When I was in university, I lived in a house with a bunch of the other guys. One of them was the son of the owners, a family that had emigrated from Yugoslavia in the 1950s. His grandmother used to come over every Sunday night with food for the week. Most of us would try to be there Sunday evening because she was always willing to feed us and she brought her own home cooking. It was fantastic food – the best meal of the week. His grandmother had lived in Canada for almost 30 years and spoke hardly a word of English. I could never understand how that was possible. How could she manage to live in a society without learning to speak the language of the people?
Now I know it’s actually quite easy. I know because, for the last few years, I have lived in communities where I have been the outsider. You learn to cope in a variety of ways. You find people from your own community and you hang out together. You speak your own language. You learn just enough of another language to greet people and count in a grocery store. The rest of the time, you stay in your own areas. You wait until you can return home or move to the next assignment. You consider yourself to be ‘just passing through.’ Sometimes, we call it the ‘expat life.’
The Bible doesn’t talk about expats, but it has a lot to say about exiles. To be an exile was to be removed from your homeland, to be somewhere else that was foreign and strange. There is a period of Jewish history that is referred to as “the Exile.” This was when the tribe of Judah was taken captive to Babylon for 70 years. At first, many of the exiles thought it was temporary. They didn’t believe that God would let them suffer for very long. There were false prophets circulating among the people and saying “Get ready, any day now we are going back to Jerusalem.” So the people sat around waiting to go back home. They didn’t do anything more than they had to. Their thoughts were constantly about returning to Jerusalem. But God had other plans: he had decreed an exile for a period of 70 years. So he had the prophet Jeremiah write a letter to the exiles:
“This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:4-7)
Jeremiah tells them that they will indeed be in Babylon for a while. God has a plan and it will all work out. Meanwhile, they need to get busy living their lives. No more waiting to go back or move on. No more dreaming about ‘the good old life’ or ‘the next great thing.’ It was time to unpack their suitcases and hang up some pictures on the walls. It was time to learn the language, use local food and meet the neighbors. It was time to have children and raise a family. Don’t put life on hold – live it now!
I am a foreigner (Ausländer) living in Switzerland. I am here by choice and I choose to live in the same way Jeremiah encouraged the Jews to live in Babylon. I can’t sit around and moan about going home. There is work to be done (planting and harvesting) and a family to raise. I am studying German even though it’s painful at times. We go out to enjoy the city and to meet people. And, most importantly, I am called to pray for the peace and prosperity of this place, Basel. God has us – and you – here for a reason. Let’s live our lives now, in this very place!