This article was originally featured in Cogitare’s 2023 Fall edition.
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-3, NIV) Trials: the Sunday School image is always “someone at school will bully you because you believe in Jesus,” and that certainly can be true, but more often than not, we come to realize that this image is sorely insufficient. In the past few years, my definition of “trials” has expanded to include hard medical diagnoses, loss of loved ones, and some aspirations that were inexplicably denied. Considering each of those experiences to be “pure joy” can be difficult, but I have been blessed by strong Christian mentors in my church and family who have supported and encouraged me in those moments.
But then, about a month ago, an entirely new experience dropped into my life. I started my freshman year of college, and it was all that I could have ever wished for. I was at the college I had dreamed of attending for years, meeting dozens of incredible faculty members and peers who shared my passions and dreams. I was excited and nervous and eager to try every new thing.
And, in only a few days, I was very homesick.
That was unexpected. I had been so excited to start this new chapter of my life, and I had assumed that moving from home to college would be nothing greater than a change of address on my Amazon account. But there I was, lying in bed and aching with sadness. What was wrong with me? Wasn’t this where I wanted to be? Why would God lay this dream on my heart, and then allow it to hurt? Was I doing something wrong?
The poet Doug McKelvy challenged me to rethink my homesickness in his “Liturgy for Inconsolable Homesickness,” which begins: “Let me steward well, Lord Christ, this gift of homesickness / This grieving for a childhood gone, this ache for distant family / Lost fellowship, past laughter, shared lives, and the sense / That I was somewhere I belonged.” I felt those words. Yes, I was no longer in the place where I felt I belonged. I wasn’t sharing my life with my family and old friends in the same way.
But what did he mean by “steward”? What about homesickness could possibly be a “gift”? Shouldn’t my prayer be “Help me, Lord Christ, and take this pain away”?
Our culture often conflates “comfortable” with “good.” We are driven by entertainment and pleasure – anything to distract from pain and discomfort. We walk around campus with earbuds to avoid unexpected conversations and pull out our phones every time conversation lags. Anything minorly uncomfortable seems wrong.
But life isn’t about comfort. I could start spouting plenty of Pinterest-worthy quotes about how “We don’t grow when things are easy. We grow when we face challenges.” And yes, God is using my homesickness to grow me into the person He wants me to be. He is using my feelings to remind me that my fortress is Him, not my earthly home. That my identity is found in Him, not in my family or the life I was used to. That my trust must be solely in Him, not in myself and what I find comfortable. Homesickness can be an opportunity for growth and sanctification.
But is it more than just that? Homesickness is like a stone in our shoes – an aggravating reminder that, even when we are pursuing childhood dreams or grand ambitions, we can still be dissatisfied and alone. Is homesickness, perhaps, a way God that reminds His children that this world is not our home?
McKelvy certainly thinks so. “Homesickness is indeed a holy thing,” he writes, “Like the slow burning of an immortal beacon / Set ablaze to bid us onward. / The shape of that ache for another time and place is the / Imprint of eternity within our souls.” Homesickness is more than just missing our family dog and our old routines. Homesickness is a poignant stab of the same longing that will linger with us for our entire lives.
And that’s why the end of McKelvy’s poem is both bittersweet and hopeful. He writes: “That is the holy work of homesickness / To teach our hearts how lonely / They have always been for God.” Homesickness ensures that we don’t grow so comfortable with our lives so as to forget the future awaiting us. It reminds us that we were created for communion with God, and until heaven, we will never experience that communion perfectly. Homesickness is a gift.