In the cold gray of a pre-winter morning we make our way out of tiny town and down the highway, past the trees with their remnants of gold and green, along the silver slip of river with its barges resting heavy, past the concrete stacks steaming industry and the little town tucked into the hillside. We slip easily into the city and wind past one-way streets and traffic lights, around bundled pedestrians and bicycles, extinguished neon and a line of homeless men who stamp their feet and breathe into cupped fists. Past the hardware store, the whisky bar, the shelter, the dancing studio, to the last turn on the right and into the parking lot.
It’s been four years.
When we first arrived in tiny town we did another kind of wandering - to the red, white and blue Baptists with their familiar hymns and fresh-scrubbed families; all the way out to the family church with its after-sermon lunches and Barbara’s peach pie; back around to the newcomers in the high school gym with the worship band and most of tiny town’s young people. We wandered in the wilderness. We stole into the Catholic Mass and sat reverently and appreciative, drinking in a beauty we didn’t know we hungered for; we read the deep and astonishing wisdom of the Orthodox. We wound our way around to the Lutherans, twice, where we felt the first spark of desire for a Sunday community again.
And now we have come full circle.
During the service I look around, smile at the guy with the mohawk sitting quietly with his arm around a girl with a pixie cut and a cardigan. At the microphone is a gray haired woman who reads the Scripture boldly and then clasps the bible to her chest as she pronounces, "This is the Word of the Lord." And after her a poet, who describes the work of love; I hear him say that love always has its hands dirty. Next to me is a little girl with rhinestone boots and she is giggling into her daddy's flannel-sleeved arms.
We are home.
We have wandered through a thousand questions, nearly tore our hearts out trying to answer them. But the solution to the question of where for us came in a surprising line I overheard in a podcast debate between a protestant and a catholic theologian. When asked why, if he agreed with so much of the other’s doctrines, didn’t he convert - the soft-spoken gentlemen said that even though he still had a lot of unsettled questions, what he really thought a person ought to do is to dig down deep into their own tradition, to get down to the deepest parts of it and see what God has for them there.
Though we recognized Jesus in every place we visited, our feet were stirring, hungering for our own soil, our own vistas, the comfort of familiar boundaries instead of the mystery of another's. Trail-worn and weary, we felt the pull of home. As Wendell Berry writes:
Having once put his hand into the ground,
seeding there what he hopes will outlast him,
a man has made a marriage with his place,
and if he leaves it his flesh will ache to go back.
His hand has given up its birdlife in the air.
It has reached into the dark like a root
and begun to wake, quick and mortal, in timelessness.
The sermon ends and the music starts up again and we prepare to take communion. Mark and I grab hands and slip into the line heading for the front and the tables with the bread and wine. When it’s our turn we bow our heads and take the Body and the Blood and I remember the sweetness of the Lutheran Eucharist, the holy reverence of the Mass, the easy fellowship of a passed cup of grape juice and the intimacy of our family alone at home, candles lit and clinging to each other. Our wanderings have opened our hearts to a community that is wider and more closely-knit than we’d ever realized, and the love I feel for each of those places is still on my fingers in the drops of wine and the taste of bread that lingers in my mouth. But we have arrived now at the place we began and we have dug down, deeper than before and reached our hand into this earth to set a seed and find a treasure richer and sweeter than any we have yet known.