'They seek a city'
Real Families: Meditations on family lifeby Gerald Shenk
The process of seeking a new home in an unfamiliar community brings back many memories. Just five days after Sara and I wed in July 1975, we packed our belongings in the smallest of cars and set off across the country to begin graduate studies in California. In the next 14 years, we traversed the continent twice and the Atlantic Ocean four times in a series of 12 moves that eventually landed us in Virginia, where we have resided for more than 20 years.
Like many of our peers, we know something of relocation, although not the hardship that drives millions of others into exile seeking refuge far from the homes they may never see again. Many people in our world, not by choice, experience disruption, dislocation and severely traumatic junctures in their lives.
Our own moves, in contrast, have been mostly by choice. We were called by opportunities for ministry and training, for service with God’s people in various locations. Several times we had the benefit of others preparing for our arrival and helping arrange the lodgings that accommodated us. More often, we crossed hundreds or thousands of miles in pursuit of a decent dwelling place, seeking a new abode that became our base for building new relationships.
What will it mean to reside in a new community? How will we find ways to be knit into the social fabric? Who will help us discern the places of opportunity and need in a given locale? Can we learn the language and the song of our new setting?
Last night in the dark it was hard to find the markers, the orientation points. Which are the best pathways across town? How do we begin to recognize key landmarks? Where are the gathering places, the spaces for community to happen?
I sometimes recall how a series of choices unfolded in another time of major transition as we arrived in Virginia two decades ago. It took us 24 hours to select a vehicle, two days to choose a house and six months to consider the range of congregations and make a commitment to one.
Having choices in a time of transition is indeed a privilege and a gift. It takes time to test where the Spirit of God seems to be hovering, brooding over the waters and nurturing possibilities from hope and dream into reality.
Will there be joy in this new setting? Where are those porous places in the social fabric that will open enough to draw us in? Is the calling that brought us here steady and flexible enough to knit us into a new weave of connections?
We are a people on the move. In a recent year, more than 38 million Americans moved (more than 16 million households). Almost 5 million moved to a different state. Stated reasons vary, but most involve seeking opportunity, more than fleeing from hardship.
The biblical stories abound with arrivals and departures of strangers, pilgrims and sojourners of many sorts. The ancient world of the Near East was familiar with intercultural exchanges, situated at a crossroads that posed constant risk and opportunity. Hospitality is not merely a virtue and a cultured art under such conditions but an ethical code for survival near desert and wilderness. The arts and graces of hospitality when life depends on it are retained through centuries in the Middle East, despite the price that comes with vulnerability.
My beloved and I drew on those traditions in our wedding service. With Hebrews, we aimed our hopes toward a future that would likely involve many transitions. In our vows we declared: "As members of a kingdom beyond this earth, we will be strangers and transients in a world that does not know Christ; but we commit ourselves to establish a homeland of the heart."
We have found this hope amply fulfilled, finding kindred spirits along the way who could help us be at home wherever we came to land for a season, notably California, Eastern Europe, Chicago and Virginia. In recent years, as we led a more settled life ourselves, it has been a privilege to help others be at home in our community. We have also helped some venture forth in answer to their calling.
Resonating with Hebrews 11, we acknowledge that this process of letting go of the comfortable patterns of the past and embracing the challenges of an unknown future makes sense only within the saga of God’s people placing trust and faith in God. The ultimate questions of our lives do not turn finally on whether we move away or stay in place but around the hope we have in God’s journey, the incarnation that reveals a God who sets up a tent to dwell among us. Like Abraham, according to Hebrews, we "look forward to the city ... whose architect and builder is God."
Gerald Shenk directs the activities of Abraham's Tent, a center for interfaith engagement at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Va. He plans to move to Elkhart, Ind., this summer.
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