As I slid the pumpkin pies into the oven, a wave of sadness washed over me. Thanksgiving in Romania just isn’t the same, I thought. My husband, two children, and I had moved overseas as global workers seven months earlier. At first, every new sight and smell sparked a thrill of adventure, but over time the honeymoon stage faded into dull, unrelenting homesickness. I missed my family. I missed my routines of suburban America. I missed fitting in, belonging somewhere.
What’s wrong with me? I wondered, setting the kitchen timer. Where are the joy and contentment I’m supposed to experience? Why do I, a Spirit-filled Christian, feel that something is missing? Just then, three words nudged my mind. Strangers and aliens. I’d heard a pastor quote this phrase recently. That is what I am, I thought. An alien, a misfit.
A few days later, reading Hebrews 11, I came across those exact words again. Maybe God wants to show me something, I realized, and set out to see. This is what I learned.
I am in good company. I recognized right away that rootlessness is nothing new. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible teems with ancient accounts of displaced women and men.
First came Adam and Eve. After they sinned against Him, “the Lord God banished [them] from the Garden of Eden” (Gen. 3:23) – He threw them out of the known, safe, familiar world they had loved.
A few generations later, Noah and his family stepped aboard the Ark and floated away, finally scraping aground on a lonely mountain. Every other relative and friend had disappeared forever.
Abraham and Sarah abandoned an elegant villa in cosmopolitan Ur to plod on a camel’s back toward the unknown.
The Israelites toiled in distant Egypt for 430 years, then wandered in a wilderness for 40 more.
The New Testament picks up the pilgrim theme, with Joseph and Mary setting out for Bethlehem, then later hiding in Egypt as fugitives. Persecuted Jewish believers fled to foreign lands. Paul roamed through Galatia, Italy, and Asia, preaching to Greeks, Romans and Jews. Timothy pastored a flock in unfamiliar Ephesus. And, finally, the Apostle John breathed his last as an exile on a lonely island.
These Biblical heroes laughed and cried and kissed loved ones good-bye just as I had. Did they, too, long for permanence, for roots? How did they respond when all around them seemed alien?
I turned back to Hebrews 11 and zeroed in on Abraham. He “obeyed and went,” the writer marvels, “even thought he did not know where he was going” (Heb. 11:8). Sarah obeyed and went, too, paying an emotional price alongside her husband. In Ur she’d probably grown to love her balconied home, lush carpets, potted plants, hand-carved furniture. Yet she turned her back on it all to follow God’s leading.
Did the romance of the caravan quickly wear off? Did Sarah lie awake at night inside her goats’-hair tent dreaming of luxury, convenience and stability? Did Abraham miss his father? Maybe. But the Bible makes it clear that deep down, they had no regrets. “If their hearts had been in the country they had left, they could have found opportunity to return” (Heb. 11:15, NEB). They could have gone back, but they didn’t. Their hope was not in Ur, not in the memory of what used to be. Their hope was in the Lord.
Instead, the story continues, they pressed on toward Canaan. The homeland. The land that would flow with milk and honey, with comfort and security. Surely Abraham and Sarah could plant their hearts there, bond with the land, feel they were, well…home. But no; stepping onto the soil where their children and great grandchildren would run and play, even there they lived, “like a stranger in a foreign country” (Heb. 11:9).
Even Canaan, the promised land, offered only a temporary place to spread their blankets. Abraham was “longing for a better country – a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:16). He yearned for “the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). God had set eternity in Abraham’s heart. Not an impressive two-story villa, not a vast plot of land, but eternity. And He had buried the same eternal homing instinct in me. I sometimes mistake it for something earthly; but no framed snapshots, no familiar foods or daily rhythms can satisfy this desire.
The truth hit me: I will always feel at least a faint discomfort on earth, no matter where I live, whether in Canaan or Ur, Romania or America. I will always be an alien. I may feast on roast turkey at my parents’ long oak table, or I may eat without them in an apartment 8,000 miles away. I may buy pumpkin canned at the grocery store or fresh from a peasant’s stall. In a way, it’s all the same. I’m a foreigner not because I chose Romania, but because I chose Jesus.
Heaven is my home.
So, what do we do when homesickness threatens our joy? When we’re tempted to hole up in the past or live for the future? We follow Abraham’s example and focus on the eternal home that God has waiting for us. I made a conscious decision to seize any wistful feelings and use them as the glasses through which I would see Heaven and my alien status here, more clearly.
Insights began leaping out from everywhere:
Paul spoke from a dungeon in Rome: “Our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20).
At church, hymns took on special meaning:
Be still, my soul! the hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord,
When disappointments, grief and fear are gone,
Sorrows forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still my soul! when change and tears are past,
All safe and blessed, we shall meet at last.
Even reading aloud to the children added a new vantage point. In the final book of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, Jewel the unicorn suddenly finds himself delivered from battle into Aslan’s land, the “new Narnia.” Staring in wonder, he cries,
I have come home at last! This is my real country!
I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for
all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why
we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little
like this. Bree-hee-hee! Come further up, come further in!
Trying to picture this glorious setting, I reserved a journal page for a simple sketch of the Great Throne, surrounded by the uplifted faces of my family and friends who are already there. They are pouring songs onto the page through open, smiling lips.
Last fall I added another friend to this scene. She died of cancer at the age of 32, leaving behind two preschoolers. No one could deny the tragedy and pain carol’s family feels as they pick up the pieces. But, penciling in her blond curls and happy face before the throne added perspective for me. I could just hear her singing and crying out, “This is my real country! I belong here!”
Meditating on heaven transforms us.
Thanks to the bumps and bruises of life on earth, my eyes turned toward our real home in heaven. Ironically, I found that the more we meditate on our heavenly citizenship, the more our earthly character and outlook will improve.
Encouragement to Press On.
First of all, embracing heaven spurs us on to action here. Several years ago, my husband and I served on a summer outreach in Hong Kong. Every day for two months, we knocked on doors alongside dozens of Chinese co-workers telling all who would listen about the uniqueness of Jesus. About halfway through the summer, our energy flagged. We’d overdosed on stir-fried vegetables. We were tired of the language barrier, the confusing tangle of streets and apartment blocks, the smell of hot asphalt and our own sweat-soaked clothing. We stopped pouring ourselves into the efforts of the team.
At last the outreach ended. At the closing ceremony in a large community building, we sang hymns and prayed with our Chinese brothers and sisters. Some of them, new Christians, told how they’d burned the family idols and turned to a living God. A pastor confessed that for the first time, he felt like a true evangelist. American participants rejoiced over their widened vision and faith.
I sat quietly on the wooden bench, ashamed of my own weak finish. I’d known all along that this final day would eventually arrive, that I would board a jumbo jet and land in my own country, take a hot showers and sleep in my own bed.
Armed with this knowledge, couldn’t I have persevered to the end? Followed up one more hard-to-find address? Pressed on through inconvenience and fatigue and sweat?
This lesson has stuck with me, because I know of another final celebration just as certain to take place. When I join those singing faces around the throne, will I shrink back, embarrassed by the past? Will I remember that time the kids were whining and wish I’d controlled my temper? That morning the neighbor dropped by, and wish I’d shard Christ with her? That mindless sit-com and wish I’d turned off the TV?
Keeping that ultimate scene in mind can help us act now so that we won’t have regrets later.
A passion for Scripture.
Recognizing our transience shapes us in another way: we’ll begin to treasure the Bible for its insights into earthly culture. It’s easy to misunderstand cultural cues. At our first dinner in a Romanian family’s home, my husband reached for a small pitcher – and nearly poured white gravy into his coffee. That was only the beginning. To avoid more errors, we must constantly study the people of our host country: What do they eat? What do they wear? How do they view God, and why? Which customs should we imitate? Which must they change in order to follow Jesus?
In the same way, every person, every citizen of heaven living as a foreigner on Planet Earth, needs daily counsel to understand her surroundings. For this we have the Bible as our guidebook. It warns us of the world’s tricks, cautions us against dangerous habits, cheers us on with the promise of rewards at the end of our travels.
The psalmist had it right: “Thy statutes are my songs in the house of my pilgrimage” (Ps. 119:54, NASB).
A Thankful Spirit.
Perhaps the greatest change God works in us, as our longings point us toward heaven, is to make us thankful even for the thirsting itself. Without the aches and agonies of human life, we might slide into satisfaction with the trinkets this world dangles before us.
I am an alien on earth, whether or not I feel like it. It is harder to remember, to deeply understand my pilgrim status, when I feel safe and secure; it’s easier during a season of change.
You don’t have to be a full-time global worker to feel loneliness, unsettledness, “foreigner fatigue.” Have you recently moved to a different city? Changed job positions? Joined a new church? Endured a divorce? Entered parenthood? Then you are facing a unique, God-given transition.
Rather than simply hanging in there until life feels better, you can aggressively reap the benefits of your present place in the pilgrimage. Pray, during this period, “Show me, O Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life” (Ps. 39:4). Scour the Bible for wisdom on thriving in this foreign world. And thank God, by faith, for placing you in a teachable position.
Gradually Romania is finding a place in my family’s hearts. The kids have best buddies at the local kindergarten. We’re learning the language, basking in Romanian hospitality and admiring magnificent countryside.
But I doubt it will ever seem like home.
Then again, neither will America.
So this year, as I slide the pies into the oven, I know what I’m thankful for: that the hurts and twinges of life on earth beckon and pull, remind and point and hint of the place whose architect and builder is God.
They whet my appetite for home.
Tricia Clement and her husband Dan serve with Campus Crusade for Christ in Bucharest, Romania. On her days off, Tricia likes to read novels and eat chocolate chip cookies – preferably both at the same time.