We Are Strangers in a Strange Land

I grew up in a family that camped. My father was a pastor who got four weeks of vacation. We took all four weeks at once, camping the whole month of July, mostly in wooded forests next to lakes. We hauled a small Sunfish sailboat on top of our sagging station wagon.

Williamson Vacation 1968

Williamson Family Vacation, July 1968

Vacations were a young boy’s fantasy, filled with mysterious forests and stormy seas. Four weeks wasn’t enough. We carried our home wherever we went. It was often hot, sometimes cold, and occasionally rainy. The car always broke down. And I loved it.

I recently heard a quote from the Epistle to Diognetus that resurfaced all those old memories,

The difference between Christians and the rest of mankind is not a matter of nationality, language, or customs. Christians do not live apart in separate cities, speak any special dialect, nor practice any eccentric way of life… [They] conform to ordinary local usage in their clothing, diet, and other habits…

For them, any foreign country is a motherland, and any motherland is a foreign country.

My home away from home

Yes, camping was uncomfortable. The pop-up trailer served as our kitchen, dining room, living room, and four bedrooms, yet this mobile home was smaller than a single bedroom in our immovable house.

Discomfort was just part of the fun. When something went wrong—and the tent loved to leak and the stove just hated to be lit—it was part of the adventure. It was a Fine And Pleasant Misery.

But last week, back home, all three of our cars had problems (a faulty transmission, a gas leak, and a misfiring engine). I was frustrated. Life isn’t supposed to be difficult. It should work.

But is life supposed to work the way I want? It hasn’t for the fifty odd years of my life (I’m fifty-seven, but only fifty of those years have been odd). Why do I enjoy the fine and pleasant miseries of camping while grousing about bringing my car to an auto mechanic?

Because when I camped I expected misadventures, and when I’m home I expect comfort.

And because I always knew camping was my home away from home; an incomparable adventure, yes, but I always knew that soon I’d be back in my real bed in my real home.

We’re missing an important ingredient

The world we live in is broken. Let’s strive to care for it. By all means, we can improve education, build public transport, streamline the tax code, and fix that leaking tent.

But let’s never forget that we’re all just camping. This motherland is a foreign country.

My parent’s generation talked more about heaven than we do. I think it’s because they saw the world’s brokenness more closely. They endured the great depression, had far fewer modern medical advantages, and they saw suffering in World War II that would stagger us.

When they saw all that brokenness, it moved them care for a broken world; but it also moved them to look to a future home. I should think more of my real motherland.

It would give me hope; it would remind me that I’m just camping.

But we mostly ignore tomorrow

In his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker observed that modern people pull out all the stops to forget tomorrow. We refuse to acknowledge our mortality. We claw, scratch, and snatch at present “positive thinking.” And we ignore reality. He wrote,

Taking life seriously means that all we do must be done in the lived truth of the evil and terror of life, of the rumble of panic underneath everything, otherwise it’s phony.

No matter how much medical science advances, the mortality rate remains the same. It’s still one hundred percent. We all die. No one escapes life alive. If we ignore tomorrow, we are living phony, cowardly lives.

I bet that wasn’t the pick-me-up you were looking for

Remembering our future death reminds us that this world isn’t home. We are just sojourners, travelers passing through, hikers backpacking the Appalachian Trail.

We can hold this world without holding onto this world; we can live in this world without getting our life from this world. We can be at home without making it our home.

We are strangers in a strange land. Death means any foreign country can be home. The strangeness of life is the oddness of life in a land of death. Because we are made for life.

Paul said, “For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:8b-9).

For them, any foreign country is a motherland, and any motherland is a foreign country.

Heaven is not for the cowardly

Cowards live phony lives, afraid of what’s outside the door. Of all people, Christians can have courage. Because we know what’s outside that door. In this life we’ll experience everything the world throws at us, broken cars, spats with spouses, wars, rumors of wars, and death.

With one difference. For us, “The tragedy of life is not death. The tragedy of life is what dies inside a man while he lives” (Albert Schweitzer). We shall live forever. This land we call home is a birth canal to the home we were made for. Let’s never let that hope die while we live.

We can be at home in this world precisely because our motherland is somewhere else.

Sam

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What do YOU think?

27 thoughts on “We Are Strangers in a Strange Land

  1. @Sam – thanks for the post. It reminded me that I had been taught from an early age that I am only a “stranger here.” As a fellow pastor’s kid I remember either watching (from the back of the sanctuary) or attending a lot of funerals. There was a hymn often sung by the congregation or a soloist entitled, “I’m But a Stranger Here.” I certainly didn’t understand is as an elementary student and I undoubtedly didn’t like it as an adolescent, but the message was clear. Your words are a great reminder of a Kingdom reality. As I write this i can still hear the first verse of the hymn: “I’m but a stranger here. Heaven is my home. Earth is a desert drear, heaven is my home; danger and sorrow stand round me on every hand. Heaven is my fatherland. Heaven is my home.” Now, as an adult, I understand a bit more of what the 19th Century hymn writer was sharing. Thanks again!

    • Mark,

      GREAT, GREAT memory of the hymn. Thanks.

      I don’t know what it is, maybe it’s the rush and tumble of so much media; maybe it’s the (usually good) advice of living in the moment; but I think we all put down roots too deep into TODAY.

      But really, our final home is yet to be revealed.

      And, if anything about God is an indicator of the future, our home will be better than we can even imagine. And I can imagine quite a lot of good stuff.

      Sam

  2. Sam because of some the things I have been personally been reflecting on these very thoughts lately or Paul’s words in Phillipians 1. Love this quote here

    “But let’s never forget that we’re all just camping. This motherland is a foreign country.”

    I think your video over here on our hearts deepest fear is relevant to your message here. Sometimes it is the sun scorched days those days that leave us feeling sun burned even though we have been inside all day that God allows us to experince just to keep us longing for home.

    Because my heart has been there I have been relecting and listening to one of my top ten favorite Christian songs of all time. Not sure if you knew this song back then or not, but here it is. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rPXJXJy9yCc

  3. Sam: Love the picture. I remember that car, that Sailfish, that trailer and that wonderful family. Which one of you is missing in this picture? (sorry I’m off-topic. I’ll let you and Mark do the teaching. I’ll just try to learn.)

    • I think my sister Becky is on the left with her back to us; and I think my sister Sarah is on the right with her left side to us; and I think my mom is behind Sarah; and I think that I am in the middle facing the car.

      Not sure where Pete, Andy, and Priscilla are.

  4. I loved this line:

    “Because when I camped I expected misadventures, and when I’m home I expect comfort.”

    What a great juxtaposition. Expecting that we might always be in a (mis)adventure might actually make our lives less frustrating.

  5. Thanks Sam, very timely post. Had a ‘spat with the wife last night.’ ‘Spatting’ with your best friend does not help one sleep well. Sonny

  6. What a wonderful way of looking at this idea of being strangers here on Earth! Sadly I have spent more time with Christians who use heaven as an excuse to pull the blanket over their heads rather than as a freeing truth that should push us out the door. I will try to remember what you’ve said here next time I have to face that mentality. Thanks!

    • Hi Havs,

      Yeah, I know. We can use heaven as an excuse or heaven as an empowerment.

      Martin Luther was once asked by one of his students, “What would you do if you knew God was going to return today?” Luther replied, “I’d plant a tree.”

      I think that’s brilliant. Luther was saying, “This world is important to God. That tree will live forever.”

      If God cares for this world, we can too. We can bring life to it without drawing our life from it.

      Thanks for you thoughts.

      Sam

    • We all experiences sorrows here, and many of us experience tragedies. I don’t wish to minimize the depth of sorrow and pain we experience.

      But I do believe our future home will be so great that the pains and sorrows of today will pale in comparison; not that the current pains are minor (they aren’t). Rather, the future glory is infinite.

      Thanks,

      Sam

      • This world has more suffering than joy and yet we befool ourselves that the world is a great place. This is the effect of ‘original sin’ in Christian theology and ‘ Anaadikarma’ – ‘ The beginningless cause of suffering’ in Vedic theology.

  7. Great column, Sam. Brings a more current song to mind: “All I know is I’m not home yet, this is not where I belong. Take this world and give me Jesus…” My son’s passing less than two years ago really brought this home to me. We’re all just passing through. Thanks.

  8. How about this song?
    This world is not my home

    I’m just a-passing through

    My treasures are laid up

    Somewhere beyond the blue.

    The angels beckon me

    From heaven’s open door

    And I can’t feel at home

    In this world anymore.

  9. I am sure yo will welcome someone who is not from your faith strictly speaking.
    I have just been thinking of my country as the land of my ancestors and which will remain mine for evermore. But I ignored the most obvious thing – death will snatch us away sooner than we would like it to.
    In our holy book- Mahabharata, there is an episode where an Angel asks a king – ‘ Which is the strangest thing in the world?’
    The King replies – ‘Everyday man sees other men dying and yet he thinks he will live in this world for eternity. That is the strangest and most foolish thing in the world.’

  10. This world is a simulation. Our worldly father simulates the World’s Father, and so on. It is this instinct of the soul which makes us form a family in this world. The soul’s true family is in the other world. We form and love our family so as to replicate the things to come. But the father of the household, though simulating The Heavenly Father, has to realize his powerlessness.In that sense we all are children , no matter our position in this world and there is only One True Father.

    • Hi Arjun,

      I think I understand what you mean when you say this world is a simulation, but I think it’s more.

      Yes, our idea of a good father rarely comes from the perfection of our earthly fathers. Even if our earthly father’s were good, they were far from perfect. The only reason we know that is because of a sense in our heart–a God-given sense–of our eternal Father’s perfection and love.

      But I also think this world is real, it’s more than a simulation. God himself lovingly and artfully made a place of beauty, grace, and love. The problem with the world isn’t in its design, the problem is that the world is broken. We broke it.

      But God loved this world enough to enter into it and bring healing. The Christian scriptures say that we won’t just become spirits living in a spirit-land, but God is making all things new again; he is bringing back a new heavens and earth that will be all this world should have been.

      So this world–though broken–is still important. Because it is important to God.

      Thanks again for sharing,

      Sam