Welcome to Wherever You Are

Welcome to Wherever You Are

Anyone who has ever emigrated as an adult to a foreign country will tell you that, while the physical process of moving can be dispatched in a relatively short period of time, the emotional and cultural transition takes much longer and probably never quite comes to an end. For me, the distance from family was difficult at times, but at least it was something that I knew would be part and parcel of the deal.  With cheap phone calls and reasonable transatlantic flights, I probably spend more time in terms of hours at home with my mother now than I have done since graduating from university.  What I did not expect were the countless other things, many of them trivial, which I miss and which all serve to make me feel that I remain a British round peg jammed into an American square hole.

Take village pubs, for example, and British beer.  Despite the rumours, Americans do make world class beer. Nevertheless, as good as quality American microbrewed beer is, it is different to what I drink back home in the village pub; and there is never a horse brass, an open fire, or a comfy chair (and rarely a dart board) to be seen in the so-called "British" pubs over here.  Indeed, there is nothing that warns that one is about to enter a zone ineradicably marked by Uncle Sam than the adjective `British,' `English,' or `Irish' before the word 'Pub' outside an American establishment.  Hanging a picture of The Beatles on the wall, or having shamrock wallpaper and a couple of leprechaun bobbleheads statuettes on the bar, simply indicates that, whatever else the establishment is, it bears no resemblance to anything one might find in the old country.  

Pubs and beer are simply two examples of the countless cultural disconnects that a British emigrant to the US encounters; most of them relate to such trivial matters; some of them indeed are hard to articulate in any meaningful way; but the cumulative effect can be, if not vertiginously disorienting, then certainly, like that pea under the proverbial mattress in the fairy tale, most definitely irritating.  And, lest I seem to be criticizing my host country, I am not; I am simply making an observation; and I am reliably informed that similar feelings mark the experience of Americans in Britain, and, indeed, emigrants in general.

One other specific, and perhaps more important, link to the homeland for me and my wife, was church.  When my family moved to the States in 2001, we left behind a church where I had met my wife as a student, where we had run the youth group together, where I had later served on session as an elder, and where we not only had many friends but were also blissfully happy.  Thus, when we arrived in the States, while we were not homesick in the conventional sense, we both missed the church terribly.  Indeed, even now my wife will often say to me that she never feels more like a foreigner in America than during the worship service on Sunday morning, and I feel much the same.  Neither of us can articulate why this is so: the worship is in English; and, while the Aberdeen church only sang unaccompanied psalms in contrast to the music and hymns of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church where we now worship, we both agree it is not that; it is just different somehow in an indefinable but very real manner.

The significance of this for me was that, for the first few years in America, I retained my membership in the Free Church and even came under care of a Scottish presbytery with a view to being ordained as a Free Kirk minister.  At the time, I justified it by wanting to be a voice for the Free Kirk at Westminster; in retrospect, I realize I was really trying to maintain an emotional tie with my past.  Emigration is hard; and it took time for me to come to terms with severing my various connections to home.

In fact, it was not until some years after moving to the US that a minister in the Free Church who happened to be visiting pointed out to me that, as a Christian, I was commanded to love the Body of Christ, and that (a) this was a command, not some sentimental emotional response and (b) the part of the Body of Christ where I now found myself was a congregation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  The obvious conclusion, he pointed out, was that I should disregard my nostalgic attachments to the Free Church and commit to the local body.  In light of his comments, I slowly came to realize that he was right, and that I needed to make the move.

Thus it is that my wife and I are now members of the OPC.  It is where the Lord has placed us, and it is where we are to serve.  There may be bigger churches, there may be better churches, but here is where we find ourselves; here is where the Lord has put us; here is where we are to serve and to love our fellow believers in Christ.  I may have a few initials after my name; I may be a seminary professor; I may have published books; but these things make me no better than any other member of the body, and certainly do not exempt me from a proper accounting of my work in the local church where the Lord has put me, whether it is taking out the trash or helping to dismantle the tent after Vacation Bible School.  Here is where we are; these are the people among whom we must live and whom we must serve.  Indeed, if I happen to preach and some five year old child comes up to me afterwards and asks me "Who made God?", I must not patronize her, or ignore her, or fob her off with some trite but inadequate pietism; I must answer her question with the seriousness that it deserves.  Like all believers, I am called to serve others, and primarily to serve where God has placed me.

Remembering these simple facts about the Christian life can help orient us to priorities. For example, I have been asked by several people over recent years whether Christians should respond if they are criticized or defamed on the web.  The answer is simple:  for myself, I do not believe that it is appropriate that I spend my time defending my name.  My name is nothing - who really cares about it? And I am not called to waste precious hours and energy in fighting off every person with a laptop who wants to have a pop at me.  As a Christian, I am not meant to engage in self-justification any more than self-promotion; I am called rather to defend the name of Christ; and, to be honest, I have yet to see a criticism of me, true or untrue, to which I could justifiably respond on the grounds that it was Christ's honour, and not simply my ego, which was being damaged.  I am called to spend my time in being a husband, a father, a minister in my denomination, a member of my church, a good friend to those around me, and a conscientious employee.  These things, these people, these locations and contexts, are to shape my priorities and my allocation of time.  Hitting back in anger at those who, justly or unjustly, do not like me and for some reason think the world needs to know what they think of me is no part of my God-given vocation.  God will look after my reputation if needs be; He has given me other work to do.

This realization that the Lord has called me - and I am guessing, most of us - to serve first and foremost wherever we actually are - our families, our congregations, our denominations, and our workplaces -- is surely a sobering one. It lacks so much ambition, and shows such a limited vision, after all.  Yet in this regard, I think the church is best served by those with such limited ambitions and myopia. I am not much of a web-wanderer but on the odd occasion I do a bit of websurfing, I am struck by how many Christians, pastors, professors, and laity, have blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitters going.  How many millions of Christian hours are wasted writing this stuff, engaging in mindless blogthreads, and telling the world about personal trivia? And what does it tell us about the expansive visions and ambitions out there?  Apparently the world is now everyone's birthright.  

Now, I find myself very uncomfortable with this. I do believe that some professors, pastors, and laypeople are called to have regular ministries outside their immediate geographical locations; but I also believe that there are precious few thus called.  Certainly, mere possession of hi-speed internet is not a divinely given sign of such a worldwide calling.  When I see Christians blogging so much, I wonder how many sermons are being prepared on the fly because of lack of time, how many parishioners go unvisited, how many prayers remain unprayed, how many words of love and affection to spouses and children are never said, how many books - let alone the Bible - are left unread, and how many fellowships atrophy through lack of any real, meaningful social and spiritual intercourse.  Indeed, to summarize: how many online `communities' (sic) prosper to the detriment of the real, physical communities into which the Lord has placed each and every one of us?  How many complain of insufficient time to do the boring routines of the Christian life - worship services, Sunday School, visiting the sick and the aged, fellowship, Bible reading, prayer - and yet always somehow manage to fit in a quick twitter or blog or podcast or change to their Facebook status?

I am increasingly convicted of my own failures in this regard.  The internet has never been my particular temptation; to me the web has been - and, indeed, remains - basically a quick means to shop.  Beyond that, it is simply an ironic-to-absurd medium in the way in which it allows everybody, regardless of sanity, IQ, or qualifications, to have their fifteen seconds of fame. Frankly, 95% of it is utterly ridiculous as far as I can judge, the denizens of webworld being akin to the institution described in Edgar Allan Poe's tale, The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether.  Yet, if the web has not consumed my time, then travelling has perhaps been my particular weakness, combined with a general inability to say `no' to any request to help with preaching or lecturing. The net result is that I have probably ministered all over the place, but not so much in the church congregation where the Lord has actually placed me, that part of the Body of Christ which I am particularly obliged to love and encourage and to which I am accountable.  Of course, being there of all places will never make me a superstar or a guru or earn me a fortune or get me a cool conference gig or land me on the cover of Christianity Today; but it is nonetheless the place where I am meant to be.

The command to love the Body of Christ is indeed a command, not a sentiment.  It comes with specific demands on time and on place.  I pray that I will learn more and more about what these demands truly mean.  And I pray too that more and more Christians will come to realize that real life is lived in the real world in the real church where they really attend on a Sunday.  Time to get out of the system of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether and join the real world.  Welcome to wherever you are.

Carl Trueman is an Alliance Council Member.

Carl Trueman, "Welcome To Wherever You Are", Reformation21 (November 2009)

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