Family is important to us, and celebrating momentous occasions together is something we try to do as often as possible. So years ago, when my niece graduated high school, we decided to drive from Georgia to my brother’s home in Maine to celebrate her achievement. Our own daughters were ages three and almost two-years-old. They were great travelers, and we knew friends at strategic stops along the way who were happy to have us stop for a one-or-two-night visit. We love adventure, joking that we’re like the Griswold family from the Vacation movies. So we packed our bags, gathered lots of snacks, grabbed the Veggie Tales audio cassette tapes (!), and loaded up the Honda Odyssey, setting out on our travels.
Prior to our trip, a wise mother of four from church shared a tip that I thought was brilliant. She suggested we buy several small, inexpensive items (toys, crayons, puppets, etc), wrap them in gift wrap, and keep them for times when the toddlers got antsy in the back seat. Every three to four hours, they’d get to unwrap a new mystery prize to keep them engaged for the next few hundred miles. Genius, right?
The first afternoon, after about a six hour trip, we arrived in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. After a couple of days there, we proceeded to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, spending another six to seven hours in the minivan. Growing up in Florida, I’d travelled to North Carolina many times, but to my memory I had never ridden in a car as far north as Pennsylvania or beyond. My children had certainly never spent more than six to seven hours riding in a vehicle before. They were great little travelers, excited about our adventures and never whiny or asking the dreaded “Are we there yet?”.
Our third leg of the trip, however, proved to go beyond the beyonds. I had miscalculated the time and distance it would take to go the scenic route to our destination in Maine. Again we started at 4:30 in the morning, the girls cozy in their footie pajamas, sleepily dozing in the second row. They expected to again ride for about 6-7 hours. They expected to arrive at their uncle and aunt’s home and hug their relatives in the early afternoon. They expected things would be as predictable and as comfortable as they had been up to this point in our journey. They trusted that Mommy and Daddy had it all under control.
Because of my mistake in navigation, we were fifteen-and-a-half hours into a sixteen-hour drive, with two toddlers strapped into the confines of their carseats. We had run out of snacks, and the fun mystery prizes were all long ago unwrapped, their interest capacity exhausted. It was nearly dark. We were nearing the big green bridge separating Portsmouth, New Hampshire from Maine, when suddenly we heard a pitiful wail from the back seat. It was coming from our older daughter, Meredith.
“I don’t wanna be in the car anymore! I don’t wanna go see Uncle Paul and Auntie JoJo anymore! I wanna go back home to Georgia,” she cried.
Feeling guilty that I had inadvertently miscalculated our drive time, I tried to comfort her. “Honey, we’re almost there! We’re WAYYY closer to Uncle Paul’s house than to Georgia.”
“No,” she insisted, “I don’t wanna go to Maine anymore. I wanna go back.”
By this time, her younger sister had joined in the protests, so I scrounged up whatever gummy snack or cheerio I could find from the bottom of the bag, trying to appease them until we finally arrived, exhausted, at my brother’s home.
Our goal was a great one: travel the eastern part of the U.S. to visit friends and family, having fun adventures along the way. While we were in the familiar territory of the southeast, it was easy and felt safe for my daughter. Once we began to explore areas unfamiliar to us, however, it became increasingly difficult for her to believe we would ever arrive. The fun sense of adventure had faded. The Veggie Tales songs had long since worn out their welcome. The creature comforts of snacks and new toys were depleted. The ability to stretch her legs and run around were missing. Even the light of the sun was diminished as darkness crept over the land. Her expectations of the journey no longer matched her reality, and she was miserable. Could she really trust that Mommy and Daddy were able to get us to our destination? Because of all these circumstances and unmet expectations, doubt and feelings of homesickness began to take over in her little mind. It was easier for her to give up on the ultimate goal of having a great visit with family and celebrating her cousin’s achievement. The goal was so close, but she couldn’t possibly believe it was attainable, because the journey had been so long and confusing. In her mind, it was easier to just give up and go home.
In our lives, it can sometimes feel like that too. We are aiming to live like Jesus, we are attempting to do big, audacious things to serve God and follow our callings. But the circumstances are hard! There is suffering and personal attacks, both in this world and in the
spiritual realm. There is physical, emotional, or spiritual pain. There are close loved ones who don’t understand, or undermine and belittle our efforts. There is defeat, disappointment, and doubt. In the face of all this, is it worth it? Wouldn’t it be better if we gave up and went home? We would still be saved. We would still go to heaven. God would still love us.
Hebrews chapter 11 is sometimes called the ‘Hall of Faith’ chapter of the Bible. The heroes in the Old Testament, their actions fueled by faith in things they could not sense in human terms, were said to be strangers in a strange land, looking for their promised land. A few verses in the chapter highlight the faith of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Jacob:
“If they had been thinking with [homesick] remembrance of that country from which they were emigrants they would have found constant opportunity to return to it.” Hebrews 11:15
My daughter’s reaction to the toughest part of our 1,600 mile journey reminds me of that verse. We want to follow God’s calling toward destinations or dreams we cannot touch yet. We feel like temporary residents, striving after goals and stepping into obedience and out of comfort zones. But we haven’t yet arrived at our destination, and it seems too far away.
The greatest danger in these situations is not that we may make mistakes, miss the mark, or even fail; the biggest threat in the journey is to look backward at our comfort zone with homesick remembrance and walk back toward the parts we know. Sometimes we yearn for aspects that weren’t that good! Sometimes we look back fondly upon things that were, in fact, harmful or miserable, but comfortable, predictable. We are tempted to fade back into the numbness that feels familiar instead of the frightening uncertainty of what God has for us in the unknown. If we look back with homesick remembrance, we will find opportunity to return to it. Therein lies defeat. Comfortable complacency poisons and paralyzes our ability to dream and obediently strive for the calling God has designed for us.
Instead, we should, as the apostle Paul instructs, press on! In his letter to the Philippians, Paul entreats them to follow his example to become righteous: “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Phil. 3:12-14
Paul, in his former life as Saul, enjoyed the prestige of being a Roman citizen, a Jewish scholar with an enviable education, and a well-respected Pharisee. He had achieved great
success in the realm in which he lived. He was both admired and feared. And with one blinding encounter with the risen Christ, everything changed (See Acts, chapters 8-9). He left all the trappings of his previous success to follow a Carpenter, to become the persecuted rather than the persecutor, and to don the shackles of a prisoner. If anyone had a reasonable excuse to look backward, it was Paul. But look again at his response: “...forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead...”
The exodus story of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea shows us a similar directive given by God to address our temptation of looking back at what is behind us. By this time, they had just been delivered from slavery in Egypt by God through His servant, Moses. Standing at the edge of the Red Sea, the Israelite people looked back and saw the Egyptian army closing in on them. They lamented leaving what, by comparison, seemed safer: namely, being slaves back in Egypt, and they asked Moses why God led them there to die. Moses, having faith, answered them, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.” (Exodus 14:13-14)
But look at God’s response in the very next verse: “The LORD said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward...” (Exodus 14:15a emphasis mine).
Leaving the past or departing from circumstances is only part of the equation. What if the Israelites had left Egypt only to stay on the near edge of the Red Sea? Technically they were out of Egypt, they had left their past, left their bondage. But stopping short would’ve meant certain death. It’s not enough to leave the familiar or even forget about what lies behind. Otherwise we’ll feel just like my daughter strapped into that carseat. We’ll doubt that our Father has it under control. In addition, we can’t simply “have faith” and stand still. Moses trusted God, but even he was corrected by God’s directive to keep moving. Instead, we have to continue to step forward in faith, moving in the direction of our calling. We must fulfill the second part of the directive to go forward, to strain forward, to press on!
Looking back with homesick remembrance or even fear, when God has called us forward, is destructive to our callings. It is exercising our faith in the wrong direction. It throws up obstacles unnecessarily, causing us to become our own worst enemy. Instead, let us join the mighty heroes of the faith. Let us go forward, press on, dig in, and trust God to take us to the destination to which each of us is called.