Monday, August 11, 2014

Lying In the Sun

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, 
baptizing them in the name of the Father, 
and of the Son, 
and of the Holy Spirit.

Matthew 28:19

Y'all, this is long. Get some coffee. Sit down.

I'm going to begin by telling you a little bit about a fictional Russian soldier named Alexander. I've spent a fair amount of time this summer reading a series of three books, The Bronze Horseman, Tatiana and Alexander, and The Summer Garden, that tell the love story of Tatiana and Alexander, a young couple who find each other as Hitler is marching into the USSR. Alexander, a decorated officer in the Red Army, harbors a secret, a secret that is the catalyst for much of the turmoil the lovers face as their story unfolds. Alexander is an American. He was born to an American couple who, unfortunately for him, were Communists who renounced their American citizenship and moved their young child to the USSR in order to live out their deeply held beliefs.

A few years into their new Soviet life, Alexander's parents were arrested because the (crazy, paranoid) Soviets believed them to be American spies rather than genuinely insane Communists. His parents were thrown in jail where they both eventually died. Realizing his own certain fate, as a teen Alexander assumed the identity of a young Soviet boy believed to have perished in a fire. Thus Alexander Barrington became Alexander Belov, the dashing Red Army officer Tatiana meets in June of 1942. Please allow the fangirl in me to pause and say, Alexander Belov . . . if you're going to fall in love with a Soviet solider who has a secret that might get you killed, he better be about seven feet tall, and his name better be Alexander Belov.

Alexander's goal is to return to the United States; this becomes more complicated when he falls in love with Tatiana, whom he cannot leave behind in war-ravaged Leningrad. Long, long story short, Tatiana, believing Alexander to be dead, escapes the USSR and makes her way to America.  Eventually she begins to suspect Alexander is in fact alive. Tatiana is desperate to convince someone at the State Department to help her bring her husband home, and her only hope is to prove he is an American citizen. She is told that by joining the Red Army he renounced his American citizenship, to which she deftly replies that he was conscripted into the Red Army, that his fate as a Red Army officer was no more his choice than was his parents' decision to uproot him from his boyhood home in Massachusetts and plunge him into Soviet darkness. Alexander never voluntarily renounced his American citizenship is Tatiana's mantra; she repeats this to anyone who will listen to her.

I won't tell you how it all ends. First, because I am not yet done with book three, The Summer Garden, and also because you really should consider reading the series (if you're a woman, and you like to read, and you enjoy crying while you read). Because of Alexander's story, and because of the refusal of the current American president to secure America's borders, this idea of American citizenship has been on my mind for a good while now.

Tatiana is desperate to have her husband's American citizenship reinstated. If he is an American, with the stroke of a pen he becomes not a former Red Army officer stripped of his title and thrown into a forced labor camp, but an American held captive in a foreign land. Tatiana, though not long in America herself, knows the one chance she has of seeing her husband again is to secure for him the label American citizen.  It is a label that meant a great deal in the aftermath of WWII and a status that continues to carry considerable weight today.  

I thought about Alexander the last two weeks as I followed the continuing saga of the two missionaries who contracted Ebola and are now in isolation at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.  Why them?, some have asked. Why purposefully bring people we know have contracted this infectious disease to the states? My first instinct is to say, "Because they are Americans." Not only are they Americans, they are the finest this nation has to offer; they make us look good. This was written by the head nurse at Emory and is a good explanation of why Nancy Writebol and Dr. Kent Brantly were flown home.

But Nancy Writebol and Kent Brantly didn't decide to go to Africa as Americans; they weren't there as goodwill ambassadors to rah-rah for the red, white, and blue. Their decision was made based on their citizenship in Heaven. This world, including America, for all she has to offer, is not their home.

In her recent column, Ann Coulter is critical of Dr. Brantly's decision to travel to Africa to do mission work. She poses the question, "Can't anyone serve Christ in America anymore?" She correctly claims that America is, "in a pitched battle for its soul," and in her satiric, hyperbolic way, she explains why Dr. Brantly, and assumably others with his mission mindset, should stay home and evangelize.

I have to tell you, this column has thrown me. I have certainly disagreed with her in the past, but never before have her words angered and saddened me to this extent. I think it's accurate to say I've been reeling since I read her words a few days ago.  

No one disputes that American culture is in the throes of a battle in which Satan is hurling all his darts, but I think Ms. Coulter is incorrect in her assumption that foreign missionaries remaining in the states would result in any significant uptick in conversions to Christ in America. In many places in America you can't spit without hitting a church. Bibles are not hard to find. I mentioned earlier in the summer that I've been listening to Michael Buble's album To Be Loved. There is a song titled "I Got It Easy" on the album, and I love the following line of that song:

People are dying in the dark, while I'm lying in the sun.

Americans are all lying in the sun, basking in the light of our perceived self-importance to the point that our affluence has blinded us; the roar of opulence has deafened us.

Dr. Brantly and Ms. Writebol went to those dying in the dark, those whose poverty denies them the things that so often blind and deafen the wealthy, the privileged. There are a few benefits to being engulfed in darkness, most notably that your senses are heightened. When you can't see anything, the smallest spark of light, of hope, doesn't escape your notice. Your ears strain to detect sound. You are unencumbered by the countless distractions that are so prevalent in affluent nations like America.  Non-Christians in America often believe they don't need Christ. We have so many God-substitutes at our fingertips here in America that it is no wonder many Christians feel their efforts to reach the lost might be better received in places riper than America for the saving power of the gospel. Quite simply, they go where people have ears to hear.

I am an American citizen; there are those for whom uttering that sentence is their life's dream. It's a title that carries with it many rights, and, at least once upon a time, many responsibilities. For Nancy Writebol and Kent Brantly it meant passage home, a chance to fight for life in one of the best hospitals in the world, a chance not afforded other Ebola sufferers. To a certain extent I understand Ms. Coulter's "America first" attitude concerning evangelism. As Ronald Reagan once said, "You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness." Certainly I would argue that converting Americans to Christ would further the cause of preserving this nation for future generations. However, Christ was not in the business of nation-building, and He died for whosoever will come, as the old song goes. His kingdom is not on this earth. It is no coincidence that numerous New Testament passages reference a Christian's citizenship in Heaven; there was, and sadly continues to be, considerable confusion about the need for an earthly kingdom. Additionally, there are parallels worth noting between the privileges granted Roman citizens, who were essentially the American citizens at the time Jesus walked the earth, and the splendor that Americans enjoy today.

Side note: It was not until I read The Robe, which I discuss here, that I truly understood what it meant to be a Roman citizen at the time of Christ and thus better grasped the significance of the repeated scriptural emphasis on citizenship. You should read the book if you've not. It's an excellent piece of historical fiction.      

America needs Christ, but Christ does not need America; we should not be so narrow-minded as to over-inflate our significance. No, I don't want to imagine a world without America. If not to America, where would Nancy Writebol and Kent Brantly be evacuated? To whose shores would millions flock seeking what Tatiana so desperately wants for Alexander, the coveted label American citizen? Whose soldiers would have stormed the beaches at Normandy, pushing the Germans out of France?

America has certainly been a beacon of light since her inception, but America has never been, nor will she ever be, mightier than the God Nancy Writebol and Kent Brantly serve. God's ways are not our ways, and His plans are often not our plans, and Americans who choose to leave the comforts of home to bring help and hope to the darkest corners of the world should be met with nothing but our praise, and our gratitude, and our prayers for their safety.

Americans have opportunities others only dream about, and that includes the opportunity to attend any church anytime we please. Bibles are everywhere, and no one will chop your head off for owning one or for offering to read one with your neighbor or your co-worker who doesn't know Christ. Yes, there are hordes of non-Christians in America. There are those in America who actively seek to eradicate the Christian influence that has been such an integral part of the American story, but these facts do not negate the need to bring the good news of Christ to everyone, everywhere, particularly, I would argue, those not blessed with the resources or the freedom to build churches and to hold in their hands a Bible written in their language. When I think of those in America who shun Christ, I think of Romans 1:20, ". . . they are without excuse."

America is, as Ronald Reagan suggested, the last best hope of man on earth. That's a frightening idea considering the dramatic ways America is turning from God. I don't know what America's fate will be, and while I am certainly prayerful America will right herself spiritually, financially, and politically, if she doesn't I will keep singing this world is not my home. America may be the last best hope of man on earth, but thanks be to God the final chapter of man's story will not be written on earth.

To American Christians, myself included, I say: humble yourselves. Be thankful for the glorious light of freedom in which you live and breathe and raise your family and worship God. Don't criticize those who are willing to do what you are not. There has perhaps never been a group of people so richly blessed who so desperately need to fall to their knees with gratitude and rise ready to put on the armor of God, into whose army you cannot be conscripted, whose army is not subject to budget cuts, whose kingdom has no borders, and whose commander will assuredly be victorious.  


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