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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This Week is Our Week

When I first began in ministry, I felt the need to make sure that my congregations knew how important it was to enter into the full drama of Holy Week.  I made a big, and likely annoying point, every year – that we couldn’t go straight from Palm Sunday to Easter. Instead, if our Sundays were to be filled with light, we had to experience the darkness during the week – lowlighted by the betrayal of Holy Thursday and the death of Good Friday.

I almost rejoiced in encouraging, maybe guilting is a better word, all of us to take our liturgical medicine.  It was for good reason, because for far too long we Protestants have struggled to proclaim a faith that speaks to our whole lives.  To put a theological word on it – we’ve struggled with Incarnation.  We know how to sing the Hosannas and to triumphantly proclaim that the Lord is Risen, but we have a much harder time finding our words when life calls for confession and the world’s events demand lamentation.

Holy Week, when we experience it well, becomes a school of formation and a way to help us find the words to speak our faith in a more authentic and complete way.

During the last couple of years, however, I have come to think and speak about Holy Week in a different way.  It isn’t that we don’t need to dwell and contemplate darkness and death – because of course there’s no Easter light and Resurrection without them.  It is just that its more than that – I’ve come to believe that Holy Week is less about Christian education and a whole lot more about identification

That’s because beneath the dramatic and other worldly moments that fill Holy Week are emotions and experiences that are much more common.  The high profile failures of Jesus’ disciples aren’t foreign to us.  In fact, the reason they are so powerful is that they aren’t beyond our imagination at all, but instead mirror our own failures in faithfulness.

 

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The hard truth we don’t want to acknowledge is that the gap between our promises and hopes for faith and the lived reality of our actual commitment to Jesus is what he himself once called a great chasm. No matter how many times we protest, most of us are always one opened mouth away from sounding a lot like Peter and one temptation away from becoming a betrayer like Judas for a lot less than 30 silver pieces.

That’s why this week is actually for us.  We need this week to be reminded of Gospel’s fullness and to once again receive its grace. We don’t need to worship on Thursday and Friday to learn a little more or to have a more defensible faith.  We need to hear these stories again and to live into this drama one more time so that we might relearn and take in the story God is still writing – that sin is costly but isn’t permanent, that darkness may loom but it doesn’t reign, and that no matter how bad your betrayal there is always a road to redemption.

That’s the thing about Holy Week, it never changes – it isn’t an obligation to slog through but is a gift to be received again and again.

And so, if you can recount the dark details of failing in faith and falling short of the glory of God – this week is for you.

If you are one of those people who knows what it is like to fall asleep while you are praying, or if your prayer life is so far gone you don’t even think about it before giving in to sleep – this week is for you.

If you are one of those people who shout with the crowds but haven’t yet figured out how to show up in crunch time or when the popular kids aren’t around – this week is for you.

If you are one of those people who got trapped into putting your hope in the promise that a politician or a coach or a preacher could lead you to the promised land only to be disappointed once they got your vote or your adoration or your check – this week is for you.

If you are one of those people who look at the damage and carnage in the world and are overwhelmed and paralyzed by hopelessness and powerlessness – this week is for you. 

If you are one of those people who made that long walk up the aisle one Sunday morning only to return to the life you were hoping to move beyond – well this week is for you.

If you are one of those people who can’t see God’s creative genius in yourself and can’t escape the muck of depression and self-loathing – this week is for you. 

If you are one of those people who long for a more real connection with God only to despair that it will never happen for you – this week is for you.  

If you are one of those people who has experienced the disappointment and darkness that comes from sin and a crooked path – this week is for you.

This week is for all of us who have tried with everything we have to follow Jesus and have still failed. No matter the shape the darkness is trying to take in your life – know that this week isn’t a burden to bear or another obligation to be weighed down by. This week is what it has always been – a gift to help us, a gift to rescue us, and a gift to redeem us.

My hope is that you can experience it again this year and can receive it as it was always intended.

It is a gift – and it is for you.

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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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With: My Word for 2015

One of my favorite writers wrote a post early in 2015 about the word for her year.  Her word, actually her multiple words for 2015, were Hold Fast.

That post has stayed with me.  In fact, it provoked and prodded me to claim and write about a word that would define my year, too. But I wasn’t quite ready to write it early in the year and it turns out I wasn’t ready to write it in the middle of the year, either.  It was only at the end of the year, looking back on a year that felt frenzied and heartbreaking and exhilarating all rolled into one that I was finally ready to write.

So for the last few months, on the side dashboard in Scrivener, the app I use to write, in the unpublished folder sat an untouched file that stared right at me:

One Word: With.

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That’s because throughout 2015, which in many ways has been a year I wanted to blow through as fast as possible and skip straight to 2016 , With has been the word that has kept me going. Regardless of whether the days have been good or unceasingly long, whether they were ordinary or exciting, whether they were spent in Laguna Beach taking in the beauty of the Pacific Ocean or in my new locale South of the River here in Knoxville, the word and the the qualities I have been reminded of again and again is the truth of this season in the life of our faith – God is With Us.

With was the strength that helped me survive 2015’s beginning, which honestly is still a blur, as I made it through the days while grieving for a future that might have been but isn’t yet. In the midst of long conversations and seemingly random triggers, the holiness of With shortened the dark days and strengthened my soul.

With was the steady hand I needed in the spring as I was tossing and turning while waiting in a system that can be both comfortingly familiar and terrifyingly foreign.  During a month of stressing and hoping and staring at my phone, the power of With was what kept me sane in a time that seemed designed to do just the opposite.

With was the comforting presence that kept me anchored as I searched for community after some close friends moved away and other relationships drifted apart. In the darkness of isolation, some of it self-inflicted, With was there with the assurance and compassion of One who knew exactly who I was and with the encouragement that I was never alone.

With was the perseverance that shoved me into leadership in a new place with new people, answering my self-doubt and quieting the haunting questions of whether what I actually knew what I thought I knew. With was the assuring voice that reminded me that God has actually equipped me for this new challenge in this new place.

And With has infused me with hope, despite the violence and despair that we have experienced in the city that I love and the unceasing bitterness and constant heartache that we experience from news around the world.

God Is With Us.  What does it all mean?

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God With Us means that there is a presence and power that doesn’t abandon us in the good times or the bad. God With Us means there is someone who rejoices when you rejoice and who weeps with you as you weep.

God With Us means knowing that when your heart breaks someone else’s heart breaks too.  God With Us means being confident that while you are struggling with anxiety and brokenness you don’t struggle alone.

God With Us is about God’s powerful Spirit inspiring you to step out and do something bold and pushing you beyond the limits of what feels comfortable and safe. And God With Us reminds you that even if and when you fall, the landing might not always be soft, but it will never be jagged, crushing or life-ending.

We talk a lot about God With Us this time of year.  It is, in fact, the most important thing we will say today and tomorrow and throughout the Twelve Days.

Each time we say it we are forced to answer the question that comes with it – is it true?  Is it actually true or is just another religious phrase, more words we say only because we are supposed to?

If I learned anything in 2015, is is this: With isn’t just a word.  God With Us isn’t just a phrase. It is true.

No matter what, God is With Us.

Happy Christmas.

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