If you have lived around this part of East Texas for the past year or so, you have probably heard the story of the Mayflower Church. A Chinese church operating a Christian school in their homeland, the small congregation of just under 70 believers began facing persecution for practicing its faith by the Chinese government. In order to escape the crackdown, the entire congregation fled the country, first to South Korea, then, facing pressure to return to China and further oppression, to Thailand.
When it became apparent the church would next be forced out of Thailand, local Christians and churches in East Texas, who had learned of their plight, worked with a U.S.-based Christian ministry called Freedom Seekers International to begin putting pressure on the U.S. government to grant emergency visas for members of the Mayflower Church. This past spring, the entire Mayflower Church arrived in Tyler, rejoicing that they were at last free to worship and educate their children according to their faith.
There’s something about a story like this that touches the core of our being, that draws us in, and that connects us as Christians. It’s something deeper than a desire to root for the underdog, or mere empathy and compassion. It’s a bond rooted in an identity that all of us who are in Christ share, but we all too often forget: that we are all exiles.
Themes of exile appear throughout the Bible. After Moses leads God’s people out of captivity in Egypt, they wander in the desert for 40 years, a period of exile. When God gives Israel a homeland, His people are encouraged to never oppress or wrong a sojourner (a foreigner, one in exile), because that’s a critical part of their identity. Perhaps the most famous exile was the Babylonian Captivity, when God disciplined His people by the hand of King Nebuchadnezzar. The Babylonian king conquered Judah and took many of its inhabitants, most famously Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, with them. Since the fall of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70 until this last century, the Jews have been dispersed among the nations, a people of exile.
The New Testament is also filled with themes of exile, more metaphorical than literal. In I Peter, the apostle directs his letter to “God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces,” who are disaffected by a world that doesn’t share their values. The famous “hall of faith” passage of Hebrews 11 mentions those faithful who were “still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.” In Revelation 18, God’s people are commanded to come out of Babylon, from the captivity in which they have been held, a direct allusion to the fact that they are exiles.
If you’re a follower of Christ, and you feel as though this country, this culture, or this world doesn’t fit you, it’s because, if you’re doing this Christianity thing right, it doesn’t. You’re not a fit. You don’t belong. You are an exile. You are a citizen of another country, another people, living in a place that isn’t yours. That’s why nothing feels right. It shouldn’t.
Living as an exile means feeling and living out many things, including spiritual separation, repentance, and the longing for restoration. Spiritual separation, repentance and longing for restoration are blessings, because they lead us back home, where we do belong.
To live in exile brings with it feelings of separation. For a decade, I traveled to East Africa twice a year for mission work. I loved it, and I was grateful God allowed me to do it. No matter how many times I traveled, however, it was always disconcerting. When I could actually find plugs for my devices, they were always the “wrong” kind, and the area was subject to surges that could sometimes damage those tools I had come to rely upon. I had to take multiple toothbrushes, because I would invariably stick them under the faucet instead of using bottled water, and I would have to throw it away. It was strange to be the minority culture, to not always understand what was actually being said, to not get the jokes and the nuances and the meaning of language, to not clearly understand the values, or even understand why the values were the values. I always felt far away from home.
And, truthfully, that’s the way everyday living in the culture in which we currently reside should feel. As a new creation, you have been given a new heart and a new mind, and a broken, fallen world should seem foreign and “off” to you. We should feel grateful to be here, happy to serve, always willing and seeking what is good, and beautiful, and true, but we should never really feel we belong. C.S. Lewis famously said, “if I find in myself desires that nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”
In fact, if it this world feels too comfortable for us, if we don’t long for our true home at all, we may have accommodated ourself to the culture so much that we’re no longer unrecognizable from it. And, that’s not a good thing.
Which leads to repentance. The late Dallas Willard said, “The church as a redemptive community and living temple of the living God provides an environment within which God’s word can be present with such richness and power that the church can stand forth on the world scene as beyond all reasonable reproach. This is how the church is to fulfill its calling to be the light of the world—the haven and guide of all humanity on the earth.”
But, is it really fulfilling that calling, without reproach? I’ve been reading a book by Russell Moore called “Losing Our Religion” about the evangelical church in America. Moore observes that most of the older teens and twentysomethings who are leaving the church are not doing so because they don’t believe what the Bible says. They are leaving because they don’t believe the Church believes what it says. They see the inconsistencies between God’s Word and the people who profess it, and that lack of integrity drives them away.
Much of that failure of integrity rests in what they’ve seen: Christians trying so hard to hang onto cultural and socio-political power that we’ve made compromises completely inconsistent with the gospel we profess to believe: a gospel of purity and love, kindness and gentleness, humility and grace. I’ve been haunted by a quote I heard recently from German-Jewish historian Hannah Arendt: “those who choose the lesser of two evils must never forget that they have also chosen evil.” This thought compels me to repent for the compromises I’ve made in my own life out of fear, and a deeper resolve to live as an exile in this culture. Living with an inclination toward true repentance is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, both individually and corporately.
The older I become, the more I realize that everything that is or has ever been good in me comes from Jesus, and I want more and more of that, and Him, every day. I find myself longing more and more for the end of time, when God will make all things new, when we will no longer be exiles. Living as exiles means longing for that restoration.
Until then, God calls us to point toward others in the land of our sojourn toward that day of restoration. As God tells Jeremiah, “Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” God calls us to persuade our neighbors, citizens of this dying Kingdom of Man, to join us as exiles, free and hopeful of a better home.
Far from being a source of fear or perpetual sadness, living as an exile is a tremendous gift; indeed, it’s the ultimate freedom, for those of us living with one foot in this world and one in the next. I’m really encouraged by the fact that I can love my country, but my hope and future doesn’t depend on what happens to it. I don’t need to worry about being “canceled,” because, as an exile, I’m already an outcast in this culture. I don’t have to get really angry and hostile at other people, because nothing they do really controls me or impacts my destiny. The only tribe I belong to is no tribe at all; it’s a family- the people of Jesus. This means that I can actually make the choice to love others the way Jesus commands, and spend my time seeing to what extent I can make my little corner of the world and the people God has given me flourish, starting with my wife and kids and moving outward to this school and wherever God has given me to work, live, and play.
They say that people who are too heavenly-minded are no earthly good. I think, when they are truly heavenly-minded, living as exiles, they’re the only ones who are.