My kids’ eyes widened as we passed through the security checkpoint and the officials closely examined our passports. The sound of chirping metal detectors and buzzing security doors was interrupted by the young United States Marine in dress blues ushering us through a doorway where we were greeted by giant photographs of our President and Vice-President hanging on the wall in front of us—images of different men than those we saw the last time we stood on our native soil nearly three years ago. And that’s when we heard a sound that signaled—perhaps more than any of these other trappings—that we had come home.
“Y’all can come right this way,” said a voice.
It’s difficult to explain the feeling that comes over a person when he has lived far away from family and the familiar for a long period and then returned home; a flood of comfort, of security, of instantly understanding and being understood. I gazed around the small room to see a dozen or so people who all looked like us, dressed like us, sounded like us, and carried the same color passport as us. There was air conditioning (!) blowing, an American news station streaming on a flat screen on one wall while every other wall was lined with official bulletins bearing the insignia of one or another U.S. Federal office or department. But the intentionally crowning feature of this facility to which all our eyes were almost immediately drawn, was a crisp, regal American Flag nestled in the far corner of the room. Yes, we were indeed on homeland soil.
As we finished up our business at the counter, we soon heard the door buzz again behind us. We were ushered by the same friendly Marine out to where we could pick up the belongings we had left with security. Then, we exited the building right back out into the sweltering heat of Zimbabwe’s capital city. No, we do not own a teleportation machine. We had not yet finished our first term of missionary service and we had not yet boarded a plane, train, or boat to take us where we could reunite with our families. We had simply run out of stamp space in the “Visa” pages of our passports and needed to have them renewed, so we paid a visit to the United States Embassy.
A Kingdom Outpost
The sensation that came over me that morning reminded me of a truth I had learned many years before as I studied New Testament theology. In short, the Bible teaches that Messiah Jesus entered into a world that was under the sway of a hostile enemy, what C.S. Lewis referred to as “Enemy-Occupied Territory.” But Jesus came “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn 3:8) and to “overcome the world” (Jn 16:44). And with the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, we have seen Satan “fall from heaven like lightning” (Lk 10:18) and the rulers of this age “disarmed,” “disgraced,” and “triumphed over” (Col 2:15). Yet “as it is, we do not yet see everything subjected to him” (Heb 2:8). This places us in what theologian Oscar Cullman would call a “time between the times”—the period between D-Day, when our enemy was decisively defeated, and V-Day when he is finally and fully overcome.
With D-Day behind us and V-Day ahead of us, the “beachhead” that Jesus has established for us from which to wage our spiritual war is something He calls “the church,” and He declares that “the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matt 16:18). This redeemed community, “the church,” is where Paul says, “the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph 3:10). In a sense, what Christ has established in “the church” is an embassy of His Kingdom in the midst of “this present darkness.” Indeed, Paul even refers to himself as “an ambassador” (Eph 6:20) for the gospel and to the saints as “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor 5:20).
The church is an outpost of the kingdom of Christ, which Jesus has declared to be already inaugurated but not-yet fully consummated—a glimpse of our true home “in the presence of our enemies,” if you will. This best explains the feeling I had walking into and out of that embassy. It was far more than sentimental; it was spiritual. I was experiencing an echo of something I was created and redeemed to desire. What I was looking for was not American nostalgia, but a bit of my true homeland abroad; namely, the church.
Living in Africa the past three years, my family has been extraordinarily blessed in many different ways. But we have doubtless also experienced our share of struggles and difficulties. And perhaps chief among those is due to the reality that we are laboring on what some might call “the front lines” of ministry, meaning that we are (to switch metaphor) plowing new ground and helping an infant, and in some cases non-existent, church begin the process of growing toward health and maturity. In other words, our “embassy” in this place is still “under construction.” This is not a complaint or criticism, but merely a reality that comes with the work we do. We knew this when we signed up for the job. The result, though, is that our family has had to go three years without many of the blessings of that Kingdom Outpost we experienced when we lived in the U.S., a place where the “embassy” is arguably more firmly established.
In reflecting on this embassy experience and what it was like to visit an outpost of our homeland, I began to make a list of some of the things that we have missed the most about our Kingdom Outpost back in the U.S. (Redemption Hill Baptist Church). Honestly, while such a list could go on for days, I have narrowed it to a “Top 5.” In subsequent posts, I would like to highlight briefly five different blessings we have missed from our American church family. These blessings include (1) the ordinances, (2) worship in our heart language, (3) the “one another” aspect of church life (4) a missionary mindset, and (5) discipleship and training. Chances are, the missionaries supported by your church have a similar list that reflects their own particular ministry context.
You Don’t Know What You’ve Got
To be clear, I am not writing about the shortfalls of the African (specifically, Zimbabwean) church as a criticism or a slight. We have been blessed beyond measure to serve here and call these amazing people our brothers and sisters and co-laborers. So you might be asking, What exactly is my purpose in pointing out these things?
My first reason is, very simply, to say, “Thank you.” Thank you to God and to every brother or sister in Christ who has ever broken bread with me, worshipped alongside of me, sought to minister to me and co-bear my burdens, put their hand to the plow for the sake of the mission with me, and/or trained me up and discipled me as a follower of Jesus. A three-year period in which such people and occasions have been in short supply has had a way of reminding me of what is truly most important in friendships and life.
My second reason for writing is to hopefully try and spur you, the American church, on in those things that are of first importance. These days, there are lots of trappings which may seek to attach themselves to American Christianity, be they political, social, economic, or cultural. And sometimes it is easy for believers to get so caught up in and sidetracked by “what’s new” or “what’s sensational” that we forget to pay due attention to those things that are “old” and indeed “eternal.” I am not saying that all issues of the day are unimportant for believers, as Christians are surely called to be salt and light in a decaying culture. However, what must overshadow and flood out any conflicts or differences that may arise politically, socially, or culturally is the unity that is found in these first principles: breaking bread with God’s people, raising our voices together in worship and prayer, bearing one another’s burdens in love, locking arms in fervent and radical mission endeavors, and training up the next generation in the way of Christ.
Finally, my third reason for compiling this list is to solicit your prayers. The things that I have grown to miss and long for during this three-year stint on the front lines are the very things that Satan hates, because they each proclaim his defeat and imminent demise. And because Satan hates them, they are always in danger of being lost by those who have long practiced them and of being hijacked and diverted away from those who are just learning their significance.
My prayer (and I hope yours) is that the American church, the African church, and every follower of Christ (including me) would labor and strive to hold fast to our first love and to keep our eyes on the heavenly prize. So that, regardless of where we find ourselves sojourning or what the enemy may have in store for our journey, even if we are walking through the valley of the shadow of death, we may learn to fear no evil, for we are assured of God’s presence, His discipline, and His Comfort. And He is preparing a table (Ps 23:5) for us all, African, American, and anyone else who believes, around which we will one day gather.
And maybe on that day, after we have traversed this wilderness with our fellow sojourners, and this temporary embassy gives way to the fullness of the kingdom, we’ll hear those words again, from another voice, perhaps this time in Shona—“Pindai muno,” which being translated means, “Y’all can come right this way.”