The experience is terrifying. You walk out of the store, down the aisle of parked cars, go right to the place where you parked, and find no car. Almost immediately, panic ensues. “Where did it go? What happened to my vehicle?” The imagination takes over. “Somebody has stolen my car! Who in the world would do such a thing?” Fear seeps in. “What am I going to do? How am I going to get home? Who do I call? Will my insurance cover this?” All of this races through your mind in an instant, only to find that you walked out of the wrong door and your car is two rows over. Don’t worry, we’ve all done it.
What happens, though, when it isn’t just your car and you aren’t just a couple of rows away? What happens when it feels like your whole world has been turned upside down? When your neighborhood changes in a blink of an eye? When your town doesn’t feel like your town anymore? When your country doesn’t feel like your country anymore? What happens when you feel like a stranger in a strange land? What happens when home doesn’t feel like home any longer?
I’ve heard numerous folks express just such a sentiment in recent weeks and months. For Christians, this makes sense – at least to some degree. The writer of 1 Peter addresses a group of believers, saying, “You are aliens and strangers in this world.” The Greek word used here might literally be translated as “resident aliens.” Confident that our ultimate home is a heavenly one, Christians walk through this world as pilgrims in a foreign land. We know that our citizenship is ultimately a heavenly one. Yet, here we are.
The ultimate question, then, is what do we do about it? How do we live as pilgrims in a foreign land? How do we go about our daily lives as “resident aliens” in this world? It seems to me that there are a few different options as to how one might respond to such a crisis of faith and ethics.
The first option is to retreat. Many find that the best way to deal with a seemingly hostile culture is to not deal with it. Therefore, we could pull away. We could separate ourselves. Much like the early monastic movement in fourth century Africa, we could reject the culture and live as hermits.
A second option might be to hunker down and wait it out. The world always changing – it’s one of the few constants on which we can depend. Therefore, we could gather in our “holy huddles” with people that look like us and think like us and believe like us. We could close ourselves off in the safety of our sanctuaries and pray for the pendulum to swing back the other way – for society to see the “dead end” nature of its current course and come back to the way of God.
A third option might be to stand up and speak out in critical protest. We could stand on the street corner and beat our Bibles, lamenting the ways that people have exchanged the holiness of God for idols made by human hands. We could take to social media and point out all the world’s wrongs and wag our fingers in society’s collective face.
We could always go the route of assimilation. As the old saying goes: “When in Rome, do as the Romans.” We could blend in and adopt the ways of the larger culture around us, becoming virtually indistinguishable from everyone else. At least, this way, we wouldn’t be rocking the boat.
None of these, however, feel quite right for the disciple of Jesus. Maybe we need to take a lesson from the book of Jeremiah. Writing to the Israelite people in exile, he encouraged them: “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” (Jeremiah 29:7).
Jeremiah wasn’t advocating that the Israelites become Babylonians. He wasn’t suggesting that they reject their neighbors and surroundings. He wasn’t calling for God’s judgement on the Babylonians or criticizing their pagan ways. Instead, he was saying to the people of God: “Live in such a way that your presence is a sweet aroma to the people around you. Be salt and light in the world. Do everything in your power to improve the community into which God has planted you. Model a different way of life – a life of love, forgiveness, hope, and joy.”
In a time when our whole world seems to have lost its moorings, maybe we need to hear Jeremiah’s words. Maybe our response should be to get local, get relational, and get busy. Maybe we could invest in our neighbors, our schools, our public servants, and our city. Maybe we could educate ourselves and get involved in local issues. Maybe we could volunteer at a local outreach ministry, hospital, or community event. Maybe we could try to shop local, go to sporting events, attend concerts, or serve on a board. Most of all, maybe we could all commit to pray for our city daily and seek its welfare in all things.
Everybody can’t do everything, but we can all do something. After all, until God says otherwise, this is our home.
Rev. Steven Norris