Monday, February 24, 2014

Life as an expat

Portzelky, a Mennonite treat.
Image from: www.littlecookontheprairie.blogspot.com
Living in a culture or place different from the one you grew up in is not always easy. Montreal is full of expatriates (ex = out of, patria = fatherland) who are trying to build a new life removed from their place of origin. In reading through the book of Daniel again, I discovered that the stories therein reveal some excellent wisdom for expats of all kinds.

First, a bit about expats. Expatriates are different from immigrants in that they are, for the most part, skilled workers who have been sent by their company to work in another location. Expats can be identified by their loyalties; they are always rooting for their home teams. Just this past week, Canadians living in the USA congregated at Canada House in Washington DC wearing red and white and cheering on the Canadian hockey teams. Many expats can also be identified by the way they talk; their accents give away the fact that they are from somewhere else. For example, if you are North American and say "Rise Up Lights," you are commanding lights to arise. However, if you are an Aussie, this same phonetic phrase is actually heard as "Razor Blades." Cool, right?  Expats are famous for eating food from their native country or culture. This is why you can find Chinese restaurants, Italian eateries, a restaurant called The Alpenhaus, and of course, a wide selection of French patisseries in Montreal. And this is also why you will find me hunting down the Mennonite fried dough delight, portzelky, every December (see photo).

Now, on to Daniel. Daniel was a godly, upstanding young man living in Judah during the reign of Jehoiakim, but it turns out that he was the exception. Judah had become a nation filled with people who adopted the wicked ways of their pagan neighbours, did pretty much whatever they wanted, and ignored years and years of warnings from the prophets to turn back to God (see Jeremiah 25). As a result of Israel's disregard for God's directive to be a holy people who would heal the land they had been given and cause it to flourish, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon conquered Jerusalem and carried off their finest youths as well as the sacred vessels from the temple. Daniel and three of his friends were among those who ended up in Babylon and began a program of training to work in the king's courts.

The goal was to assimilate these young leaders into Babylonian culture. Their names were changed (Daniel which means "God is my judge" was changed to Belteshazzar which means "may Bel (a pagan god) protect his life"). The three-year training period also included eating the rich food available in the palace. Daniel was wary of being absorbed into the culture, especially when the Babylonian values clashed with his worship of the God of Israel. He asked to be excused from the royal diet and be given food which had not been offered up to Bel-Marduk, the Babylonian deity, and instead was in keeping with Israelite dietary laws. Due to Daniel's skill as a negotiator, his boss agreed to have the four young men do a test run of an alternative, vegetarian diet to see if it had any ill effects. We all know the story; the Israelite diet was a success and after the end of the trial period, Daniel and his friends appeared more robust than all the others.

The clash between two ways of life is evident in this story: 1) Daniel's loyalty remained with the God of Israel despite insertion into a foreign culture and a name change which honoured the pagan god, Bel-Marduk, 2) Daniel went along with much of what was asked of him, but was very careful about what he took in, believing that the Hebrew dietary laws reflected that he was God's, whereas the Babylonian diet reflected homage to Marduk, 3) Daniel's demeanour was noticeably distinct from the Babylonian attitude. Instead of having a conquering or revolution mindset, Daniel exhibited a humble, respectful attitude to his captors and overseers.

As citizens of the kingdom of God, we don't always feel at home in this world. Some Christians want to take over the world and enforce godliness (Jesus' disciples exhibited these tendencies and humanity is notorious for wanting to mix religion and politics). Other followers of Jesus want to isolate themselves and live separate from this world. I don't see that as a viable, long-term option when our example is One who came to live among us in our broken, corrupt world. In essence, we are "in" this world, but we are not to be a product "of" our world's culture.

Let me offer some lessons to be gleaned from Daniel the expatriate which might be useful to those of us living in a land other than the one we grew up in. They might also prove helpful to us as we remember that we are first and foremost citizens of the kingdom of God.

1. We are sent by God. As expats, it can be tempting to adopt the attitude that we are somehow the victims of unfortunate circumstances, held hostage here. We can spend our time longing for the homeland (escapism) and living in the past (or the future). Daniel never acted like he was enslaved; he lived like a free man because he was confident that he was where he was because God had sent him.
2. We are called to serve with wisdom and humility for the good of this world, not to overthrow it (adopting the conquering mentality of Babylon) or to self-righteously isolate ourselves from it, but to bring the presence of God to it. This is the vocation that the Israelites rejected.
3. The values of this world/culture and the values of the kingdom of God will often clash. Our identity as children of God must be solid enough to allow us to live and work anywhere without being threatened or fearful.  We must also develop the wisdom and discernment to know when our loyalty to Christ is being challenged. In those circumstances, we must learn to say "no" with respect, humility, confidence, and creativity.

As disciples of Jesus, our food is not the rich offerings of this world's palaces, but the body and blood of Christ. Let us take this food in; let it define whose we are. Let it keep us away from idols which can enslave us. May it bring freedom and grace to us and to our world. Let us ask God to give us strength to live in an imperfect and foreign world without frustration, anger, or complaint. Let this food be Life and Truth to us.

Jesus prayed for his disciples: "Like Me, they are not products of the corrupt world order. Immerse them in the truth, the truth Your voice speaks. In the same way You sent Me into this world, I am sending them." (John 17: 16-18, The Voice).

This material is taken from a series I am teaching in our faith community called "Life as an Expat: Stories from the book of Daniel."

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