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On Tuesday night the Toronto Blue Jays played their first “Home” game in their new home-away-from-home, Sahlen Field, in Buffalo, New York. Normally the home of Toronto’s triple-A affiliate, the Buffalo Bisons, this summer the field is playing host to Canada’s only Major League Baseball team, after the Canadian government decreed last month that it was too risky to have teams moving in and out of the country.

The Jays have already played some home sets abroad to allow for infrastructure developments at Sahlen Field to get it up to MLB snuff. The field has been decked out in the Jay’s royal blue, the logo now adorns the dugouts and padded walls, and fake fans have been set up in the lower seats. It looks more like home than anything else has yet this season, but home it most certainly is not. No CN tower looms overhead, no skydome overhangs the scoreboard, and perhaps most importantly, “home plate lady” is present only as a cardboard cutout.

Not that she’d be present in person at Roger’s Centre. Every game is now devoid of fans. The crowd noise is piped in (which some people hate, and others, like me, find rather comforting), the only faces in the stands are two-dimensional, the commentators report from in front of their own screens, watching the game as we all do, from afar. It’s baseball, and I’m glad for it, but it’s certainly a little off.

When the season first started, I amused myself by wondering what it would be like if we piped in congregation noise to our empty sanctuaries. Push a button and hear a “Thanks be to God” after the Scripture. Different volume settings for congregational singing, the loudest reserved for well-known hymns, the quieter settings for new songs. We could give our sound techs annotated copies of our sermons, “amens” scribbled optimistically in the margins. The MLB has ordered that no booing be played over the speakers. We would of course follow suit.

Would it be better, this canned noise, than the silence that greets my sermons? Would it make it all seem more normal? Or would it exacerbate the difference, the emptiness, the sadness that has settled into the parishionerless pews, which I try to ignore as we film our services, but which leaves me drained and melancholy the minute our video tech says “cut”? It’s a normal service, in most aspects, but to end the benediction with a mighty, “And all God’s people said” and hear just the two praise team members utter “Amen” is an exercise in the ridiculous. Knowing the necessity of these changes doesn’t make them less painful. It’s church, and I’m glad for it, but it’s certainly a little off.

I took a break from the ridiculous last week to go on vacation. As we’ve all experienced, I had my “what I would have done” upended and replaced. I would have gone camping for two weeks with my family in northern Ontario. Instead I visited some friends on the east side of the state. This has been the longest I’ve gone without stepping foot on Canadian soil or seeing my family. I know many people who go years without seeing their family or home country, and I know I’m fortunate to be able to do so quite regularly under normal circumstances. But to have the border closed, and the possibility of going home thwarted month after month is tough.

America and Canada are similar in so many ways. But they aren’t the same country by a long shot. These two neighbors are shaped by different stories, with different notions of freedom, identity, social responsibility, and multiculturalism. There are obvious differences (health care, gun control, gray vs colorful money), but there’s also harder-to-name differences, nuances and ways of being that feel foreign to me. Going home, even if just for a few days, is enough to ground me, to remind me of who I am, what home is like, to feel settled and fortified to once more enter the unfamiliar. When that isn’t possible, and when things in the U.S. feel more chaotic than ever, my longing for home, while not crippling, is a nearly constant dull ache. And don’t get me wrong – I’m so grateful for my community, my friends, my job – there is much here to love. But still, this “home,” for me, is a little off.

The trick, I’ve found, to staving off the homesickness, is to live locally. So much of the news from across the country exacerbates the feelings of bewilderment, but when I think about my town, my church, my people, I do so with love. We aren’t so very different, after all. I find myself, then, in this time of isolation and online church, longing too for the people who make this place feel like home, who keep me grounded, who provide the belonging and community we all long for. I want to hear, desperately, the resounding “Amen” after the benediction.

I’m waiting for that “Amen” like I’m waiting for the border to open.

But I suppose the Christian is always waiting, always living as though things were “a little off.” We live with a longing, not for the home we knew, but the home that will be, when “wrongs will be right” and all will be made new, and the “Amen” will be loud and will be final. And the trick, of course, is to live with the longing but not be undone by the longing. Rather to allow the longing to shape how we live locally, in the here and now, colored by an eschatological imagination. Tapping into the “far off country” through Scripture and prayer, those things that ground us in the present, bolster us in the unfamiliar, encourage us to live faithfully wherever we are.

Because while things are a little off (or, at times, a lot off), this home is still our home, is still abundant with the love of God. And it is here, in this home, that we are called to live as though heaven is on earth. To live so that we might be the signpost in the field, the banner over the dugout, declaring boldly to those watching from their screens at home, “This world yet belongs to God.”

*for an excellent summary of cultural differences between the US and Canada, see this open letter by Peter Schuurman

Laura de Jong

Laura de Jong serves as pastor of Second Christian Reformed Church in Grand Haven, Michigan.

9 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Really nice. C S Lewis: Sehnsucht. The hymn, Jerusalem the Golden. So much I’d love to talk to you about. But I just want to say, having been in both Pilot Field (now Sahlen Field) and Skydome (now Rogers Centre), I think the former feels much more like a ballpark.

  • Amy Schenkel says:

    Delightful and honest. Thanks, Laura.

  • Jan Hoffman says:

    I wonder if there aren’t many, many of us who are not feeling at home, who have found closed borders, 14-day quarantines apt descriptions of what we’ve felt for several years now. Covid has given definition to this reality in profound ways. We know we are biblically called wanderers and aliens but that has become true in a new sense to me only since being shut down and shut out or shut in by Covid.

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr. says:

    I clicked on the link to the letter from Peter Schuurman and liked the line about the key to America’s social problems from Katherine Morrison, “The persistent presence of violence and a reluctance to learn from other people’s experiences may be the greatest obstacles.” The pandemic has again shown how reluctant we are to learn from others, even at the expense of losing so many lives that could have been spared if we had learned more.

  • Nolan Palsma says:

    What you suggest for piped in hymns, responses, etc. is very tempting! TV shows have done this for years to give us a more exciting experience. Yet, I prefer reality over false pretense. The coronavirus era is what we have been given and we are called to work with it!

  • Jane Brown says:

    I read letter from Peter Schuurman and liked the line about the key to America’s social problems from Katherine Morrison, “The persistent presence of violence and a reluctance to learn from other people’s experiences may be the greatest obstacles.” And also “peace, order, good government”
    Very interesting to read more about Canada

  • George Vink says:

    Thanks, Laura. You certainly echoed my thoughts regarding the “home” and yet localizing the feelings. Keep writing…you articulate well what others cannot, or do not….

  • Dean Koopman says:

    Thank you for this reflection. It makes me think of all the non-ecclesiastical texture of worship and the thinness of meeting in the online world versus the created world.
    Scripted church sounds would be thin without the clamor of children followed by the shushing of parents, the cacophony of candy wrappers at the beginning of the sermon, or the wailing child whisked from the sanctuary by the embarrassed parent eyed by those of us who have lived the same experience many years earlier.
    It all makes me yearn harder for that which I am without. The sensory richness corporate worship on earth and the greater richness of fellowship to come.

  • Henk Ottens says:

    You vacationed from our pulpit last Sunday, but you’ve treated us to a dandy sermon anyway. Thanks.

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