A People in Exile

Recently, one of my sisters in Christ was experiencing an ongoing sense of sadness, and was unable to pinpoint the cause. As she was sharing her sense of loss and sadness, I began to ruminate on the many difficulties and crises facing peoples around the world – civil and political unrest, pandemic lockdowns and restrictions, job and school disruptions and losses, unemployment, social isolation, emotional stress, fear and uncertainty, to name a few. There are many reasons to feel sad or distressed. One needs not look far to see them. In fact, it is difficult to escape them. They are with us daily and they show no sign of letting up any time soon. 

I thought about how our own Christian community has been impacted by months of lockdown and restricted gatherings, socially distanced small groups, endless Zoom meetings, canceled retreats, conferences and other notable community events. Our ability to live community life to the full has been dealt a blow – our ability to do mission seemingly put on pause. It is a strange time in which we are living. It is an unfamiliar and foreign land.

As I considered these things, I sensed the Lord saying to me, “You are in exile.”  I was reminded of the Old Testament stories of Israel as they were led out of Egypt into the desert, away from everything familiar. I wondered what it must have been like for God’s people to be taken into captivity in Babylon; into a foreign country, into a land far different from anything they had known.

For us, life is not the same as it once was. We don’t recognize this place. We wake up in the morning to an environment that feels different, uncomfortable, uneasy, and unsettled. There is an uncertainty about what our future may look like and what tomorrow may bring.  It no longer feels like ‘home’. At times, I feel tempted to hang my harp on the willow tree and weep (Psalm 137). It is a struggle to sing the songs of Zion, to be joyful and hopeful in this strange land.  

Where do we seek comfort?
Where do we seek comfort in these challenging times? Are we being faithful to the Lord and the things he asks of us? Are we  spending time in environments that can subtly draw our attention and shift our focus away from the things of God and into the stream of the secular culture around us. We can easily become distracted from the purposes God has for us, both as individuals and as members of his body. Fr. Gabriel of St Mary Magdalen, O.C.D. author of the book Divine Intimacy – Meditations on the Interior Life says it well:

We live too much in the exterior…We live in this superficial world which absorbs us so completely that it makes us forget the more profound life, the really interior life where a soul may live in intimate union with its God. The Lord waits for us, so to speak, in the depths of our soul, but we do not go into these depths, taken up as we are with our affairs, to which we give all our interest. 

It is not possible to quit our jobs, pull our families into the house, and shutter the doors and windows. But every now and then we can pull back from the many things that clamor for our time and attention. Frequent course corrections are the usual practice for NASA astronauts. Annual checkups are part of our medical routines. Car inspections and routine maintenance are required for optimal performance of our vehicles. Should we not, also, routinely check our spiritual lives to see where we might have strayed a bit from our course or allowed the world’s culture to seep in?  

Remember…Do not forget…
As the days passed, the Lord’s word has  begun to resonate like an admonition. “Remember. Do not forget that you are in exile. This is not your homeland. Here you have no lasting city. This is not the life for which I have created you.  Let go of your attachments, shake off your slumber, separate yourselves and keep your eyes on me.”

I’m reminded that when the people of Israel wandered in the desert they complained, “Why can’t we just go back to Egypt? We were well fed there. It was familiar; it felt like home.” God had promised to take his people to the Promised Land, yet they grumbled from the first moments of the journey. Many tended to look back with fondness on the place where they had been held captive for 700 years, romanticizing what life was like there. Sometimes, I think we, too, can romanticize the culture around us. Although not uprooted from our homes, we can still forget that we are aliens and sojourners in a foreign land. We could find that we’ve subtly assimilated into worldly patterns of life and thought. We may lose the sense that this is not where we belong. If we’re not careful, it can begin to feel too much like home. 

A Season of Reflection
This season of lockdown, shutdown, and quarantine has provided time and opportunity for a bit of self-examination. Are there ways in which I have become too fond of the culture, too accustomed to the ways of the world? Am I invested in my own personal comfort? Am I inclined to grumble while making this journey? Do I trust the Lord to lead me safely through this unfamiliar land and to protect and provide for me along the way?  Do I need to adjust my priorities and refocus my vision?

There could be a whole host of reasons God has allowed this pandemic. One of them may be the intentional imposition of an interruption to our often-frenzied level of activity; a deliberate curtailing of the hectic and hurried pace of life to which we have become accustomed.  Here, we are presented with an opportunity to seek him with a greater fervency; to yield more of our time to prayer, scripture study, and other spiritual reading; to reflect on the blessings and graces he pours out on his people not just in such challenging times, but every day of our lives! And to appreciate our call to covenant community. If we simply look to fill the time with projects, pass times, amusements, or hobbies, we may miss what God wants to accomplish in us in this place. If we just want to get through it and get on with life, this opportunity may be lost.

Reflecting on these things I realize that what tugs at my heart strings is the yearning to be with the body of Christ; I miss the fullness of our life together. I long to be with the whole company of believers in corporate worship, face to face, free to embrace, to enjoy fellowship with one another without concern for keeping distance.  I want the ‘normalcy’ of family life and Christian community. This season of separation has made me more grateful for my natural family, but also for my ‘family’ in the People of God, for the life he has graciously given us, for the call to build the bulwark, to be part of a work that is unique to our time and near to the heart of God.

We may be away from our homeland, exiled in a time and season not of our own choosing. There may be reasons to feel sad, but there are many more reasons to be grateful and to rejoice! We are not alone! Our God is with us! We are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that we may declare the praises of him who called us out of the darkness into his wonderful light!  

So, let us strengthen our feeble arms and weak knees! Let us not squander this rare moment in time, but emerge strengthened and renewed in His Spirit, ready to fully engage the work he has given us to do. Stand firm! Let nothing move you! Our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed! Give thanks to our God who goes with us on our journey!

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