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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Beyond Fear: The Shove of Resurrection

For some people the Resurrection stories are some of the hardest in all of the Bible to believe. After all, it’s never been easy to make sense of Resurrection. But in some ways they are among the easiest to believe, because it doesn’t take too much imagination to identify with what we read there – people overwhelmed by fear, paralyzed by worry and struggling to find a clear idea of what it all means.

It doesn’t matter which Gospel you read, because this is what we encounter in almost every story that involves Jesus appearing after Easter morning. It is probably most vivid, however, in Mary’s encounter with Jesus at the tomb.

We don’t find her laughing or celebrating, but instead John tells us that she was weeping. She didn’t know what to believe. She didn’t know what had happened. She assumed the worst – that someone had stolen his body – maybe the one thing that could make a terrible week even worse. The event that gives us hope and faith had reduced her to fear and anguish.

And yet, that’s not how she left the tomb. Because Jesus was there and he helped her make sense of it all. He showed her that there was more to this story – and hers. Because she had a role to play – go and tell your friends what you have seen and what you have heard.

At the tomb on Easter morning Mary experienced a journey from fear to mission – from where have you taken him to I have seen the Lord.

Mary isn’t the only one to experience the Resurrection in this way. In Luke 24 we read how a walking Bible Study with Jesus helped two men get to a place where they too could say we have seen the Lord. It was on a beach that Peter had the conversation and received the forgiveness he desperately needed.

Three times Jesus asked Peter if he loved him, once for each time Peter had betrayed him, of course. This is the moment Peter received the forgiveness he needed and this is the moment Peter discovered the purpose and mission Jesus has for his life.

Because in a post-Resurrection world, forgiveness always leads to discovering your purpose and receiving your mission.

That’s why this story matters so much.  We know, with Mary at the tomb, what it is like to be assaulted by grief. We know, with the men on the road to Emmaus, what it is like to walk away in despair. We know, with Peter on the beach, what it is to desperately need forgiveness.

And so we rejoice after Easter that the worries that threaten to stop us in our tracks don’t. We celebrate in the light of Sunday the possibilities for new life that come when we begin to understand how God’s story is still unfolding in us, even now. We experience joy in Resurrection when we realize the purpose and mission for our lives that comes from receiving and experiencing God’s forgiveness and grace.

The Resurrection matters because we have become convinced that there is a power within us that is strong enough to break the bonds of fear. We live by the grace that is stronger than judgement and rest in the forgiveness that frees us from anything that would prevent us from living in the light of God’s love. We cling with everything we have to the promise of Romans 8 that because of all that has happened we trust that there is absolutely nothing with the power to separate us from God’s love.

Resurrection matters when it becomes the reality that lingers every day of our lives as we live into the new mission we have been given. God’s victory over death invites us to tell when and where we have seen the Lord. The light that shines out of the empty tomb calls us to bear witness to God’s love in a world that desperately needs a glimpse of it any way it can get it. We experience the joy of new life by getting to participate in the new thing God is doing in redeeming and restoring the world.

A journey that begins in fear ends in becoming partners with God to change the world.

That’s why Easter matters.

 

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The Church of the White-Walled Doctor’s Office

I hate this place.

They do their best to make it nice. They know you are nervous when you come here. They know you are doing everything you can to hold yourself together. They know your family hangs in the balance while you wait to hear your name called.

So they smile. They put you in nice, comfortable chairs – as nice as you can have in a doctor’s office. They invite you to look at the pictures, big black and white pictures – of moms and dads, grandparents and grandchildren. Smiling. Enjoying. Living.

This could be you – that’s what they want you to think. The pictures are supposed to put you at ease, to make you feel better about being here. They are here to help you believe.

But the pictures and the faces also confront you. They are of other people. They are of other families. These are not pictures of you.

The nurse calls our names and we look at each other, hearts racing, blood pressure skyrocketing. She walks back and I sit, waiting for another person in white to walk out and call her name.

Why is it always white? Everything here is black and white. It’s all celebration or despair, nothing in between. Everybody comes here to walk the tightrope of joy and tragedy, heartbreak and relief, praying against death and desperately hoping for new life.

We hear her name and look at each other again. Can’t avoid it any longer. We walk into the room – we’ve been here before. A familiar room and a familiar face.

She doesn’t remember us. We’ll never forget her.  She was the one who delivered the news that broke our hearts. Her words brought the grief that wouldn’t go away.

No heartbeat. 

This might not happen for you they told us. You might need to consider other options. And we have.

We’re as surprised as anybody to be back here for this, back in this room waiting, back here sitting and staring at a screen, back here trying to make sense of it, back here waiting for a verdict that will change everything, one way or the other.

She talks to us, asks us the usual questions, and then she gets a big smile on her face. We can’t go there yet.

We don’t smile when we come here.

“Your baby has a good, strong heartbeat.”

Our shoulders drop. We finally smile. We hug and we laugh and we cry, different tears than we’ve ever cried before.

“There’s your tax break, Ogle”, my wife says almost immediately with a wry, Chicago smile.

“Will this be your first?” the nurse asks us. Yes, we smile.

We tell her our story, about how this room is the last place we expected to be, about how we were learning about “other options”, about how pretty much is a really important metaphor when placed before impossible.

For nothing is impossible with God.

It turns out this office is full of preachers.

“I’ve worked here a long time and I’ll tell you that sometimes God knows more than the doctors. When God wants you to have a baby you are going to have a baby!”

I can’t help but think about our friends – women who would be great mothers and are still waiting. Has God decided something different for them? I hold it down, there are some days for theodicy and some days for celebration.

They take us into another room and we sit for about three minutes before another staff member – one who gave us our options and cared for us so well the last time we were here – comes bounding in with a huge smile on her face. “I’m so happy. I’ve got to call your doctor – she will be so excited.”

We tell her our story and she can’t help it either. “Sometimes God knows things that the tests don’t – you all are going to be great parents.”

For nothing is impossible with God. 

We look at each other again, eyes bright with hope and relief. We know there will be more trips here and more things to worry about. Every trip to this place, a friend will tell me later, is a chance for them to tell you what might be wrong with your baby. But not today.

Today we hope and dream for the life that is just starting to grow. Today we laugh about changing diapers and early morning feedings.  Today we know we’ll be spending a whole lot less time and money at Barnes & Noble and a whole lot more at Buy Buy Baby.

And we remember. As scary as this place is, God is here. Of course God is always here, has always been here. God is here with us today and didn’t leave the last time we were here.

God weeps with the ugly cry weepers and rejoices with the new parents celebrating life and dreaming dreams.

A few months later we sit in our living room. It’s a wreck now, nothing compared to the chaos it will become in a few weeks. Our house is littered with stuff, contraptions and must-haves only an entrepreneur could dream up. We’ve painted a room purple and jammed more pink into it than we ever imagined possible.

We smile and we wait, full of nerves and anxiety, wondering what we haven’t done yet and certain of all the ways we aren’t up to this.

We look at each other again and we remember – that even here, in this mess, we aren’t alone. God is here too. And that is enough.

That’s what we learned at The Church of the White-Walled Doctor’s Office and from the preachers in scrubs.

God is up to something and new life is on the way.

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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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Ways Off the Path: The Spiritual Discipline of Becoming Less of a Jerk

(Note: This is the second 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 last week’s post at the bottom of the page.)

Once, in an online employee profile a co-worker shared that she believed one of my primary spiritual gifts is sarcasm.  I’m fairly certain it wasn’t a compliment.

In my defense, I come by it honestly.  I spent a good part of my 20’s being trained as a newspaper reporter, where cynicism and sarcasm aren’t personality types but job requirements.

So, it isn’t much of a surprise that some of my colleagues have been known to ask how I chose House M.D., as  a spiritual mentor or that I’ve long been drawn to the characters of the Coen Brothers and shows like The Wire.  For years my mom has suggested I spend less time on these stories and more time on lighter fare like The Hallmark Channel – but I’m proud to say that up to this point I’ve been able to hold her off.

Everybody has their own ways of pursuing spiritual growth, but one of the ways I am choosing to try to follow closer to Jesus these days is what I call, in a phrase you can only learn in Divinity School, becoming less of a jerk.

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Well, that’s not exactly true. But during this holy season of Lent – this time in which we are encouraged to take an honest and searing look at our lives and the habits that keep us away from God – I am working to become less critical of myself and of other people.

One of the byproducts of being trained as an analyst and to be skeptical is that you become an expert in identifying the ways that people fall short of the glory of God and the inherent failures of groups and systems.

There is a place for clear-minded and honest analysis, because we can only grow more faithful if we are willing to tell the truth about ourselves and our communities and organizations.  But when these efforts command so much of our time and attention, the costs can be too high.

We pay the price that comes from perfectionism when we fail to meet the impossible standards we set for ourselves.  It doesn’t matter that no one can meet them – that’s beside the point we tell ourselves.  And the standards not only lead to self-doubt and self-criticism but also being unable to live the life God wants for us. Instead of honestly trying to be obedient to God’s call on our lives, we find ourselves stuck and unable to move because we become paralyzed by the fear of not being able to live without failure.

Another steep price we pay is that we miss out and fail to appreciate the incredible gifts of the people around us.  When all we can see is the ways it can be better, we become blinded to the ways that God has been and still is at work in and through our community.

The truth is the more devoted we become to critical analysis the harder it is to appreciate the good things in our lives.

And when we miss the good things in our lives, we miss the blessing and the presence of God – in our friends, in our families, and in the countless people who reveal God’s love to us each and every day.

I was reminded of this last week when my wife and I were discussing a chapter in the book we are reading together for Lent.  As we were reflecting on the chapter, she reminded both of us that we are so much better off focusing on the blessings God has given us than stressing out on the things we don’t have. (Writer’s Note: I clearly married up.)

So, during these forty holy days of Lent I am trying to build a habit that will stick – to spend less time in analysis and snark and more time in celebration and appreciation.  We all can be good at a lot of things, but I am hoping to become better at learning how to see and celebrate the way God is at work in my life, in my family’s life, and in the life of the church and the people and the community we love.

It generally takes about six weeks for habits to take hold – so I have high hopes for this season of life.  I don’t know what you are up for Lent – probably something much holier than trying to become less cynical and critical- but whatever it is I hope and pray that you experience God’s grace and power to see the change you long for.

Ways Off the Path

Week 1: Paying Attention to the Wrong Things

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