I have a wonderful French friend called Daniel whom I love. He lives life large with a capital “L”. He turns up in Australia with his lovely wife and children every couple of years for several months at a time. When here he does church with me, runs 25kms with me, drinks coffee, writes a novel and talks with just about anyone who cares to, and some who care not to! With his plain speaking, and his inability to be insulted (and his French assumption that you too are unable to be insulted) he drives the average Aussie mad!
In light of my Second Exile post about the turning of the culture against the Christian framework in the West, I asked him to write about what it meant to be an evangelical Christian living out his time in exile in the most avowedly secular country in the West. To be the sole Christian among 4000 students when at school. To be given the choice of only one church to attend, to have no youth group, no peer group of Christians.
Read it – you will see why I love him.
I’ve always liked Daniel. Who doesn’t? He was a handsome man, had no physical defect, showed aptitude for every kind of learning, was well informed, quick to understand and he taught language and literature—just like me… yes, I teach English literature and translation to French students. I am French with an English mother and a Hungarian father.
In some ways, I have been an exile all my life, and you know what, it has never bothered me. For all the talk of searching for one’s identity, I have never had a problem with my identity. I don’t recall when exactly I understood the meaning of the phrase ‘our citizenship is in heaven,’ but it has been a reality for me for a long time. Yes, I’m French. Yes, I’m arrogant and passionate. Yes, I hate political correctness and politeness that sometimes turns into dishonesty. Yes, I love a good conversation that lasts for hours at the dinner table. And yes, like most Americans, I believe I live in the greatest country in the world. But before I’m French, I’m a follower of Christ.
One thing I have in common with Daniel (apart from my gloomy good looks and my taste for literature) is that I have always been in the minority, I’ve always been a little different, and I’ve always liked being different. For all my faults and I have many (I’m selfish, impatient, overconfident, prone to anger… but as you’ve noticed not prone to false modesty), there is one thing I have done consistently ever since I was a six-year-old boy—like Daniel, I have always prayed to my God with a thankful heart. And I really think it has helped me in my exile.
Being the only Christian that I knew of in my school that boasted 4,000 pupils did not bother me—except for the fact that if I understood the Bible correctly, most of them, being unbelievers would be going to Hell. Being a Christian among pagans (yes, let’s use the big words) meant I had to rely on God and not on Christians, or Christian culture, and like fire it has purified my faith. Until the age of nineteen I was a solitary Christian, not because I didn’t like other Christians or was a loner, but because there weren’t any Christians my age around. No, Jesus was not my homeboy, but as cheesy as it sounds, he was my best friend. He was the one I turned to when I was in love with a girl that I knew I couldn’t kiss because she did not share my faith. He was the one I asked for comfort when I was injured and couldn’t play basketball. He was the one I asked for forgiveness (well I asked his Father to forgive me) when I sinned, when lust took over my brain, or when I chose not to love someone. And guess what? As opposed to most friends, as opposed to most Christians and most churches, he never disappointed me, he never failed me (have you heard this song ‘Jesus’ blood never failed me?’ It is moving and powerful and the craziest thing is that it is true).
Now I did go every Sunday to a small, very uncool, very conservative evangelical church—the kind you would probably run away from if you had the choice to go anywhere else. But there was nowhere else to go, there was no other church and for all its faults, its tendencies towards legalism, its small mindedness, its ‘us against the world’ mentality, it did teach me the true gospel, the Good News of—yes you’ve heard it a million times—Jesus Christ, the Son of God dying on the cross for your sins and raising from the dead to give us eternal hope of salvation. It also taught me one fundamental thing that most American, British and Australian Christians have rarely experienced, it taught me to live with and love people who had nothing in common with me apart from Christ. They were older than me, they were much more conservative, they did not like literature and the arts, they did not believe in dancing (not even naked in front of God and I don’t mean liturgical dancing), they did not think being a professional basketball player was a good idea for a Christian, they were mostly scared of ‘the world’, did not have any non Christian friends, sang out of tune, but boy did they love the Bible and were not ready to make compromises with the world. They were theologically sound and I must admit that perhaps it is better and safer to be a bit too conservative than the other way. And one more thing, though they did not understand me, they loved me, that I have never doubted. And I learnt to love them.
What it taught me from a young age is that you don’t go to a local church to get what you need, to get fed, to be entertained, to be encouraged, or to meet people who think like you or look like you; you go to a local church to praise God with people who are not like you (even if they smell like most French people do, sing badly songs that you’d rather not sing), and to hear the Bible preached (even if most sermons were not exactly like a Tim Keller sermon, you learnt to enjoy hearing the Bible read, and perhaps if you were lucky managed to get one interesting comment on the passage). Of course if along the way you can get fed and encouraged, Alleluia! Going to church in France in my childhood and teenage years was a bit like training for a marathon, it was painful, long and sometimes you wondered why on earth you were doing it, but to make it to the end of the race you just had to go through it and not give up at the slightest rough patch.
Now as opposed to Stephen McAlpine who asked me to share my experience as a long time exile and whose article ‘Stage Two Exile: Are you ready for it?’ I read with interest and much pleasure, I’ve never thought much about being an exile, I’ve never thought much either about the surrounding culture. I’ve always known I lived in a mostly atheist country whether it was stage I or stage II, I’m not sure, what I knew growing up in France is that I wanted to live for God, but that never meant feeling sorry for myself. It meant enjoying his creation and his creatures (it also meant not enjoying them too much when they were too pretty). It meant trying to obey his commands, and Jesus said that the entire law was contained in the two following commands: ‘Love your God with all your heart, and all your strength and all your thought and love your neighbour as yourself.’ So I applied myself with God’s help to love my neighbour (however different from me he was) within the church and outside the church (otherwise I wouldn’t have had to love many people).
My French teacher in high school used to say ‘open the window’ and by that he meant, well he never explained what he really meant, but what I think he meant was: be open, let the winter breeze chill you a little, let the fragrances of spring fill your nostrils, do not be scared of the world. And that was good advice, of course he never said open the window, get down on your knees and pray.
When Daniel opened the window and prayed three times a day, he did not do it to teach anyone a lesson or to provoke anyone’s anger or hatred, he did it because he loved his God and the ‘surrounding culture’ did not condemn him because he was doing something righteous or because he was obeying God, no, the ‘surrounding culture’ plotted against him because they were jealous, they hated him not because he served another God, but because the King loved him and respected him so much that he wanted to appoint him above everyone else because of his exceptional qualities. Joseph also comes to mind. Like Daniel he suffered because of his obedience and like Daniel he was eventually rewarded for his obedience, and by the way, not just in heaven.
Some of my favourite writers were exiles: Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov, Ernest Hemingway, even James Joyce… being an exile probably means getting out of your comfort zone. I don’t think God’s plan was ever to build a kingdom on earth with only Christians (that’s where the Puritans had it wrong when they believed that America would be the New Jerusalem). No, God’s kingdom is not of this earth and it will not be on this earth, in the same way as our citizenship is not on this earth. So let us not be afraid of exile, let us not be afraid of living in a secular country. God’s kingdom is in us. God wants to reign in our lives until Christ returns and fully reigns over all things. Let us keep our temples holy and, despite our failings, let us be loving and honest examples of what it means to be a Christian. And perhaps some people, like Nebuchadnezzar, will also turn to our God and praise Him (‘For he is the living God and he endures for ever’) because they will have seen the works of the living God in our lives.