Essay

Guests or Squatters

By November 8, 2017 3 Comments

O Lord, you know I have no friend like you.
If Heaven’s not my home, then Lord what will I do?
The angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door,
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

–“This World Is Not My Home”

It’s been an interesting summer and fall for me. I sold my house in July, but then the closing dragged on and on, so that we didn’t close until the end of September. I had an additional 30 days to move and so, only well into the semester, did I vacate my house of the last 19 years.

I should mention a key detail: I hadn’t bought replacement accommodations by the time I had to move out at the end of October. Very kind friends, who snowbird in the South part of the year, had offered me the use of their house during my transition. A great relief and a great blessing, to be sure.

But living in someone else’s house got me thinking about a theological position I’ve often heard described: the idea that somehow when we are heaven-focused, we care less about our earthly home. Somehow if I’m being “beckon[ed] from Heaven’s open door,” I don’t care about the condition of the home that I’m only “passing through.”

Turns out this sentiment might make a good gospel song (maybe), but real life does not bear it out. Certainly, I am aware of the abysmal way people can treat hotel rooms and rental cars. But when folks entrust their beloved house to you, the perspective shifts: one becomes very careful, indeed. I don’t want anything stained or scratched, besmirched or broken. It would be awful to disappoint the magnanimous trust my friends had in me by treating their home in a cavalier way. Or to leave it or its contents dirty and ruined. I’d feel terrible if anything happened after they’d provided me such generosity.

I don’t need to beat you over the head with the obvious spiritual parallel: the gracious God who entrusts his beloved creation to us. And our only credible response: great solicitude for all of that creation.

But maybe we need to be reminded of the gratitude that should motivate our care for the earth and its inhabitants. I was so deeply touched by my friends’ gesture–letting me stay in their house for as long as need be. How could I respond with anything but a spirit of thankfulness and a commitment to increased care for what I had been entrusted with? To do less seems disrespectful, ungrateful, entitled.

Ultimately, home or not (bad theology or not), how we take care of wherever we live demonstrates more about our attitude towards the owner than it does even for the place itself. And by our actions we testify to whether we are grateful guests or self-absorbed squatters.

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

3 Comments

  • Emily R. Brink says:

    Love this piece, good home-spun wisdom. Thanks, Jennifer. (I’m writing just after two teenage nephews and a dog moved out of my home after a year; love them, loved to have them, but oh, my, the house is in need of some care at this point! 🙂

  • Marge Vander Wagen says:

    Profound respect for the house, the creation, the creator. May we all be more grateful and less critical of the gift and the giver. This may apply to people also: pastors, elders, teens, and crying babies. Thank you for focusing our thoughts on whatever is true, just, etc.

  • Willa Brown says:

    Thanks, Jennifer, for that wise reminder and the parallel. If only–we all could remember that means “all of God’s creation” needs to be treated with respect and care.

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