Reflections on Exile, or, The Danger of Sending Your Pastor Back to School

Reflections on Exile, or, The Danger of Sending Your Pastor Back to School January 10, 2007

Exile. The word standing alone has rather somber connotations.

In class today (Biblical Interpretation for Preaching to a New Generation . . . perhaps by the end of the class I will have some understanding of what exactly the title means . . .) we discussed in great length Walter Brueggemann’s masterful book Cadences of Home: Preaching Among Exiles.

In it Bruggemann explores the metaphor of exile as one we might use with our congregations to help define mission, vision, values in a world where one might be hesitant to suggest (to, uh, preach to a large group of people from a public pulpit, let’s be honest here) that the world around us . . . the government under which we live . . . the society in which we function . . . all stand in sharp contrast to the mandate of the Gospel.

(“Oh, that will have them running down the aisles!” she said to herself as she nodded thoughtfully in the professor’s direction.)

Exile is a situation in which we are threatened with the temptations of despair (it’s too hard to be different so I might as well sit in a corner and die) and assimilation (when in Rome and all that . . .).

Could this have any relevance for any of us at all?

Funny, we found as the members of our class began to compare, the pictures Bruggemann paints are poignantly true. . . from rural parishes in Maine to struggling churches in South Louisiana to affluent churches in Hawaii. All of us could, in some way, sing the lament of a people in exile: “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows poplars—there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

No, we found that, while might not be hanging up our harps in lament exactly, all of us could find some connection with the idea of exile.

Exile, we discovered, is the embracing of the fact that we march to a different beat than the world around us, however we’re called to do that in each of our communities of faith.

For some it means looking around and realizing that the paths we’ve chosen up until now are paths of assimilation, not definition . . . and that we are called to change. For others of us it means clearing a new path through the underbrush of the society in which we live. For still others it means tenaciously staking a claim and defending it with all we’re worth.

But for all of us, as Bruggemann seems to point out, the reality of exile is an invitation to repentance.

Embracing our identity as exiles offers an opportunity to firmly turn our backs on those tempting alternatives of assimilation or despair and, when we do, accept the invitation of forgiveness . . . comfort, the prophet called it, of the God who walks right beside us as we live faithfully a story that’s different from the story of the world around us.

(“Despite my initial reservations, this sounds suspiciously like good news to me!”, she thought to herself.)

Class has convinced me to give new thought to the metaphor of exile. I’m not sure how that is lived out in my own life, but I do know assimilation and despair are not options for a people living in anticipation of the hope of God.

Instead, it seems a better option to keep trudging along, singing the Lord’s song at the top of our lungs . . . even if everyone else is singing something by the Cheetah Girls (sorry, it’s the context of my current living situation, I’m afraid).

Yes, it seems the Psalmist was right. If we’re people of God we’re living in exile. We’re marching to the beat of a different drummer, singing the Lord’s song in a land where that particular tune sounds grating and different, offensive, even, to the crowd around us.

But, I’m remembering this week . . . for those who have ears to hear . . . even just faint strains drifting over the deserts of our lives . . . oh, what beautiful music it is.

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  • Chuck

    As a still relatively new Christian (less than two years) I can certainly identify with the feeling of having gone into exile. Conversion to Christ can certainly put some distance between you and the people in your life as well as society in general. Your blog reminded me of another brilliant German theologian with a long last name that starts with a “B”. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said our real task is to bear in ourselves the fury of the world against Christ in order to reconcile the world with Christ. Rather than languishing in exile, it sounds like we have a difficult job to do.

  • Chuck

    As a still relatively new Christian (less than two years) I can certainly identify with the feeling of having gone into exile. Conversion to Christ can certainly put some distance between you and the people in your life as well as society in general. Your blog reminded me of another brilliant German theologian with a long last name that starts with a “B”. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said our real task is to bear in ourselves the fury of the world against Christ in order to reconcile the world with Christ. Rather than languishing in exile, it sounds like we have a difficult job to do.