Strangers in a strange land
In May 1998, I returned to the United States after serving as a missionary for two-and-a-half years in Taiwan. I distinctly remember chatting in Mandarin with the flight attendant during the 13-hour flight. It was my last sense of ease for a long time. Back on U.S. soil, I struggled to fit in. I wasn’t accustomed to hearing English all the time and I just felt out of rhythm with the rest of the country.
Reverse culture shock happens to many who spend long periods of time away from home. I read about one returning missionary family that was dismayed at how crass and commercialized the celebration of Christ’s birth had become. Undaunted, they decided to approach Christmas as they had on the mission field: as a religious minority in a hostile culture. Christmas had always been memorable overseas, and now it would continue to be so at home.
Their story came to mind this weekend as I dealt with my own dismay at the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that so-called same-sex marriage is required by the Constitution. Many had warned that this ruling was coming, but nothing really prepared me for it. Much as I did seventeen years ago, I suddenly felt as if I didn’t belong here.
In one of my favorite songs, God Moves on the City, Paul Curreri tries to capture the enormous sense of loss after 9/11, when “the breath of every man and bird is sucked right in.”
Did you gasp when you heard about the ruling? Or, was it afterward, when you saw open displays of intense hatred toward Christians? The sexual revolutionaries seem to be more nasty and brutish than usual, as if all of the worst Internet trolls emerged into daylight and donned rainbow flags at the same time. This is clearly a “send a message” kind of loathing and gloating. That’s why these lines in Curreri’s song make so much sense right now:
“I crossed the field, went home, but my key don’t fit. [I] look at my home and my home looks different.”
Thankfully, there is another way of understanding this “lost” feeling. In his first epistle, Peter calls Christ-followers God’s chosen and precious “living stones” who are being built into a spiritual house. He continues:
“Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”
Likewise, the writer of Hebrews calls us “strangers and exiles on the earth.” Jesus himself shared that we would be reviled and hated in this world, because the world mocked and hated him. We are to be in this world but not of it. For faithful believers, Friday’s Court ruling was a painful reminder of how little we have in common with many in our culture.
Still, some might be asking God why He allowed this to happen. It’s an honest and natural question. A talk I heard last week might shed some light on what God may be doing in the midst of this social collapse.
In Defeating Satan’s Deadly Weapon Against Men, Jeff Cavins talks about how to resist sexual temptations, but midway through his talk, he uses the story of Exodus to illuminate a point. (Note: I am neither an Old Testament scholar nor an expert on Egyptian culture and religion. So I have to take his word on these things.)
Cavins explained that the Egyptians worshiped deities in the form of certain animals and that to kill one was punishable by death. One such animal, Cavins claims, was the sheep. Killing a lamb at the Passover, eating it, and spreading its blood on the doorways was a grave offense to the Egyptians. To do such a thing would require them to leave quickly or face death. Pigs on the other hand were okay to eat. By forbidding the eating of pork, God was clearly severing the ties the Israelites had with Egypt. But why make this so extreme?
After 400 years of mingling with the Egyptians, Cavins argues, the Israelites had become addicted to Egypt. They worshiped Egyptian gods and followed Egyptian practices. To create a people set apart from the world, God first had to break the Israelites of their addictions. He did so dramatically and completely; they could never go back.
Could God be doing something similar with the Church in America? For many years, I’ve had the sense that the Holy Spirit has been sifting the Church. During this time, some have doubled down on God while others have joined the culture’s sexual “freedom” fighters. Are American Christians too intermingled with a godless culture to effectively serve the Gospel? Are we addicted? Is this grief we feel for the pain we are bringing upon ourselves and our children or simply because our culture has turned on us?
Addictions die hard. The Israelites mumbled and grumbled for years after their miraculous delivery by God’s hand. “Back in Egypt we had meat pots and our fill of bread.” They couldn’t help looking in the rear-view mirror even as God was leading them to an entirely new life in the Promised Land. It may be that God is calling us again to set ourselves apart for His purposes and glory.
For most of our lives, Christians and the larger culture have lived in relative peace, but we should never confuse this peace with our true home, which is in Jesus Christ alone. Some 2,000 years ago, Jesus already spoke to the challenges of today:
“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
I suspect that this includes the severing of the male-female requirement of marriage. As many Christian leaders have already said, no human court can change what marriage is, but it can certainly make life more difficult for those of us that believe in it.
It will take time to process all that’s happened in the past week. Grief must run its course. Addictions die hard. But, the Lord also bids us be ready for the coming journey. Put on your travel sandals, cook with haste, be vigilant in prayer. We are pilgrims and the journey continues. We may not know where we’re headed, but we do know Who is leading us. And that is enough.