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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40 Days, 40 Ways: A Practical Guide For a Holy Lent

It’s more than weird to look forward to Lent. It is a theological contradiction.

But, as I like to say, people are complicated. I know I am.

The last few months have been a roller coaster, and not just in the ways we experience on television and online. My wife and I welcomed our first child in December and spent the first month of her life in the NICU. What I’ve discovered in returning back to the life I knew before – with work and access to opinions – is that I need this season of Lent.

Returning to relationships and trying to lead a community has reminded me that I need the gift of these forty days as much as I ever did. I need the intentionality that comes from giving something up or taking something on. I need the focus that comes when my own inadequacies and brokenness are revealed. I need the reminder that on my own I am powerless but in Jesus power doesn’t come from my strength but in my weakness.

Some people have a hard time appreciating Lent, with its brooding darkness, its emphasis on sinfulness and confession, its near constant reminder of our inability to stand on our own. But its essential. Not only is it impossible to appreciate the light of Christ’s Advent at Christmas or the glory of Resurrection at Easter without Lent, but these forty days teach us plenty about God and about ourselves, particularly the truths we would give anything to keep hidden.

We begin, a week from today, with a reminder and a charge. The priest leads us to recall how the wages of sin are death – “From dust we have come and to dust we shall return” – and invites us to the new life that comes by reorienting our lives – “Repent and Believe the Gospel”.

Law and Gospel. Truth and Grace. There’s plenty there, maybe all of it.

And so we embark on a journey to remember all the ways sin has carved out a wall between us and God. We go through these days coming to grips with the ways our idolatries, of various stripes and orientations, mar our relationship with one another. The disciplines remind us that the passions we allow to rule our hearts and minds might make us feel good for a minute but in the end do long term damage to our souls. We begin to come to grips, maybe for the first time, with the reality that we are powerless if we have to stand on our own. By the end of this journey into and out of the wilderness we hope we have learned, at least a little bit, how to find our hope in the help that comes in the surprising form of redeeming, renewing and restoring grace.

At its best, Lent isn’t a six week experience in self-loathing and confession. Instead, it’s an opportunity to pay attention to the cracks and to watch what happens when we let in the light of God’s grace. It’s not about making ourselves feel bad or thinking that somehow we can do something to make us more right with God. This season, instead, is about watching and paying attention, being reminded of the places we most desperately need God’s grace, and then taking on a practice or discipline that can help us reconnect with the God who still comes to us and for us.

Often Christians have either given something up for Lent or taken something on. Giving something up can produce gratitude and appreciation for our utter dependence on God. Taking something on can help us become intentional about reconnecting with the Source of our life and hope. However you fast or whatever practice you take on this year, my prayer is that this will for you a Holy Lent in which you come to know and appreciate how much and how deeply you are loved.

As for me, I’m going to commit to practicing the Examen more regularly and to explore the fullness of the Cross by reading Jürgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God.

But in the meantime, here a few ideas that might help you leave your idols and rend your hearts this season.

1. The Psalms: Commit to reading the Psalms – every single one of them. The Psalms are one of the best ways we learn how to pray. This was my Lenten practice for a few years and I highly recommend it. Save Psalm 22 for Good Friday.

2. Dive in:  Maybe there’s a particular book or section of the Bible you’ve wanted to spend more time in. Maybe you’ve always wanted to read and understand Exodus or some of Paul’s letters. Lent is a good time to do just that.  A good commentary to read with the Scripture can help.

3, Let Luke 9 Be Your Guide:  We read in Luke 9:53 that Jesus set his face for Jerusalem. You might simply finish the Gospel from there, letting Jesus’ mission and ministry on the way to Jerusalem and the redemptive suffering he experienced for us once he got there order your days and devotional life.

4. Explore Holy Week: – Spend time preparing for Holy Week by reading the narratives from the Gospel that describe Jesus’ final week. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s The Last Week is a great companion.

5. Don’t Just Read About It: Commit to spending your Holy Week living through the story with a local church. If you are part of a local church participate in their services – maybe volunteer to read or serve as part of the worship services (Speaking from experience – pastors and worship teams are always looking to fill slots particularly on Thursday and Friday). If you don’t have a local church, commit to attending services to experience the depth of mercy of the Cross.

6. Begin Well: Mark out time next week to begin your journey through Lent by being marked with the ashes – from dust you have come and to dust you shall return.

7. Find Answers on the Atonement: Engage a good book to help you understand how Christians have historically made sense of the Cross. If you want to really nerd out, join me in reading The Crucified God. Other good resources include Christ the Center, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sign and Sacrifice, The Meaning of the Cross, by Rowan Williams, or God For Us. There are plenty others out there, these are just a few.

8. Walk With Others: Most churches offer a special class or small group during Lent. Check one out and see what happens.

9. Find Some New Companions: Sometimes we need to know that we aren’t the only ones who struggle with faith or discipleship and need to learn through the stories of others. There are a lot of good spiritual memoirs out there, stories of people who experienced grace in a new way. One of my favorites is Found, by Micha Boyett (It’s currently a little more than a dollar on Amazon.). Take This Bread by Sara Miles is a gift, as is Liturgy of the Ordinary, which just happens to be written by my friend, Tish.

10. Trade Talk Radio For a Podcast: Instead of spending your time listening to the latest sports controversy or diving into opinion on the latest political rant, download a podcast or two and spend your time in the car being nourished. A couple of my favorites are The Practice Podcast and On Being: With Krista Tippett.

Sometimes we need to know that we aren’t the only ones who struggle with faith or discipleship and need to learn through the stories of others.

11. Take a Spiritual Inventory: Lent is a great time to take stock of your life and faith, to see the ways your life reflects your faith and the ways it could reflect it a little more strongly. This is a great way for families to reorder their lives intentionally instead of living as our schedules dictate. Erin and I are reading Becoming and Belonging, but there are plenty of other books out there. Sacred Rhythms, by Ruth Haley Barton, is a great resource for learning and ordering your life through a rule of faith.

12. Read a Book With Your Spouse: My wife and I try to read a book together every year during Lent and Advent. We don’t always stick to it, but when we do we’ve found it a great way to reconnect, have conversations about things we care about and allow God to work in and through each of us to help us one another grow closer to God.

13. Fast, No Seriously, Fast: I’ve always fasted on Good Friday, a small way to attempt solidarity with Jesus. My friends, Katie, Andra and Mike taught me the power of fasting. I didn’t always love it, but it did always teach me something. Fasting has a weird ability to make you grateful and aware of all the ways God takes care of you.

14. But At Least Put Your Phone Down: One of the biggest obstacles to my relationships – with God and with other people – is my addiction to my phone. If you can’t give up your phone for a day, find time to put it away and focus on the gifts all around you. By actually enjoying life in front of you, instead of what other people are doing online, you might catch a glimpse of the beauty you have missed.

15. But When You Look At It Pray: When you get a text from someone, particularly someone you struggle with, pray for them. Invite God to bless them and for them to receive grace, wherever they are. If you want to get real brave, you might even text them back and ask them how you might pray for them.

16. Remember Your Baptism: Jesus’ march to the Cross began in the Jordan, when John baptized him and God blessed him. Our service flows from our baptism. You might begin each day in the shower simply remembering that you have been baptized and how that makes all the difference.

17. Write a Letter: People don’t write letters anymore but maybe we should. Write a letter to someone in your life who has made a difference. Share with them how God has used them to bless you.

18. Encourage Someone: This is a great thing to do for someone you don’t always see eye-to-eye with. We define ourselves so quickly based on what we think or particularly in 2017 how we voted. Find a way to encourage someone who sees the world differently than you do. Tell them how grateful you are for them, even if their bumper stickers or Facebook posts make you want to pull your hair out.

19. Tweet Love: I’ve never been one to give up Facebook for Lent – too much of the ministry I do happens there. And so if you must Facebook, Facebook with love. Commit to giving people the benefit of the doubt. Commit to encouraging someone else. Commit to remembering that you can count on one hand the number of people whose minds your political post changed, if that number even goes to one. But seriously, how might our witness be strengthened if we committed to loving one another well through how we interact online?

20. Give Something Up: I’m not talking about something trivial here. Give something up that makes you angry, that sends you off the deep end, that distracts you from becoming the person that God wants you to be. The Desert Mothers and Fathers taught that the passions were anything that pulled us away from God. So give up one of these passions in your life and celebrate how much better life becomes when you do.

21. Try Something New: Try a new spiritual practice, particularly if you are in a rut. There are plenty of practices out there – different ways to pray or read Scripture, new avenues to journal or use art, exciting approaches using the spoken word or silence. Pick something new and live into it for a season. You might be surprised how God can work through it.

22. End Your Day With the Examen: Part of the Spiritual Exercises, the Examen invites us to review our day, celebrate the good and the bad, and see all the places God was at work in our life even if we didn’t see it at the time.

23. Keep a Gratitude Journal: One of the best ways we can experience God’s grace in our lives is to commit to practicing gratitude. Take a moment at the end of the day to celebrate what you are grateful for and how you experienced God during these 24 hours. It will change your life.

24. Try Liturgical Prayer: Sometimes we feel like we will never have the right words when we pray. Fortunately the Church has prayers available to us. A great place to start is the Liturgy of the Hours. Many of my colleagues have been blessed by Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.

25. Words of Life: Lectio Divina is a way of praying Scripture. It literally means divine reading. You can do it in about 20 minutes. It’s a great way to begin your day.

26. Commit to Something: Whatever practice you choose, commit and schedule it. Try to commit to doing something everyday. Even if it doesn’t seem like much you will notice a difference.

27. Challenge Yourself: We live in an echo chamber in which we can get the news and experience the world with our own slants. One thing you might do during Lent is commit to reading something that might help you understand the point of view of people you disagree with. It might be one of the most radical practices you could choose for this season.

28. Liberals, Read This: If you find yourself furious at your uncle who voted for President Trump, you might read Strangers in Their Own Land in which an academic from Berkeley travels to Louisiana to listen and learn from members of the Tea Party.

29. Conservatives, Listen Up: If you are fed up with all the protests and the anger and the rage from your liberal friends on Facebook, you might read Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson. Or if fiction is more your style, try The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.

30. You’ve Got To Move It: It’s amazing the difference exercise can make in your overall outlook and your connection with God. Commit to exercising and then to praying once you are finished. For some of us prayer is the natural response that we actually survived the experience.

Try to commit to doing something everyday. Even if it doesn’t seem like much you will notice a difference.

31. Neighborhood Prayer: One way to get exercise is to walk around your neighborhood. Pay attention to what you see, who lives there, maybe the people you’ve never noticed before. Pray for your neighborhood, asking for God to move in it, and how you might play a role in making it a better place for everyone to live, to raise their kids and experience the wholeness we were created for.

32. Shelf The Booze: Fast from or consume less alcohol and donate the proceeds to charities or ministries that work with people struggling with addiction like Celebrate Recovery.

33. Spread Your Wealth: Fasting can also help you save money to donate to charities or ministries that work for good in areas you are passionate about. One of the great kingdom efforts in Tennessee is Thistle Farms, a ministry that encourages and empowers women who have been victims of abuse. For those of us concerned and upset about the new restrictions on refugees, finding a way to support organizations that advocate for immigrants and refugees is a great idea as well.

34.Be a Neighbor: Connect with your neighbors, next door and across the street.  Find out what’s going on with their families and in their lives.  Know specifically what you can pray for them about. Good neighborhoods make good communities, and good communities are one way God’s mission goes forward.

35. Pray For Leaders: Most of us don’t agree with everyone who is in charge about everything, but they need all the help they can get.  Add the mayor, school principal, county commissioners, governor, members of Congress and President to your prayer list.

36. Lift Up The Lonely: Our church makes a special effort to connect with our homebound members and others who struggle to find community during Lent. Take the time to send a card. If you work with youth or other church groups, this is a great time to visit nursing homes or other long-term care facilities.

37. In Short, Invest in Relationships: We are so busy and despite having more ways to be connected we have become less connected in actual relationships than ever before. Take some time to take someone to lunch or coffee and sit with them and learn what’s really going on.

38. Get Informed Where You Live: We all seem to know more than we would like about national and global politics. But there is plenty in our neighborhoods to become informed about. Get informed about issues with education or health care in your local community. Pray for the leaders and ask for God’s wisdom about how you can make a difference.

39.Mentor: Believe it or not you have skills that could help another person. Commit to finding relationships and ways you can improve someone’s life with the skills and knowledge you already have.

40. Be Intentional: Above all, be intentional and have a holy Lent as God does work in you and through you. May this be a season that you long remember for the ways God transformed your life, the life of your family, the life of your community and the life of the world.

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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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