It is disorienting how a space so beautiful and lovingly fragrant
has the life-indwelling potential for such a magnitude of pain.
Like summer days sitting in the shadow of a wild rose,
pressing one’s nose into the sun-kissed petals of smooth velvet.
Covered in the yellow grains of life-producing possibilities
the closeness brings visceral reminders that home, like roses
bring pain to those who have been so near and then pull away.
Thorns break into flesh when your presence is left.
Time with you appeared to have no end, the young were confident in this.
Years passed, service, mission, duty, and love beckoned us to foreign lands
requiring an unperceived and misunderstood sacrifice as we tread a well worn path.
Why must these woody cells with pointed intentions persist?
Year after year they’ve remained comfortably under the folds of our skin
obstinate towards the desires for forgetfulness.
Scar tissue envelopes their presence, covering over reminders of what once was.
Slight pressure applied by a seemingly insignificant force
ushers in once more aching pain that consumes the senses,
disorientating the best laid plans.
Can one not walk away from the enjoyment of your presence without consequence?
Does a thorn ever complete its task; reminding one of the beauty journeyed from?
‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder’ is a wretched truth.
To behold home once more as the memories insist upon being true
is an impossibility brought by the metamorphosis of time.
Returning overlays the deepest of memories overtop unknown changes,
conjuring up moments of confusion and feelings of foreign.
And yet we yearn again for a moment with the fragrance, presence
and place, if only for fleeting and hurried relief from the ache.
All the while knowing that the time will come when
we must pull away, left with another thorn in the flesh.
The poem found above has been something in the works for over the past three months and is most likely a guttural reaction to the strong lockdown Melbourne has had to endure. Being an expat for over fifteen years, I and others like myself have often struggled with the strange heart reaction of homesickness that ebbs and flows with the passage of time and events. Recently, I’ve been wondering about Paul’s thorn and whether it could have been something as often overlooked as homesickness. We like to assume that Paul’s thorn was persecution or perhaps some bodily ailment as that is perhaps a more holy possibility. But what if it was something as simple as his longing for home? Perhaps he was wrestling with the pulls to go home and the calling to go elsewhere, working within the broader church family? Maybe it is a bit arrogant to presume that someone called by God for such an important task as Paul’s could share something in common with me? I don’t know for sure but I like to wonder.
What I do know is that many of us expats are struggling with the affliction of homesickness in the current Australian climate due to being told that visiting home is not an option. The latest news from the Prime Minister is that the Australian borders most likely won’t reopen to many SARS COV2 infected countries until 2022. That seems like forever away and is hard to accept when our family had plans for a visit in the next eight months. I have found in my experience that many whose roots have never shifted from their homeland do not understand the difficulties around homesickness or the lingering pain that home imbeds within the hearts of those who uproot. This is something I try to shed light on in Paul’s Thorn Illuminated.
This poem intentionally does not end in hope. There are moments when answers should not be hurried and instead we need to acknowledge that the emotions of the present conflict are real and difficult. After a time, we can move on from that recognition of pain towards the hope that God provides in God’s Word. For the expat, that hope is found in our eternal citizenship and home. Texts like Psalm 68.5–6a (‘Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation. God settles the solitary in a home’) and Philippians 3.20 (‘But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ’) remind us that God understands the need for home and belonging. God cares for the lonely by providing a home. God reminds us that God is making one for us where we are the citizens. In our eternal home, there will be no ‘rings of steel’, curfews, or border restrictions. Presently, we may feel the physical pain and loneliness of earthly separation, but we can find comfort in knowing that even now God is thinking of our need for belonging and rootedness by providing us with church family when our biological families are beyond reach and the promise of an eternal home to come.