Friday, July 14, 2017
Seeing From a Distance
Heb. 11:13 All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, 14 for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
The great chapter on faith brings inspiration, for there are those who have gone before who become mentors for all who will come later. The faithful died without seeing the end, or the completion of God’s plan. They saw from a distance and yet, they were inspired. They didn’t have to experience it all in the here and now, for they could live in faith. Recognizing that they belonged to God’s kingdom, they articulated that they were strangers, or foreigners on earth. Faith inspired them to see the homeland from a distance, and yet, not to give up hope.
Once they began the faith journey, they didn’t look back. Remaining attached to the things of this world would never have allowed their spirits to soar and become entirely connected and devoted to God. Faith drove them to leave earthly attachments and therefore God proudly loves and cares for these dear earthly children. A new city is being built and there these faithful will dwell as citizens in a new homeland.
My great-grandfather left the Volga region of Russia as a young man, traveling to the United States. He and his entire family made a decision that they had to leave behind the life which they had loved and move on to a new land. Their family had lived in the village of Messer for generations, having brought their German heritage with them during the time of Catherine the Great. The Russian-Germans, as they came to be known, had built a lovely life and culture in these colonies along the Volga river. For one hundred years they had lived as a protected people, but now the official contract with the government had come to an end and there were some who could see the handwriting on the wall. They had heard about life in America, and seeing from a distance, they chose to pack up what they could and make the arduous journey to a new land. Somehow they had faith to believe that life might just be a little better in a new homeland.
The extended family traveled by ship to the United States and then by train to Nebraska where the Russian-Germans congregated before setting off to varied locations in the new land. Somewhere in that journey my grandfather was born. A new baby, born in a new land, with a new citizenship. They desired a better country for themselves and their progeny. By faith they made a difficult journey, but one which would affect the lives of so many.
About twenty years ago I traveled to one of the German colonies along the Volga to meet up with some of the Russian-Germans who had not made the journey to the new land. They had chosen, for various reasons, to stay. The old Lutheran church in Messer (now Ust-Zolichka) stood in ruins, a silhouette against the beautiful blue sky. We went to the home of an elderly aunt of a friend, also a Russian-German, who was traveling with us. As if stepping back in time we bounced along on pot-hole ridden mud roads, passing by the ox drawn carts and gaggles of geese. The small ginger-bread houses of blue and green looked as if they hadn’t been touched in a hundred years. When we arrived at the home of the Auntie, we discovered the only modern convenience was electricity, a reward of one of Stalin’s five-year plans.
That day I learned something about longing for the old homeland for Auntie told us stories that made us tear up and cringe with fear. After many had left for the new land, those who had stayed behind began to suffer terribly. During the time of collectivization they lost their farms and their animals. The result was a terrible time of starvation. “Did you know that we ate grass like the animals?” we were asked. Not all survived the terrible famines, but if they did, they then faced the impact of the Great Patriotic War against the Fascists (we know it in the west as World War II). Stalin, fearing that these people with German roots would suddenly show loyalty for the homeland they had left nearly 150 years previous, decided he had to be proactive. In the night they gathered the men of Messer, took them to the edge of town and buried them all alive. Auntie told us of the horrible night as the women and children heard them screaming until finally everything became silent. Next the trains appeared and those who remained were put on cattle cars and shipped to Siberia or Central Asia. They had only returned to this home in the last five years.
Why did Frederick Schmidt have faith to believe that he could make it to a new world where the destiny of his entire family would change forever? I don’t know — but that day sitting in a small village home in Russia I realized that I was the recipient of a citizenship in the new homeland and I never had to suffer the way in which those who had remained behind had. But by the grace of God, this was my family’s story. But by the faith of someone who could see from a distance, it would have been my destiny.
We owe it to those who will come after us to have a vision of the new homeland. By faith we walk through this life in a way that will lead us to our citizenship in the kingdom of God. By faith we see now from a distance and we continue journeying in that direction. Our decisions today, as we live by faith, will take us, and generations to come, to the homeland which we now only see in the distance.
Lord, please help me to continue pressing on in the direction of a better country. Amen.