On Cities Unseen: Living in the Homelessness of Grace

We are Settled until We are Unsettled, Home and Yet Not. It’s a Weird Way to Live.

Stephanie Phillips / 11.3.20

Last week I switched over my youngest son’s closet, exchanging his size five clothes for his brother’s old size sixes, and as I have done for the past three years, I took a moment to rue the fact that in a few weeks, we’d be moving to a new house and I’d have to pack and unpack all this again.

Except we’re not. Moving, that is.

For the first time in four years, we are not moving houses in December, from one hemisphere to another or one location in Sydney to another. We are, instead, staying put in the house we bought in June. My husband just accepted a job with an Australian company that has a time commitment of three years, similar to the job he accepted four years ago with an American company that had a three-year commitment that brought us to Sydney. We are settled until we are unsettled, home and yet not. It’s a weird way to live.

But I should be used to it. I’ve been itinerant much of my life, one way or another. For 27 years I lived in Alabama, until divine discomfort led me to New York City. I spent five years shuttling between Manhattan and the South, stretching my roots and my heart. When I left New York for Atlanta after a half-decade with a fiancé in tow, it felt as though I was both leaving home and arriving there. Then, six years later and with two more males in tow, we left for Sydney, which after four years has become our home. But also not, as my roots and heart have been stretched even more yet remain connected to so many on American soil.

Geographical relocations aside, I’ve lived across a few spectrums in my life. I’ve wandered around the autism spectrum alongside my son as we’ve navigated the early days of his diagnosis, the workings of therapy, and the context of neurodiversity within its history and present (read Neurotribes if you want more on this — it’s fantastic). I’ve also made my way across swaths of the Christian spectrum, having grown up in a home with one non-believing parent and one (when I was younger) new convert, leading us to explore a range of denominations that left us in a charismatic Assembly of God church one week and a staid Methodist congregation the next. Then there’s the political journey, which began with me pilfering copies of political magazines from my dad’s office to try and make sense of the cartoons and has recently left me voting in a decidedly different tradition from the one in which I was raised.

It’s these last two areas I want to talk about — the Christian and political — on this day of the American election. Watching events unfold from a (safe) distance across the globe has afforded me a perspective I never asked for but wouldn’t trade for anything, as is often the work of grace. 

Here is what countless hours of therapy and just plain life have shown me: fear is what used to drive my faith, and anger is what drove my politics. The God I knew as a child, and the one affirmed in sermons and at those ghastly Halloween hell houses, was keeping tabs on my deeds and balancing them on a scale. And unless the good outweighed the bad, I was headed straight to where those teens went after their car wrecked: the flames of judgment. This God wasn’t very likable, but he did command respect, so it made sense that my politics would fall in line with what (I was told) his would likely be. Therefore I drew lines in the sand: us vs them, right vs wrong, and so cordoned off a safe zone that I was on the right side of. It happened to sit a bit higher up than the rest of the political landscape; the better for judging.

But a funny thing happened on the way to years of church and the polling booth: grace left me homeless. I was no longer the sinless child I’d once been after decades of rebellion and regret. I was no longer the product of an angry God after I learned that hardship doesn’t always equal punishment (and a God who loves you out of Alabama, into New York City, and through tax season truly loves you, trust me). I was no longer the mother I’d planned to be with the children who followed the rules from the parenting books I’d read. And, after a few years immersed in a different culture and system, I was no longer fully American or, for that matter, fully at home. 

Being homeless can do wonders for your rigidity.

I remember discussing this feeling of homelessness with my therapist about a year ago, and he pointed me to Hebrews 11, the Gospels, and, well, the rest of the Bible. I saw a God whose people wandered 40 years and then some; a Teacher who never had a place to lay his head; and a hall-of-fame of the faithful who never realized their true citizenship this side of heaven. I came to understand that those of us who feel unsettled here, who constantly manage outsider tendencies, whose roots and hearts stretch across theology and geography and politics — we are not lost, but right where we are meant to be. 

I’ve watched as Christianity has been subverted into a brand and politics elevated into a passion. I’ve been convicted that if I consider the rights of the unborn, disabled, or immigrant and don’t see myself in any of those groups, then I don’t know my own identity. I’ve learned that if I read the parable of the Good Samaritan and identify solely with the Samaritan and not the man lying nearly dead in the road, then I truly don’t understand my need for a Savior in the first place. I cannot ultimately be at home within any nationality, political party, or worldly creed because I am made and meant for something that transcends all those. And only by starting here — within my own helplessness and need and homelessness — can I begin to have a worldview whose foundation is the Gospel.

The Australians have a phrase that alters our American one: instead of asking someone how they’re doing, they ask, “How’re ya going?” I have, of course, decided to read way more into this than intended, and I love the turning of focus away from activity to location, this present participle landing us first there, then here, always moving and never truly in one place this side of eternity.