Sitting here in Dubai airport on the way home from Durban to Los Angeles, I realize this is the first time I've been alone in 2 weeks. I've left Rynelle in South Africa to spend some quality time with her Mom for a few more days as I fly home to our kiddos and church family. It's been a beautiful whirlwind traveling with Brett and Kira McCracken, but I'm savoring a moment of solitude. Between us, we spoke 20 times in 8 days in Cape Town and Johannesburg in various forums. The churches in our Advance family received us with such warmth and enthusiasm, it was a joy to invest in them. A few days in Durban catching up with family and friends crowned a rich trip and now I'm reflecting on what I come back with.
Yesterday, on the day I said goodbye to my family, my CBR reading was the often-quoted Jeremiah 29:11, "For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans for a hope and for a future." God the Father conspires for the good of His people. His plans are not always apparent to us, but He knows what they are and assures us that they are always and only good no matter how dark our days become. I unashamedly own this anchoring promise as I fly home for myself, my family and my church. You should too.
However, lest I become trigger happy with God's good promise, I notice that it comes with a context and a condition that means we should take careful aim. The context of the promise was to Israel in Babylonian exile. They would still be in exile for another 70 years, away from their temple, their king and their homeland. God is strong enough to send His people into exile and prosper them there. Those are not the plans I would have hatched to prosper a people, but then again, I am not God. The condition of the promise was that they were to "pray for and seek the peace and prosperity of their place of exile, for in that they too would prosper." This condition involved both enemy love and a break from living in limbo, stuck in their longing for their homeland. God's people were to be fully present in exile, building houses, planting vineyards, marrying and multiplying. They were to put down roots in order to thrive in exile. They were to treat their place of exile like a home away from home. These were God's good plans for His people in exile.
Every Christian is called to live this way in the world. This world is not our true homeland. Heaven is our true country and from it we await our true King. But we are called to practice permanence, seeking the peace and prosperity of the places we are sent even though we are not from here.
There are at least two more layers of meaning in this passage for me though.
The first is that longing for our homeland can be about another era rather than about another place. I hanker after a more certain, more settled time, when I knew how to navigate my way around better. In our cultural moment it feels as though we are learning to drive in a new country on the other side of the road. So much feels disorientating and there is a temptation to turn the car around and high tail it back towards the border and familiarity.
Many of us long for the days when Christians were in the moral majority, when this nation agreed upon a Biblical moral compass. Yet now we seem to be in the minority and the national compass points in another direction. This is highly regrettable, and I empathize with a longing for more familiar days. Could it be though, that God is calling His people to be a prophetic minority in exile, like Daniel in Babylon, rather than a moral majority? Can He not still bless us as a prophetic minority?
At a local level, some of us long for the familiar days of one church, one community, yet now we are one church in four communities. This too, can feel like exile. Could it be that God is strong enough to make us thrive here in our unfamiliar new normal? Could it be that he is warning us against nostalgia that sucks the life out of the present and hope out of the future?
The second layer is more personal for me. While America is my home, it is my adopted home. This means that it can feel exilic at times, even though my roots are gratefully dug down deep here. I have loved and learned so much from America - its proud patriotism, it's strategic influence, its constant innovation, its lavish generosity, its ability to show compassion for the weak, to dream big, to execute a plan, to stand for individual conviction. These values have shaped me deeply and profoundly.
But I've also been shaped by some values I was raised with in South Africa that seem at times to cut across the very fabric of what America most values. Hospitality. Loyalty. Encouragement. The ability to sacrifice individual dreams for a collective dream. The ability to be flexible with personal boundaries. The ability to disagree, yet stick together. I must qualify. These qualities are not absent from America. They simply tend not to be dominant in my experience. No human culture represents God's values completely. South Africa certainly has some major cultural blind spots. But while these values seem to resonate with God's heart and mine, they seem to cut across the grain of the place I call home. Perhaps some of them are the cohesive threads that America needs lest its individualism causes the fabric to unravel? I return intent on cultivating these values where I am planted, even if they seem exotic - not because they are South African values - but because they are Kingdom values.
All of us have those moments when some person or some place lets us know, "You're not from here, are you?" What do we do in those exile moments? We train our souls on Jesus, who left his homeland in heaven to take up residence as an exile here on earth. He was cut off from his eternal home to secure ours. We turn to Him for wisdom and courage to be at home in exile.