aliens and strangers
Not long after moving to 43rd and Prospect, in the middle of Kansas City’s urban core, I realized something. It was something I felt immediately but couldn’t quite put into words. It came from the strange looks we received from our new neighbors. It came from the subtle or not so subtle questions of many friends and family members. It was a smell in the air. It was a tingle in my skin. You don’t belong here.
Some might say this fact should have been obvious. We were, after all, a group of white kids moving into a neighborhood that is 98% black; college-educated folk from one side of town crossing the borderline of the city into the underserved and high-crime area where the schools have lost their accreditation; settling in along the streets I had only known from the news, the ones I had been told to avoid.
So why didn’t we realize right away that we didn’t belong? Because God told us to go there.
The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.”
Marcus Borg says there are three major narrative themes in the Bible: 1) The Exodus; 2) The Exile; and 3) Sin and Salvation. The third theme is the one major and overarching story of the whole Bible, as well as everything since. But the other two themes are also important storylines in the Bible and are continually brought up throughout all of Scripture. In fact, Borg says that often we focus so much on the third theme that we fail to learn valuable lessons from the first two. It’s easy to think that’s all part of the old story, and everything changed with Jesus. But then why are we are still living out those stories today?
All these people 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…they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one.
-Hebrews 11:13, 16
The exile story in the Bible tells us that the feelings of estrangement, the creeping loneliness, the tingle in your bones are actually pretty normal. Sure, our society does its best to try to make you feel comfortable in cozy houses, to sell you on the next gadget, to distract you with endless programmed entertainment, sports, and games, all offering kinship or intimacy or happiness in one form or another. And we run from one to the next trying to find some sense of contentment, rather than face our inner feelings of estrangement. Kids do it too.
The exile narrative is one we must remember, especially when working with youth. They so often feel their estrangement acutely. You could chalk that up to adolescence, or you might argue that they just haven’t become comfortable with the order of the way things are around us. A bit of both most likely. And we would do well not to forget the latter.
If we’re honest, we can probably still sense some of these feelings within ourselves as well—they aren’t just a product of adolescence. If we look back over the years, we see that much of our energy has gone into the search to belong, the struggle to be accepted, and the desire to feel safe and comfortable.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek community, belonging, and acceptance. In fact, it is almost always in the context of community that we are finally able to face our fears and inner demons. We can and should come together with folks who are on this journey with us. But we must realize that we actually don’t belong here. We must not become too comfortable. We must remember that we are pilgrims in exile; our task is not to settle in and think we can find all our contentment here.
The truth that is constantly subverted in a multitude of ways is simple: This is not your home.
“In that day,” declares the Lord, “I will gather the lame; I will assemble the exiles and those I have brought to grief. I will make the lame my remnant, those driven away a strong nation.”
God is the one who sends the Israelites from their promised land and into exile. God is also the one who leads them home again years later. Some do not get to see the promise realized, just as Moses never got to see the promised land, or how all the disciples died in persecution or exile.
There is a common thread here: We are not in control. God is the one watching over his children in a foreign land. God is the one who will call the remnant home and gather them together. This is not just about the future resurrection. We live in the now and not-yet kingdom. There is a future homecoming we hope for, and we are called to faithful service and love here and now.
It is in this reality that we find our freedom in exile. We no longer have to invest our energy trying to win by the rules of our society. We no longer have to try to create the perfect home, the perfect church, the perfect community. We don’t have to convince kids that having God in their lives will solve all their problems and make everything perfect. We don’t have to pretend we are perfect.
I am no more a stranger in the urban core than any of my neighbors, despite their funny looks, because that is where God has called me. Our place in this world is only found through God’s leading, but our true home is something for which we still wait. We are aliens and strangers. So take those funny looks in stride—they just might mean you’re closer to home than you think.