Recently, the Spiritual Formation Handbook that a small group of women is studying together asked us to reflect on the question: “Have you ever been a stranger?” One woman shared her time as a minority member of a staff of nurses in a large urban hospital. Another spoke about her first months of living in Singapore where the language, the culture, the food – everything – was strange, as was she. A third told about teaching in a poverty-ridden area in Los Angeles. But the first thought that came to me was: “I have always been a stranger.”
As the others spoke, I wondered if I dared give this answer. It is raw and personal and painful, but I didn’t want it to invoke pity or concern. Finally I did share it. I talked about never knowing my father, my mother’s emotional breakdown after his death when I was three, her re-marriage and the births of four other children. I shared that at best I felt invisible and at worst unwanted – a stranger in my own home. As I talked, the sad faces of my friends reflected my pain.
Then I excitedly spoke about what being a “stranger” has taught me. How I can quickly identify and feel commonality with “strangers” I meet on our travels through “this world of woe.” How I can share my unique experience of the blessings God brings to people who feel invisible and alone. How I can learn from Jesus, a stranger in a truly strange land. As always, I reminded them, if we choose to learn from our experiences, the Holy Spirit empowers us to become wounded healers – of those same people who intimately know our pain.
At the end of our discussion, one member said, “This reminds me of the “wayfaring stranger song.” I made a mental note to look up the song. (Click on the first line of the song below to hear Johnny Cash’s soulful version.) When I did, I was stunned. My experience as a “stranger” in this world might be a bit deeper than others, but I was reminded that we are all roaming strangers on a journey through life, looking for the promised land.
A traveler through this world of woe
But there’s no sickness, toil nor danger
In that fair land to which I go
I’m going there to see my father
I’m going there no more to roam
I am just going over Jordan
I am just going over home
This song is the story of each of God’s children struggling to find our way in a foreign environment (famously labeled “enemy territory” by C.S. Lewis). Our world is very different from the Garden of Eden where we were intended to live in harmony with God, our fellow humans, our environment, and even within our own souls. Of course, we feel like strangers!
The song goes on to explain that this world will be difficult but the promise of a new Garden of Eden makes “wayfaring” tolerable and even fulfilling.
I know dark clouds will gather round me
I know my way is rough and steep
But beauteous fields lie just before me
Where God’s redeemed their vigils keep
I’m going home to see my mother
She said she’d meet me when I come
I’m only going over Jordan
I’m only going over home
I’m just a going over home
As we “wonder as we wander out under the sky,” the reality of the birth and life of Jesus, God’s answer to our pain, gives us hope, fills us with love, and prompts the gift of our- selves to others.