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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We Will

On Sunday morning our family walked up and stood in front of the church I have been called to help lead. Me, I’m used to that. In fact, it’s expected. It is, despite my serious introversion, a job requirement.

My wife doesn’t enjoy being up front; she avoids it at almost all costs. My daughter, at least so far, is happy as long as there is somewhere to sleep and a pacifier nearby. And yet, there Erin and I were, standing with our daughter and our parents while everyone else stared at us as we prepared to answer some questions from a preacher.

They weren’t just any questions either, but questions about our faith. We were asked what we believe is most fundamentally true – about God and the world that God loves. We were asked about life – particularly the kind of life we believe is worth living, the life we want for ourselves and the one we want for our daughter. We were asked about our commitments – what we were willing to do and what we weren’t willing to do.

Question 1: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sin?

We do.

Question 2: Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

We do.

Question 3: Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations and races?

We do.

Question 4: Will you nurture your daughter in Christ’s holy Church, that by your teaching and example she may be guided to accept God’s grace for herself, to profess her faith openly and to lead a Christian life?

We will.

Serious questions these are, questions that require serious answers. There’s nothing that forces you to come to grips with what you really believe is important quite like trying to raise a child.

My wife and I were raised in two different church traditions, particularly when it comes to baptism. She grew up in a tradition that prefers adult baptism and infant dedication. I grew up in one that practices infant baptism and mostly teenage confirmation.

Before our daughter was born we had plenty of conversations about the sacrament– when and how it would be offered if we had a child, why each tradition made sense and what it all meant to receive the waters and blessing of being baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And so we made the walk from our seats to the front of the church Sunday not in respect to tradition or out of some ecclesial obligation, but because of what we have come to believe is true about the way God works in our lives and in the world.

We looked at each other and smiled as we heard a friend pronounce the words over our daughter:

I baptize you in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

Because this we believe – these questions are impossible to truthfully answer yes to on our own.

Sin and evil lurk around every corner and find their way into our lives when we are looking and when we aren’t. How could we possibly reject them by ourselves?

Rejecting evil, injustice and oppression is a supersized task, even if the freedom does come from God. There isn’t a day that goes by when we aren’t aware – even as privileged and relatively comfortable people – of the injustices and evils and oppression that friends and neighbors face on a near constant basis. Rejecting these is God-sized work.

The very nature of faith is trust and yet we are keenly aware of how easy it is to place trust in other things – reputation, money, popularity, and comfort just to name a few. And while the Gospel breaks down every barrier, many of which we don’t name in the liturgy, I admit that I’m still pretty good at clinging to the old identities and ways of being.

And then there’s the real tough one – that our lives are to be examples to our daughter that will lead her to Christ. We’re supposed to live in such a way that she will reject the idolatries of the world and find freedom from the sins that bind us and might bind her. It isn’t our intellect or powers of persuasion that we are being asked to affirm, but the integrity of how we try to follow Jesus.

How could anyone say yes to these questions?

And yet there we were, declaring with boldness and confidence that we will resist evil and oppression, that we will  live in the freedom of God, that we will put our whole trust in God’s grace and that our lives will bear witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

We did it because we know that the same grace our daughter was receiving in the water – the power to resist sin and grow in grace – was at work in our lives. The same grace that was drawing her to God before she is even aware of it is the same grace that is sustaining and pulling us forward in our life with God as well. Our own strength and faith commitments announce a dreary No. But with God’s grace, working in our lives and the lives of our faithful friends and community we can shout a joy-filled Yes.

Christ is alive. Grace is ever-present. God is at work.

Will you follow Jesus and show your daughter how to do the same?

Without reservation – We Will!

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Wednesday Nights: Food, Faith and The Power of a Good Story

I sat down for a few minutes after a long day, only to glimpse at the accusations coming from the clock. So, I got up, hugged my daughter and my wife, and then did the last thing I wanted to do – I left the house.

Before I make my way from the parking lot into the building I smell the food that has been cooking all afternoon and hear the conversations that are already in full swing.

It is Wednesday night and we are about to have Church.

I make the rounds, doing some talking but mostly listening, catching up on the news – the appointments at the doctor, the latest leak in the building that will cost us more money, the budding crisis at school.  The food is ready, so I pray, because as the pastor apparently I’m the only one who knows how. The food is good and people are happy, so no one notices as I migrate to the youth room, where it doesn’t take long to get the pulse on how things are going – but only if I can manage to get them to look up from their phones.

We’re all here for different reasons. Some because it’s a meal that someone else has cooked. Others are lonely and want the company. Still more are here because this is just what we do, what we’ve always done – gather among friends who have become family, talk and share, and learn something about the Story we want to define our lives. There are some among us who are experts in the Bible, still others who are just learning their way around it. And yet when the pages are passed out, we are equals in the same silence that comes from reading and searching, hoping and believing.

We’ve been in Galatians for a few weeks now, four or five. We’ve learned a lot about conflict, and a little about circumcision and still more about some Old Testament stories we may have forgotten. But mostly we’ve been learning about identity – the new one God is making us in and wants for the world.

It’s hard not to think about the news when Paul writes about one humanity and how in Christ the old divisions don’t matter anymore. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” We add our own categories, thinking and repenting of the divisions we hold on to, asking God to help us understand who we really are and to let that truth work on us and lead us into the better future God wants to give us.

Paul is really mad with the Galatians. They’ve lost their way and so he doesn’t mince words – “I am in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you.” The men look down at the tables not sure the pain he is describing. But the moms in the room, they get it.

What he really wants for them is to know God to participate in the work God wants to do in them. Allow God to form Christ in you, he says, and just watch as the old falls away and something new and so much better comes.

What I Can’t Forget

I sat in a professor’s office a few years ago. He asked me about a small, fledgling group I was a part of. What do you guys do, he wanted to know?

We cook some soup, I told him, we read a chapter of the Bible, and then we talk about it. This professor had forgotten more about the Bible than I will ever know, a product of his life’s work being studying and writing about Scripture. “Nothing like it,” he said. “Never forget that.”

I haven’t.

This work isn’t easy. Meetings require more meetings. There are hard conversations to have, problems that don’t come with easy solutions. The church is evolving – some think we’re evolving too fast, others not fast enough. Everybody wants to know how we can reach more people, why people aren’t coming and what will happen if we don’t figure it out.

If you read about church online everyone is a consultant with a ready made answer for what to do  – how to be faithful, what issues to fight for, the right new measures to embrace and the wrong ones to reject.

The confidence that comes from knowing you are doing the right thing, or at least not the wrong thing, can be pretty evasive. There are plenty of days when you get to the end and wonder if you’ve done anything to advance the Kingdom.

But not on Wednesdays.

I drive home after a long day, tired but not defeated. I reach the door and see my wife reading a story to my daughter. They both look up and smile. My daughter can’t talk yet, but one day she will. And when she can, I’ll tell her about Wednesday nights, and how her dad is tired but grateful for it all.

Because on Wednesdays we read and we eat and we talk and we listen. Because on Wednesdays we have Church.

Because on this Wednesday, in the midst of all, we have done something that matters.

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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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Six For Your Weekend – Plus Some News on Moving Day

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If certain religious services were less about preening about one’s own virtue or pointing fingers at somebody else’s iniquity and more about tackling human needs around us, this would be a better world — and surely Jesus would applaud as well. -Nicholas Kristof

Six Reads that will inspire you, make you think and help make your weekend a bit better.

What Religion Would Jesus Belong To, Nicholas Kristof

“This may seem an unusual column for me to write, for I’m not a particularly religious Christian. But I do see religious faith as one of the most important forces, for good and ill, and I am inspired by the efforts of the faithful who run soup kitchens and homeless shelters.”

What I Learned in the School Cafeteria, Caroline Lamar

“I’m pretty positive the kingdom of Heaven looks exactly like a school cafeteria. Fellowship over the table. Laughter. Sitting with people who don’t always look like you or talk like you or believe the same things.  But there they were all there together, gathered around a table. I cannot imagine a more beautiful view.”

A Farewell Guide to Political Journalism, Ron Fournier

“A great article on leadership with serious implications for church leaders: (Don’t lose sight of your mission, remember who you work for, Build Relationships, Integrity is Everything, Own Your Convictions) “A reporter’s job is to get as close to the truth as possible, overriding personal biases and sifting through a rising churn of spin and lies to explain what happened and why it matters. At its highest levels, journalism informsprovokes, and holds powerful people accountable (with no fear or favor).”

Stop Touting the Crazy Hours You Work, Jena McGregor

“The idea that being well-rested could be a black mark against a leader is preposterous. And even if a super early wake-up time works for some people — and they’re sensitive about sending out email before dawn — if you’re having to get up at 4 a.m. to avoid distractions in your day, there’s probably something wrong with how we’re working.”

Hillbilly Elegy: J.D. Vance on Faith in Appalachia, Kelsey Dallas 

“I lived in a pretty chaotic and hopeless world. Faith gave me the belief that there was somebody looking out for me, that there was a hopeful future on the other side of all the things I was going through.”

To Attract Young People to Your Church, You’ve Got to be Warm, Not Cool, Kara Powell, Jake Mulder and Brad Griffin

“Ironically, it is possible that your church might be working against warmth by offering myriad programs. Busyness doesn’t equal warmth.”

A Bit of News…

I’m excited to announce that on Tuesday, I’ll be moving my writing to a new place on the web.  In short, I’m looking forward to sharing my new website with you on Tuesday.

It’s been a long time coming and more work than I expected, but I believe it will be worth the effort. My hope is that it will not only be a more attractive and better space from which to write, but more importantly, that it will make it easier to share resources and create community that will help all of us with the things I care about and tend to write about – church, the hunt for grace and the search for joining what we most desperately believe with how we actually live.

If all this sounds like something you might be interested in, you can learn more by following the link to sign up for my email list here, and I’ll send you a preview of the new space on Monday (Note: If you already subscribe to this blog by email, you don’t need to resubscribe to the website. If you follow via your wordpress account, however, you will need to resubscribe).  And if you aren’t impatient (or don’t care that much), you can watch for it on social media on Tuesday.

Thanks so much for reading and I hope you have a great weekend.

With Gratitude,

Daniel

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