05/22/2012 04:35 pm ET Updated Jul 22, 2012

Citizenship Test

This land is not my own, I'm only passing through. My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue. The angels beckon me from heaven's open door, and I can't feel at home in this world any more.

The words from this Sunday school song rang in my ears this morning as we read the weekly passages from the lectionary: Jesus prays for his followers in John 17:13-15, identifying himself with God and with a heavenly citizenship, and praying that his followers will choose that citizenship as well: "I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it" (New American Standard Bible).

Around the table this week at Sunday school, the topic turned to what it felt like to be an alien in a hostile country. Most of the people in my class are immigrants -- they know very well what it is like to be living in a land where everything around you is foreign to you, and you're foreign to the people around you. You feel conspicuous, not just by your appearance, but by your reactions and attitudes. You carry your culture within you, even as you learn to negotiate the bewildering culture outside of you.

I have felt just as conspicuous and foreign when I've visited Mexico, China and Japan. I've felt overly self-conscious, because I felt that everyone was gawking at me, the stranger. I've gotten frowns, threatening gestures and hostile reactions from people who expected me to act one way, but my interior programming caused me to act in another.

This interior programming is our culture -- the way we were conditioned to behave and the explanations we give for why things are the way they are.

Much of it comes from our parents, some of it from formal education, some from friends and media.

The Christian feels this awkwardness frequently -- that is, if he or she really is living by their inward Gospel compass. Because we are different; we're programmed to see Jesus in our fellow man, to put others' needs before our own, to say no to things that harm us and our relationships. As Philippians 3:20 reminds us, since our citizenship is above and not in this world, our culture is also heavenly, and not terrestrial. Our value system is constantly at odds with the one we're living in. It creates a lot of culture shock for us.

Our current "culture" in Alabama is one of mistrust, prejudice, racism, fear and intolerance. The governor is about to sign a bill that is even worse than HB56, the anti-immigrant law -- in a state with less than 2 percent population of undocumented residents. It just doesn't make sense.

So soon, and very soon, it will become illegal in this state for me to take my friends to doctor's appointments, to drive them to church, to help them fill out paperwork and to do a host of things that I normally do as a minister of the Gospel. That's when my citizenship in Alabama will become secondary to my citizenship in Heaven.