The old gospel song “There’s a Land Beyond the River” speaks longingly of a life beyond the present one. In so doing, it taps into and gives voice to a soul wish that is pretty close to universal. Given the travail demanded as the price for a ticket to travel through this present world, who can blame the dog-tired pilgrim for hoping for a better place, ‘in that far off sweet forever, just beyond the shining river?’


The Israelites in the biblical story, however, were less concerned about the hereafter. Exhausted, both from their Egyptian ordeal and from the rough road of desert emancipation and escape, they longed for a “promised land” in this very world where all that was wrong would be made right and all that was bad would be transformed into good.


That land turned out to be somewhat less than the idyllic utopia that they imagined, and it summoned them to change far more than just location in order to receive its benefits. On the other hand, it also was to be found literally “beyond the river” Jordan.


So I am reflecting on these treasured words not in some super-spiritual, otherworldly sense but in their most practical and pragmatic meaning as I have experienced them in my own life. I am recalling the profoundly challenging vision and also the terrifying reality that is caught up in this affirmation that there exists a “land beyond the river.”


It is easy to build my little world around “my little world.” In my self-centered fashion, I can slip unconsciously into the notion that all that truly exists and all that actually “is” reside within the confines of “my place” on “this side of the river” if you please.


But, the current H1N1 virus scare that still threatens to become a pandemic has telegraphed its message to many U.S. citizens that there’s a land beyond the Rio Grande River. As the ancients in hilly Buda and those on the flat terrain of Pest in Hungary felt differentiated by the Danube River between them, sometimes you and I live as though water were a wall. Often, people ask my wife, Janice, and me what the people are like “overseas” as if they were fundamentally different “across the pond.”


Please do not misunderstand. I would never deny the powerful reality of historical and cultural differences. As an expat American living in Athens, Greece, I live with them every day. But sometimes I just need to shout out loud, to myself as much as to anyone else, that “there’s a land beyond the river.”


It is populated by those who are in so many essential ways very much like the people on “this side of the river.” Universal is their need for affirmation, their desire for security and their fear of the unknown. Identical to ours is their hope for wholeness, their striving for freedom and their aversion to risk. Catholic is their value in God’s sight, their beauty, their worth. Why must you and I consistently pretend that this is not true?


Everybody, sing with me now: “There’s a Land Beyond the River!”


Bob Newell is ministry coordinator in Athens, Greece, for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. This column appeared previously on his blog.

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