Midweek Reflections

Midweek Reflection 13th January 2021

Insights from a pandemic – Keeping faith in Exile

 

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On several occasions during this year of pandemic restrictions, I have reflected on the theme of exile. Exile encompasses the state of dislocation and more specifically about dislocation from home. Home is not just about the house in which we live. Home is where we feel most at one with our environment. Place, other people, culture, religion and occupation contribute what it means to be at home. Home is about belonging. Having moved a great deal in my adult life, I’m not sure that I know completely what it means to be truly at home but maybe I’m not supposed to. Perhaps for the time being, a degree of exile is to be expected.

The pandemic seems to have brought into the open, feelings of exile. As Christians, our experience of church contributes significantly to what it means for us to feel at home. The familiarity of worship, our sense of community with those in the church, the practice of Holy Communion and corporate prayer all contribute to our sense of belonging and home, and of course many of these things are no longer available. We are still getting used to other ways of doing things and many of these new ways cannot compensate for the things we have lost.

A second area of exile that the pandemic has exposed is the fact that as Christians, we no longer live in an essentially Christian culture. The culture in which we exist is now largely secular. In times of crisis such as this, our nation would previously have drawn on its Christian heritage to help us through it. National calls to prayer by church leaders, political leaders and the king were not uncommon for example during world war 2. There have been no such calls during the pandemic and it is starkly clear that our nation’s trust and hope in these times is located almost entirely in human initiative and endeavour, particularly in the areas of science and medicine. Those of us that also call on God for help and seek Christian solutions are it seems, in the minority.  In this we empathise with exiles who displaced from home, find themselves in unfamiliar territory in a society immersed in a different worldview.

The Bible can help us to deal with feelings of exile. The exile of Judah following the Babylonian invasions of 595 and 586BC is one of the most significant episodes that the Bible records and is perhaps the most tragic and painful period of Jewish history.

At this point I’ll read through Psalm 137 for it is a lament that expresses the raw emotion of exile. After I’ve read it maybe you could pause the audio to read it again prayerfully reflecting on the feelings of the Psalmist and the feelings the Psalm might evoke in you.

Psalm 137

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
    may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
    my highest joy.

Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
    on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
    “tear it down to its foundations!”
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
    happy is the one who repays you
    according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
    and dashes them against the rocks.

I’ve not shied away from including verses 7-9. These make for a particularly uncomfortable read but express graphically just how painful and disorientating it is to lose our sense of home. These verses convey deep feelings of injustice, anger and helplessness provoked by the forced exile of the Psalmist. We can gain much if we commit them to prayer rather than judgment. Our experience of exile today though is not at the hands of cruel oppressors and so I want to focus on the early verses that do resonate more with our own situation.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.

It is only natural to grieve for the good things that we have lost. There is a place for weeping and lament about the our displacement from whatever contributes to our sense of home and perhaps we need to learn how to express lament better.

It is nearly a year now since we have been free to worship as we would want to worship. In that time we have held some services but we have missed the social interaction that did much to sustain us. We have also missed the opportunity to sing our songs of praise in unity. We have missed the comfort of praying with one another and having someone to pray with us in the difficult moments. We have also missed the opportunity to get together in one another’s homes and those times when we hold events that speak of God to our wider communities.

Pause here for a short time to bring before God the things that you remember as being good but which because of the pandemic, you no longer have. Perhaps try to write words of lament. Bring also before God your feelings at this time and ask for his healing and strength for the times to come.

How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?

We can very much relate to the disappointment of not being able to sing, but this statement in the Psalm goes further. The bigger question is not just about singing but serving. The Psalmist’s bigger agenda is how do we continue to serve the Lord in a culture that is opposed to the Lord and when we no longer have access to all that enabled us to serve? The temple (the heart of the Jewish religion and regarded as the dwelling of God on earth) was demolished. Jerusalem (the heart of the political establishment) was destroyed, and the leaders of the state and religion had been killed or dispersed. The system by which the people had become accustomed was completely dismantled.

To preserve their faith there were things they had to remember. They had to remember the value of all that contributed to their sense of home and belonging. They had to hang on to their identity and sense of home and recognise that at the centre of that was God.

 

They had to learn once again how to put their trust in God rather than in the elements of their corrupt political and religious systems. Although disorientated and disillusioned, they would find that even in exile God was still present. They could not serve him as they did before but in new ways. The book of Daniel is a good illustration of how faith is lived out in a strange land and an alternative culture. Daniel and his friends had the faith and courage to serve many aspects of the unfamiliar system and in doing so gained positions of influence. Daniel and his friends however held on to the central tenets of their faith. Whilst not expecting anything of others, they drew lines over which they themselves would not cross. Their lived out faith in the ways of Yahweh would come to be seen and valued by people that had not previously known him. There are similar pictures of faith in exile in the book of Esther. Today the culture in which we exist has skewed away from the central elements of Christianity. As we find ourselves in some sort of exile and unfamiliarity, we have to work out how we too serve those around us without fully aligning ourselves with the prevailing culture of our day.

Pause here to pray to God about how we can best serve him in these days.

I want to conclude this reflection with the observation that the exile of Judah was necessary. It was not as though God wanted it to happen. Practically all the prophets warned of its distinct possibility if the people failed to reform their ways. Despite the warnings the people did not reform and the possibility of exile ultimately became certainty. Exile was it seems the only means through which reform was possible and the only means through which God could enable the outworking of his kingdom.

Following the exile reform did indeed take place. Nehemiah and Ezra document the process. The book of Nehemiah particularly speaks of rebuilding Jerusalem, restoring the rightful home for the people. That restoration was not without its challenges and significantly it was on a much less grand scale than before. As we emerge from this pandemic, do we also need to rebuild our home on both spiritual and institutional levels?

Finally as we continue to go through the discomfort of exile, I’d like to leave you with one thought. In this age, I don’t think that we will ever truly be home, for our real home, the place where we most fully belong, is where heaven and earth are one and where the prevailing culture is that of the kingdom of God. Jesus prays for his disciples ‘My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.’ (John 17:15-19).

Listen to the worship song, There is a hope  and give thanks to God that we are promised a life to come when we will not be like exiles and will experience a complete sense of home.