In the past three months, my kids and I have spent more time in taxis than we ever have. We are in the throws of adjusting to life in Dubai. Sometimes, I’m so busy putting seat belts on the little ones and telling them not to touch the ashtray, that I forget to tell the driver my destination.
“Where are you going, Madam?” he patiently asks.
And then, I can predict that three minutes into the trip—long enough for the driver to be amused by my kids’ childish conversation—he will ask the most common question.
“Madam, where are you from?”
(We really confused the driver a few times when my Caucasian American kids answered, “We are from Delhi, India,” where they spent the last two years of their lives.)
Aren’t these two questions or some version of them, so commonly asked in this multicultural city where people are constantly coming and going from all over the world to all over the world? They are such simple questions, but the spiritual, faith-filled answers to these two questions are foundational to living God-glorifying lives at home or cross-culturally.
Where are you from?
When living in a foreign culture, the question, “Who are you?” is synonymous with “Where are you from?” It’s the first thing everyone asks. As soon as we land on foreign soil, we begin on the path of solidifying our identity. We run around to government offices to get forms, stamps, and signatures at every corner. We know that all this paperwork does not amount to who we are. Verifying our country of origin does not adequately describe our identity, and no job title on an employment card can sum up all that matters to us.
And yet, when we approach cultural adjustment, we often look at new people and customs through glasses that are shaded by our home cultures instead of doing the hard work of seeking deeper understanding and appreciation. And when seeking relationships, we are tempted to use our ethnicity or vocation as a banner that connects us to people similar to us and keep us from those who are different. When all of these reactions leave us insecure, we sulk in our identity crisis, feeling alone, unknown, and misunderstood.
However, for Christians, the foundation of who we are and where we are from is not a country or ethnic identity or business card title, but its our spiritual identity that we are sinners saved by grace, children of God, and heirs of Christ. I once heard Tim Keller describe the layers that make up our identity. He said, “Everyone’s heart has an uttermost foundation of stone and when you become a Christian, Christ goes there. When you become a Christian, your experience of grace, your conviction of sin…goes all the way to the bottom.“ Every lesser identity builds on top of the foundation of identity in Christ. Every other loyalty should be subordinated to our loyalty to Jesus.
We are privileged to share this true identity with people in Dubai from every tribe and nation! Every week at Redeemer we are given a glimpse of the Revelation 7:9-12 vision of eternity where people from all around the world are worshipping around the throne of Jesus. Crossing the aisle on Friday mornings to say “Hello” often means crossing ethnic and cultural divides. Only a group of people who cherish identity in Christ can be not only a choir of nations in a church service but a community of friends during the week.
Where are you going?
After the initial excitement wears off, living in such a transient, multicultural city can feel relationally futile. Everyone comes from somewhere else and many leave after a short time. After people ask me where I’m from, the second question is something like, “How long will you be here?” There is a temptation for many to live as if this time in Dubai is inside a parenthesis in the overall plan for their real life back home. Or maybe it is an important step on the ladder of achievements—the next educational degree, the next promotion, financial status, or thrilling adventure.
While it is not wrong to live cross-culturally with those aspirations, as a Christian who is redeemed and set on a path of following Christ, another deeper motivation should also inspire our time here. We look forward to the day when Christ will establish his reign in a new city. Abraham looked forward to “a city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” Isaiah speaks of this strong city saying that our very own salvation will be its walls (26:1). Our lasting citizenship is already in that city to come, and we can tune our hearts to seek God’s kingdom now and encourage others to do the same.
The heroes of faith in Hebrews 11 lived like this. “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” Boice writes in Foundations of God’s City that just because a person leaves his home does not make him a pilgrim. He could just be a drifter. “To be a pilgrim, a person must have his or her eyes on a goal toward which he or she is moving.”
How exciting to think about our time in Dubai is not just an opportunity for our own gain, but a time and place that God has placed us in for His glory while we wait for that final day. Together, as the body of Christ that is Redeemer Church of Dubai, we travel on this journey together, embracing the fact that no matter where we live we are far from home, and joining in what God is doing in this world.
So when people ask those two simple questions, the answers might sound like, “I’m American and I’m here for work for a few years and then we’ll see.” But the joy on our face and love for the rainbow of people around us is fueled by the faith-filled answers to these questions in our hearts—our permanent identity and destination that are bought and prepared by our heavenly Father.