Many years ago in England, a circus elephant named Bozo was very popular with the public. Children especially loved to crowd around his cage and throw him peanuts. Then one day there was a sudden change in the elephant’s personality. Several times he tried to kill his keeper and when the children came near his cage he would charge toward them as if wanting to trample them to death. It was obvious he would have to be destroyed. The circus owner, a greedy and crude man, decided to stage a public execution of the animal. In this way, he could sell tickets and try to recoup some of the cost of losing such a valuable property.
The day came and the huge circus tent was packed. Bozo, in his cage, was in the center ring. Nearby stood a firing squad with high-powered rifles. The manager, standing near the cage, was about ready to give the signal to fire; when out of the crowd came a short, inconspicuous man in a brown derby hat.
“There is no need for this,” he told the manager quietly. The manager brushed him aside. “He is a bad elephant. He must die before he kills someone.” “You are wrong,” insisted the man. “Give me two minutes in the cage alone with him and I will prove you are wrong.” The manager turned and stared in amazement. “You will be killed,” he said. “I don’t think so,” said the man. “Do I have your permission?” The manager, being the kind of man he was, was not one to pass up such a dramatic spectacle. Even if the man were killed, the publicity alone would be worth millions
As he removed his coat and hat, preparing to enter the cage, the manager told the people what was about to happen. A hush fell over the crowd. The door to the cage was unlocked, the man stepped inside, and then the door was locked behind him. At the sight of this stranger in his cage the elephant threw back his trunk, let out a mighty roar, then bent his head preparing to charge. The man stood quite still, a faint smile on his face as he began to talk to the animal. The audience was so quiet that those nearest the cage could hear the man talking but couldn’t make out the words; he seemed to be speaking some foreign language. Slowly, as the man continued to talk, the elephant raised his head. Then the crowd heard an almost piteous cry from the elephant as his enormous head began to sway gently from side to side. Smiling, the man walked confidently to the animal and began to stroke the long trunk. All aggression seemed suddenly to have been drained from the elephant. Docile as a pup now he wound his trunk around the man’s waist and the two walked slowly around the ring. The astounded audience could bear the silence no longer and broke out in cheers and clapping. After a while the man bade farewell to the elephant and left the cage.
“He’ll be all right now,” he told the manager. “You see, he’s an Indian elephant and none of you spoke his language, Hindustani. I would advise you to get someone around here who speaks Hindustani. He was just homesick.” And with that the little man put on his coat and hat and left.
Being homesick is debilitating. It makes you feel sick to your stomach and you can’t eat. It can make you angry or sad. You might even cry a lot. Consoling words don’t help; you just want to go home….to be where life is familiar and predictable, where people speak your “language.”
But it is also possible to feel homesick in the middle of your life, right where you live. You don’t have to be away at camp or on a long business trip or living in a new community to feel longings for home. It is possible to feel homesick when you are right at home. Sometimes longing grows in us for a different kind of home, a new kind of life that would fit us better than the one we have. Having just moved to Evanston with a two-year-old and a husband who worked all the time I didn’t have a lot of adult companionship and decided to join a women’s organization in order to meet people. While the work the organization did was of great value and the rewards were great, I felt even lonelier. I had nothing in common with the women I was working with on one of our projects. I found it hard to laugh at what they thought was hilarious, and our conversations were boring and superficial to me. I longed for friendships that had some depth and for relationships where I could be myself. So I dropped out of the women’s group and went looking for a new community of friends where I could feel a sense of belonging.
About 4,000 years ago a family of nomads left Ur of the Chaldeans, perhaps in southeastern Iraq near Nasariyah and settled in Haran in southwestern Turkey on the Syrian border, a trip of about 500 miles. In the ancient world nomads lived in tents and traveled from location to location in search of water and pastures for their livestock. Their home was the wilderness, often dry and arid but with an occasional oasis, river, water basin and pastures. The nomad was as much at home in the wilderness as we are in our own environment. He also knew the area which he traveled in very well. He knew where all the water sources were, where pastures were located at different times of the year and all the landmarks which directed him on his travels. But it was a very different trip for this family we read about in the book of Genesis. In their move to Haran they moved well beyond the country they knew and traveled into a completely strange and unknown environment. It was while they were there in Haran that Abraham, the father of Israel, began hearing a voice. “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” Believing the voice to be that of God, the author of Genesis tells us that Abraham went as God had told him, with his wife and Lot, his brother’s son, and his possessions and set out for wherever God would lead them. So they set out toward the land of Canaan around 700 miles away. Perhaps God was speaking to Abraham in the homesickness he felt for the home he had not yet found – to the place where he could live in a deep and trusting relationship with God.
Don Clendenin describes Abraham’s journey into the unknown and compares it to our need for control, certainty and autonomy. “Abraham set out in faith, not knowing where he was going, or even why he was going, except that God had commanded him. He defied both the inner propensities of human nature and the outer pressures of cultural conformity that call us in the opposite direction: to journey from the unknown to the known, from what we do not have to what we think we want and need, from the strange and unpredictable to the safe and secure and from mere promises to human guarantees. …Abraham acted whole-heartedly but without absolute certainties…. In his journey into the unknown, Abraham embraced ignorance, relinquished control and chose to live with confidence in God’s promise to bless him in a new and strange place. But that required a second choice on his part. He had to leave not only his geographic place. He had to leave behind his narrow-minded, smallminded, parochial vision, the tendency in all of us to exclude the strange and the stranger.”
In Abraham’s call to abandon the life he knew, to the renunciation of his family and in the relinquishing of control, he found hope, says Walter Brueggemann. God doesn’t demand that Abraham go but invites him on the journey, and in God’s invitation to Abraham is a promise of a future beyond his imagining. “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” It is the same invitation that Jesus gave to us: “For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35). God asks Abraham to lose the life he knows, to leave it behind and to strike out with the promise of finding a brand new, exciting life, a place where he will feel at home. And that life, God tells Abraham will be one of well-being, security, prosperity and prominence.
The assumption that this story makes, says Brueggemann, is that we are not able to create for ourselves a life-giving, satisfying life. “Well-being cannot be conjured up; it can only be given. But the giving depends upon receiving.” Feeling at home in the world is a gift that God gives us when we turn ourselves over to the possibility of living in God’s future for us.
For so many of us, receiving is the tricky part. We can give or create or control, but to be open and waiting, to admit that we are in need of something beyond ourselves is the real challenge. We tend not to wait but to grasp for what we want and then we miss God in our grasping.
In their book Inviting the Mystic, Supporting the Prophet, authors Katherine Dyckman and L. Patrick Carroll use the metaphor, as do many other spiritual writers, of the spiritual journey as a way of characterizing the life of faith. They wonder if the task we confront on the spiritual journey is to “adjust comfortably to what is or to explore all the marvelous possibilities of what might be. [Dyckman and Caroll] believe that human beings constantly have to give up what they have for whatever it is that they do not yet have.” It is in the space between the familiarity of what we know and the openness of an undetermined future that the grace and transformation for which we yearn often occurs. In the rush of life it is hard for us to listen to the voice of God, to have a sense of our own homesick feelings for something deeper and richer in our lives -–to have a sense of God at the dynamic center of our lives. But maybe for a moment or two in a meeting or listening to music in the car or as you give your child a bath you sense that still, small voice calling to you – calling you to explore the wilderness that seems to be out ahead of you – and to begin to travel there with God as your guide. You might sense a feeling of homesickness for what, you don’t know, but you have to set out on the path to find it.
What keeps us from listening to this call and stepping out onto the path, says Gerald May in his book Addiction and Grace, is our addiction to life as we know it. We are addicted to the things we own, the respect we seek, the love we long for, the ideas we hold so near and dear to our hearts, let alone the more acknowledged addictions of drugs and alcohol or smoking. It is our attachment to these addictions in our lives that keeps us from having lives truly committed to God and receiving from God the love, acceptance and transformation for which we long. It was St. Augustine who once said that God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them. Gerald May comments that in our struggle with our addictions there will always be openings through which, if we are listening, “we will always hear some homeward call, some invitation to transformation. If we answer yes, even with the tiniest and most timid voice, our struggle becomes dedicated to God. It occurs when we claim our deepest desire for God, beneath, above and beyond all things.”
In 1998 the marketing gurus at El Al Airlines began offering flights to nowhere. According to Moment magazine (April 1998), passengers on these new nondestination routes never actually left the air space above Jerusalem, but they did enjoy a gourmet dinner, drink from a “bottomless” glass of wine and chose from one of four films playing in the cabin – all for $85. “I think it’s going to be a great success,” an El Al spokesman commented, “very decadent.”
There are all kinds of journeys…journeys backwards, forwards, up the ladder, down the tube, journeys to nowhere. Abraham’s journey was a journey toward a God he desired to know and follow and he did so at the cost of his comfort and security. He followed a familiar voice that promised him an end to his homesickness in the blessings of new land and a new family and a new way of being. We are all on a journey somewhere. If we listen for his voice in the turbulence and craziness of our lives we too will hear God calling to us, “Come home.”