Yesterday, I returned from my third trip overseas to train pastors with Training Leaders International. This latest trip was to Mongolia where we served pastors and church leaders there by teaching the story of the Bible. Prior to this trip, I have taught hermeneutics (Bible interpretation) in Romania and preaching and sermon prep in Uganda. Each trip has been unique, but there has been at least one thing that has been common to each one, namely, I was a foreigner.
Prior to partnering with TLI, I did not have hardly any international experience to speak of. I had always resided in my homeland where I was raised. I was in the country of which I was a citizen. Being a foreigner is an interesting thing to experience and contemplate. As I have thought about this, it has struck me how the divinely inspired analogy of being a foreigner (sojourner and stranger) perfectly captures the tension of Christians living in this world. Here are a few thoughts.
1) We don't speak the language
In Mongolia and Romania, there were very few people who spoke English. Most spoke their native language, which I did not. When I listened to them talk, it was unfamiliar and I didn't understand it. It is uncomfortable and makes one long for conversation and interaction in one's native tongue. When we are at home, we understand the language. We speak it fluently. When we are foreigners, we don't speak it fluently and often times, cannot understand it at all. It is strange and unfamiliar. Even in Uganda, where most spoke English, their language was different. They spoke it differently and used different words and syntax.
2) We need an interpreter
To be able to understand others in a foreign land, we have to have an interpreter. Someone has to help us understand what others are saying and help them understand what we are saying. There has to be a bridge between the two worlds. Without an interpreter we are left wondering that the person said, but more than that, an interpreter helps us understand why people of another culture do what they do. In short, the interpreter is essential to us understanding them, their actions, and their culture.
3) Their customs and values are different
Mongolian culture is very different than ours. They value different things than us. It is strange to be a foreigner because the culture is so different. For example, I learned that when one hands something to someone else in Mongolia, they do so with both hands and the proper way to receive something is with two hands or with your right hand and your left hand under your elbow. For a foreigner, that seems strange. Different. Perhaps this is most evident in driving customs. Driving in a foreign land is very different from our own. They have different rules. Different understanding of how driving works there. Different courtesies on the road.
4) It's not home
While my stay at all of these places I have been was comfortable and enjoyable, it was not home. I was acutely aware that I didn't belong there. All of the things I mentioned above, along with others, were a daily reminder that this was not my home. I was there temporarily and didn't belong there. Being a foreigner makes one long for home because home is where you belong.
5) You stand out
When we were in Romania, myself and two other Americans that traveled there with me went out into town. We didn't think that we dressed or walked in a unique way. Perhaps the most unique thing about us in our eyes was that we had beards. When our host pastor picked us up later that evening he greeted us by saying "It has been reported to me that there are three Americans walking around town. You have been seen". We stood out. There is an American swagger, posture, walk, manner that is unique to us. We just look and act differently. In Mongolia, we were taller than most (a first for me) and didn't have black hair or the same complexion. We spoke louder. In Uganda, not only was our complexion different, but we walked faster than almost everyone. Foreigners stand out.
Sojourners and Strangers
As I was thinking about these things, I was struck by how this should be true of us as Christians. We are foreigners in this world. Our citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20). We are not of this world (John 15:18-19). We are strangers on this earth (Heb 11:13-16). We are aliens and exiles (1 Pet 2:11). So what does that mean?
1) We don't speak the same language
Our speech should be different. Unique. Foreign to this world. In a place where people speak the language of this world, we speak the language of the gospel. We might not even understand what people are saying or why they are saying it and they might not understand what we are saying or why we are saying it, but we speak the language of our native land and they speak the language of theirs. We should be fluent in the language of the Word. Fluent in the language of the gospel. The language of our heavenly kingdom of which we are citizens should flow out of us in such a way that we feel like foreigners in this world. Being a foreigner means we speak our native tongue of our heavenly home.
2) We need an interpreter
We cannot understand this world without an interpreter. The Bible bridges the gap between the fallen world we reside in and the heavenly kingdom we belong to. It helps us understand the world rightly and is the key to the world understanding us. This world that has been tainted by sin seems strange and foreign to us. We don't understand why things are the way they are. I have spoken to many who cannot understand the moral decline of our country. The Bible interprets the world for us in our language. It shows us why things are the way they are and helps us communicate hope and the message of our King to those in this world. Being a foreigner means we rely upon God's revealed truth in the Bible to interpret the land we live in.
3) Their customs and values are different
If we look at Christians in the Bible, especially in the early church, we see something distinct and different from the world in which they live. The world values pride and Christians are to be humble. The world pursues money and Christians pursue generosity. The world seeks to exalt self and Christians seek to exalt Christ. The world is concerned about the things of this life and Christians are concerned with things beyond this life. The world worries about provision and possessions and Christians rest confidently in God as our provider. This shows itself in how we live. The Corinthian church seemed to let the world creep in. They assimilated to the world's customs and values. They weren't living as distinct from the world. Being a foreigner means we live differently because we value different things and have different customs.
4) It's not home
As Christians, we should not feel at home in this world. Instead we should long for our true home and live in a way that reflects that. We are here for a short time on a mission. One day, our time here will end and we will go home. Coming home from a foreign land is a sweet experience. When I walk through customs after getting off the plane in the US, the customs officer looks at my passport (proof of citizenship) and says "welcome home". That phrase is so comforting. I belong here. Things are familiar. I know this place... it is home. They I get picked up by my family and there are hugs and kisses and smiles. We spend time together and enjoy one another. I see friends and family who I have missed and it is a joyful reunion. I am convinced that is what it will be like when we eventually come home as Christians. We will hear "Well done good and faithful servant. Enter the joy of your master" which is simply "Good job! Welcome home!" We will realize then how foreign this world is to our true home. The challenge for us now is to live that way here and anticipate that return home. As foreigners, we are to live in a way that shows this world is not our home and we look forward to returning to our true home where we are safe and where we belong.
5) So stand out
Because of all of this, we should be ok with standing out. It shows who we really are and where we really belong. I know I stand out when I go abroad. There is nothing I can do about it. It's who I am. In the same way, we should be comfortable with standing out in this world because it's who we are. If this world isn't our home and we belong to a heavenly kingdom, if we have really been changed and have a home where we belong and reside somewhere that we don't belong, then we cannot help but stand out. Our lives, speech, attitudes should reflect the realities laid out above in such a way that people who are at home in this world notice us and see us as different... foreigners. In 1 Peter 3:15 we are told to always be ready to give a reason for the hope we have. Implicit in that statement is the assumption that we live in such a way that people notice we have hope beyond this world. Maybe the reason people don't ask that is we aren't living in a way that is all that different from the world. Maybe it's because they cannot see the hope we have because we are too worried about not standing out when we were made to stand out. Being a foreigner means that we stand out in a way that shows we have a hope that transcends this world and are ready to tell others about that hope.
So if you are a Christian, you are a foreigner in this world. Embrace that. Live that out. It's who you are. Don't be at home in this world or live in a way that reflects the lives of those who have no hope. Speak your native language. Interpret the world through the Bible. Be ok with having different customs and values. This world isn't you home so don't be at home here. Stand out.
Jon is husband to Carlee, Papa to Finleigh, Ainsley, and Olivia, a pastor at Arbor Drive Community Church in York, Ne, and co-host of The Pastor Discussions Podcast