a stranger in a strange land no more: Romans 4

Read Romans 4.   In WAVE, Sonali Deraniyagala writes of losing her two sons, husband and parents to the tsunami in Sri Lanka because she chose that day to vacation by the sea: “I can only recover myself when I keep them near.  If I distance myself from them, and their absence, I am fractured.  I am left feeling I’ve blundered into a stranger’s life.”   As usual with extreme situations, Deraniyagala has tapped into a universal truth.  We all feel at times like we’ve blundered into a stranger’s life.  Even though for most of us that fractured feeling remains exiled to the shadowlands of our lives, we can feel its presence.  It can haunt us, especially when we feel it pressing close.  Sometimes, the fractured feeling springs out of the hinterlands and confronts us head on.  It stands in the middle of our roads and refuses to get out of our way.  Because there are times when we all feel like a stranger to our own lives.  When that happens we remember almost with homesickness what it felt like to belong to our lives.  Why?  What’s going on?  And how do we fix it?  How do we feel at home in our lives no matter what the circumstances?

The first and most likely cause of feeling “disassociated” from our lives is the one Deraniyagala writes of: grief.  When tragedy strikes, an automatic coping mechanism is denial.  When something too awful to contemplate happens, we just don’t contemplate it.  We shut off the valve.  We are, therefore, in a very real sense not at “home” in the reality of our lives in that moment.  Sometimes real life is just too difficult to inhabit.  It’s a healthy short term coping mechanism, in the same way that when you first break a limb you have to immobilize it.  It would be silly to wear a sling if our arms were fine.  It would be silly NOT to wear a sling when we break our arms.  It’s part of the way we heal.  We bind the broken part of us up; we stop it from moving; we can’t, don’t and shouldn’t use it the way we normally do.

So if grief is the cause of our feeling like a “stranger” to our lives, the first solution is to normalize our feeling of disassociation.  We can remind ourselves that we are in denial.  We can tell ourselves that the sad thing that has happened will automatically make us feel “strange”, as well as sad, because we are going to have to process it in little pieces.  Our brains will have to “chunk” the information.  Bit by bit, the truth will begin to “sink” in.  At least we hope so.  Because, of course, denial is never meant to be a long term solution, only a short term one.

Eventually, we have to face the truth.  We all heal at different paces.  We are never to judge any one else’s healing process.  But when looking at our own grief, there comes a time to ask ourselves: am I being courageous in the face of this tragedy?  How can I integrate the grief with the rest of my life?  How do I face the reality of who I am in the light of my changed circumstances?  How do I accept this grief so that I can move on?  How do I avoid my desire to Miss Havisham this tragedy?

I wouldn’t presume to answer that question for someone who has lost a child.  But I can say that any divorcee with children knows the disorienting feeling of living two seemingly compartmentalized lives.   We’re a swinging single one minute and a harried parent the next.  If our children are teenagers, it can feel even more fractured.  One minute we’re lecturing our child on the dangers of friending strangers on social media, and the next minute some mustachioed stranger is sidling up to us in a darkened bar and asking if we come here often.  We’re tempted to respond: “Buddy, I don’t even know who I AM so I how do you expect me to answer the question whether I come here often… because I MIGHT have been here before, and I may have even gone out with YOU before –  you look oddly familiar – or is it just that you look ODD –  but the thing is, it wasn’t really ME that came in here because I’m a MIDDLE AGED MOM and we MOM’S don’t DATE!!!”

As you can imagine, that’s not the kind of response recommended by the dating books.  But it’s the one we’re sometimes tempted to give.  The dating divorcee dilemma is just one instance of another larger cause of feeling like a stranger to our own lives: we get that “strange” feeling when our lives don’t look like what we thought they should look like.  This can be just a different face of grief.  We grieve the loss of our dreams.  We impose oughts and shoulds on our lives, and when the two don’t match up we feel strangered.

But dreams were never meant to be oppressive.  If we wanted four children, should we really be sad we “only” have one? Think about it.  We can never really fully know another human being.  They will always surprise us.  So viewed that way, one child offers us infinity.  Or if we always wanted a spouse, should we feel like a stranger to a life where we get to go out and meeting interesting people every singel day?  Similarly, if we pictured ourselves as being married forever to the same person and growing old together, we will disassociate from a widowed or divorced life.  But we can we reframe that, too.  We can instead open ourselves to the chance that we might meet someone even more suited to us in middle age than the person we met in our twenties.  Or we can open ourselves to the idea that we can explore new worlds, both near and far, in a way closed to us when we were committed to caring for just one person.  And as for the compartmentalized feeling that arises from dating strangers one minute and then lounging comfortably with our children the next, we can start to see our lives as mosaics.  Or as an editor friend of mine put it last night, we can start to see ourselves as walking around in different “rooms” in the homes of our lives.  For some of us, our homes seem to include not just threadbare sofas in t.v. rooms but also exotic new landscapes.

In other words, when we let go of the “shoulds” of our lives, we open ourselves up to the “what ifs.”  It’s a lovelier way to live, and ultimately more satisfying.

But on a deeper more existential level, what’s going on under all this disassociation?  Why do we even get this “stranger in a strange land” feeling?  Why should denial of reality be a coping mechamism?  What is it about this”I don’t belong in this life” feeling that even emulates “coping”?  What I’m asking is:  why should it HELP to feel like we’re not at home in our lives?

Perhaps the issue is that on a very deep level none of us is really at home in our lives.  The title of Robert Heinlein’s famous science fiction classic, after all, comes not from Heinlein’s imagination but from the mouth of God.  It’s a phrase from the Bible.  Moses described himself as a “stranger in a strange land” because he lived in exile from his childhood home of Egypt; Moses had to flee because he murdered one of Pharaoh’s abusive guards in a fit of rage.  Exodus 2:22.  Similarly, when Abraham obeyed God’s call to go to a land God would show him, Paul writes that Abraham lived there as a “stranger in a strange land.”  Hebrews 11:9.  Those two examples illustrate two sides of why we feel like a stranger from ourselves on this earth, both stemming from the imperfect nature of this world.

First, we feel like a stranger to our lives because we sin.  We like to see ourselves as perfect, so when we live outside that paradigm, we tend to go into denial.  We think it’s not really “us” that could act or think like that.  On one level, we’re right.  It isn’t our best self.  It’s not the self who was created in God’s image that could lie, cheat, steal, commit adultery, gossip, be jealous, covet something that belongs to someone else or be selfish.  But the fact is, it IS us.  To be fully at home in our lives we need a way to own our sinful side.  The Bible describes us as beings made of heart, soul, mind and body.  To be at home in our lives is to integrate those selves.  It means to integrate the fact that we have a “human” side – no matter where we locate it physically – that is less than all we want.

We can’t make our sinful side go away, no matter how hard we try.  Nor do we want to just blandly “accept” it with a big “who cares?”  Because we do care.  Instead, the only way to live at peace with our sin is literally just that: to make peace with it.  In other words, to forgive.  A refusal to accept the concept of forgiveness is deadly.  I’ve seen it.  If we can’t accept forgiveness – our own, other people’s and God’s – then we will never be able to even acknowledge our sinful self.  We will always be a stranger to ourselves.   We will always disassociate, always dissemble, always live in fear that our real selves will overtake us like a monster we’d rather keep hidden in the attic. We will always viciously attack anyone who dares criticize us.  But if we can swallow our pride – no matter how bitter it tastes – we can humble ourselves to see the truth.  We are fallen people who desperately need the forgiveness of others.  We are imperfect people who desperately need our Creator to forgive us.  We are sinful humans who need to forgive ourselves.

This kind of forgiveness is freely available to us, as this chapter of Romans so beautifully declares..  That’s why David writes of the “happiness” of those “who are declared righteous without working for it: ‘Oh, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven.'”  Romans 4:5-8.  It is the joy of the one who expects to be exiled, who is instead welcomed home with open arms.  It’s as if we think we’re about to walk into a prison cell and instead are ushered through a gate into green pastures.  God promises us we can live at home with Him by “faith” alone.  It is “given as a free gift.”  Romans 4:16.  Jesus “was handed over to die because of our sins, and he was raised to life to make us right with God.”  Romans 4:25.  We are seen as “right” with God no matter how “wrong” we act.  This is free for us because God Himself paid the price.  God left His home and lived as a stranger in our world, so that we can be welcomed by Him as IF we were perfect.  Accepting that miraculous gift of forgiveness makes us so grateful we become people who can offer to others the same kind of forgiveness.  When we receive mercy, we become merciful.  We forgive others.  We forgive ourselves.  We receive.

It’s hard to live in a world of grace.  I know it should be easy.  It’s free, after all.  But somehow it’s so hard.  For me, personally, it takes daily reminders.  “Oh, right.  I’m imperfect.  Oh, I forgot.  God forgives me.  Oh, shoot.  That means He wants me to be merciful to others.  Okay, okay, fine.  It I REALLY have to…. ”  And then we cross the Rubicon all over again and find ourselves on the other side of our self-righteous stuck-up pride, and we think: WHAT WAS I EVEN THINKING BEFORE???  We suddenly feel how lovely it is to live in a land of mercy.  It IS lovely.  Until…. we forget where the best home is, and we go back to our little lonely worlds of self-righteousness and pride, and the process starts all over again.

On top of resolving the homesickness occasioned by our sin, there’s a second step to feeling at home in our lives; it’s the one hinted at by the Abraham story above.  It’s the idea that even as sinners forgiven by God’s grace, we will still only feel at “home” in this earth to the extent that we can trust God.  Because God calls us to feel at home even HERE, in this broken imperfect world.  We resist that call.  We don’t think we should feel at home here.  We want to be at home in palaces.  We “deny” that we could be at home even in grief.  We want to live in our dream worlds.

Instead, God calls us to feel at home even in broken infrastructures, broken relationships and our own broken hearts.  The only way to do that is if we like Abraham can accept God’s promises based on faith alone.  Faith enables us to feel at “home” even in a strange world.  We can say to our griefs: “you are strange.  You don’t belong to me.  And yet I will own you because my God says that one day, He will wipe away every tear from my eyes.  My God promises that He will bring good out of bad.  My God says He will redeem every broken thing, even me.”  This is the kind of faith that enabled Abraham to believe God would make him the father of many nations even though Sarah had already gone through menopause.  For when we open our hearts to miracles, miracles happen.

Paradoxically, the moment we accept that we are strangers in a strange land – because of our sin, the sin of others, and the griefs occasioned by living in a fallen world where waves can rise up out of nowhere and engulf us – we do become at home here.  We become “homed” not by a bitter or fatalistic reframing, but by believing in the love of a God who promises to redeem us.  We become at home in unfamiliar landscapes because we know God is with us always.  We become at home in the odd places God calls us to go, because we live by faith not sight.  We embrace the strangeness of this world by believing that God will make even the strangest things melt into the most familiar and yet elusive thing of all: love.

But what happens when we fail?  What happens when we know all this, we may even believe it, and yet we still feel fractured?  That’s when all we can do is offer our hearts up to God and ask Him to help us.  And right then, no matter where we are, what we’ve done, or how many people despise us, a door opens in front of us.  If we walk through it, we’ll find a table set, a fire burning, and that sense of belonging we’ve always sensed existed but could never find on our own.  That’s because this door is a person.  The reason God can ask us to feel at home in even a broken world, is because the door itself was broken.  When Jesus said “I am the door,” He meant that His body would swing on nails like hinges, to usher us to the land of unbroken promises.  Love is strange.  It doesn’t look the way we thought it should.  It can look like something small, unattractive and broken.  And right there, when things look the strangest, is when Love springs out to greet us in all its unexpected, strange, beautiful, familiar, undeserved glory.

posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day on March 11, 2013

One thought on “a stranger in a strange land no more: Romans 4

  1. Caroline, this is one of your best; so heartening, comforting and lovingly-challenging, all at once. You are so down to earth, humble, witty, and visionary at the same time. As well as being grounded in the Scriptures, and able to draw us further into thinking about these important truths. Thank you for all you write; and keep writing!
    xxx, DRR

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