Please join us as we welcome the Rev. Jane Thickstun to our pulpit again.
Rev. Thickstun observes “home is that place that feels safe, that nurtures us, that is the center of the universe. While adventures are exciting, we need a place that grounds us, that gives us roots.”
But, we don’t always feel at home where we are. Sometimes we have to leave home in order to find it again. During the service she will encourage us to consider where home is for each of us. Is it a place on the globe, or a place in our souls?
Rev. Thickstun is serving as the Interim Associate Minister at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta. She has served congregations in Michigan and New Hampshire, and prepared for ministry at Meadville/Lombard Theological School. Rev. Thickstun grew up in Potsdam, New York, and has degrees in Linguistics and Philosophy. Before ministry, she worked as a mainframe programmer/analyst, taught English to people from all around the globe, and worked on a newspaper, as well as much more.
Full sermon text:
There’s No Place Like Home – Rev. Jane Thickstun
First Parish of Sudbury UU – March 22, 2015
In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy dreams of going “somewhere over the rainbow.” She ends up going to Oz, which may in fact be over the rainbow, but isn’t the blissful place she had imagined. So she wants to go home, and goes through many adventures on the journey. At the end, she finds that she always had the ability to go home, and all she needs to do is tap the ruby slippers together three times and say, “there’s no place like home.”
The journey leads home. We are all on a journey home, exploring, seeking, looking for our heart’s desire; and no matter how far afield we go, in the end we are searching for our home. Home is that place that feels safe, that nurtures us, that is the center of the universe. Home is a place that offers us comfort even when we are far away, a place we can go when we feel the need to be restored. In those moments when we really do feel at home, we feel complete, like nothing is lacking.
In the reading, Barbara Kingsolver talks about leaving her native Kentucky to settle in the desert of Arizona. She talks of the mixed feelings of feeling settled and committed to her “new” home of 17 years, but still yearning for that home she left behind.
I can relate. Ever since I left it, I felt a great attachment to Potsdam, NY, the small, college town in northern New York I grew up in, but I haven’t lived there since 1980, and no family has lived there since my parents left in ‘84.
In the years I was in exile in Washington, DC, Delaware, Chicago and Michigan, Potsdam became a mythical place for me. It became idealized in my mind as the perfect spot. The bleak, colorless landscape, the long, long winters, the absence of anything to call spring except lots of mud created by melting snow, the bitter cold, the lack of good restaurants, the rural poverty (barn roofs falling in, trailer parks, wayside bars): all of it is beautiful, because it was home. Potsdam also has a river running right through town that’s deep enough and clean enough to swim in, and great swimming holes not far out of town if you know where to go. It has the best pizzaria anywhere, that has been run by generations of the same Italian family, and has been there since at least 1968, when my family first moved there. It has great musical events, thanks to the Crane School of Music at Potsdam State, and wonderful community theater. Because of the two colleges, there are always interesting and educated people around, and new people coming through all the time. I loved it, and it represented the center of the universe to me.
We all yearn for some idealized version of our childhood home. We yearn to feel safe and taken care of. We wish to find a place where we can be accepted, just as we are; where we can relax and not worry about anything. Ultimately, we have to leave home, and we make our own homes which can be quite comfortable, and yet we yearn for something that feels just as safe, just as comforting as that original home that was provided for us. Even if our original home wasn’t particularly safe or comforting, we have a concept of such a place and yearn for it no less than those who had the happiest of childhoods.
Often these yearnings are tied to a particular landscape. Kingsolver talks of the creek and the broad-leafed maple and the meadowlarks. She admits, “If someone had told me what I was headed for in that little Renault . . . I surely would not have done it. But no one warned me.” She says, “I am carrying on . . . in a desert, two thousand miles from my verdant childhood home. I am disembodied. No one here remembers how I was before I grew to my present height. I’m called upon to reinvent my own childhoood time and again; in the process, I wonder how I can ever know the truth about who I am.” (p. 14)
My own yearnings involved green hills and swimming holes. After enough time passed, I realized that it had been too long to feel the connections to the people; the ones who would remember how I was before I grew to my present height. What remained important for me was the essentials of Potsdam—the small college town far from big cities, surrounded by even smaller villages and a rural countryside of beauty.
Writer Wendell Berry, like Kingsolver a native of Kentucky, returned to his beloved Kentucky to put down roots. After a time in New York City, he now farms and writes near where he grew up, where his family has lived for generations. Berry says, “much of the interest and excitement that I have in my life now has come from the deepening, in the years since my return here, of my relation to this place.” (The Art of the Commonplace, p. 22)
Our spiritual connection is often realized through a connection to a place. Knowing a place well, becoming intimate with the landscape, can lead to intimacy with the deepest source of life itself.
Scott Sanders is a writer who is grounded in Bloomington, Indiana. In his book called Staying Put, Sanders says, “It has taken me half a lifetime of searching to realize that the likeliest path to the ultimate ground leads through my local ground. I mean the land itself, with its creeks and rivers, its weather, seasons, stone outcroppings, and all the plants and animals that share it. I cannot have a spiritual center without having a geographical one; I cannot live a grounded life without being grounded in a place.” (Staying Put, p.120‑121)
Grounding ourselves in a place means making a commitment to that place. Berry notes that in returning to Kentucky, he made “a significant change in [his] relation to that place: before,” he says, “it had been mine by coincidence or accident; now it was mine by choice.” (Berry, p. 7) To commit to a place deepens the relationship with that place immensely.
But we don’t have to return to our home landscape to experience the value that comes from committing to a place. We don’t even have to find a place that calls to us particularly, though that certainly helps. But any place will do. There are no privileged locations. If you stay put, the place you are becomes holy, becomes the center of the universe, because, as Sanders says, “in your stillness you hear what might be heard anywhere. All there is to see can be seen from anywhere in the universe, if you know how to look; and the influence of the entire universe converges on every spot.” (p. 115‑116)
I made the deliberate choice to commit to a place when I was living in Highland Park, in the northern suburbs of Chicago, before I went to seminary. I was aware that I was longing for what Potsdam represented to me ‑ the small town, the rural landscape. Meanwhile I was not feeling a part of my local community, and was at odds with where I was living, even though I was not making plans to leave. At one point I made a conscious decision to be where I was, to like the place, and stop wishing I were in another place. It was a liberating choice—here I had been feeling trapped by circumstances into living in a place that didn’t suit me, and that was turned around by my choosing to live in the place where I was living.
I was helped by something the Roman emporer and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, wrote in his Meditations that has stayed with me through the years. He is feeling the pull, the tendency to blame his location for the restlessness in his soul, and he says: “Where life is possible at all, a right life is possible; life in a palace is possible; therefore even in a palace a right life is possible.” (V‑16) If the good Roman emporer could stay true to what was important in life while living in a palace, then I figured I could manage in a metropolitan area.
We are all trying to stay true to what is important in places that aren’t always ideal. It’s not always easy. Sometimes it can feel like the place we call home is unsafe and unkind.
St. Peter finds God at the drawing board. “Let me show you my latest creation,” says God. “I call it ‘Earth’. Isn’t it pretty? And best of all, it’s in balance.”
“What do you mean?” asks Peter.
God demonstrates: “This part is cold, this part is hot. This part is dry land, this part is water. This part is forested, this part is plains. Everything in balance.”
“What’s this lovely part here?” asks St. Peter.
“Oh, I’m particularly proud of that,” says God. “I call it ‘Canada’. Its people will be humble, kind, thoughtful and intelligent. They’ll take good care of my creation and live peaceably with each other and the rest of the world.”
“And the balance you mentioned?”
“I was coming to that,” says God. “Now, just to the south of there…”
(Dean Meservy, from the Prairie Home Companion website)
Making a home in a particular place, making a commitment to a place, not only benefits our souls, it also enables us to better fulfill our responsibilities to the earth.
Though we are responsible for our relationship with the earth, we only tend to realize our responsibility in the context of a committed relationship to a particular place. The poet Gary Snyder describes the difficulty in today’s society of living in harmony with the land. “One of the key problems in American society now, it seems to me, is people’s lack of commitment to any given place—which … is totally unnatural and outside of history. Neighborhoods are allowed to deteriorate, landscapes are allowed to be strip‑mined, because there is nobody who will live there and take responsibility; they’ll just move on. The reconstruction of a people and of a life in the United States depends in part on people, neighborhood by neighborhood, county by county, deciding to stick it out and make it work where they are, rather than flee.” (Sanders, p. 113)
We have lost our connection to the land. This not only hurts our souls, it hurts the land we inhabit. And because we are all connected in the interdependent web, what harms the land harms us.
As important as the landscape is, as important as a sense of place is, and committing to a particular place, the external circumstances aren’t all it takes to get home.
Home is more than just the house we live in; it’s what’s inside the house that makes it a home. It’s helpful having people we love around us. But even that is an external circumstance. Ultimately, finding our way home is not dependent on people or places; it’s an interior journey.
The good witch didn’t tell Dorothy at their first meeting that the ruby slippers she was wearing had the power to send her home. Instead, she sent her down the yellow brick road. Dorothy had to find herself on her journey before she could go home. She had to find her intelligence, her compassion and her courage. She had to kill the wicked witch. Only then was she given the knowledge of how to get home.
We have to leave home in order to find it again. We have to go away, to search and explore, to grow up, and ultimately find that what we were looking for was there all along.
There was once a poor, G‑d fearing Jew who lived in the city of Prague. One night he dreamt that he should journey to Vienna. There, at the base of a bridge leading to the King’s palace, he would find a buried treasure.
Night after night the dream recurred until, leaving his family behind, he traveled to Vienna to claim his fortune. The bridge, however, was heavily guarded. The watchful eyes of the King’s soldiers afforded little opportunity to retrieve the treasure. Every day the poor Jew spent hours pacing back and forth across the bridge waiting for his chance.
After two weeks time one of the guards grabbed him by the lapels of his coat and demanded gruffly, “Jew! What are you plotting? Why do you keep returning to this place day after, day?” Frustrated and anxious, he blurted out the story of his dream. When he finished, the soldier, who had been containing his mirth, broke into uncontrollable laughter.
The poor Jew looked on in astonishment, not knowing what to make of the man’s attitude. Finally, the King’s guard caught his breath. He stopped laughing long enough to say, “What a foolish Jew you are believing in dreams. Why, if I let my life be guided by visions, I would be well on my way to the city of Prague. For just last night I dreamt that a poor Jew in that city has, buried in his cellar, a treasure which awaits discovery.”
The poor Jew returned home. He dug in his cellar and found the fortune. Upon reflection he thought, the treasure was always in my possession. Yet, he thought, I had to travel to Vienna to know of its existence. (from the stories of Rebbe Nachman)
My beloved, mythical Potsdam represents to me a physical landscape I long to return to, but it also represents a place in me that I long to return to. I have a certain nostalgia for the life I led there, for who I was at that time, for a part of myself I feel I’ve lost touch with. I am aware I have romanticized it, just as I have romanticized the physical location. I am aware that going there involves something other than going to Potsdam. It means finding my home in my heart, creating that safe harbor inside myself.
When we feel at home in the heart, we find it easier to make our home anywhere in the physical landscape. Finding home in ourselves is a connection with the source of our being, the source of all being. We can sense the holy in any landscape.
We have to leave home to find it again because we need to realize that the only true source of safety and comfort lies within. In the Wizard of Oz, the adults are powerless—think of Auntie Em and Uncle Henry’s inability to save Toto, which sets Dorothy off on her journey, and the wizard’s powerlessness that gets revealed. So Dorothy has to grow up and find the power within herself—the power to protect and provide safety, defeating the threat to herself and others.
The Wizard of Oz teaches us that we each have the power to find our way home. We have Ruby Red slippers to transport us to Kansas, to create our heart’s desire. We must learn it for ourselves. We create our own truth and meaning; we cannot look to others to give it to us.
When she has missed the opportunity to go home in the balloon with the wizard, Dorothy asks Glinda, the Good Witch, “Oh, will you help me? Can you help me?”
“You don’t need to be helped any longer,” A smiling Glinda answers. “You’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas.”
“Then why didn’t you tell her before?” Scarecrow demands.
“Because she wouldn’t have believed me. She had to learn it for herself.”
The Tin Man leans forward and asks, “What have you learned, Dorothy?”
“Well, I . . . I think that is . . . that it wasn’t enough just to want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em . . . and that if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard; because if it isn’t here, I never really lost it to begin with.”
May we all find our way home.