It’s August. My house doesn’t have air conditioning, and I don’t need it a bit. If God is looking for a climate to set heaven to, I’m sure he’s taken a hard look at that stretch of the 101 freeway that runs from San Francisco to San Jose.
But more than the climate there’s the palm trees, mountains and ingenuity. There’s an intellectual energy, a creative force that permeates the place. Driving down the street taking it all in it’s easy to think, “Mama I’ve made it”.
A recent CBS News report agrees. In a survey ranking the top ten most desirable places to live in the United States, San Jose ranked tenth and San Francisco 9th- the two bookends to the 101 corridor. Living along this stretch it’s easy to think we’re in heaven.
But we’re not. Peter’s words in his first letter serve as great reminders to we American Christians, especially to those of us living in pockets of the country that have made top ten lists: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion…” (I Peter 1:1a). Peter calls us exiles.
The Greek word for “exile” has an oxymoronic feel to it- it literally means a close stranger. It’s the Old Testament equivalent of sojourner; today we’d use the word immigrant. It’s someone from one country, who lives in another, yet it’s obvious they’re not from here. That’s the idea of an exile. Implicit in the word is the notion that this world is not quite home for us. We’re from another place.
This is a good word for us. We’re not from here. As Paul would say to the Philippians, “Our citizenship is in heaven” (3:20). We are journeying onward towards another city, as the writer of Hebrews would say (13:14).
Don’t misunderstand me, nor the writers of Scripture: To be an exile does not equal being uncaring towards people or the environment. God told Israel during the Babylonian exile to build houses, dwell in them and seek the welfare of their city (Jeremiah 29). Christians should fight cancer, engage in the political process and, yes, even pay careful attention to recycle (A point I’ve been made especially aware of living in Northern California).
But to be an exile also means to not get too enamored with this world. Exiles should have a soul level dissonance keeping them from exhaling to themselves, “Mama, I made it”. Exiles intuitively know this life is not all there is.
The more I think about it, there are several things we do to keep our focus on our real home. These practices remind us of our exile-ness (to make up a word):
Constant communication with our true home. Exiles pray. The act of deep, abiding, consistent prayer is one of the best ways to keep an exiles perspective.
Different. Not much longer after calling his audience exiles, Peter would call them to holiness. To be holy means to be different. Exiles are different. In the natural they talk different, have different customs and practices. They are a peculiar people.
UCLA’s great coach, John Wooden, was an exile. Born and raised in the midwest, he was the poster child for conservative, midwestern values, and these values caused him to stick out once he uprooted and moved to Los Angeles. The only “profanity” he was ever heard to say was, “Goodness gracious sakes alive”. When his duties required him to go to cocktail parties, he would raise more than a few eyebrows as he nursed his Ginger Ale, refusing to drink. And coaching in some of the most combustible times like the sixties and early seventies, his conservative roots led him to be pegged “old fashioned,” and out of style. Wooden lived in Los Angeles, but it was clear he wasn’t from Los Angeles. When it was all said and done he accomplished historic amounts of success, and had people dying to learn from him.
To be an exile is not to be a loser, nor is it an eccentric form of people repellent. Wooden teaches us this. While not at home we can be winsome, and even successful by the worlds standards without becoming enamored with it. This is a good word for me during times like August when words like “hot" or “humid" carry no meaning, and air conditioning is irrelevant. I’m just passing through, on my way to my true home. I hope along the way I raise a few eyebrows myself, and point people to God.