healing and connection for those who live there. And thirdly, its the hand that reaches out to initiate and confirm relationship with those around it; its an inclusive place of invitation, hospitality and welcome. The first two expressions of home are not difficult for us to embrace: the hand that we raise as an expression of our identity; the hand with which we enfold those within. It is perhaps the third that we find more challenging; the hand that reaches out and beyond.
A few years back, the cultural analyst from the University of Western Sydney, Fiona Allon, released the fascinating book Renovation Nation. In it she documents Australia’s longstanding obsession with homeownership. This obsession, she argues, is now surpassed by our infatuation with home renovations. To a degree unmatched anywhere else in the world, we are preoccupied with improving and changing what we have—upgrading, extending and modernizing. Allon cites a recent report that surveyed 2000 homeowners across Australia. The report found that 90% of homeowners are currently renovating their homes or have specific plans to do so. On average we have up to five renovation projects on the go at any one time. The two most common motivations for home renovations are increasing resale value, and enhancing our quality of life. And it seems we are prepared to spend significant amounts to make it happen. Just under 70% of home renovators are spending in excess of $60,000.
While Allon has no religious barrow to push, she expresses concern with what drives this infatuation. Perhaps in the face of fear, terror and uncertainty, we are retreating ever deeper into our homes, obsessively feathering our own nests, cacooning ourselves from the threats of diversity and difference that push in on every side. Ultimately, Allon says, ‘renovations engage our imaginations but narrow our horizons; it excites our vision but limits what we see.‘ And in the process, we collectively pull up the draw bridge and secure the boundaries.
Allon’s words are important for us to hear. While the desire for home is strong and, according to scripture, God-given, it can so easily be reduced to a very self-serving, self-protecting drive that ignores its essential connection to community and neighbourhood. In our 5pm service today, we are exploring the Christian response to asylum seekers, those who come to our shores looking for a sense of home and belonging. Its a contentious issue in our society. If the church, like the home, is a hand we raise in identity, a hand by which we enfold those within, offering a refuge of healing and renewal, and hand that we extend to those most in need beyond our front doors, then what does this mean for our response to those who come to this land from other shores, often broken and without any sense of belonging or home? These are important questions to ask. In our reading today, Jesus is reassuring his fearful disciples, telling them of the home he goes to prepare for them, but he does so in the context of commissioning them for mission. Security and challenge go hand in hand, and no less for us today.
In my early twenties I was a regular visitor to a Benedictine monastery, a community of brothers committed to a lifetime of living, working and praying together. I would stay for a few days at a time in a small room sparsely but neatly furnished with a single bed and a small wooden desk. After several of these visits I noticed an old and yellowed piece of paper mounted in a cheap plastic frame on the back of the door. It was a prayer of dedication that a Benedictine prayed as he moved into his ‘cell.’ I copied the words into my journal and have used it in all the years since as my own prayer. By simply replacing the word cell with the word home, it became mine in a very moving and helpful way. I close with its words this morning:
Lord, this house
is to be my home.
May you holy power
furnish it in peace
and decorate its four walls
so that your sacred presence
will also abide here.
Lord, it is not large or grand
but it is to be my living place.
May I find within its close quarters
refreshment and your sacred space.
May your spirit of prayer
be my frequent guest
and welcome housemate.
May the spirit of praise
guide every task and
deed performed here.
Lord, this home will be a place
for living, sleeping, praying;
it will be a shrine
and a place for healing.
May my door stand open
to all who are in need—
as a sign of the posture
of my heart.
May peace, love and beauty
flow out from this home of mine
in all four directions
and up and down.
May your silent echo be heard
by all of those who lives surround me.
The birds of the air have nests;
foxes have dens;
may this home of mine
be blessed by you, my God
as a home for me …
and for you as well.