As October gives way to November this year, my life’s odometer will have rolled over to sixty-one. Turning sixty-one marks no significant milestone for me. To be honest, none of the usual big birthdays—the new decades like 40 or 50 or 60—proved to be important turning points.
And yet, lately I find myself especially pensive about life’s “why.” It’s more of a feeling in my soul’s marrow than a sequence of clear, discrete thoughts. Somebody brought me to a moment of clarity when he repeated a line from the Qur’an: “We are all returning.”
That says it. Life is about returning. That’s the key to our why. And taking hold of life as a returning will make all the difference to the “how” of living it. Jesus could have said—and with different words actually did say—precisely the same thing.
The poet Rumi helps me—and may help you—glimpse the hues and the textures of a life anchored in returning. Life is like wandering home from a tavern late at night. He writes:
Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing?
I have no idea.
My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that,
and I intend to end up there.
How different this is from the drive to achieve that defined so much of my life as a younger man. I knew where I wanted to go and believed that I could get there only through toil and competition. Without effort and without impressive results, I would go nowhere. And I would be nobody.
Correlatively, other people would be more or less, higher or lower than me. I would look up in envy or down in condescension. And I could not rest until I had arrived. It was all on me.
Perhaps incongruously for some, there is no difference between those who seek financial success and those who pursue moral and spiritual rigor as achievements. The logic remains the same. My life’s significance derives from what I accomplish and accumulate.
By contrast, Rumi invites us to a strikingly different posture. I suppose you could characterize it as humility. He writes, “Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.” We belong elsewhere. We yearn to get there. And we will only arrive by admitting that we cannot get there on our own.
In Jesus’s terms, we were meant from the beginning to dwell in the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom is not some distant spiritual realm separate from the world we inhabit. God reigns with love. Where love animates us, that is the Kingdom of God. Yes, that Kingdom stretches into eternity. But it begins right here. Right now.
Jesus teaches us to walk the way of love in order to bring the Kingdom of God near. To bring God’s reign to our neighborhood, to our school, to our workplace, and to our supermarket. To bring it near to the broken-hearted, the neglected, the despised, and the destitute. In other words, Jesus teaches us to let his love express itself in our actions. With our hands and our feet, with our votes and our checkbooks.
His love restores, renews, and remakes a world debased by violence, prejudice, and greed. Heals a world wounded by hunger, oppression, and suffering. To put it differently, Jesus urges us to live in this world as the place that God is returning to the dream that God had for it in the first place. The place where love reigns.
We struggle to get our hearts around this way of living. That’s not surprising. Jesus’s first disciples didn’t exactly catch on all at once, either. For instance, James and John asked Jesus to sit at his left hand and his right hand once he had finally arrived. They wanted to be at the head of the table. You know, higher up than everybody else. (Mark 10:35-45)
Jesus had good news for them and bad news for them. Nobody would have a higher place at the table than them. But, then again, their place would be no higher than anybody else’s. The table, as it turns out, is round.
Followers of Jesus are not striving to make a place for ourselves in the world. We’re cooperating with God to make the world a place where everybody—simply everybody—gets the place of honor due a beloved child of God.
Jesus-followers are servants in that respect. We devote our lives to Jesus’s ransom project, to liberating the world from nightmares like poverty and sexism and racism to God’s dream of dignity for every of human being.
Together, we walk and, at times, stumble together back to the home we yearn for. We are all returning. As Ram Dass put it, “We’re all just walking each other home.”
Our path homeward is long and uneven. We will endure detours and setbacks. But the one who brought us here will bring us home.