“You can’t go home again.” I’ve never read Thomas Wolfe and doubt I could answer a single a Jeopardy question about him. Nonetheless, his saying (book title, actually) rings true.

When I told my dad, many years ago, that we were moving to Iowa, he chuckled and said, “I spent the first 18 years of my life trying to figure out how to get out of Iowa. I guess it’s only right that you return.”

At a recent storytelling evening, a friend began, “When I left home for college, no one ever told me I wasn’t coming back.” He went on to paint a poignant yet humorous picture of what that meant. From a working class family, he was the only sibling to go away for college. He had no one else’s story to use as a point of reference. Before long, and without ever really giving his consent, he was married and raising a family, far from home.

About then it dawned on him that he had taken a very different path—unknowingly. “With young children, it was hard being so far from home without the assistance of grandmas, grandpas, aunts, uncles, and cousins to help see us through.”

When you’re 18 years old you simply do not see the full consequences of your decisions. His siblings who were close to home could easily get together for impromptu family picnics, or ask mom to babysit. At the same time, he confessed, “One of the upsides of being that far away, was being that far away—far away from family drama, politics, obligations, and commitments.” His story concluded by saying that while he would do it all again, somewhere “in the midst of it all, I can’t help but wonder if there wasn’t a big misunderstanding.”

When we chatted afterwards, I thought how different my story was. Somehow I always knew I would go to college and let my career determine where I lived. I wonder about how this was conveyed to me. Never verbally or directly, of course. Was it just because that’s what my parents had done before me?

I was probably about the same age, somewhere in my early thirties, when I started to gain some distance on my story, rather than just live it. Young kids, family literally thousands of miles away, caring parishioners who meant well but all had extended family within five miles, not to mention in the church. I would ask myself, “Who told me that career should determine my life’s trajectory? Why did I drink the kool-aid of autonomy, individualism, being a free-floating, free agent cog in the great modern economy?” I would tease my young kids by telling them they must always live within ten miles of me.

My friend’s story and mine began with very different expectations and presuppositions, yet at about the same time, we both felt there had been a great misunderstanding. No one had ever explained that you can’t go home again.

I don’t know who said “You spend the first half of your life trying to get away from home, and the second half trying to return.” But I can almost place exactly when I hit that tipping point. Rather than returning home, which was chimerical by then, I became more intentional about making a home and being at home where I was.

***

While the itch of home has largely been scratched for me, it comes up again in little bits and pieces. I recall hearing that one of the strongest indicators of whether someone supported Donald Trump for president was to ask “Do you live within 30 miles of where you were born?” A yes to that question meant a strong likelihood of supporting Trump. If memory serves, among white voters, who in general leaned heavily for Trump, one glaring exception was whites who lived more than two hours from home. Of course, many other factors are at play here—class, education level, and more. Before any thin-skinned Trumpians start getting defensive, be sure to hear my own ambivalence about not living within 30 miles of my hometown. At the same time, I also believe that “geographical mobility” typically puts you in new and complex situations. It produces, even forces, openness, flexibility, and curiosity in ways that staying close to home does not.

***

In the Reformed Church in America, and presumably elsewhere, we have seen an increase in people training for ministry via online courses. There is also a great upswing in “commissioned pastors”—a sort of “lay pastor,” a person who receives some training and is “commissioned” for a specific, local ministry. I understand the reasons for these increases, even as I still have misgivings about them.

I moved across the continent to attend seminary. It was dislocating in the fullest sense of that word. I was uprooted and then re-formed. It wasn’t entirely pleasant, but by and large I am grateful for it. I wonder how much I might have resisted and clung to my past, had I been living in a familiar setting with family and old friends.

This isn’t a case of me wanting others to go through some painful initiation ritual just because I did. I contend that through all of this, ministers learn something good about being with a people, but not fully of that people. “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown.” I wouldn’t want to make too much of it, but there may also be an accepting of loss and sacrifice—less so for ministers and much more for “foreign missionaries,” in the old vernacular. Jesus’s words, “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life” have comforted many.

***

My daughter, son-in-law, and their young daughter headed back to their home last Sunday afternoon—a three hour drive. I felt for them. I recall those trips as full of questions and frustrations, bewilderment and fatigue. A tedious drive, the kids tired and overstimulated, wondering about your life choices, your calling, why you live where you do. What and where is home and will you ever get there again?

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

10 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    This is poignant. There’s the added thing, which you imply, that ministers of the gospel are supposed to be ready to go anywhere. And yet here I am, as I write this, at a window through which I can see the lake in Prospect Park where I remember fishing on my tenth birthday. I fought for years to get back to the Brooklyn of my childhood, which my family left when I was ten. And this forced my wife to leave her native soil for good, where all her relatives are, who get together regularly. “Here on earth have we no abiding place, howbeit we seek one to come?” (Brahms, German Requiem). And yet, over the years whenever I thought I would be much happier serving in a different denomination, one that does not hate its own tradition, I have told myself, No, stay in the RCA, these are my people.

  • Mark Bjelland says:

    I enjoyed your ruminations on the tensions between cosmos and hearth. I regularly struggle with feeling out of place in West Michigan and feeling torn between my dual identities as pilgrim and place-maker.

    • Steve Mathonnet-Vander Well says:

      Thanks, Mark for giving some biblical/theological names to the options–pilgrim and place-maker. I like them. I often think more along the lines of modern and pre-modern, but I prefer your terms.

  • Marcia says:

    As the mother of two children who heard a call (not to ministry but a call none the less) and moved far from their childhood home I experience this from the other side. I’m so proud of both of them for their careers, their adventurous spirit, and their apparent ease in living far from family and ‘home’. That being said, I have to admit I’m a little jealous when I see friends babysitting grandchildren or having an impromptu family gathering.

  • Terry Woodnorth says:

    “Something has spoken to me in the night…and told me that I shall die, I know not where. Saying: “[Death is] to lose the earth you know for greater knowing; to lose the life you have, for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth.”
    ― Thomas Wolfe in You Can’t Go Home Again, passed away Monday at age 88.

    • Steve Mathonnet-Vander Well says:

      Thank you, Terry. As I mentioned my knowledge of Thomas Wolfe comes from Wikipedia. But Thomas Wolfe of “You Can’t Go Home Again” fame was an American writer, 1900-1938. Tom Wolfe who died this week was the author of works like Bonfire of the Vanities, The Right Stuff,etc. I could probably answer two questions about him on Jeopardy. Or does one question two answers on Jeopardy?

  • George E says:

    I recall returning to my small-city high school reunion and remarking to some one who’d remained near home that the DJ could have gone on to bigger markets. My classmate’s reply: “What’s wrong with here?” Now, 40 years later a fully established in Arizona, I feel nostalgic about the Midwest. But my wife: Not at all.

    Not surprising that those most likely to have voted for Trump are those who favor community over career, rooted in family and neighbors rather than rooted in job and academically re-formed, to use Steve’s insightful word. What’s more interesting, to me anyway, is how to explain the anomalies, especially the pro-Trump ones. I understand the anti-Trump voters from south Chicago — their Dem politics is as important to them as their Catholicism. But the transplants on my street — the Chicago couple excepted — are all pro-Trump. Why, I wonder.

  • /svm says:

    “. . . there may also be an accepting of loss and sacrifice—less so for ministers and much more for “foreign missionaries,” in the old vernacular. Jesus’s words, “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life” have comforted many.” While that verse comforted many missionaries, not so much their children, who did not make the choice themselves, nor could they complain against “kingdom service,” or their father’s employer: God. Ambivalence can get even more complicated.

    • Steve Mathonnet- VanderWell says:

      The children of “foreign missionaries”–in the old vernacular. Wow, you speak of a painful, complex, tragic experience for many. Boarding schools, always being a lower priority than your parents’ godly work, never feeling at home in your supposed “home” in the US or Canada, and much more. Thank you for nudging us to remember this facet too of the search for “home.”

  • Dean Koopman says:

    I have always thought that implicit in the Great Commission was a connection to His command to be fruitful, multiply and subdue the earth. The thought that God puts in our hearts a desire to fly like embers from a fire, to catch the winds and create a great conflagration of worship to God.
    This post hits me at a time that my youngest will be heading to Los Angles for college, his oldest sister works in Boston, and his other sister plans on heading out from home when she finishes Calvin. The biggest fear this causes me is that I’ll have no one to go with to the MARVEL movies.
    That’s my fear because I want them to go – to take their ember, catch the wind and start a great fire for God.
    Sure, I would love to have them close. But I think God is sending them, regardless of their vocational calling – and I want them to hear Him first.
    So, my desire and advice is “GO.” Just make sure you have room for Mom and me.

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