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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Book Review: Elaine Heath at Englewood Review of Books

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I’m over at the Englewood Review of Books today, with a review of Elaine Heath’s book, God Unbound, on the wisdom of Galatians for the church in anxious times.

It’s an important book, because if there is one reality for those of us in the church and in leadership, that reality is that the church knows anxiety well.  We’re anxious about a lot of things, but mostly we’re anxious about the future – what the church is going to look like in five years, ten years, not to mention six months.

Elaine Heath is one of the most important and helpful thinkers in the UMC and her wisdom to find our footing by rooting ourselves in spiritual disciplines – like prayer, confession, honest Scripture reading and the Examen – feels not only wise but faithful to the Gospel to which we’ve been entrusted.  This is a book well worth your time.

You can find my review at ERB here.

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The Church Beyond Anxiety

We live in anxious times.  

It doesn’t take a keen observer of the news to feel it.  It is always there during an election, but it feels more acute this time. The stakes are so high, it seems, that Canada is already offering a new home for the losing side.  If you have to go somewhere, there are worst places. 

As someone who spends most of my waking hours either at a church, reading about church, thinking or writing about what it means to be the church, all this feeling of anxiety isn’t unfamiliar. 

It flows from our fear – the fear of what we can’t control or predict, the fear that the ground beneath us is shifting, the fear that the ground might not be what we thought it was or what it always has been. 

It is, in fact, more than a feeling. It is reality. The ground on which we stand is shifting. What were once our strengths we now experience as liabilities. We don’t have the same influence we used to, even here in the Bible Belt. The institutions and structures we created to enable ministry have become burdens and obstacles to continuing it. Our experience isn’t the answer because the culture and church where we gained it no longer exist apart from our memories. 

The shifting landscape means we aren’t sure where we are headed and what exactly we should do.  The only thing we are certain of is that we don’t like uncertainty. 

I was struck last week at how friends from another denomination were reporting on the exact same arguments and frustrations and battles at their annual meeting as we did at ours a couple of months ago. Different names on the signs and different meeting places, but the same divisions, the same heartbreak, the same falling short of the city of God. 

When it comes the church, anxiety is a universal experience. 

The Antidote

The uncertainty tempts us to seek our salvation in new strategies and well researched plans – a third way, a new approach, a call to action, a way forward, you’ve heard them all. But a surplus of plans and consultants hasn’t released us from the prison of anxiety and uncertainty. 

That’s because the antidote to the problems isn’t a new strategy – it is faithfulness. The firm foundation we are looking for in the midst of uncertainty won’t come from marketing slogans or complicated plans.  Instead, it is found where it always has been – in answering Jesus’ call to follow.  The call to fidelity is the call that created the church and it is the call that will see the church through.

The way beyond fear is no more and no less than the Way and the pattern of life that Jesus handed down to us.  It is found in worship that reorients our life by centering it in God, in spiritual formation that reminds us that everything we have is a gift and in working to make the world more just and more like God envisions it.  It is acting from our core conviction that everyone was created in the Image of God and it is living by grace that in the best times and in the worst times God is with us.  

It is the Way that prevents us from chasing lesser things and it is the Way that enables us to stay true to our purpose and calling.  It is the Way that reminds us of why we actually exist in the first place – to bear witness to God’s love, to make the world a better place for all of God’s children, to enjoy a community where everyone can find and use the gifts God has given them and to help one another live lives that look more like the life Jesus lived and the one he envisions for us. 

We find our way in this complicated time for the Church by living into the rhythms of these convictions – the Way and the pattern of life shaped by gift and responsibility, by confession and forgiveness, by absolution and reconciliation, by salvation through faith  and membership in God’s beloved community. 

Make no mistake, this Way isn’t easy.  It requires a trust and a radical commitment in the victory of God.  But why not – don’t we say that the church is of God and give our lives in the promise that the church, the bride of Christ, will be persevered until the end of time? 

It’s probably unrealistic to think that the anxiety we live with in the church is going away any time soon.  As dramatic as this might seem, the culture will shift again – there will be new challenges and more obstacles, new uncertainties and more chances to live in fear.  

But the way forward is the same as it always been, and it begins with answering a charge – Follow Me.  

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Rerouting

I’m not even here yet, and this is already a disaster. 

I’m on my way to a neighborhood I know at least somewhat well – it is down the road from a gym I used to frequent on the rare days when sleep didn’t win the morning battle with my alarm clock.

I’m not sure how the two dots on the navigation app could be any farther apart. And that annoying voice – well, usually it is annoying but now it has reached four-alarm ready to chuck the phone out of the car. 

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I can feel my blood pressure rising.  More concerning is that I am fairly certain that my heart is about to explode through my chest.  Breathe, I say, more as the necessity for survival than a practice of serenity. 

Rerouting

I am on my way to a spiritual retreat, a day to pray with pastors and church leaders. I am here because in my first year as a lead pastor I have discovered that leading a community called to be a sign of the Kingdom is exhausting. I am here because I am tired. I am here because a day apart to rest and pray seems like a great idea, an idea long overdue, actually. 

And I’ve failed before I can get there, wherever there even is.  It turns out that there is an event center that really is a guest house located behind another house, which just happens to look like every other house on this street in the middle of nowhere. 

I am here, finally – frazzled, haggard and in some seriousness need of extra strong coffee.  

As I reflect on the words of the morning Scripture we have been given – Psalm 23, it’s always Psalm 23 – I realize all of my ideas about why I am here have missed the mark.

The annoying voice on my phone was telling me exactly why I am here.

I am here to be rerouted.

I’m Still Here

I came to faith in a serious way for the first time in college.  Sure, I dabbled in church growing up, even speaking on Youth Sunday and participating semi-regularly in church – at least until I got a car. But college was where it happened for me. 

College is usually either the place you discard faith only to pick it up once you have a family or the place where you begin to enter into faith’s beauty and mystery. The first option is the stuff of coming of age movies. My story comes from the second one. 

With this development came a spiritual life unlike any I had experienced before. Sure, the preachers talked about prayer and I even read a book or two on the subject, but in college I reveled in a prayer life that was both uplifting and shockingly reorienting.

I was experiencing a beautiful connection with God – enjoying the hope that comes from speaking and listening to the Author of the universe, receiving direction when I wasn’t sure which way to go, and constantly being reminded that in all the hurdles and challenges of trying to become a full-blown adult, God loved me, even me.

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In my Methodist tradition, we make a big deal about assurance – the idea that God’s Spirit speaks and calms our spirit, assuring and reminding us that what we have experienced is true. We can actually count on it – we are beloved and redeemed children of God.

Looking back, it is pretty obvious that this early faith experience was an experience of God’s assurance.  I had responded in faith to God’s love and grace, and in my prayer life God was letting me know that this wasn’t a myth. No, this is real.

Like any person who seeks out God and shares their wants and desires, some of those prayers were self-delusions. It probably wasn’t much of a coincidence that the things I heard God say just happened to be the things I wanted to hear. But over time I learned to test the spirits as I grew in maturity as Christ was continuing his work in me.

But then something changed.

I kept trying to do the things that had nurtured my relationship with God, but nothing seemed to work.  It turns out you really can’t force God to do anything.  I wanted the clarity and the certainty of the Divine-shaped details. But the more I tried, the more I waited for a silence that never broke. 

Change is inevitable.  The prophets remind us that God is doing a new thing. But what do you do when the new thing disorients you and leaves you searching for the anchor you were certain you had already found?

The Pain-Filled Middle

God was trying to teach me one of the essentials – the content of our faith might be the same today, yesterday and forever.  But our experience of it, try as we might, never stays the same.

That’s our very hope – to experience sanctification, to learn to live and love more like Jesus, demands change. And the new thing God is up to, it will happen, regardless of whether you like it or not or whether you ask for it or not. 

What was happening in those post-college years was that I was in a middle place, sandwiched between the experience of God I had known and loved and the new place God was preparing me for.

I didn’t like it one bit, because one of the things they don’t tell you about growth with God is that it is always involves plenty of pain.  

As I I read books and stared at the walls wondering just what was going on, I couldn’t dodge the suspicion that God has abandoned me. When I turned to those familiar passages of Scripture hoping they would speak life into me one more time, I wanted to know what I had done wrong. When I just couldn’t connect with God any more, I kept wondering why faithfulness felt like an illusion and how connection became the struggle that never seemed to cease. 

It was a time of questions without a whole lot of answers, a place of darkness without a whole lot of light,  and a life full of seeking without a whole lot of finding.  

John of The Cross called it the Dark Night of the Soul.  At the rate I was going, one night didn’t seem so bad. As the days and the nights piled up, I kept wondering what name they had come up with for months of darkness. 

The Spirit’s Place

Sunday is Pentecost – the day we celebrate the birth of the church and the sending of the Spirit. One of the truths Pentecost teaches us that real life confirms is that the middle – the anxiety producing, doubt-infusing, heartbreaking middle – is also the place where the Spirit lives and does its work. 

The middle is the place where God speaks the truth that we will never be left behind, no matter how many times it feels like God might have memory loss when it comes to that particular promise. On Pentecost the Spirit explodes into the middle, not in the comfortable place where they had come from or in the established church to which they will go.

Instead, the Spirit chooses the uncertain and never-wrecking middle as the place of creativity. The middle is the moment where the Spirit shoves us away from the familiar of what has been and into the new and better thing of what will be.

God knows the middle. And no matter how dark and cloudy it may seem, God knows how to bring the light through.

Restoration

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That’s what I was reminded in the back yard of that long-searched for house behind the house.  Watching the ripples spread across a sun-soaked pond, I remembered and prayed those words I’ve said so many times before.  Usually I say them at the graveside, words of comfort and hope for other people.  

But today they are for me. 

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.  

God never promised it would be easy and painless, but God always promises to restore and renew. The same God who promised never to leave me is the same One who now assures me that I will make it through.  

In the longing and the waiting, God is present. In the wrestling and the crying, God is right here. In the hoping for something more, God will see this through.  In the hunger for life and the thirst for connection, God will fill my soul with the nourishment it longs for.

Even in the middle I can say it – the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  The Lord is my portion, I lack nothing.  

I walk inside to the final reflection of the day, with a serious case of sunburn. The mark of a day that began with brooding darkness yet somehow is ending covered in light.

I don’t mind it though, I need the reminder.  God’s still working on me.

The light leaves it’s mark. God’s not done with me yet.

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Ways Off the Path: When The Box Isn’t Big Enough

(Note: This is the third in my Lent series, Ways Off the Path, on some of the ways we can fall of the path and get separated with God.  You can find a link to earlier posts in this series at the bottom of the page.)

One of the easiest ways we veer off the path of faithfulness and experience a much more shallow life with God than the one we have been created for is by creating God in our own image.

We’ve seen it on full display in this election cycle, with candidates of all stripes justifying their behavior through divine sanction. Unfortunately, making the God of the Bible into a safe and predictable God who endorses the things we endorse and hates the people we hate isn’t reserved for those running for office.

I find it really easy to convince myself that God dreams for the same kind of world that I do and don’t have a lot of trouble believing that God enjoys the kind of worship that I most prefer. It is not hard for me to overlook and justify the sins that I am most prone to committing while getting uncomfortably self-righteous at those that don’t tempt me or the ones that oppose my preferences, political convictions and the world views with which I am most comfortable.

The hard truth is that finding people who haven’t suffered from shoehorning God to fit their preferred beliefs and ways of life  – well, a camel and an eye and a needle come to mind.

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It doesn’t matter whether the gods we fashion are conservative or liberal, black or white, traditional and old-fashioned or contemporary and cutting edge. When we fall into this trap not only do we commit idolatry, the most significant of the Thou Shall Nots that Moses brings down from the Mountain, we also fool ourselves.

When we decide we have the power to become the great creators of everything we need, we strip the Gospel of its very power by trading the power of God to make a new creation in us for another shallow justification for what we already think, believe and live for.

Regardless of how or why we do make them, the gods of our imagination can’t bear the weight of the God we worship and have been given in Jesus.  These wannabe gods just aren’t big enough, don’t have the power to change us and simply cannot bring the redemption we need.

The confronting and convicting texts of Lent forcefully remind us of this – and they don’t politely ask us whether we like it or not. On Sunday, we heard that truth from Isaiah, who reminded us that our ways of thinking and patterns of living don’t necessarily come from God.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” – Isaiah 55:8-9

What we need more than anything else isn’t another place to listen to the news we want to hear but instead a way to encounter a power greater than we can imagine who can show us a new way of life with more meaning and hope than we have ever experienced.

The growth and change we all desperately need, even if we can’t bring ourselves to say it out loud, comes from admitting that God’s wisdom is greater than our own and finding our place in the enormous mission and kingdom of God.

That’s the conviction we draw from the stories of Scripture that shape our faith. How many times do we encounter stories of people who were convinced that they know exactly who God is and precisely how God goes about accomplishing God’s will for the world only to be shocked and surprised when their world is tossed upside down?

No one experienced that more than Paul, who had his whole religious upbringing and education turned on its head when he encountered Jesus on the Damascus Road – but he’s not the only one.  Abraham believed and trusted in a future he couldn’t see, Ruth learned the blessing of radical commitment and Job discovered that the wisdom of convention isn’t always the wisdom of God. The Bible is full of stories like these – people who God shocked with wisdom and purpose they could never have come up with on their own.

When we read and pray and allow ourselves to be changed by these stories, we realize that God is much less predictable than we prefer and that the God of the Bible seems to love upending our assumptions and is always in the process of doing a new thing.

This isn’t an easy thing to experience. This holy season reminds us that those who are most sure they know who God is and what God is for are often the ones who most profoundly and spectacularly miss God’s revelation and misunderstand God’s mission.

What the Bible tells us is that the key to experiencing Resurrection and New Creation is to learn how to humble yourself, how to become open to God, and how to watch for the signs of God’s activity in the world – even and especially when they hurl your heart and mind into the whirlwind.

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God spoke to Job out of the whirlwind and tends to do the same with us.

And so, these are the stories we need to keep close – the thief who receives the promise of paradise, the disciples who experience real presence in the breaking of the bread and the many who become one through a Spirit who blows where it will and authors stories of redemption again and again.

It’s easy to find your way off the path.  But we can always find our way back, by doing what doesn’t usually come naturally – admitting we might be wrong, listening for God’s presence, and allowing ourselves to be changed by the grace of a God who is greater and more creative than we can imagine.

Ways Off the Path

Week 1: Paying Attention to the Wrong Things

Week 2: Paralysis by Overanalysis

 

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