Friday, July 12, 2013

No Place

     All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
-Hebrews 11:13-16

Ilya Kovalchuk will almost certainly never make more money than he’s making right now. 
     But he’s giving it up for something that means more to him.
     Kovalchuk is one of the most dominant offensive hockey players in the NHL right now. He still has 12 years and $77 million dollars left on his contract with the New Jersey devils. If Kovalchuk doesn’t play out that contract, his salary drops to the guaranteed amount of $250,000 per year - admittedly not bad, but about 4% of his current salary.
     Yet, yesterday Ilya Kovalchuk stunned the hockey world by retiring from the NHL at the ripe old age of 30. 
     His reason is novel in the big-money, big-business, high-stakes world of professional sports. But it resonates for anyone who’s ever been a foreigner and an alien in the world.
     Ilya Kovalchuk wants to go home.
     During last season’s NHL lockout, Kovalchuk returned to his native Russia for the first time since he was a teenager to live and play for a pro team in St. Petersburg. Being at home reminded him of how much he missed home. He returned when the lockout ended, and played the rest of the season with New Jersey, but home stayed in his heart. And when the season was over, he knew that he had decided what he wanted to do: “Though I decided to return this past season, [New Jersey General Manager] Lou [Lamoriello] was aware of my desire to go back home and have my family there with me.”
     Make no mistake - Ilya Kovalchuk will be just fine. He’ll likely rejoin SKA St. Petersburg, the team he played with during the lockout. He may even be more famous there than here in the US, where hockey players aren’t generally as well-known as football or basketball players. He’ll be a wealthy man there. But he likely won’t enjoy $6.5 million a year there. He made more money the last couple of seasons than he ever will again, but he’s choosing to let it go. Give it up.
     Home is that important to him.
     Joseph asked that his bones be buried in the Promised Land. David longed for a cup of cold water from the well in Bethlehem, his hometown - never mind that it was behind enemy lines. Dorothy discovered that (tap your heels together as you say it with me) “There’s no place like home.” Maybe you can relate. Maybe you’ve lived where you live for years, decades - and yet it’s not home. Maybe you find that home is elusive.
     I do. I’ve lived in Chicago for over twenty years, but I still think of Chattanooga, Tennessee as “home.” Funny, because I didn’t live there as long as I’ve lived in Chicago. Besides, it’s less “home” than it used to be. My parents still live there, but not in the house where I grew up. A lot of my family is gone now. Some of my friends from school still live there, but I rarely see any of them. Even the church where I grew up has moved into a new building, and while some of the people there remember me, a lot don’t. And I’m not the same person they remember.
      And, to be honest, when I’m there I sometimes find myself thinking of the people here in Chicago. 
     The point is, I think, that home is hard for human beings to find. We attach memories to places. People we love are there. But all of that is subject to change. Spend your life longing to get back to a place you remember as “home,” and you’ll discover that home isn’t what you thought it was. It isn’t what you remember, maybe because you remember it wrong, maybe because it’s changed. 
     The writer of Hebrews pictures God’s people as “aliens and strangers” in the world - people who have no home in the world as it is. They have no home because they’re “longing for a better country.” He goes on to picture these folks being content living in appalling conditions because “the world wasn’t worthy of them.” In short, there wasn’t a place they could call home because there’s nothing in this world as it is that’s good enough that God’s people can be truly at home.
     People who feel like “foreigners and strangers” feel that way, Hebrews reminds us, because that’s exactly what we are. We’re looking for somewhere that will truly be home - our own country, a home in a city built for us by God. In Genesis, Eden was a garden. In Hebrews, it’s a city. The point’s the same, however - either way you think of it, it’s home. It’s home because God is its architect.
     Those of us who believe in Jesus know, of course, that our place in that city, the home we’re really searching for, is there because of him. His death and resurrection means we can go home, means that we’re already on our way. It’s like The Matrix; Jesus wakes us up to the fact that everything in this world as it is that we thought made it home is an illusion. We can never be anything but foreigners and strangers here.
     Too bad we so often try to pull the scraps and rags of this world together and call it home. Too bad we can’t see home clearly enough to renounce the temporary comforts and wealth this world entices us with. Too bad so many of us so easily lose sight of the home God has prepared for us in Jesus.
     Let’s think of ourselves as foreigners. Strangers. Oh, enjoy this world, as you can. See the beauty that God gave it. Love the people around you. Serve them and laugh with them. But let’s not imagine we’re home, or that we can ever be in this life. Let’s not be distracted by accumulating or experiencing. Home is God. Home is Jesus. Your place is with them, and it’s already built for you, and it’s better than you can ever imagine. Walk with Jesus through this life, and sometimes you’ll get a nice glimpse.
     Then, one day, this world as it is will be changed. Radically transformed. It will be recreated once and for all, through Jesus, as it was always intended to be. And then you’ll recognize it. Your eyes will light up. You’ll recognize the landscape, the sounds, the scents. You’ll see his face, and you’ll know. You’ll know, finally, that you’re home.


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