Winter Break and the Challenge of Home

I had a weird relationship with the concept of “home” in college. As I approached the end of a semester, I found myself longing to go back “home” to my parents’ house for break. I looked forward to the familiarity, the family, and the rest. However, after some time at my parents’ house, I would find that sense of longing for “home” returning. 

The sense of “home” in my mind had shifted from my parents’ house to my college dorm or apartment. I longed now for the freedom, the friends, and the sense of purpose that my classes and clubs brought. So I would go back. And before long, the cycle would repeat.

What an odd experience. A continual process for four years of looking forward to a “home” that, upon arrival, didn’t quite live up to my expectations and would give way to a desire to return to a different home. 

I hope this doesn’t sound too melodramatic. 

Don’t get me wrong, I loved my time in college and I loved visiting my family over breaks. I have wonderful memories of both. What I’m saying is that neither seemed to fully satisfy the desire named “home” that would creep into my heart at times. Home was a distinct desire, but had ceased to be a distinct location.

As I’ve talked with students over the years, I have found that my experience isn’t unique. In fact, for many students, going home over breaks can be very challenging. So if you’re a student about to head back to your parents’ house for Christmas, may I offer you some advice?

Moderate Expectations

Break is just a week away. You’re tired. You’re stressed. Exams are looming. It is easy to imagine break as a carefree paradise at this moment. A place where all wrongs will be made right and life will finally be peaceful again.

Ok, I’m exaggerating a little, but you get the idea. Here is my point: your winter break will probably not live up to your stress-fueled expectations of it.

There will be great moments. But there will also be frustrations, stress, loneliness, and maybe some boredom.

If you’re a freshman, you are probably going to discover that both you and your parents have to learn to adjust to new patterns and expectations of one another now that you are used to managing your own schedule at college. This process is rarely without some friction.

Maybe you’re the exception to this and your Christmas break ends up being everything you are dreaming it will be. This just means that your disappointment will come at the end when you have to leave. 

I sometimes joke that the secret to happiness is low expectations. That is probably going too far. But maybe the secret to enjoying winter break is reasonable expectations. Acknowledge right now that you may be expecting more from a month at your parents’ house than it can provide. This will give you the freedom to enjoy the great parts of break without being crushed by the challenging times.

Watch Out For Old Patterns of Behavior

I am 35 and have three children. Even so, when I walk into the house I grew up in, part of me instantly reverts back to my 15 year old self. I’ll find myself being argumentative with my mom or leaving my dishes on the counter after a meal. Maybe I’ll feel a strong desire to lay on the couch and watch tv all afternoon.

You’re not 35, but the reality is, you have grown and changed a lot since you went to college. This is even true if you’re a first semester freshman. There is something about the independence of college that causes us to mature quickly (if unevenly). This is especially true if you have been involved in a college ministry that has helped you grow in your faith.

Maybe there are unhealthy habits or sin patterns that you have seen growth in over the last few months. For instance maybe you have stopped looking at pornography or started going to the gym regularly or having consistent quiet times. Going back to the environment that you were in before these changes can often lead to a kind of remission. Our old environment can bring back old habits.

How do you combat this tendency? A lot of things can help: a solid game plan ahead of time, lots of prayer, etc. But perhaps, the most important way to guard against these old patterns of behavior is to…

Stay Connected to Your College Friends and Ministry

I have talked to so many students who are involved with Cru who have come back from breaks over the years surprised that they found it difficult to walk with Jesus and resist sin patterns while they were away.

My response: “Why are you so surprised?”

It turns out that when you take a person away from their Christian community, walking with Jesus gets a lot harder. This is exactly what the New Testament tells us to expect. There is a reason why the author of Hebrews admonishes his readers to not neglect meeting together (10:25). It’s also why Paul compares the church to a human body in Ephesians 4 that “builds itself up in love.”

The Christian life is a life in community. We are not designed to do it well on our own. You have been building a Christian community around you at college. This has probably fast forwarded your Christian growth. Don’t be surprised when stepping away from it for a month causes you to take a step back.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not an excuse to sin. You are still responsible for your own action before God. But my admonition is not to go into the fight on your own. Bring your college community with you.

Plan ahead of time to have weekly zoom calls with your housemates or Bible study for mutual encouragement or accountability. If some of your friends from college live close enough, make a point to see them over break. At the very least set up a group chat where you can share struggles.

And if your college ministry has an opportunity over the break, take advantage of it. Every winter break Cru has a conference after Christmas. We get our students together in Baltimore for 4 nights for the purpose of hearing Biblical teaching, having fun, and most importantly growing in community.  This works out to be right around the middle of break and is the perfect opportunity to get a recharge to finish break well. 

Remember Your Ultimate Home

In chapter 11, the author of Hebrews recalls old testament figures who spent their lives following God. He singles out Abraham and Sarah, for whom this following was not merely spiritual, but a literal constant change of location. The text says:

“For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” Hebrews 11:14-16

Do you catch what the author is saying here? Abraham and Sarah spent their lives longing for “home”. But strangely, returning to the place where they grew up would not have fulfilled that longing.

This sounds a little like my experience in college of never feeling fully home whether I was at my parents’ house or at my school. 

Why? Maybe because our desire for a “home” was never supposed to be fully satisfied here. What is home, other than the place where we truly belong, are truly loved, and can truly rest? If we think we can find that in a physical location, we will always be disappointed. For Abraham and Sarah, and for you and me as followers of Jesus, our ultimate home is with God, the one who, through Jesus Christ, gives us true belonging, love, and rest.

So, when you get “home” over break, you may find that it doesn’t fully meet your expectations. If so, you are in good company according to Hebrews 11. I hope the advice above helps a little. But even more than that, I hope that this longing reminds you to look to Jesus, your true home.

-written by Jerry Riendeau

Jerry is one of the directors of Cru at James Madison University. He is married to Katherine. Together they have three children, ages five years and under. You can contact Jerry at jerry.riendeau@cru.org. You can follow him on twitter here.

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