The Church In Exile: Following Jesus In A Strange Land

I went to a concert a few weeks ago where Blowing In the Wind, the classic protest song, was the first song out of the gate. The crowd, filled with longing for any bit of hope they could find, erupted into sustained applause.

All I could think about was how Blowing in the Wind is a pretty good description of the church these days.

We find ourselves searching for the right soil to root and sustain a Cross-shaped community in rapidly changing times and a constantly shifting landscape. It isn’t easy to pass on to our kids the faith that has carried us for so long and through so much. It’s a challenge to bless a world that’s been on fire for so long it’s forgotten how to recognize the healing that can come in a cool breeze.

That’s what happens when you dare to seek truth in an old story that promises good news in a world captivated by anti-heroes and held captive by fake news. That’s what happens when you try to speak when fewer people want to listen, often as a result of others who have spoken for you. That’s what happens when you seek to live into a calling to be a light to nations who wonder if your light hasn’t been out for a while.

And so today, we are haunted by the question of whether the words we know and the stories that shape us are enough. We’ve tried to use different words and mold our stories into other ones. We’ve walked the path others have trod before, seeking comfort in cultural standing and security in political power.

Because that’s the natural response when you are faced with insecurity and vulnerability. That’s what you do when the ground beneath you shifts.

But what you discover is that the powers and principalities don’t have what you need. What you find is there is a cost that comes from using the words of Washington. There’s a price to be paid when the Kingdom of God starts to sound a whole lot less about God and a whole lot more about kingdoms. Trading the vocabulary of sin and redemption for political action and demographic research opens up a void that can’t be filled.

What we’ve lost is the ability to speak words with enough weight to hold life. The price we’ve paid is in forgetting how to tell a story of a Kingdom of plenty. The void we feel comes from missing the vision of a God who is building a table big enough for anybody who wants to be fed.

Exile

The words and images evoke the opening of the Psalms as well as a story Jesus told about a sower. But the word from the Bible for this is Exile.

Exile stands at the heart of the Bible; you can’t understand the narrative of Scripture if you don’t know about Exile.

When Nebuchadnezzar scaled the walls of Jerusalem in 587 and destroyed everything in sight, Exile entered the Jewish vocabulary and imagination. But Exile is more than an event; it is a tragedy that forced people into a new way of life filled with questions about faith, a crisis of identity and a search for answers about what went wrong and how they were going to rebuild out of the rubble.

The prophets, of course, had warned that Exile was coming if the people didn’t turn from their wicked ways and return to the ways of the Lord. Disaster was looming, the prophets thundered, and it wasn’t too much for God to use someone outside of Israel for God’s purposes – someone, like say, Nebuchadnezzar. But hearing that Exile was a possibility and facing the consequences of its gut-wrenching reality were two different things.

Exile doesn’t end God’s relationship with Israel, but it does bring about hard lessons and new questions.

As people who had been evicted from the land, they were forced to reckon with the character of God’s promise. As those who have been ripped away from their families, some to never see their children again, they had to wrestle with their own identity and the character of the God in whom they had heard about if not always trusted.

They had to come to grips with whether God could be worshiped apart from a Temple that was once the center of their lives. They had to learn how to trust God again in a world where even Jerusalem wasn’t safe. They had to figure out whether their way of life could still hold, whether the patterns they had come to count on still made sense in a world a whole lot different than the one they thought they knew. They had to decide if God’s mercies were new each morning was a promise they could count on or whether those were just words that sounded good.

In sum, they had to do theology in the midst of trauma. They had to study and pray and, most importantly, they had to remember. They had to take note of their experience with God and remember the testimony of their ancestors. They had to remember that God had been on the move with them before there was a temple, that God has showed them the way out of slavery in Egypt and that God had not been confined to a building but had been mobile in a cloud.

They all don’t come to the same conclusion about the best way to proceed; the response to Exile isn’t uniform. Just like today, different groups proposed different solutions to the new reality. Some sought a military solution to overthrow their captors while others explored isolation in search of a place where they could practice their faith undisturbed. Still others advocated for some sort of assimilation that involved adopting the culture of their new home.

At their best they sought to be faithful to the God who had sent them into Exile but who wasn’t done with them just yet. In the end, the people came to realize they were paying the price for breaking the one rule you do not break, at least when it comes to being in relationship with God. Idolatry – seeking security in anything or anyone but the God of the Covenant – always leads to disaster. But they clung to the hope that their lived disaster wasn’t final because the God they knew was one whose mercy never ran out. Their hope centered on the truth they knew more firmly than anything else – they were still bound to God because God has chosen to still be bound to them.

Exile forced the people to figure out what they really believed about God and what being in relationship with God was going to look like in this new world order. It wasn’t just about how to sing the old songs in a strange land but about how to trust God while longing for home.

Discipleship For An Exiled Church

The first practice for following Jesus as a people experiencing Exile is confession. To live in relationship with God involves owning up to the ways we have traded radical trust in God for the allure of power and principalities. It involves taking seriously the error of our ways and acknowledging the price we have paid for chasing other gods.

The closer we get to Jesus the more we remember that life with God isn’t about the preservation of a way or life or relishing in the new opportunities other kingdoms promise. Instead, faithfulness is centered on radical trust in the God who has called us into being. That means placing our lives not in the hands of powerful people or institutions that have spanned centuries, but in the rock who has promised never to walk away or forsake us, abandon or leave us behind.

Confession, then, leads to repentance and reorientation. Exile reorients by teaching us that the words and stories we so easily gave up are actually the anchors of the life with God we so desperately need. Searching for a foothold in a shifting cultural landscape has shown us that the place we can put down roots is the old story told in words we’ve heard plenty of times before.

We are learning that despite all the technology we can get into our hands, our lives still hinge on our fundamental relationships – with God and the people close to us. The Gospel is reconciliation – and new creation is still the balm we all need for the wounds that fester among us and within us. Sin that ravages our lives and wrecks our communities might have new hashtags, but what we most need hasn’t changed – sin for grace and redemption for brokenness. The hope for a day beyond exile still rests in the relationships that God wants to give us.

Confession and reorientation lead us to trust. It is the potential to rediscover the trustworthiness of God that redeems the bitterness of Exile. Exile isn’t pleasant and it isn’t without deep costs. But we can be restored through Exile if we learn once again that God can be trusted.

The path forward isn’t in doing it the way we used to do it and we can’t find it in a new system or a creative structure. That’s because the path out of Exile is the path out of the Wilderness and is the path that leads to Golgatha. The way forward is rediscovering how to walk with the God who is still here, even in the strange land. The gift is the presence of the God who still makes it possible to sing even when the ground seems unsteady. The life out of Exile is rediscovering how to depend on the God who delivers on the promise never to let us go.

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Not Forsaken: Charlottesville, Faith and the Promise of the Psalms

Photo by Alexa Mazzarello on Unsplash

As I watched the news and tried to digest the images from Virginia on Friday and then again on Saturday, the words of Psalm 22 echoed in my mind.

It’s the Psalm we read in the church on Good Friday, the Psalm we pray with Jesus in the midst of his abandonment, the Psalm we hold on to in the midst of despair, and the Psalm that holds on to us as we contemplate darkness and death.

“My God, my God why have you forsaken me,” it begins, the words Jesus will later quote from the Cross. It’s a prayer from someone desperate for the world to look different. It’s a prayer from someone who feels alone. It’s a prayer from someone who wonders if things will ever get any better.  Ultimately, even on Good Friday, it’s a prayer of lament, a prayer of a person who both begs for God to act and trusts that God will show up and make a difference.

When the darkness rages, it’s always the Psalms. When the earth cries out in pain and anger, it is the Psalms that help me find a way to offer that anger back to God. When the sighs are too deep for words it is the Psalms that help me find a voice. When our lives lead us to demand, “How long, O Lord”, it is the prayers of the Psalms that remind me that the question isn’t a betrayal of faith in God but a testimony to it.

It is the Psalms because the Psalms are the best resource I know to remind me that what happens to the world matters greatly to God.

There’s a strand of Christianity that tries to teach us that the point of the Christian life is to escape the world. Such a view was declared inconsistent with the Gospel by the early church, but heresies have a way of sticking around.

You can’t really reconcile the idea that God doesn’t care about the world with the Bible. Genesis 1 tells us that upon seeing the world God had made, God called it very good. The most famous verse in all of the Bible is John 3:16, which says the the gift of Jesus comes to us because, in fact, “God so loved the world”. The promised new Creation of Revelation contains the hope of no more tears and no more pain, because God actually cares about what you and I experience and grieves our pain. When we mourn, God mourns. That’s part of what it means to love, after all.

This is one of those foundational beliefs that shapes how we live, how we work and how we pray. It’s impossible to pray Your Kingdom, Your Will Be Done and live out a faith that avoids the pain of the world. You can’t live in faithfulness to the God who loves people and ignore the injustices that damage and destroy people that God loves and Christ died for. To love God is to love the world that God loves.

The Psalms both teach and show us how to be in relationship with a God who is not silent. Again and again the Psalms teach us how to pray in the conviction that we do not make our way in the world alone. We are not agents of transformation working by ourselves to make the world look the way God intended. The underlying belief of the Psalms, and the Bible as a whole, is that we are not striving against injustice on our own, but are fighting the good fight in partnership with the God who will not sit on the sidelines.

Consider the words of Psalm 31, which I received, appropriately enough, on Saturday.  “Praise be the Lord, for he showed me the wonders of his love when I was in a city under siege.” Bible in one hand, screen in the other you might say.

We should stamp Psalm 33 on our doorposts, words we need to shout as loud as we can when we want to give up, promises we need to hold on to when evil never seems to stop and hate-fueled violence appears as the inevitable outcome of a world gone mad. “The Lord foils the plans of the nations, he thwarts the purposes of the peoples. But the plans of the Lord stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.”

The message of the Bible is that God will not be deterred. From Genesis to Revelation we read how God is working to unite the entire human family. The distinctions and differences that we hold on to are the things that no longer define people in God’s new creation. The walls are being torn down and God will not rest until everyone is together at the table.

So keep working for God’s justice. Don’t give up on the Beloved Community. This is the heart of God. And God will not be deterred.
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Keep Knocking

Some words just stay with us. No matter what we do or where our lives take us we just can’t get rid of them. They appear out of nowhere and find us in the middle of the night, only to stay for a while in the times when we would rather think about anything else.

You can read some of the words that like to torment me in the fourth chapter of Ephesians.  They interrogated me all those years ago when I first considered Jesus and they have returned with a vengeance lately:

“I beg you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.”

It’s hard out there for everybody, it seems, and certainty for those of trying to lead in and through the church. People are angry and overwhelmed. We see it most clearly online around politics, but that’s far from the only place. People are generally scared and overwhelmed. And so we lash out and we tell people what they have to do. We long for a better way but we also seem to have given up the belief that such a way is possible. We once believed in exceptionalism. Now we settle for inevitability.

I, like seemingly everyone else, am anxious too. I wonder what it means to take on a ministry of reconciliation in a world that gets more fractured and pulled apart every day. I search for answers as I read and pray in a sea of problems that seem too large for me to solve. I keep looking for a way beyond despair from powers and principalities that seem much too large for me to influence or confront.

What does it mean to be faithful to the Gospel I trust right now?  Indeed, those old words are back. What is required of me to live a life worthy of the calling I have received?

Jesus once told a story to explain prayer and action. He talked about someone going to a friend’s house late at night in search of bread. The moral of the story was this: keep knocking.

He said that if you keep knocking the door will be opened. He said that if you keep knocking someone will listen to you. He said if you keep knocking even though someone’s first instinct is to keep the door shut and pray the knocking will end, if you keep at it the door will eventually swing wide open.

Living a life worthy of the calling means to keep knocking. So even when it feels like it doesn’t make a difference, we are going to keep gathering people to read our Story that says God is preparing a table for all the children of the world. When it seems like no one is listening we are going to keep telling the truth as we understand it. When the shouting is only getting louder we are going to make space to listen because we know that God hates a divided world and is making a better one. When we are hungry for a better way we are going to gather around a Table because we know the one thing we have in common is a desperate need to be fed. When we wonder if there is anything we can possibly do to make a difference we are going to work and pray because we’ve come to believe that without God’s help, it might be impossible.  But we have seen that when God gets involved justice does roll down like waters even if the water hasn’t reached everybody just yet.

To trust in the God of the Bible is to trust that truth – that God is with us. And so as followers of Jesus we trust that the best way to transform the world is to do the things Jesus told us to do. After all, he said he came not to condemn the world or even to leave it alone but to transform it and renew it with love.

It is because we know that we aren’t alone that we can keep knocking. We can keep knocking because we know we don’t have to take on the powers all by ourselves. We can keep working at reconciliation because we know God is at work in it with us. We can advocate for justice again and again because we know that we aren’t working on our own. We can do the seemingly innocent but actual radical work of reading and living in this Story because we know God is still writing it in and through us. After all, Jesus told us that we were to be his witnesses, and that God was giving us the power and the wisdom to do it well, despite ourselves.

It is easy to get discouraged and to feel overwhelmed. It is easy to believe that your work and your life don’t have the power to make anything change.

But you aren’t doing this stuff on your own. You can live a life worthy of the incredible calling you have received.

Don’t give up. Keep knocking.

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When Preaching Means Meddling

I walked upstairs Saturday morning and announced to anyone who would listen – my wife, my dog, my two-month old baby – I just don’t know how to finish this sermon.

The text of Scripture was on mercy and compassion. The text of the week was President Trump’s Executive Order on immigration.

Gospel and News, Faith and Life. They make the best sermons. They produce the most sleepless preachers, too.

I’ve yet to figure out how to be one of those preachers who just preaches “The Gospel” and doesn’t pay attention to what’s happening in the world. Our Gospel is one of Incarnation, of God coming into the world because God so loves the world. And so, the way I see it, to be faithful – to myself, to the Scriptures, and to the people who trust me to help them interpret what it means to follow Jesus in 2017 – is sometimes going to involve connecting Christian faith with a social issue or two.

Or sometimes faithfulness means you just have to meddle.

And in the aftermath of a contentious political season and a tumultuous civic life that I’m not betting will calm down anytime soon, preachers are going to have to keep wrestling with how and when to meddle.

So here are a few things I’ve learned about meddling.

1. It’s Always About Jesus

Most of the people in the pews, or chairs, have been in church a long time. They are smart enough to have a pretty good idea about your political leanings. They are also smart enough to know whether you are honestly trying to preach about Jesus or whether you are using Jesus to make the point you want to make. They are much more likely to listen to you if they trust you are trying to be faithful to the Gospel and help them become faithful in their own discipleship. Our job isn’t to build a voting bloc but to point people to Jesus and to a life committed to building his Kingdom.

2. Lean on Scripture 

We follow the Narrative Lectionary in our church, a series of Scripture readings designed to help us live more fully into the Biblical Story.  It has been amazing the number of times the assigned reading for the day has intersected powerfully with issues in the culture. And the people in our church who pay attention to how we plan worship know that when I have something to say that might make us uncomfortable it is grounded in a Scripture text that has been chosen for me not one I went looking for to prove a point. Particularly in more theologically conservative churches, if it comes from the Bible people will listen to you. That doesn’t mean they will agree with you, but they will listen to you.

3. Pick Your Spots 

People, particularly these days, are inundated with analysis and opinion on about politics. CNN, Fox, The New York Times, their local newspapers, the radio, social media – it’s everywhere. Most of them are not looking for your opinion as well. People will listen and allow you to preach as you feel called, but you can’t make every sermon about the news of the week.  People are looking for messages of hope and grace, how the Gospel intersects with their daily lives and in the ways that won’t make the evening news – how to be a better spouse, what Jesus has to say about raising their kids, how to spot God’s Spirit in the hospital, the cemetery and all the places in between.

4. Own Your Bias

All of us live with bias, we pay attention to certain things and ignore others. One of the best ways to understand our bias is by asking why do we get our news in the places we do – MSNBC isn’t purely objective and neither is Fox. Part of my own sinfulness is my bias – I am willing to see certain points of view as more non-negotiable than others. This same bias lives in every person in our churches. If I am going to challenge or question one side I have to be willing to take on the other side when they go astray from my interpretation of the Gospel. The Gospel is political, but in a different way than we think. Gospel politics transform and judge all of us, regardless of ideology or affiliation.

5. Don’t Be Afraid 

Fear Not. Jesus says this more than almost everything. It’s been my experience that most of the things I usually worry about end up causing me the least amount of trouble. The headaches usually come from things I never see coming. Although people might prefer you not preach about certain topics, they also lose respect for you if you don’t. One of the fastest ways to lose spiritual authority with people is to let them know you aren’t willing to stand up for what you believe. Most people, particularly your leaders, want the church to lead with moral authority even if we disagree about the particulars.

6. Make Yourself Available 

At their best, sermons provoke conversations – about Scripture, about life, about what it means to be faithful to Jesus. Every sermon, particularly those that dabble in controversial topics, are opening statements and not the last word.  I hope and expect people will talk to me about what I said. I want to make space for people who disagree to have the opportunity to engage with me.

There will be people who disagree, and sometimes strongly. As the preacher I have a privileged place and microphone in these conversations. So stand up, make yourself available, and let people be part of the conversation. Most of the time people just want to be heard and reminded that you value them and that God loves them. Disagreement about the application of the Gospel does not mean we have to write the person off.

This isn’t an exhaustive list. Just a few things I’ve learned. How about you – how do you proclaim what you believe with integrity and humility in contentious times?

 

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Deep Roots That Bear Fruit

A few years ago I was asked to speak to a group of young adults.

They were mostly recent college graduates who had committed to giving the next year of their lives as urban missionaries. They had gathered on a farm for their orientation, where most of them were both excited and terrified about the year ahead of them. Only a few of them had ever spent time in America’s cities and so they knew that while the upcoming year was going to bring beautiful experiences it would also bring problems and challenges with the potential to overwhelm them.

I was the opening act, so sometime in the morning, with one extra large coffee finished, I began the talk that I, if no one else, was convinced might have been the most important they would hear all day – on spirituality as a fuel for mission. I shared the lessons countless world changers before them had learned, that bearing long-lasting fruit in mission was impossible apart from the spiritual resources God has given them – including but not limited to prayer, Scripture, and maybe most importantly, one another.

I was reminded of that talk the other night.  Because to survive 2017 and its Attention Whiplash we are going to need some help.

Every hour of every day seems to bring with it another issue to become educated about, another protest to participate in or ignore, another call to speak or be silent, another petition to sign or let go by. Each minute brings another article or post about who has it figured out and the requirements of earning residence on the right side of history.

The early days of 2017 feel like a continuation of the chaotic air we breathed in 2016. And if January has anything to tell us about the rest of our year, the chaos isn’t going away any time soon.

To live an engaged and informed life in 2017 requires dodging plenty of pitfalls. Many of us are tempted to dive into every event of every day while others want to bury our heads and let someone figure it out.

It seems clear that to do the right thing – to live the kind of life that we want to live, one that both values our friends and family as well as those whose names we don’t know yet – we’re going to need some help. To avoid becoming overwhelmed and find the perspective to live the engaged and constructive life that feels both holy and necessary, we’re going to need wisdom and power that’s deeper than the latest post on Facebook and more enduring than the breaking news alert on our screen.

Roots and Fruit

The term Jesus used for living an engaged and committed life that flows from what you believe was bearing fruit. That sounds churchy, but bearing fruit really is just another way to talk about loving one another. Scripture, as well as our experience, confirm that we can’t do that on our own. We get too mad. We become defensive. We find our worth in the idolatry of being right.

In a message to his disciples recorded in John’s Gospel, Jesus said that with his help, by staying close to him and doing the things to receive his gifts and power, we can bear much fruit. Put another way, with his help, even in 2017, we can love one another well. But without it, when we rush to do things in our wisdom and power, to stand on our own opinions and understanding, love goes by the wayside.

The only way we can effectively love one another well, in good times much less hectic times like these, is to root ourselves in something that will last. And so for me, it means that before I dive into the latest analysis I need to dive into the story of God, the story that tells me who I am and how I should live. It means that before I commit to another email list I need to commit to spending time in silence to let God work in and on me. It means that before I rage against the machine I need to spend time in confession to understand the ways I am complicit in the same machine.

Our charge hasn’t changed. It might feel more urgent today but the work and the call is the same – love one another. Love can be controversial. Love can be uncomfortable. Love can cause divisions. But it is the response and requirement of faith.

Love one another. Apart from me you can do nothing. But with me, you can bear fruit that lasts.

I’m taking Jesus at his word. So let’s root and ground ourselves in love. Let’s trust the Psalm and believe that rooting ourselves in a deep reading of Scripture is what we need to remain anchored and live with wisdom in the storms of our day. Let’s ground ourselves in the spiritual practices and ways of life that have nurtured so many.

Let’s take the help God wants to give us to love well. Because we know we need it.

 

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