Exile is the experience of powerlessness, in extremis. Everything is determined by another. We are removed from where we want to be and whom we want to be with. We are isolated from place and persons. We are victims. The worst punishment possible in ancient Israel was banishment. To be separated from family and country, from community worship and family faith—that was the cruelest decree. The severest judgment that the nation experienced was exile to Babylonia. A person created for personal relationships of love cannot live adequately without them. Exile dehumanizes. It sentences us to death by bread alone. “On the island called Patmos” Rome showed St. John who was in charge. Every lonely hour on the barren rock was proof that Rome determined St. John’s destiny, that Rome’s word was the final word on his life, that Rome’s decree set the limits within which he was permitted to exist. St. John was alone, powerless, and bereft. –from Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination, Eugene H. Peterson (Harper Collins, 1988) pages 88-89
Eugene H. Peterson is one of my favorite authors. I appreciate his reflections in Reversed Thunder on the last book of the Bible, Revelation. He views the text not as some science fiction, futuristic escapist experience but rather as a present exposition of the then current political and societal situation. Peterson contends that much of Revelation is taken from other books of the Bible, not direct quotes but paraphrases, and he does a superb job of providing explanation. He then distills it down to help us, readers, come to terms with the message of Revelation for our current lives.
The italicized paragraph above doesn’t follow the pattern necessarily of the previous paragraph. However, it does offer a good sample of Peterson’s ability to make sense of the Biblical text, and to help his readers think about the present. When I read his thoughts on exile, I was also working on a worship service based on the book of Nehemiah, which refers to exiled people being returned to their homeland. Peterson’s concept of exile helped me to think about how the exiles returning home may have felt. I can imagine their joy and jubilation. They are moving back to the familiar, to a place of comfort. Granted, Jerusalem was in shambles upon their return, nevertheless it was home. Put yourself in their place. Consider a time that you were away from home for an extended period of time and felt like kissing the ground when you returned home.
The time of greatest homesickness occurred in my life when I was in my early teens. I went with my parents to visit my oldest sister, who was living near Washington, D. C. at the time. We spent a week in the city, staying in my sister’s townhouse. Being someone who was used to the wide-open spaces of the country, I felt confined in the city environment. I couldn’t walk through the pasture, or in the woods, or ride a bike up and down a gravel road (there wasn’t even a bike to ride!). I couldn’t wait to get back to Ipava and was relieved beyond measure when we finally arrived back home on the farm. I don’t remember vividly, but I’m confident the farm was in good shape upon our return. Even if it had been otherwise, I would have rejoiced for simply being in a familiar space.
To some degree, all of us in the past couple of years experienced exile. A pandemic, the likes of which has never before been faced, took us away from the familiar. Early on, we could not find bathroom tissue on store shelves. Restaurants where we enjoyed eating with others and sharing in conversation were closed, or if open, provided only curb side service. Masks…we had to wear masks! It seemed really weird at first (at least for me). Fear was prevalent. If we contracted the virus, what would happen to us? Events were cancelled or postponed. We had to learn to navigate Zoom and other electronic means for communication and staying connected at levels which took many of us beyond our skill and comfort levels. Did we feel like victims, as Peterson contends exiles do? Perhaps. Did we feel dehumanized? Perhaps.
We’re still exiled in this pandemic, yet some of the restrictions are eased. It’s beginning to feel as if we’re returning home. Whether it’s the right time or not, (I’m not advocating one way or the other), life is turning back toward home, to the familiar. But the return is a bit like Jerusalem. It may be home-like but it’s a different kind of place. There is still an unsettledness about pandemic protocols. Disagreements on best ways forward still exist and, in some instances, raise our hackles. Economic issues are present. War rages in Ukraine. Political turmoil seems to ratchet up rather than down.
Wouldn’t it be great if everything would exist as it had pre-exile? But it doesn’t. And, in my view, never will. So what do we do when we return to a home that is different? Perhaps we need to let go of what was in the past and begin to put together, in an atmosphere of community, the pieces of a new future. Perhaps we let go of pride and consider the ideas of others. Perhaps we accept the new things we learned in exile and begin to use some of those new understandings to carry us forward. Perhaps we remember that we aren’t facing any of this alone, that the One who created us also journeys with us.
The stories of exiles in the Hebrew Bible returning home reveal that coming back home required a couple of important pieces. One, that they worked together. Community was and is key. And, two, prayer. Prayer is a recognition of a transcendence beyond our own finiteness that guides and directs us. If we incorporate these two pieces in our post-pandemic homecoming, surely there is hope for a bright future, a home on holy, kissable ground.
Recap: Worship, May 1, 2022
The story of Nehemiah offered a focal point for worship, May 1. When the exiled Israelite people returned to Jerusalem under the leadership of Nehemiah, old patterns of exile-style functioning invade the community. Nehemiah received complaints about the situation and takes immediate action to bring about justice in the form of greater equitable distribution of wealth and resources. The Nehemiah story helps us to reflect on the ways we share our wealth and resources. Following are links to videos shared during the worship service along with an additional link of a video that could not be shared Sunday due to its length.
Wealth Inequality in America – (74) Wealth Inequality in America – YouTube
Tupac on Greed in America – (74) Tupac Talks Donald Trump & Greed in America in 1992 Interview | MTV News – YouTube
(not shown during worship but worth viewing – Racial Wealth Gap – (74) Explained | Racial Wealth Gap | FULL EPISODE | Netflix – YouTube
Facebook page video of the service – Canton Church of the Brethren – Illinois | Facebook
Worship Service – May 8, 2022 – 9:30am – In-person & Zoom
(in-person service, masks strongly recommended, required for worship service participants)
Justice has been the theme for worship over the last few months (with a few breaks for special days and services). SHINE curriculum was the resource used to build the worship services. We will come to the end of this series with our worship service this coming Sunday but we have not and will never come to the end of striving for justice. Thus, our worship experience on Sunday will look at some areas of injustice to remind us that the need is always at hand. Additionally, we will again consider Nehemiah’s story of helping a returning exiled people find justice. Where and when in our lives have we experienced injustice? How do we respond to opportunities whereby justice is extended to us? And how should we respond when we hear stories of or complaints about injustices being carried out in our midst, in our systems, in our societies? What examples of overcoming injustices do we have to emulate and/or mimic? Injustice is often complex. What are some simple, doable exercises in which we can become involved that will help to make just differences? What should we be aware of to ensure that we are not blind to the injustices that are present or rise up unexpectedly? May we be inspired to always act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.
If you are unable to participate in the service in-person, the option to join by Zoom is available. Here is the Zoom link:
Time: May 8, 2022 09:30 AM Central Time (US and Canada)
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Meeting ID: 838 5299 1280