Sunday, December 18, 2016

I am but a stranger here. . .

In our hymnal is a hymn no longer sung all that often.  I'm But a Stranger Here.  When I was a child, it was an often sung hymn by a people who knew that its words were not a disdain of the world God created but an acknowledgement that, as good as this world is, it is but a shadow of what God intended and sin stole.

1    I’m but a stranger here, 
    Heav’n is my home;
Earth is a desert drear,
    Heav’n is my home.
Danger and sorrow stand
Round me on ev’ry hand;
Heav’n is my fatherland,
    Heav’n is my home.

2    What though the tempest rage,
    Heav’n is my home;
Short is my pilgrimage,
    Heav’n is my home;
And time’s wild wintry blast
Soon shall be overpast;
I shall reach home at last,
    Heav’n is my home.

3    Therefore I murmur not,
    Heav’n is my home;
Whate’er my earthly lot,
    Heav’n is my home;
And I shall surely stand
There at my Lord’s right hand;
Heav’n is my fatherland,
    Heav’n is my home.


Growing up amid a people who had emigrated to NE Nebraska from their family homes in Sweden and Germany, I understood this.  They still identified as Swedes and Germans, often spoke in the mother tongue, and kept the traditions of their homeland even in the new land that became their home.  They translated this experience into faith and sang I'm But a Stranger Here while still loving their new country, living as patriotic citizens, and keeping alive the memory of the land of their ancestors.  They understood that all human life itself is an experience of exile and homesickness - no matter where you live or where you were originally from.

As Christians, they understood that we are all separated from our true homeland.  We are all strangers to the world around us because we were created for something other.  The danger lies either when we long so for the home we once knew that we reject the present as itself a domain from God or when we fall so in love with the world around us that we forget it is passing away and this is not the eternal we were created to know.

Genesis 3 speaks eloquently of our condition. We live outside the gates of Paradise where our Creator placed us.  We live at odds with God who has become a stranger to us and before whom we live either in fear and terror or ignorance and disdain.  We have become suspicious of our neighbor and friendship has become the exception rather than the norm of our fearful hearts.  We live in the natural world that has become unnatural since the Fall and not only man is under the curse of death but all the world God made and every creature in it.

I fear that we no longer sing this hymn because we no longer yearn for the courts of the Lord's eternal house nor lament the distance that sin has created between us and the God who made us (for Himself).  In other words, we are already at home and do not miss the home of God's intention in creation.  We have made our peace with death.  We have become content with life (within certain parameters).  We are as much at home as we can be.

Think, for example of the romance of cremation and ashes spread over the haunts where we lived or the places we wanted to be.  Let me tell you a story.  I had a funeral once for an older German lady; she had married a soldier and moved with him to the US.  But clearly, her heart was still in Germany.  As I was preparing for the committal in the cemetery, her son pulled out a jar of dirt and poured it into the grave wherein the coffin would rest.  He saw me look and explained.  "This was a jar of German soil Mom picked up when visiting her family.  She wanted to be buried on German soil."

Do you get my meaning?  We are creatures of exile until we are delivered from death to the place prepared for us before the foundation of the world.  We are pilgrims on earth until we are raised to everlasting life with God.  This is not a rejection of this world or this life but an acknowledgement that this is not our eternal home (whether we believer or not).  Advent seems more than any other season (except, perhaps, the Sundays at the end of the Pentecost season) to remind us.  We are but strangers here; heaven is our home.

2 comments:

John Flanagan said...

Indeed, we are Pilgrims and Strangers on a life journey in this world, and after you have been to other places and lived in different states as I have, you begin to understand that your true roots are in Heaven. The article you wrote was very good and a reminder that we are first a child of God, and someday we will really be "home."

Betty Steffen said...

Our daughter learned and loved this hymn when she was in first grade in a LCMS school. She would come home from school, singing it; she loved it. Ten years later, when she was 16, she was shot on the 4th of July... a young man firing at street lights. We were in the house. She survived, but was totally paralyzed and on a respirator for seven months. It's a long story. At first, of course, she wanted to die. She said, "Why did God let this happen to me?" She loved her church and youth group. She was sent to a rehab hospital. A few months later I was siting by her bed and she said, "Mom, I want to write a letter to the guy who shot me." And, she forgave him, saying she hoped he got to know Jesus. I was sitting by her wheelchair one afternoon in January and we were talking about music. She said, "Remember when I went to Christian Day School and my favorite songs were, "I'm But a Stranger here"? (and another one, similar, but I can't remember right now). I said, "Yes, because I did. She said, "They still are my favorites." (even though she loved John Denver before).

The day before she died, our pastor visited her, as he did very often... They talked about life and death and she said, "Pastor, I like being alive."

It's still hard for me to sing that hymn without tearing up. But, I love it, too.