Aliens and strangers

Over Lent I’ve been working through a collection of readings, prayers, reflection etc for each day of the season. As I’ve been going through I’ve recognised many of the names and sources, but several times I’d seen quite profound comments from someone I’d never heard of, Prosper Guéranger. He was a French priest and Benedictine monk of the 19th century, someone of apparently formidable energy, firm faith, and also a commitment to papal supremacy (that sits uneasily with any Protestant, but was partly a push back against the dominant role the French state had too often asserted for itself). He seems to have been a considerable controversialist, but also

In 1841 he began to publish a mystical work by which he hoped to arouse the faithful from their spiritual torpor and to supplant what he deemed the lifeless or erroneous literature that had been produced by the French spiritual writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. “L’Année liturgique”, of which the author was not to finish the long series of fifteen volumes, is probably the one of all Dom Guéranger’s works that best fulfilled the purpose he had in view. Accommodating himself to the development of the liturgical periods of the year, the author laboured to familiarize the faithful with the official prayer of the Church by lavishly introducing fragments of the Eastern and Western liturgies, with interpretations and commentaries.

In the readings for last Sunday there was this extract from Guéranger

We are sojourners upon this earth; we are exiles and captives in Babylon, that city which plots our ruin.  If we must love our country, if we long to return to it, we ourselves must be proof against the lying allurements of this strange land and refuse the cup she proffers us, and with which she maddens so many of our fellow captives.  She invites us to join in her feasts and her songs; but we must unstring our harps and hang them on the willows that grow on her river’s bank, till the signal be given for our return to Jerusalem,  She will ask us to sing to her the melodies of our dear Sion: But how shall we, who are far from home, have heart to “sing the song of the Lord in a strange land”? No, there must be no sign that we are content to be in bondage, or we shall deserve to be slaves for ever.

The immediate reference is, of course, to Psalm 137

Psalm 137

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
    may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
    my highest joy.

But he could as easily have picked up Peter’s reference to Christians as “aliens and strangers” (“exiles” or “temporary residents” in other translations) or that in the closing verses of Hebrews:

Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.

Now, of course there are other verses. Jeremiah, after all, encourages the exiles in Babylon to “pray for the peace of the city” to which they have been exiled. Throughout the New Testament epistles believers are enjoined to pray for kings and rulers, and to obey them (presumably – though the point is never extensively developed – in inessentials given the number of Christians who were to die as martyrs, when authorities mostly sought “only” outward compliance). But that is pretty much what you expect from “temporary residents”. I’ve lived in other countries on three separate occasions, twice working for the governments of the respective countries. When I did, I obeyed the laws of those countries (had I not been willing to I would not have gone, or stayed), I joined in Sunday prayers for the rulers and authorities of those countries, and when I worked for other governments I sought the best outcomes for the peoples of those countries (in all three, I wished their people only the best). And yet I was always a New Zealander, and if occasionally idle thoughts flitted across my mind suggesting that it might be nice to stay in, for example, PNG, it was never going to be my home, or my ultimate earthly loyalty.

But that was easy in a way. I had term-limited jobs, term-limited visas, and part of my job was to work myself out of a job.

How easy is for us as Christians to live as if we are but aliens and strangers here? Not easy at all, for most of us (and I include myself there). Perhaps it is all the harder since we – at least those like me from European backgrounds – come now off a heritage of 1000 years or more in which societies were, in significant respects, substantially Christian. One can argue about terms there, and no one pretends every government or citizen was consumed with zeal for the things of God. But….the majority would have described themselves as Christian (if nothing else, that meant “and not some other faith, theistic or secular), public discourse was heavily influenced by Christianity and the Scriptures, and much of our laws reflected that heritage. One can read books – I’m reading one at present – from the 1950s lamenting the decline of Christianity in the West etc but even in my childhood (60s and 70s) there was still a visible deference to the church and its teaching, in our laws and practices, private and government. Perhaps it meant churches missed what was happening in the wider world, and missed the need to prepare for a more full-throated experience of “alien and stranger”. But it was visibly less common to see sin championed and celebrated. Whatever the case, it is disorienting how much things have changed in just a few decades.

And how little so much of the church seems to have done to equip itself and its people to live, and witness, in this new era as “aliens and strangers”. To build strong communities that help nurture our children in the faith, and what it means to be different – to be God’s. To teach the word. To call us to holiness. So little, at least in so many churches and congregations. Too many seem content to minimise differences and to acculturate to a hostile and fundamentally corrosive culture, to be in practice little more than a social club, that will provide no basis for resilience as the gap between the gospel and God’s teaching on the one hand and the standards and values of the world widen further. What do most congregations teach, or practice, that is distinctive, that marks as out as citizens of another kingdom, not full-fledged members of increasingly godless New Zealand (or Australia, or.. or….or)?

It isn’t the place today for an extended essay, so I’ll stop here simply repeating the final sentence from that Gueranger quote I’m glad to have found:

No, there must be no sign that we are content to be in bondage, or we shall deserve to be slaves for ever.

If his words were true for the people he wrote to in 19th century France, how much truer should they be today.

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