Coming back to Switzerland after a summer holiday in the States was unexpectedly revealing and a tiny bit unsettling. It’s taken a few days to sort out my feelings and – like the first-year German student that I am – I haven’t been able to form sentences to describe what I’m feeling.
I’m still not sure I have put my finger on it.
Toward the end of my time away I started to feel as though it was time to get back to work. That’s always a welcome feeling. I feel it every year. I’m not quite sure what would happen if I didn’t want to get back to work.
Retire, I suppose. Or, go back to school and get a real job, maybe.
But I was ready to re-engage, to see the people of my church, to prepare sermons for them, to ask about their lives, to go on hikes with them, to be the church with them. For more than 30 years I have lived for this, and for more than 30 years I have been glad for this life. I still am.
What was different this time was going home. I told everyone that I was “going home to Switzerland,” which has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? My home is in Switzerland. I loved to say it and loved to see the reactions to it.
And it’s true that I have some clothes and furniture in Switzerland. But home is also in the United States. I have some clothes and furniture there too.
So, what is home?
The German language, which to me is not all that beautiful to listen to, finds its beauty in the way it expresses complex emotion. I never thought I would love German opera. (What is Italian for, after all, except to express the deep and painful longings of love, and to swear at other drivers?) But the German language, as it turns out, can describe a feeling with such precision that translators are tempted to leave some words well enough alone.
The word “sehnsucht” would be one example. Yearning and addiction. Those are the two words Germans have put together in a compound word that defies an exact translation.
For some people the yearning is for the past, nostalgia. They think about an America that may have existed briefly in the 1950s, but then only in certain suburbs and hardly for everyone. I think I remember it, but I’m never quite sure it was real. And for some there is a longing and – more recently – a grieving and an unsettling feeling that we will never experience that time and place again.
For me the yearning is not for the past, the American suburbs of the 1950s. And surprisingly my yearning is not for the U.S. at all. To be back briefly after months away was to recognize the good and the bad of American life. I was overwhelmed at times by the friendliness and helpfulness of people in Holland, Michigan, where I vacation each year. I recognized myself in those people. I am even aware that I look like them – and they like me. But I was also irritated by their driving, their wastefulness, their loudness, and much, much more.
I love what my friends here call their “passport country,” but I do not yearn to be there. At least not now.
C.S. Lewis once described “sehnsucht” as the “inconsolable longing” in the human heart for “we know not what.” I think I see this theme in much of his writing. I think I see it in much of my life. Which would account for the insatiable desire to see and experience so much of the world, to keep my passport in my back pocket, just in case.
I already know that this inconsolable longing, this “sehnsucht,” is spiritual. If more than 30 years of ministry teaches you nothing at all, it teaches you to see the spiritual connections in life. I read Augustine when I was at seminary, but a young man in his early 20s knows little of life. The young man I was then knew less than most.
“You have made us for yourself,” Augustine wrote, as if in prayer. “And our hearts are restless, until they find rest in you.”
I think those words, at long last, are beginning to make sense.