Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Pain and Blessing of Exile

Calamity descended on the northern ten tribes of Israel in a storm of Assyrian siege engines, chariots and swords.  All attempts to warn the northern kingdom of the consequences of their covenant-breaking idolatry and compromise were unheeded.  Israel had broken faith with the God who had delivered them from Egypt to be his people.  In mercy the consequences were delayed, but eventually they fell full force.  Israel was removed from God’s presence and from the land God had given him.  Those who didn’t flee were either killed or herded off into exile never to return.

Taking captives into exile into Assyria

Calamity descended on tiny Judah as well, as the Babylonians one by one reduced her towns to piles of rubble, to just another layer in the tell for later archeologists to discover.  Life as everybody knew it ended badly.  The prophets had repeatedly warned of the unhappy consequences of idolatry and unfaithfulness to God, and even had the horrors experienced by their northern neighbors as graphic object lesson of what was at stake.  Celebrations and parties were replaced by mourning and funerals, if the dead were lucky.  The countryside was scoured.  Famine and despair crept into the surrounded cities.  Town walls were knocked down.  Fighting-aged men were killed, the women were raped.  The leftovers were marched off in chains to Babylon.

On a much smaller scale, almost unnoticeable outside the tiny confines of my life, a long season of calamity has descended upon me.  No longer living in Kenya, no longer a professor of history and theology, no longer a missionary, no longer welcome in my own home, I find myself answering phones at the local YMCA and taking my meals and sleeping in the home of an elderly widower who had mercy on me when I was homeless in August.  Hardly any of the things which defined my life even two years ago remain.

It is so very easy to pass judgment on someone else, especially when we think he/she is getting what they deserve.  And maybe I am getting what I deserve?  Maybe there are parallels between my experience and Biblical Israel and Judah’s experiences?  The difficult thing with this sort of calculus is that there is rather obviously no such thing as tit for tat divine justice today.  And for this we can all be grateful because if God did choose to pass sentence on each one of us for the things we have thought and said and done, then who could stand?  If each one of us got what we deserved, then this planet would be unpeopled in short order.  Furthermore, none of us live under the Sinai covenant, which carried blessings for keeping it and curses for breaking it.   And one of the chief curses for breaking God’s covenant (as a people, not as individuals) was exile from the land. 

Rather, God in mercy often chooses to do something else with those of us who are sinners (that is, those of us who realize that we are sinners).  Yes there are consequences to our wrong behavior, our wrong words, our wrong attitudes and thoughts, but the God of the New Testament does not array himself against us as a punitive judge, delivering a celestial smackdown to everyone who strays from the narrow way.  The incarnation betrays a radically different divine posture towards me and you – a shepherd in search of his lost sheep; a physician bringing saving antidote to a dying snakebit boy; a savior refusing to throw the first stone at an adulteress; a crucified God listening to a dying thief’s confession and replacing condemnation with reconciliation.  It’s not that God’s standards change; rather, our relationship with the Trinity is transformed.  It was that relationship that was marred and broken by the way we treated each other and, by extension, the way we treated God.  Our own receiving mercy transforms our perspective and our relationship with everyone else around us.  If our perspective and relationships are not transformed, then despite our credentials and loud professions, we literally don’t know what we are talking about.

Exile uproots one from home, from the familiar, from security, and plonks one into a place where everything must be done from scratch.  Everything is a decision, rather than falling into the groove of habit.  How do I spend my time?  Where can I find a job?  How can I get around? Where am I going to sleep tonight?  Where can I get more money after my last $150 is finished?  Do I pick myself up and go to church where nobody knows me?  Who will be my friend after those I knew before have believed another’s story and never bothered to ask me if it was true?  What’s left after my expansive and meaningful life of Christian ministry spread across three continents is reduced to a 10x12 upstairs room in somebody else’s house, where I sleep in somebody else’s bed and use somebody else’s sheets and blankets (and am grateful to have even that)?  I look back on what used to be and wonder, ‘What was that all about?’  As I clean toilets at my minimum wage job, the words of the preacher in Ecclesiastes dub over the YouTube video of my life, ‘Meaningless, Meaningless, Everything is meaningless.’  Exile is a tough place to be.

I take comfort in the fact that God did not forsake his people in exile, that he sent his prophets even to them, made his promises even to them, promised to take even them by the hand and lead them back home.

In the meantime, I work on those things in me I can change and am choosing not to spend any more energy on those things, circumstances and people I can’t change.  After spending decades trying to change things and people and experiencing nothing but dysfunctional failure, there is great freedom in giving up and surrendering these people and circumstances to God.  I also work on identifying those resentments that, over the years, have been the engine driving some of my worst behaviors.  And there are pages of them.  Identifying them, owning them, surrendering them, and praying for the ones I resented – there is great healing here.  And I feel a tremendous relief that I don’t have to get on that treadmill anymore, one that never goes anywhere and just wears me out. 

Lastly, my readers will know that I am no fan of trite Christian clichés or the tawdry junk peddled in so-called Christian bookstores.  So it strikes me as ironic that I’ve been addressed by just such a phrase emblazoned on a coffee mug from just such a store.  ‘Bloom where you are planted’, the phrase jingles in bold typeface on a flower-bestrewn mug.  I refused on principle to engage with this mug for the first five months of my exile.  Then I realized that there was actually something in this cliché for me.  It is, essentially, what God said to his exiles in Babylon.  And it is what God is saying to me, his exile, in ends-of-the-earth Crozet:  Bloom where you are planted.  So I’m praying for the peace and prosperity of where I have been planted.  The man whose generosity has given me a little room upstairs, the local YMCA who have taken me on to answer their phones and wipe down their cardio equipment, the country roads where I run my miles and clear my head, the little church where I chant the liturgy and break my fast each week with a new circle of friends.  

 I am learning that there are advantages to being a nobody.  I can work hard on my stuff and not have to worry about keeping up appearances.  I can face the truth about me without having to defend the ‘me’ that I felt I had to be.  And that means I can experience grace and forgiveness.  And extend grace and forgiveness to others.  So I will keep trying to make myself useful, in this time and this place of obscurity, of exile. Because what may seem obscure to me is actually center stage of the universe. For where God is one also finds meaning.  And hope.  And the next step. 

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