The Unsettling Call of Exile: Learning to Live as In-betweeners

More By Tiya Thomas-Alexander

When I was a child, I moved around with my family like an urban nomad from one city-scape to another. I told myself my home was in heaven. When I grew up, I continued to follow the winds of change. I pursued it and built my theology around it.

I learnt to tread lightly, holding loosely to everything, choosing breadth over depth, and living in the outer circles of many communities scattered around the world. I rejoiced in the fruit of it.

The gain of moving from place to place is that you notice the add-ons each culture attaches to the gospel. It opens opportunities for cultural shedding and the gospel rediscovered. The movement was bringing clarity. But all the motion was turning this side of eternity into a blur, a liminal space, which it is. For this is not our home.

But if it is not home, then what is it?

When I got married, we bound ourselves to each other like fellow wanderers and packed for an adventure. For me, after years of life in transit, I felt the need to find a place for things. We created a place for the socks, our toothbrushes, the linen, and the pots and pans. As I unpacked, I began to feel restless about my theology of place.

The Unsettlement of Exile

We are children of exile, placed on earth. But how much of a home do we make in our place of exile? How do I live where I have been placed? If the new creation is heaven coming down to earth, do these places matter?

I really want to find my way home, and I also really want to be faithful in exile.

Unsettlement haunts me. Sometimes when I am sitting around a table with a group of people, I hear a soft sound take over the conversation. I zone out and watch my life as if tinted in film. That soft sound reminds me that I do not belong. It has been there, like a buzz in the background, and it stirs afresh the conflict in my heart. I really want to find my way home, and I also really want to be faithful in exile.

The Comfort of Exile

I live in London by way of New York, Bengaluru, and New Delhi; the list goes on to populate with other cities. Over the years, I have longed for approval from these cities—the people and the culture. I swing between wanting to fit in and being afraid to fit in.

When these Christians chose to follow Christ, they were persecuted. By naming their identity as exiles, Peter was comforting them.

I want to understand my local culture and I want to challenge my local culture. I create a home and a refuge. But I know the ache that tugs on my heart when I just want to kick my legs and be carried to a home I have never actually been to.

When Peter wrote to newly believing Christ-followers in modern-day Turkey, he called them “God’s elect, exiles scattered” (1 Pet. 1:1 NIV). These Christians in the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia were not in a foreign land, but in their place of origin. When these Christians chose to follow Christ, they were persecuted. By naming their identity as exiles, Peter was comforting them.

Our Christian identity of exiles gives us a boldness to bear through harsh days of suffering. It gives us a glimpse of the horizon—a sign that this land ends somewhere, and gives way to another place.

When unwelcome in our home contexts, as the Christians in then-Turkey were, this identity gives us a place of refuge. In the daily insecurity of wanting to slot in with people and places around us, this identity places us on solid ground.

The Meaning in Exile

Our life on earth is temporary, but it can be meaningful in eternal ways. When the apostle Paul was speaking with a group of thinkers in Athens, as recorded in Acts 17, he quoted local literature back to the people.

He took poetry familiar to them and reframed it to tell them about God. ‘In him, we live and move and have our being’ were the words he borrowed (Acts 17:28), as he worked to bring the truths of heaven to meet with the poetic longings on earth.

In exile, we participate in mending work as God himself prepares a new city by redeeming old things. We, the in-betweeners, follow Christ’s path, who collapsed the chasm and prayed to the Father to bring heaven down on earth. He died on earth on a hill, this side of eternity—permanent work in a flimsy world.