“I just want to plant a garden that’s not in pots” or “I just want to paint the wall the colour I want” were familiar cries. It was more than the need for a practical shelter. It was a need deep within my soul for rest: for a haven and a sense of place.
I could afford this house because while it was good enough to move into, it needed work. I did small renovations and planted a garden—a native garden. I’d never been interested in native flowers before, but something about buying my own property gave me a connection to the land, and I wanted to grace her with her original beauty. The house is west facing; it had no insulation and no shade, and, with summer approaching, I knew I needed some kind of air-conditioning. Musing about this one day, a home electrical shop in my local area caught my eye. I hadn’t noticed this one before. It wasn’t one of those big ones—the “you can’t miss it” type. It was hidden in plain sight and had “SALE” signs all over it. I walked in.
The showroom was full of electrical goods and boxes, and I was met by a man I will never forget. John Boer walked up to me with a strong and steady countenance. He was dressed in grey tailored pants, tucked-in shirt, topped with a woollen jumper and an aptly placed burgundy tie. His neatly combed grey hair made me smile. This was a man who took pride in his appearance—not power-hungry pride, but the stewardship-of-something-greater pride. He inquired if he could help, and I said that I needed an air conditioner. He motioned for me to take a seat and said, “Tell me all about your house.” I was struck by his genuine care and interest. This was not a man in it for the sale; this was a man in it for the story and for the purpose of the sale. I was not used to this. He grabbed a notepad, and I drew the layout of my house. We talked about air flow and my recent move to the area. He shared his story. He’d lived in Heathmont all his life. He told me the history of the strip of shops and how people have come and gone. The butcher had been there for as long as he had. John had six children and 23 grandchildren, and struck me as a man who knew himself, knew his home, and, most importantly, was at home. At the end of our discussion, he confidently said, “I don’t have the air conditioner for you. What you need is (such-and-such model).” He suggested where I could buy it, and that was technically the end of our transaction. I was intrigued by this man and wanted to continue the conversation, so I asked him, “Why the big sale and why all the boxes?” He proceeded to tell me he was closing the store. After 38 years of owning and running the business, he couldn’t keep up with the big chains anymore. It was time to shut shop.
I walked home grieved that such a man was in a position where he was forced to close. On the surface, it could be rationalised away: life and culture have moved on; we now live in a global culture where productivity and consumerism have replaced social and familial values. These are just the realities. What does it matter anyway? My life will be the same whether or not John Boer’s store exists. But I couldn’t shake it. Something bigger and perhaps more disturbing was happening. Somehow, our culture has traded a deeply rooted story marked by presence and relationship for a more diluted and disconnected story. In the pursuit of progress, wealth, and “more”, we live, as Alan Durning says, in a world where we have “careers and not places,” and the ongoing effect is an ever-increasing disconnection from life, self, and each other. I walked home feeling homesick.
To say the closure of a store like John’s marked the end of an era was more than mere nostalgia. It pointed to a significant shift in the values and narrative that were shaping society. I went back the next day to share my remorse. John was happy to see me again and welcomed me by name. I shared my sense of injustice and sorrow. I asked him how he was coping with this forced change. He just looked at me and smiled. He said, “I’m fine. I have a faith that is much bigger than this, and it gives me a hope that’s not changed by circumstances.” The penny dropped. I just knew there was something about this man. “Are you Christian?” I clarified. “Yes. And, once you know Jesus, it changes everything.”
In the eight years since then, John’s store has been a pet shop, and then a hairdresser; now, it’s a ski shop. If you were to drive past my house, you will see that the garden has grown, and the cladding has been replaced and painted with the right shade of grey. I’ve been able to install some lovely windows, and, inside, the house has had a repaint, the carpet has been replaced, and the kitchen has been redone. I have loved working with colour and texture, delighting in space and light. I have learnt new and significant things about who God is as we’ve worked together in creating this home—a place where we can both dwell. It’s a little place, but it’s our place, and I am forever grateful. Oh, and in a nod to John Boer, the air conditioner sits on the right wall in the right position, just as he had suggested all those years ago.
In that time, the world has also changed. Drastically. Enter stage left, a virus called Corona. For good or for evil (or both), we live in a time of great upheaval. The first year here in Melbourne was unnerving: no one really knew what was going to happen, but the change came with a sense of relief—the grace of forced rest in a chaotic and busy world. A global world quickly became a local world, and I found strange comfort knowing that everyone who lived in Heathmont was in Heathmont. We were a local village again. This was a time to enjoy and cultivate home, to resurrect old hobbies, discover sourdough, and enjoy the simple things. I got to know my neighbours better, one of them particularly well, and, at the beginning of 2021, we got married. I know. Crazy. But that’s another story.
That was year one. We thought it would all be over by now. Instead, not only are we still in lockdown, but conditions are even worse. And now that the newness and novelty has worn off and living in lockdown has become our sustained norm, I find myself struck by a confronting realisation: I am sick of my house. At the time of writing, we’ve had 257 days of lockdown in the past 18 months. It’s looking like we will clock 277 before there’s any hope of reprieve. Incidentally, I am in a year of rest—a transition from one job to the next—so my days are spent going from the lounge to the dining room, maybe to the kitchen for another cup of tea, then back to the lounge to drink that cup of tea. It’s difficult to overestimate the effect this has on your soul—my sanctuary home has turned into a prison, and I just want to climb the walls!
I’ve been able to pull myself out of it. I’ve suffered chronic illness before and know what it means to be at home for long periods of time. But this one is different: it’s not just my sickness—the whole world is marked by sickness. This one microscopic virus has unleashed great uncertainty on the world, and everything seems to be shaking. In addition, there is the geo-political climate, the actual climate, and the ongoing clash of polarised views with no unifying narrative. There are fractions and frictions everywhere, and no one seems to know who to trust. All this is a recipe for deep and grave uncertainty. I am not at home as much as I thought. Take away the external narrative that has shaped home, and my soul feels quickly lost, anxious, and in despair. When a soul is troubled, even home doesn’t feel like home.
As I have wrestled with all the above, I have found a fresh connection to Psalm 137:1 where the Psalmist, writing in a time of profound displacement, cries out: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” I have always been struck by the story of Israel’s exile and the ensuing longing for home. The despair of having all that is known and familiar ripped out from under you is unimaginable (unless you are a refugee or an indigenous people group). In Israel’s case, they weren’t just geographically displaced, they endured the loss of the very presence of God himself. The rivers of Babylon said to the exiled ones, “You’re not at home anymore.” In this Psalm, you can almost taste the longing for things to be the way they were; it’s a cry of mourning for a life Israel no longer had. Now, thanks to COVID, large parts of the world, particularly the Western world, are sitting by the rivers of Corona, mourning and longing for a life that once was and may no longer be.
While we pine for the-normal-that-was, it is worth acknowledging that it was not necessarily a normal that gave the sense of home we all long for. In the earlier days of COVID, I had an interaction with a 20-something-year-old stranger who, for all appearances, seemed pretty cool and at home in the world. He remarked with a sense of relief, “This needed to happen. Our normal isn’t even a good normal—we need a shake up.” I agreed; he was right. It has been widely acknowledged that the secular humanism that has shaped our society has only resulted in an endemic sense of displacement. Philosopher Martin Buber calls our age the “epoch of homelessness.” “We have houses all over the place but aren’t at home in any of them,” remarks Frederick Büechner. Brian Walsh identifies the “creeping dread of homelessness” or the “un-healable rift” that has opened between human beings and their sense of place. While on the surface our cultural narrative has provided us with wealth, productivity, and the ensuing freedoms and opportunities, it has left the deepest longings of our souls bereft. “There has to be more to life than this,” is the cry I have heard from many a young adult. It is as if our collective souls know there is a bigger vision for life and wholeness.
God loves home. From the beginning chapters of our Bible right through to the end, we see a God whose passionate pursuit is to dwell with his people: he with them, they with him. Home. Scripture begins in a garden and ends in a garden, and the story in between is marked by the rip tide of exile, and a divine passionate lover who is determined to be back together to fill humanity and all of creation with his presence. The temple becomes the primary motif for the place of his presence. The garden was his temple, Solomon’s building was his literal temple, Jesus himself was the ultimate temple: God with us. It’s worth pausing to reflect on what a marvellous witness and harbinger of home Jesus was. He met sinners with forgiveness. He brought rest to the weary and burdened. He spoke of a Father welcoming home a disobedient son and a self-righteous one too (see Luke 15). He was the ultimate witness to God’s presence on earth and said one day he would come back, and that in the meantime we would face many troubles. He beckoned us to “trust in God, trust also in him.” He spoke of a house he has that has many rooms and that he was going to prepare a place for me and for you (Jn 14:1–4). His primary investment is in you and me being at home with him. And so the last chapters of Revelation are an astounding vision of our end, where the “dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them … He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain’ (Rv 21:3–4). There will be no more COVID, lockdowns, or homelessness.
This gives us tremendous hope. But these promises can feel far removed from our current reality. Or are they? One of the gifts of COVID (they certainly do exist) is that I have discovered many previously unknown areas of beauty in my local area. There are rivers and streams, bush land, and bird life I had never noticed before. John Boer would have known, but, despite my being here eight years, it’s all new to me. I’ve seen turtles, encountered kookaburras, and befriended many a magpie. One hidden gem is a park called Uambi. An indigenous word meaning “Pine Scrub,” Uambi is a four-acre block of land in the heart of Heathmont donated by the Harper family in 1988. Yes, donated. What would have been prime real estate has been gifted by a family for “the enjoyment of everyone.” They seem to be motivated by a different story. Uambi is of particular significance because it houses a remnant of the original vegetation in the Heathmont area. It is looked after by a group of volunteers who are committed to the preservation of this land.