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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How Do You Read It?

There are few books that grab our attention and unsettle our minds like the Bible.

I was reminded of that again this past Sunday as we talked in our church about how we can say with conviction and understanding that the Bible is true.

You could see it on the faces of our people. You could hear it in the comments on the way out of church. A friend who doesn’t normally come to church was there on Sunday and could not stop talking about how the sermon affected him. A few days later he was still talking about it.

I don’t believe it was the quality or force of the preaching. Instead, I am convinced that one of the deepest desires people have, both inside and outside the church, is to learn how to read the Bible with wisdom and confidence.

People are searching for help because they want to know how they can trust the words of a book that they have been around, in some way or another, for their whole lives. People are searching for a better way because they know the way the Bible is leveraged as a weapon in hot-button debates doesn’t seem right but they don’t know how to articulate a better alternative. People are searching for a way to deepen their understanding and relationship with God but feel like they will never have enough knowledge to get through the historical, cultural and religious details that can make it so hard to understand. People are desperate for guidance about what it means to live a good life and how the Bible can help them find the way to discover that kind of existence.

One of the few things that most Christians can agree on is that the Bible is true. It is the how that often ties us in knots that keep us stuck.

The truth of the Bible isn’t found in quoting chapter and verse in debates that the book was never intended to solve. Instead the gift of Scripture is the way it guides us to understand the truth – about ourselves, about the world we live in and about the character of God.

The Bible tells us the truth by setting us in the big story that defines our lives.  As we read and take in the pages of Scripture we don’t get bogged down in the details that can be useful for trivia, but instead we grow in the truth that God is the One who loves us and is for us. As we read this book we come to discover that God’s essence is relational love and that our lives expand according to our capacity to receive and be transformed by this love.

As we experience the joys and heartbreaks that come as we make our way through adulthood, we take hope in the Bible’s declaration that what is most true about us is that we are God’s beloved. As we try to figure out who we are supposed to be and what we are supposed to do we rest in the truth of Scripture that God invites us to a vital role in God’s mission for the world. When we’ve messed up and wonder how we will ever recover, we remember that forgiveness is God’s way.

As we listen to the voices of Scripture we come to discover that there isn’t anything we experience that can’t be described or explained by the broad narrative of God’s story.  As we come to understand the world in terms of sin and grace and temptation and redemption, we realize the events we call news are really just the most recent manifestations of the same old story.

We notice how our dream for a way beyond our divisions sounds eerily familiar to Paul’s declaration that in Christ God is making a new humanity. As we wonder how it will ever get better we anchor ourselves in God’s ministry of reconciliation. We become encouraged when we remember that God tears down dividing walls. Our spirits are lifted as we read that when we work to cross boundaries we are in communion with a God who does the same.

When we provide a shoulder for our friends who cry out for justice we remember that racism and sexism and poverty are the expressions of deep-seated sin that emerges out of the cracks in our relationship with God and one another. As we feel powerless to combat the institutions and powers intent on maligning God’s good creation we remember the cries of the Exiles and recall God’s stubborn tendency to make the implausible gloriously real.

“The Bible”, Eugene Peterson writes in As Kingfishers Catch Fire, “is the best book for discovering the all-inclusive reality in which we exist and then for initiating us into it.”

The Bible, then, is more than an old, interesting book. It is the story that tells us who we are and it is an invitation to the good life. It is more than a book of details and quotable lines.  It describes who we are made to be. It explains the world that often defies explanation. Most importantly, it reveals the depth of God’s love for us and invites us to live in the grip of this love.

No wonder it matters so much.

 

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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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Finding Light: Cooking a Meal, Trying Something New and Eight More Ways to Experience Easter

One of my favorite posts of the year is creating a list of ideas that I hope will help people experience Lent as a season of grace.  (You can this year’s version here.)

It’s always one of the most popular posts as well, which reminds me that no matter where we worship or how long we’ve been doing this we’re all in this together, strugglers on the way trying our best to stay as close as we can to Jesus.

But Easter is a season, too, and I know how much I would love to experience and practice Resurrection not just on Easter Sunday but on every day of this season. I want to find a way to discover how to commit to practices that ground me in the truth of the Easter Gospel that love is stronger than death, that hope triumphs over fear and that life is more powerful than death. Just like Lent, I want my life to look differently after Easter than it did before. I want to be able to look back from the other side of Pentecost and be able to celebrate the ways I experienced love and hope and life in the power of the Risen Lord during these fifty days.

So, with that in mind, here are ten ways that might help you – and me – live in the light and hope and love of Easter right now.

 

Read the Story: Experience again the Resurrection on Easter morning and the many times and ways Jesus appears after the Resurrection to the disciples and to others. Passages to begin with include  Luke 24:13-35, Luke 24:36-53, John 29:19-31, John 21:1-23, Matthew 28:16-20, Acts 9:1-19.

Take A Breath, Pray a Prayer: A friend of mine recently invited me to a challenge of praying the same phrase 1,000 times a day. It was a great gift and reminded me of the power of breath prayer, not just to help us connect with God but also to change the way we think and how we approach our lives.  You might pray the same phrase for the whole season or you might try several out a week at a time. Phrases that might work well include – Christ is Risen, Love is Alive, Blessed Are Those Who Believe, God Makes All Things – Even Me – New. I’d love to hear phrases that you found helpful.

Celebrate God’s Presence: – The Resurrection declares once and for all that God does care and is involved in our lives and our world. Take time to reflect, maybe once a day if you can remember, about how you experienced God that day. The Examen, a spiritual practice I enjoyed during Lent, is a great way to become aware of  all the ways God is at work in your life. Committing to this made me so much more aware of the ways God was at work in the ordinary course of my days. Our days are full of opportunities to glimpse and celebrate the light of God’s love in our lives.

Begin A Different Way: My friend Tish has written a beautiful book called Liturgy of the Ordinary (You should buy it here). One of my favorite parts of the book is when she talks about the spiritual practice of making her bed. Instead of beginning her day by checking her phone or email or getting updated on the latest thing to be outraged by, for Lent one year she decided to begin the day by making her bed and then spending a few moments of silence and solitude with God. How many ways might we experience Resurrection if instead of sprinting out of bed to accomplish all of our to-dos, we found some way, if only or a moment, to begin our day in gratitude for all God has given us? You might pray the Lord’s Prayer. You might read the Beatitudes. You might just say thank you for the gift of another day. This is one of the ways I’m going to try to celebrate Resurrection this Easter season.

Bring People To the Table: A good number of the Resurrection appearances remind us that Jesus likes to show up just in time for a meal. There’s just something about the way that grace is especially present at the table. So cook a meal and invite some friends over. Between dinner and dessert you might find a time to share about the places you and your friends are seeing and experiencing new life.

Try Something New: One of the most significant claims the Resurrection makes is that in Christ God is doing something new. So take a bold step and try something new in response to the truth that God is not done with you. We are launching a couple of new initiatives in our church right now, but it isn’t just for churches. Maybe now is the time to try out a new class at the gym, take an art or photography class, or recommit to writing that book that you know is inside of you. Whatever it is, just know that God is making all things, even you, new again.

Make Room: We all have issues and topics and people who take up too much space in our hearts and our minds. We spend more time and emotional energy than we would like to admit worrying about things we can’t change and situations we can’t control. One way to more fully experience Christ’s Resurrection is to be intentional about limiting the time we give to these concerns. Clearing out space from worry and creating room to celebrate God’s gifts and to give thanks for people and places that help you experience Resurrection can be a great gift this season.  Bonus: Praying the Serenity Prayer can be a great daily practice to help you do this.

Stop Looking For The Living Among the Dead: It is easy for us, just like the women at the tomb, to search for life in places that only lead to death. That’s why Easter matters again and again – because we know too well the disappointment and heartbreak that comes from looking for life where it can’t be found. Take a good look at your life and try to give up something that is leading you away from the life God wants to give you. It might be that this Easter is the time to begin a program of recovery. Or it might be to step back from social media if that isn’t life giving for you. It might be time to take a break from a relationship or friendship that has grown toxic. I’ll bet it won’t take you long to figure out one thing in your life you could do without.

Proclaim Light  in the Dark Places: We all know people who are struggling and having a hard time. Find a way to offer the hope and light of the Easter Gospel. It might be writing a card or making a phone call to someone you’ve meant to call for a long time. Visiting and connecting with friends and family who are homebound or in nursing homes is a great opportunity to celebrate God’s new life. Sometimes a 10-minute visit will do more than you can imagine – and not just for the person you are visiting.

Bless Places That Give New Life: There are organizations and groups all around us that are shining light in the darkness and helping people discover new life and live in hope. Pick one of them and make a donation to help them shine more light for more people.  A few places in Knoxville and around us that my family and I believe in are Emerald Youth Foundation, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, Volunteer Ministry Center, and Thistle Farms. But there are so many others. Find a cause near and dear to your heart and make a gift of light.

 

There are plenty more ways to watch for the light this Easter. These are just a few that came to my mind. I’d love to hear how you are celebrating and experiencing Resurrection this Easter.

 

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