My outing with J.T. first tipped me off that I am a nomad. Over the clatter of his replica Model A the spry, elderly man pointed out the creek that delineated the holler his family inhabited for generations. On this land his great-grandfather, Devil Anse Hatfield, organized his Logan Wildcats for guerrilla attacks on the Union Army. On this same land J.T. raised his family. Whenever he took them to Myrtle Beach, where the other coal miners vacationed, he grew nervous and uneasy the farther away he travelled and relieved when he returned. His sense of place entwined with his sense of identity; he was not fully himself when removed from the hollow of those West Virginia mountains.
This was my first encounter with a person so tied to the land. While most of my family’s history lies south of the Mason-Dixon line and east of the Mississippi River, no single plot of land defines the Davis or McAlpine family. We are not nomads in any strict, occupational sense, but broadly speaking, we have wandered around the Southeast to wherever the work was. Former streets, yards, and basements hold their nostalgic value in our memories because our presence defined their significance, not the other way around.
Nothing is inherently wrong with this way of being. It is the norm for a post-industrial society. Yet we must acknowledge that our lack of connection to specific places creates a steeper learning curve for understanding the fullness of the biblical story. When we read of the Garden of Eden and the temple in the Promised Land, we must stretch to imagine God’s presence being located in a particular region. When we study the Jubilee laws–“when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his clan” (Leviticus 25:10)–few of us feel the emotional impact of a semi-centennial homecoming to ancestral fields. Unless we have personally lived in the foreboding shadows of slurry ponds and aging dams, we will not likely connect with the apocalyptic nature of the Old Testament plagues and blights.
Perhaps most significantly, we modern nomads can easily miss the radical nature of Jesus’ landlessness (“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” [Matthew 8:20]) and his radical demand that followers leave not only family but land “for my sake and for the gospel” (Mark 10:29). As those for whom land means very little, Jesus’ requirement may seem light. Yet for someone like J.T., the call to release hold on the land which so deeply defines him is nothing short of a call to relinquish his identity for a new identity wrapped up in the Messiah. The cost of discipleship could not be greater.
Yet if we allow the significance of land to inform our reading of Jesus’ demands, it will likewise enhance our appreciation of Jesus’ promises. Those who leave all to follow Christ will “receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29–30). In placing himself above identity-creators such as family and land, Jesus becomes the center of a new family and any land where his people are present is holy ground.
So it is that the Christian hope for Christ’s return is entwined with a hope for a new land. In the beatitudes Jesus sets the promise of seeing God in parallel with the promise of inheriting the land (Matthew 5:5, 8). For Peter, one component of anticipating the Day of the Lord is “waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13). In Revelation 21-22, God grants John an extensive vision of the New Jerusalem, the dwelling place of God with his people.
For now I must grasp these promises by faith and rely on the Spirit to give them substance in my heart. But I suspect that, after a few thousand years of eating from the tree of life, splashing in the river that flows from God’s throne, and marveling at the bejeweled architecture, I will understand fully what even J.T. only knew in part–that perfect confluence of family and identity and belonging that makes a place home.