Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

When One Returns Home

It’s a strange experience coming back home. It’s here one discovers that the past is not what we left behind, but what we carry.

Having arrived a day earlier to see family, I drive through the town where I grew up. I trace the backroads to schools I once attended, to trails I once walked, and to hills I once explored.  I drive by homes where my life was formed and shaped, and I realize much of it is still with me. Here, some paths were taken, and others were not. Choices made forged new possibilities, leaving impossibilities in their wake. Out of these, I am where I am, as well as where I am going.

I find myself coming back to James KA Smith and his profound book, How to Inhabit Time. Stepping back in time, you realize how much you need a guide for this journey. Someone to awaken us to the history that lives within. A shepherd to help us make sense of things. Coming back to my roots forces me to look into the mirror to see who I am and what I have become. As Smith points out, a rolling stone might carry no moss, but temporal humanity picks up and carries an entire history as they roll through life.

Age has a way of telling you how fleeting life is, but I find that coming home, like a microphone, amplifies the sound. Everywhere I look, I see temporality. Few things are the same. Anthony’s Fish Grotto is still like yesterday, except for the prices and the charm. Most things, however, have moved on. Condos have replaced open spaces, a statue representing our high school mascot has been torn down by a woke culture, and Qualcomm Stadium has been swapped for a much smaller university field.  

A kind of melancholy takes hold. I no longer recognize this place, and—of course—no one recognizes me. I drive down Main Street, the place we cruised on Friday nights, and something that once felt almost sacred has been desacralized. The Foster Freeze we used to line up for burgers and fries has been replaced by a gutted-out Mexican bar. The storefronts I still remember have been swapped for a mishmash of businesses and strip malls and asphalt. There is no evidence of any effort to synchronize things. Everywhere I turn, consumerism trumps beauty.  Who are these people who have moved in, taken over, and defaced the landscape? City Hall has become the dominant building, but do those who inhabit it do anything? Governance, as in the city I now dwell, feels like an absentee.

It’s almost predictable that a drive by the homes I grew up in is the hardest part of the journey. Dad was a stickler for the care of the property. Our homes stood out amongst the others. But going back, there are no distinctions. Like the other homes, each one has aged and faded with time. It is a mutually bland landscape of old structures and unkempt yards. Still, something draws you to stop and recall the parties, the dinners, and the times around the TV watching Twilight Zone and Bonanza. You want to peek inside, for as Smith notes, “All houses have memory—every house is a clock.”

What I find is how easy it is for nostalgia to creep in. But how much of it is real? Perhaps my critical heart is a result of holding on to a past that wasn’t as romantic, or beautiful as I would like to remember.  What we might pine for is always selective and edited. We leave out the graffiti and trash and dysfunctions we once lived with. Smith counsels that the most faithful act of remembering requires the destruction of our illusions.

Before I head back north, Smith’s words force me to ask essential questions—“What processes have formed me, and where am I in the process?” “Do I know what time it is?” “Am I in step with where the Spirit of God is moving, and when he is moving?” It’s vital to avoid temporal tone deafness. It’s critical to know how to inhabit time.

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