Downtown, early morning, all alone. Ten stories up, staring across the Hudson River, at nothing. Tears filled my eyes.
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Looking across the East River from the taxi cab window, I was rapt by the twilight skyline of Manhattan. The sight of the bejeweled city stirred memories of Gershwin melodies, gangster stories, and scenes from The Naked City and On the Waterfront.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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I was coming to New York for a job interview the following day with an architect-engineering firm. As a 22-year-old college senior the thought of launching my career in the cultural hub of the world—a town I had experienced through films and music—was gripping.
After checking in to the Statler-Hilton, I made the two-block jaunt to the Empire State building. From a quarter mile up, the neon carpet that stretched across the pulsing landscape below was spellbinding. “Tomorrow,” I thought, “I want to do well.”
Six months later, I was married and living and working in New York City. But as a new husband, the town, with its endless rows of concrete monoliths, queues of horn-blowing yellow cabs, nauseating subway smells and bus fumes, and throngs of strange-looking, strange-speaking people, seemed much different than the city that had enchanted me a few months earlier as an unmarried student. Coming from the Deep South, real life in the “city that never sleeps” felt as foreign to me and Joanne as it was to the prince and princess of Andalasia.
Over the next year and a half, we adjusted the peculiarities of the city and grew to appreciate and enjoy the diversity of its people and culture. I was establishing myself as an engineer in the commercial nuclear industry and Joanne was working with an international medical research company. On the weekends, we were off to the museums, galleries, restaurants, theaters, block festivals, Long Island, doing the things that childless, young married couples do. We were loving life and loving each other, and I was feeling at home. Until that morning.
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I arrived at the Downtown Athletic Club well before anyone else for my early morning workout. Less than ten minutes into my routine, I was overcome by lyrics to a childhood song.
Toy land, toy land
Little girl and boy land
While you dwell within it
You are ever happy there…
I had heard it the night before and felt a tinge of nostalgia. But this morning, it was touching a place deep within me, to memories of a more certain and secure time. While you dwell within it, you are ever happy there.
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To a young child, my parents were as god-like as any earthly beings could have seemed. Mom and dad were omniscient, possessing the uncanny knack of knowing what I had done, was doing, or was about to do; ditto for what I was thinking. They were omnipotent, driving a car, operating a lawnmower, baking a cake. They were omnibenevolent, providing everything I needed (love, encouragement, food, clothes) and many things I wanted (bicycles, six-shooters, cowboy boots). And, they were the ultimate judge, handing down (and executing) sentences for misbehavior; none of which, I can honestly say now (!), were undeserved.
Together mom and dad created a stable home, free from dangers I knew nothing of as a child. It was only after I became a parent with young children of my own, that I came to appreciate how they worked to protect my childhood from the ugliness of the world. I learned about God at mom’s knee, but I experienced him in the home my parents created; a place of innocence, joy, and security.
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My breathing shallowed. I walked across the wooden gym floor to the window. Looking out, more lyrics stole their way in…
Childhood’s joy land
Mystic merry toy land
Childhood’s joy land. Mom and dad. Home. Security. The scene out the window blurred, then…
Once you pass its borders
You can ne’er return again.
…a flood of tears.
The last two lines undid me. There was no going back to that place of innocence and security. I was no longer a child who could rest under the wings of god-like parents; I was an adult with man-sized responsibilities of my own. I had a wife, a job, and bills to pay in a world that, as I came to learn, was not very safe and, in fact, set against the environment I knew as a boy growing up.
There was no going home. Or was there?
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Human beings long for security. But security eludes us, even in the healthiest of environments. The best homes cannot protect us from neighborhood bullies, cruel classmates, or incompetent teachers; to say nothing about colds, the measles, sunburns, and poison ivy. Still, home—even a dysfunctional one—has a gravitational pull on us. Not so much for what home was or is, but for what we imagine it should be: a sanctuary where we are loved, nurtured and protected by caretakers who accept us regardless of our actions or merits. Home is a refuge, a place we can experience rest from the cares of the world.
Our earthly homes, while falling short of that ideal, are a shadow pointing to it. As C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” Soon I would realize how true that was.
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Within the year, I received a fellowship for graduate school and we packed all our belongings in a small U-haul truck and moved to Atlanta. We were back home, but our homecoming had some surprises.
The brusque candidness of New Yorkers that was off-putting two years ago was a quality we had come to appreciate. You never had to guess what a New Yorker really thought about your new tie or spaghetti recipe; they’d let you know, even if you didn’t ask. In the south, true feelings, we re-discovered, are coded in phrases, like “Oh, that’s ni-i-i-ice!” (Meaning: “Looks like a rag I’d expect to find on a bag lady.”)
More significantly, our move home did not fulfill our homeward yearnings. We were still adults with bills that come due, a car that breaks down, bodies that become sick, and affections that get bruised. We were like the Israelites who left Egypt with hopes of entering the Promised Land.
The Israelites were a people seeking rest—rest from their slave masters, rest from their warring neighbors and rest from their desert wanderings. The promise of the Promised Land included the promise of rest foreshadowed in the Sabbath: the once-a-week, 24-hour rest from physical work that was fulfilled in Christ, whose nailed-pierced body gave mankind 24/7 rest from the works of righteousness and from the emotional, psychological and spiritual anxiety accompanying them.
It was a promise the Israelites never experienced because of unbelief and rebellion but, according to the author of Hebrews, still stands. Indeed, the old covenant shadow, “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty,” is fulfilled in the new covenant reality, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
In the imagery of Paul, the believer’s position is “in Christ.” Jesus casts our protective shadow; he is our shelter. We are at home “in him” everywhere, all the time. There is no place we can go where he is not with us and in us, and us in him. Nothing is more secure, more safe, or more beautiful this side of heaven.
The tender song has it right. We can ne’er return to the mystic joy land of childhood. And we were never meant to. It was intended only as a pointer to the inexpressible joy of the Christ-covered, Christ-saturated life.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “Jacob’s Dream” painted by Giorgio Vasari in 1558.