My wife and I are standing on the rocks en route to the Guttenberg Haus, high in the Dachstein region of the Austrian Alps. I’ve seen this hut from my room, down in the valley, where I stay when I teach in Austria, but I’ve never been here in the summer, when its open.
As we pause for a sip of water I look down and see the ski jump facility in Ramsau, a small Alpine village that lives by farming and tourism. I realize, as I look at this ski jump, that I’ve stood beside it often. The first time was with a friend who’d been a student at our outdoor ministry in the Cascades. She lives in Ramsau and we walked to the top of the ski jump together. Another year it was with a group of students, as we hiked from the school, up to Ramsau, to the ski jump and stood at the top. Two years ago I stood down there at the ski jump with m whole family as we enjoyed “Christmas in Austria”, as my teaching responsibilities and our children’s schedules converged to create a moment of travel together.
I come and go. The ski jump remains. But each time I return, the ski jump has more meaning, because it’s filled with memories. There are similar memories in other places in the world: a small island in British Columbia, a chalet in Rocky mountains, a chapel in Montana.
These are places I’ve gone, nearly every year since 1994 as a guest teacher, opening up books like Genesis, Exodus, Ezekiel, the Minor Prophets, to help students understand their meaning, always with a view toward inviting the young students from various places on the globe into the adventure that is the Christian life.
People often ask me how I came to teach at Torchbearer Bible Schools. While I share more of that story in my latest book, the short version is that I found a kindred spirit and friendship with the director of the Canadian school years ago, and since then opportunities have opened to share Christ at the various schools.
The other thing people ask me is what it’s like to be with people for only a few days, dropping into, and then out of, their lives. I sometimes hear people say, “What’s the point. You’re never going to see them again?” There are several things worth saying in response, things which reveal the tension all of us must face between being ‘at home’ and being ‘sojourners’.
1. We’re called to be fully present wherever we are.
Buddhists call this mindfulness. Jesus calls it, “don’t worry about tomorrow”. The preacher calls it, “whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might”. This means that we’ll live most fully if we can learn to feel at home, wherever we happen to be on a given day, in a given moment. For several weeks a year, I speak with people I’ll probably never see again. But they’re no less important than the people I see week in and week out in Seattle. All of us, best friends or strangers, are made in the image of God. All of us have questions, issues, fears, longings. So, if I’m tossed in for a week – I need to be there, present with those people: completely.
This has application for all of us, because whether we travel or not, we inevitably find ourselves in situations where, either we’re leaving soon, or others are leaving soon. As a result it’s tempting to distance oneself and disengage. “I’m a student. I’ll only be in Seattle a year or two” someone says. What they mean is: “I won’t invest, won’t commit.” One year, one week, one day? It doesn’t matter. It seems that Jesus found a way to be fully present, and what it home, if not the place where we’re invested – really there for others?
2. We’ll never be fully at home anywhere.
I know the day will come when I’ll never see the ski jump in Austria again. Whether it’s a year from now, or twenty, or even longer, at some point I’ll stop teaching there and when that day comes, it’s unlikely I’ll return. The little village filled with memories is, for all it’s beauty and richness, not really home.
Ah, but what IS really home? Seattle? It’s more home than Ramsau, surely. Relationships run deep there. I’m presently enjoying the fruit of the kind of long term relationships that can only be realized when you stick around with people for fifteen years. There’s a richness to the knowing, a depth to the sharing, a security to that which has stood the test of time.
But there’s a sense in which this falls short of the fullest sense of the word home, because the real sense of full security, the real sense of shalom, the real sense that we’ve arrived at our destination, will never be realized until the full reign of Christ. This was one of the main points of Hebrews 11, where great lives of exemplary faith are held up for our consideration. “All these” we’re told, “died without seeing….” Home – in the fullest perfect sense, is always just beyond our grasp.
3. We’d better live with the tension
Never quite arriving.
Pick the first without the second, and you’re endlessly trying to make heaven on earth out of each encounter, each relationship, each cup of coffee. That’s a formula cynicism and hurt feelings. Pick the second without the first, and you’ll never jump into the abundant life to which you’re called. You’ll forever dance around the edges, waiting for the stars to align so that you can commit to intimacy, community, place. That’s a formula for despair and discouragement.
A martyred missionary once said, “Wherever you are, be all there.” I’ve been “all there” with friends and family in Germany and Austria for the past two weeks. I’m coming home – all there – to Seattle, and it’s good to be back.
Through it all, there’s one constant – who never leaves, never forsakes…never. He’s the truest home we have.
Which is more challenging for you: being fully present – or living with the reality that we’re never ‘fully home’?