In spite of the late March date, there was a blizzard in Philadelphia. My brothers and I, seeing one another and our families for the first time in two years, had rented an Airbnb together and were spending a few days catching up. On this late morning, it was just the three of us brothers, walking through the snow together to a local diner.
“Three of youz guyz? Right this way, tuhts,” the older waitress said in a classic Philly dialect.
We took our seats in a booth and settled into sipping diner coffee and enjoying breakfast for lunch. Since my family serves in a Muslim country, I of course ordered extra bacon.
I didn’t expect the conversation to take the turn that it did. We ended up talking about home, that elusive concept that haunts missionary kids and others who have grown up in a lifestyle of transition. G.K. Chesterton once said, “After I became a Christian, I understood why I’ve been homesick at home.” MKs are particularly aware of that homesickness, though it’s more often that they’ve been homesick in spite of never being able to define what home is.
One brother had recently bought a house, the first to do so in our family, and discussed the rootlessness of our upbringing, the absence of a settled place, and how even in his thirties, he was still coming to terms with it. His desire was to move toward greater rootedness. As he spoke, I felt that same desire – for roots, for a house, for land, for community and memory – flicker in my soul.
I of course had embraced the nomadic missions lifestyle of our parents and was coming toward the end of my family’s first term on the field in Central Asia. Exciting things were afoot, a church plant that had just begun, friends coming to faith, new potential leaders being trained. As I shared about our experiences my brothers felt that old desire awakened in their souls also, perhaps even some guilt about not being overseas themselves.
I realized afresh in that conversation that my brothers (also believers) and I need each other. Because I have been called to the unsettled life of a missionary, I need them to “hold the ropes” for me in a particular, settled way. And I’m not just talking about having a place to crash when we’re in the US or being present to care for aging grandparents – important though these things are. I’m talking about having a place to channel that desire for rootedness. I can find some level of satisfaction to that desire by praying for my brothers and supporting them in the rooted lifestyle that God has given them – buying houses, investing in a neighborhood, serving at one local church, knowing which Philly diner we should go to in a blizzard. My brothers, in turn, can channel that desire to be overseas into their prayers and support for my family as we live and serve in Central Asia. Their kids can FaceTime with mine and they can even come for visits. We can, in a way, live vicariously through one another, since we must choose one calling or the other. In this way, we can practically fight for contentment as we lean on one another, as we grapple with our lingering sense of homesickness and wonder if we are being faithful.
I really do believe these are different ministry callings – toward rootedness or toward rootlessness. Consider Paul’s exhortation to the believers in Ephesus to pray that they might live “a peaceful and quiet life, dignified in every way” (1 Tim 2:2 ESV). Then consider that Paul did not live this way at all, but instead, “To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless… like the scum of the world (1 Cor 4:11,13).”
Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one (1 Thess 4:11-12).” But Paul was often dependent on the generosity and households of others. Yet he also honored those who risked their necks (and their stable life) for the sake of the gospel, like Prisca and Aquila and Epaphroditus (Rom 16:11, Phil 3:25).
So which is it, Paul? Are believers called to a radical apostolic lifestyle or to a more ordinary, pastoral lifestyle? A pastor friend recently pointed out to me that some, like Philip the evangelist, may be called to both in different seasons. After Philip’s early itinerant ministry, at some point he settled down, got a house and had a bunch of daughters (Acts 21:8-9).
It seems that most of us will be called primarily to one of these callings instead of the other – some to rootlessness for the sake of the gospel, others to rootedness for the same cause. This harmony of the so-called radical and the so-called ordinary shows up all over the New Testament and throughout church history. William Carey could have never done what he did without Andrew Fuller and the support of the English Baptists. The Judsons were utterly dependent on the ministry of Luther Rice back in the US, mobilizing the rooted churches. For every one family like us on the mission field, we need at least a dozen families who decide to stay home, work, pray, give, welcome us back when we are burnt out, and disciple their own kids and neighbors to themselves go to the nations.
But it’s not only in relation to this world that these callings work together, it’s also in relation to the next. I believe every Christian is meant to foreshadow the new heavens and new earth by the way they live now. For most, it will be a foreshadowing of degree. “Our family has lived in this house for forty years, in this city for eighty. Those trees were planted by my grandfather. But these seemingly stable roots, this place of home, cannot be compared to the true home and the true stability that is coming. Is this wonderful? Yes, and temporary, even if it endures for a thousand years. Let the lesser joy be a path to hoping in the greater. This country is good, but the country of the king will be even better.”
For others, it will be a foreshadowing of contrast. “You know how we have lived in fourteen houses in the last eight years. You know how we do not own, but only rent. Transition is our constant reality. We live like nomadic pastoralists, like Abraham, because a promised land is also coming for us. In the resurrection, each of us will have his own vine and his own fig tree and will find rest because he will have found his place. Here we have no country… but we will find our true home in the country of the King.”
We should feel no superiority to others if we are called primarily to a foreshadowing of degree or a foreshadowing of contrast. Both callings reflect the coming resurrection. Both can become idols or sources of bitterness when divorced from their good and temporary roles as previews of the coming Zion. Both are dependent on one another in this age. The senders are encouraged in their difficult jobs because they know have a vital part in the spread of the gospel to the nations. The goers are encouraged in their difficult roles because they know their work is also an investment in the sending church and its rooted impact in its neighborhood.
Acknowledging the goodness of both lifestyles can free us from false guilt as well. Are you a tired missionary, worn down by the cost of transition and longing for a stable home? It’s OK, the resurrection is coming. Lament and rejoice. Are you a tired church member or pastor worn down by the tedium and heartbreak of a rooted life, where the growth seems ever so slow? It’s OK, the life of the New World is upon us, it’s just around the corner. Lament and rejoice. Everyone is grappling with spiritual homesickness to one degree or another.
Your calling, whichever it is, is a good one. You get to point others toward our eternal hope, life forever in the presence of the King. Toward Home.