When It’s Hard to Go Home for Christmas Break

The last papers are submitted and you wish studying for finals was the biggest stressor in your life.  If only preparing for what awaits you at home at the end of the week was as easy as memorizing the laws of thermodynamics and reviewing your cumulative class notes.

For the past semester, you’ve been able to put some distance between the arguments, constant tension, and awkward blended family relationships.  Those four walls where who’s in charge is simultaneously asserted and resisted make the place you used to call home a place you’re fine not going back to.

Home may not have changed, but you have. You’ve been challenged in ways you’ve never experienced before. You’ve reached a level of independence everyone was skeptical would be possible and you don’t want to be seen as a child who still needs to be told what to do and when to do it by people you don’t respect.

It can be difficult to want to go back to where you’ve come from when you don’t want to be pulled back into the family struggle, relive the pain, and encounter more disappointment. I can relate.
I was walking out of church for the last time before heading off to college. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was dangerously full of 18-year-old swagger accompanied by all the inexperienced bravado of knowing things would be better anywhere but there. I heard a car pull through the parking lot and an elderly man in the church yelled to me,  “Erica, remember your roots!”
I smiled and waved, asking my mom what that was supposed to mean. She, relieved someone else was trying to pull me down from my high and mighty place, said, “It’s a way of saying that even though you’re leaving, you should never forget where you’ve come from.”
I resented his advice. Maybe even despised it. In many ways, I wanted to get away precisely so I could forget where I’d come from. I wanted to leave it behind and start over. So much was a mess in my heart and I didn’t even know where to begin sorting it all out. So I figured it was easier just to start from scratch than deal with the junk.
But I’d soon learn that you can’t run from your own heart. As hard as I tried and as fast as I ran, the hardships of life in those Appalachian hills of southeastern Ohio kept their grip on me, pulling me back. The roots were deep and even though I desperately wanted to, I couldn’t forget them.
I thought cutting off the people from there would help - even my mom and the husband she married a few days after I left. But that only compounded the bitterness, grief, and anger in my heart. And so I learned another lesson - although not as quickly - you can’t remedy what’s broken with more brokenness.
As I look back now, a few decades later, I see the kindness of God helping me work through, instead of running from, the pain of the past.
The first thing God helped me to do was grieve. At college, I would go into a closet under the stairwell of our dorm where the cleaning products were stored. It was there I’d cry out to God. There was so much sorrow over how I’d been abandoned and the losses I’d endured. Because my childhood was not the way things should’ve been, I realize now how right God was to help me grieve it. As all my grief spilled onto that unassuming closet floor, it made way then for the anger and bitterness that, over time, he helped me learn to turn from. No cleaning product in that whole closet was powerful enough to remove those tear stains and clean up my mess. But God could.
The next thing he helped me to do was open my hands in surrender. I brought him my battered past and offered it back to him. Sometimes he had to pry my fingers back, but as he did, I could begin to see another narrative unfold, one of possibility and hope – that somehow he could use even the hardest things in my life for a purpose I couldn’t even imagine. So I surrendered to his pruning and untangling of the vines and branches that were choking me from the inside out.
It was then God helped me to see his tender hand, lovingly cultivating my heart so I could bear fruit. I began to follow every move of his hand, always careful and wise, but sometimes allowing me to feel the harsh and bloody prick of the thorns, tracing back to the people and places and faces I only wanted to leave behind.
“I planted the seeds that took root in the soil of your heart,” he’d say. “Don’t let the trials of life choke them out. Instead, hear the Word and understand it so you can bear more fruit.” By his grace, hearing the Word and studying it was exactly what I did.
It’s a wonder of grace that those deep roots of the Word in my heart are still bearing fruit. A few months ago as we traveled those same Appalachian hills I had associated with so much pain and sorrow from my past, I thanked God for the joy going home now brought me. I couldn’t miss the metaphor as we reached the highs and lows of the mountain terrain that my life course had been similar. Those treacherous hills were responsible, in part, for death and loss, but they were also the birthplace of my spiritual life. “Except one grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it will never bear fruit.” (John 12:24) I had experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows in that place. No matter where I’ve gone since, God has graciously allowed me to remember my roots.
And I can remember them now, not with anger, or guilt, or shame or bitterness, but with thankfulness. Because there was One who was born into a blue-collar, blended family similar to mine. He grew up like a root out of drier ground than the coal mining ground of southeastern Ohio where I am from. He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And he bore all my griefs and carried my sorrows, not just up the rolling hills of Ohio, but up a hill of death to Calvary where he was crushed for the iniquities I’ve committed and for the iniquities committed against me.
After the last final for the semester is done, find your quiet place and keep spilling out the grief, turning from anger, opening your hand in surrender, tracing God’s loving hand tending to your hurting heart, and hearing and learning the Word. Remember his birth and death for you and allow those truths to help you face your people and place.
If there’s a way I would now tweak that wise, older man’s advice to my college-aged self and to you, I’d say, “You can remember your roots by remembering his.”
For further reflection, see the Scriptures paraphrased in this post, Isaiah 53 and Luke 8:4-15.

This post encapsulates the basics of helping to face a difficult past, but is not exhaustive. Professional therapy may be needed. Each circumstance is different and may require specific boundaries and other necessary measures.