Reflection: 10-10

Earlier this month, my Abbott, Dr Andy Fitz-Gibbon, posted a blog reflecting on the prophet Jeremiah and ancient Israel in exile. I didn’t reply to that post because the book I read for this month’s reflection dealt with just that topic: Hopeful Imagination - Prophetic Voices in Exile, by Walter Brueggemann (you can also get the paperback version here). In the book, Brueggemann looks to three prophets during Israel’s exile in Babylon - Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah (2Isaiah actually). The book is a great read and is very helpful for those people who are feeling that they are in some kind of exile right now (and, if you are a Christian, Brueggemann feels that one should feel that way). In the introduction, Brueggemann stated, ‘The governing metaphor for this literature is that of exile. In this brief definitive period in Old Testament faith pastoral responsibility was to help people enter into exile, to be in exile, and depart out of exile’ (pg 11). With that as his foundation, Brueggemann then sets out looking at how those ‘poets’ saw exile and help the people of faith deal with exile. However, one thing is different. ‘These three poets (Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah - JG+), more than any others, do not base their appeal on the continuing power of the old tradition but in fact enunciate new actions of God that are discontinuous with the old tradition’ (ibid). Right here, and throughout the rest of the book, I saw things differently from what Brueggemann was suggesting. While he primarily sees a conflict with the community of faith and the ‘empires’ of the world, specifically the American system, I saw the conflict with the community of faith and the empirical institution known as the ‘church’. It is my firm belief that God is doing a ‘new thing’ once more. I see it in many ways, most notably in the resurgence of various monastic groups (including my own, the Lindisfarne Community) and the ‘emerging church’. Both of these groups are saying, in their own ways, that something is amiss in the ‘old tradition’. Of late, I have been really reflecting upon the idea of the ‘local’ church as we now know it being removed. That is, I ask myself and others, ‘What would we do if , the building was removed and we couldn’t build a new one? How would we then live?’ I am shocked at how many of the faith community see this as an appalling idea! For a lot of people, those buildings are ‘the church’ and it is from them that they have their identity and not Jesus of Nazareth! I have this deep sensation that the community of faith is in the stages of exile with ‘church’ as we know it.

On page 16, Brueggemann stated,

My argument is that the loss of authority of the dynasty and temple in Jerusalem is analogous to the loss of certainty, dominance, and legitimacy in our own time. In both cases the relinquishment is heavy and costly.

The reception of a new world from God is also under way in our time. . . . It is apparent in the staggering, frightening emergence of new communities, which we experience as revolutionary, with dreams of justice and equity. Those dangerous emergences are paralleled by dreams of justice and mercy in our culture that dare to affirm that old structures may be transformed to be vehicles for the new gifts of God. Thus we are at the risky point of receiving from God what we thought God would not give, namely a new way to be human in the world.

This speaks to me about how God is transforming what we understand it to mean to be a follower of Jesus in our time. As the numbers of people ‘attending church’ is decreasing at alarming rates (from both conservative and liberal traditions), more and more people are looking to find fresh ways of being a faithful follower of Jesus. What we used to ‘know’ with all certainty is now being questioned and that is shaking the very foundations of the many various ‘Christianities’. I have stated this more than once and I will continue to do so - Brian McLaren’s book, A New Kind of Christianity is a bold response to this very movement of God in our midst. And just like the extreme religious leaders of Jesus day, McLaren is constantly under attack for daring to challenge the establishment. But I believe he is moving where the Spirit of God is leading.

While the mid-term elections are coming in a few days, the issues at stake are not as we have been told. We have boiled them down to talking points and clichés - abortion, big government take-over, gay rights, health care, etc. While these are important issues we have been duped into thinking that they are the only ones. While we are shouting and fighting about these issues those in power continue to go about business as usual. And just so we don’t misunderstand, when I state ‘those in power’ I am meaning our churches. ‘If we can just get back to the way things were,’ we have been told, ‘then everything will be alright’. Others more boldly say, ‘The reason we are in such a mess is because we have forgotten the old ways. We have left our biblical traditions and have colluded with secular humanism. We must turn back to God.’ While I agree in principle with this, the way forward is not to ‘go back’. We must use our imaginations and ask what it means to stand on those traditions and move beyond them. We must build upon them - not return to them. The issue is that for a lot of people, the view of how God does things was settled long ago. ‘ . . . [We] may be tempted to a scholastic reductionism about God, so that all things are thought to be settled about God and nothing is left open’ (pg 23). That is exactly the case for many. God has become very predictable. God is no longer shocking. Think about this. The Creator God, the God whom raised Jesus from the dead, is no longer surprising us! How can this be? How have we succumbed into believing that we have ‘settled’ our understanding of who God is and what God is doing?

But it is at just this point that people of today are fighting back! ‘These things have already been settled!’ they clamor. But surely this depends upon whom you are talking with. Some will cite the creeds and others will cite the Reformation. I have a friend of mine who wishes we were back in the 16th century. That’s when everything was right in the world. When great men of God like Luther and Calvin took us back to the five solas: Sola Scriptura, Sola fide, sola gratia, solo Christo, Soli Deo gloria. But, it is amazing to me how those of this view fail to see their death grip on the traditions of men! Those things were needed for their time, not ours. I’m not saying that we don’t need those things. But we must build upon them. They are not the end of the journey but sign posts along the way. We are living in a different age and our age needs it’s own reformation. And God is giving it to us through very different (but similar) means. The Spirit of God is moving once more through the followers of Jesus and we are getting restless. Something is happening. Once more the Spirit is brooding over the waters of creation and preparing to birth something new into existence. ‘But what is it? Where is the biblical proof of your views? Cite me chapter and verse!’ Brueggemann counters this:

Poets have no advice to give people. They only want people to see differently, to re-vision life. They cannot do more, because they are making available a world that does not yet exist beyond their imagination; but their offer of this imaginative world is necessary to give freedom of action. The poets want us to re-experience the present world under a different set of metaphors, and they want us to entertain an alternative world not yet visible (pg 32).

The problem then is that for many of us we are the people of Jeremiah’s day. That is, we have settled for the way things are. We have grown accustomed to exile and it’s ‘everydayness’. We have lost the vision and passion of return. What we need are new poets. But, Brueggemann cautions, ‘The ideology of our age does not believe in real newness. It does not believe in the possibility of a new Jeremiah, so it must hold desperately to the old one’ (pg 38). So, what do those in power do? They continue to cry all the louder that the best thing to do is just do what we have always done. After all, those things have been ratified in creeds and accepted as the ‘way things are’ for a very long time. There is a certainty, a security in that. But the problem is that those in power are hiding a dying corpse and the smell is starting to get out. Some of the followers of Jesus are smelling the decay and are looking for a new way. That is our job today. That is our vocation. ‘The priestly office consists in helping people to face the death already decided upon and to receive new life that comes in after the death’ (pg 59).

It is at this point, after the community comes to terms that the ‘old traditions’ have been much like the Wizard of Oz and are at the point of despair, the prophet comes in with new visions, new imaginations, to help bring people hope that all is not lost, that our God is the God who heals the broken-hearted, who causes the lame to walk, who makes the blind to see and the deaf to hear and the lame to walk, and, yes, raises the dead back to life again!

The final test of vitality in ministry is to articulate concrete hope just when the community decides upon hopelessness . . . Now one can hear the flutter of the returning cherubim. The sound of fluttering wings signals the reclaiming of the temple, the return of glory, the restoration of presence, to overcome teh dread of absence. But the return of glory comes after, never before, the city is fallen. The power and rule of God are established on Sunday only after the fullness of dark Friday, never before. The hope is not spoken too soon (pg 73).

And that is what we all want to do - speak hope too soon. We don’t like the idea that something is broken and needs mending. We don’t like the idea that the vultures are circling over head just waiting for death to come and drink the remaining life from the body. We want to talk about the new life that God has for us on the other side of death. We want to speak of this life and give new glimpses into that world. But, sadly, I don’t think we are ready yet. I don’t think that we truly believe that something is broken. There are too many of us who find comfort in the ‘old traditions’. There are too many of us that think the ‘church’ is just fine and that all we really need to do is to get ‘back to the Bible’ and ‘holy living’ and things will be better. That is the lie that we keep telling ourselves, I’m afraid. Mostly because it is only through a very legalistic view that some consider ‘holy living’. I think that the time is coming, and now is, where we need poets to tell us what is really going on. We need people who are honest enough to stand up and speak to power and say ‘Enough is enough! We are just going through the motions. Look into the souls of the people and see that they are dying and dead inside. There is no life. There is now power. There is no Spirit. We can not move forward until we deal with this disease. We are lying to ourselves and those outside know it!’ To be certain, ‘The promises are not available to us or effective for us while we are people who cling to the old city and to old organizations of reality’ (pg 95).

Full disclosure here. I have been feeling in exile for a while. Way back in my Full Preterist days I started a newsletter called ‘Odyssey’. The purpose of the newsletter was to look for examples of living in relationship with Christ from the Jewish Scriptures. Particularly, those lives that were in relationship with God before the law was given. In other words, before the legal statutes, before the liturgy and the ceremony, people had to have a relationship with God to determine how God wanted them to live. We see quite clearly that Isaac’s life with God was drastically different from his father’s and mother’s relationship with God. It seems that once the ‘rules’ were put down, we spend all of our lives defending and continuing in the rules all the while we fail to notice that God has moved on to other things.

I’m reminded of a startling realization while reading about the War of the Jews in 70CE. While Josephus described the Temple in one section, he stated that the Holy of Holies was empty! There was no Ark of the Covenant. Now, I don’t know if he stated that to mean the people had hidden the ark or that it had been missing or destroyed in Babylon. The impression that I got was that it had been empty since the return from Babylon and that the people of Jesus day were just going through the motions and the presence of God wasn’t even there - and no one noticed. I hope that it isn’t the same for us today. But if it’s not, ‘[The] Christian faith in all its forms is in trouble. The good news: the Christian faith in all its forms is pregnant with new possibilities’ (Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, page xi). But, according to Brueggemann, we can’t give birth to those new possibilities until we acknowledge our position now. I, for one, feel the labor pains and I have felt them for a long time. My prayer is that we recognize our situation and, once recognized and dealt with, the birthing begins soon.

In the Love of the Three in One,

Jack+, LC


M. Scott said…
Jack you are so damn smart is scary. Really scary. You put the state's theologians to shame. I really, really wish there were more Christians in the world like you, my friend.
Jack+, LC said…
Thanks, Scott. As always, I am humbled by your words. But I have to ask, what made you state this? Was there something about the post that spoke to you?

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