Forty years ago, in the spring of 1975, two big things were happening in my life. The first thing was that my mother was, after a seven-year battle with the cancer that had consumed her body and much of my childhood and adolescence, dying. The second was that my family and I were in the middle of a decision-making process that culminated in my leaving high school at the end of that school year, which was my junior year, to enroll that fall at Mercer University.
Mama died in June and I left for college in September. Her exit from my life and my entrance into Mercer turned out to be two of the most formative events of my life.
It was so long ago.
It seems like yesterday.
I have known my share of failure and disappointment during those forty years but I have known more than my share of success and fulfillment as well. There have been many times when my faith has wavered but, as it turns out, I must have usually been going three steps forward and only one or two steps back because my trust in God is, by the grace of God, much, much greater at this point in my life than it ever has been.
The truth is that I’m very grateful for the wandering that I’ve done. Wandering has let me get to know many people, places, and things that I never would have known had I stayed put. Wandering has led me to encounter many perspectives, thoughts, ideas, and theories that I would never have encountered had I not had the privilege of pulling up stakes, packing my small faith and my great hope in my travel bag, and heading out into the great unknown. Wandering has weakened my prejudices, broadened my perspectives, and increased my love.
Still, as J. R. R. Tolkien said, “Not all who wander are lost,” and to say that I have been wandering for forty years is not to say that my wandering has not been purposeful. Besides, I have put down other roots along the way, the most significant ones being those that Debra and I started putting down almost thirty-seven years ago; wherever we have wandered, we have taken those roots with us, put them down again, and done everything we could to encourage them to reach greater depths.
Somewhere along the way I also decided that my life would be grounded in love and in grace; I determined that if I was going to make mistakes—which I surely was—I would make them on the side of and for the sake of love and grace. I have lived up to that commitment imperfectly but I think and hope that I have been constantly growing toward doing it more and better. It has proven to be a worthwhile goal.
A while back I wrote an autobiographical song that included these lines: “I’ve always wanted to settle down; I’ve always wanted to roam. I’ve spent years both living in and looking for my home.” That’s been my story; I long ago left my home but I have also all along the way always been at home because home has for me been wherever we have been and family has been whoever we have been with. Wherever the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, their God, their families, and their covenant were their constant companions. So it has been for me.
The Hebrew Bible contains two viewpoints on the forty years that the Israelites spent wandering the wilderness. The predominant viewpoint and thus the one with which we are most familiar sees that period as one of trial and testing that came upon the people because of their disobedience. The other less familiar take on Israel’s wilderness period is that it was a positive time in the relationship between God and Israel because in the wilderness the people had to relate directly to God without having the crutch of institutions on which to lean and because being settled in the land actually caused the people to become dismissive of the requirements of God and thus complacent and even corrupt in their attitude toward God (see Jeremiah 2:2 & Hosea 2:14-15). Looking back I realize that the wilderness has been both a test and a blessing for me.
So now after forty years of simultaneously wandering around and settling down I am going back to where it all started for me.
The truth is, though, that even as I move to what I anticipate will be the place where I will live for the rest of my life, I am actually getting ready to keep on wandering in the wilderness.
I'm going home.
And I'm going back into the wilderness.
After all, both living in and looking for our home—simultaneously finding and searching, staying and going, putting down roots and stretching out limbs, knowing and wondering, and embracing and letting go—is what living life is all about.
If God gives me another forty years, it’ll be another forty years in the wilderness.
And it’ll be another forty years at home …