UMC In Exile

As I continue to process GC2012 and look forward to God’s preferred future, I am struck that where we are is a good place in spite of the predominant reaction of despair over the state of our church.  It’s a painful place, a scary one, but also a hopeful one. We are not people who want to go back to the good old days of the status quo or Garden of Eden. We are people who long for the New Jerusalem and want to be used by God to help usher in the Kingdom. We are a people who desire to put legs on our prayer, “Thy kingdom come…” If author Scott Peck is right then our pseudocommunity has given way to chaos, and if we let it do its work then we shall find ourselves embracing a Jesus-like emptiness that will lead us into a bright God-blessed future. But first we have to mourn our chaos: “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh…Woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep (Luke 6:21,25).”

The acceptance of Enlightenment era certitude created a centuries-old illusionary humanistic optimism that has fueled two opposing sides of hardliners. This has been evident in the halls of Congress and at GC2012. It is time for us to move away from the  literal and liberal fundamentalism of old world empirical stances and follow God’s directives which often find voice in mysterious ways.  As much as I would like to put funnels in people’s heads so that they know the difference between unchanging doctrine and ever-changing theology, it doesn’t work that way. Sure, I’m going to teach the truth of our Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith, but I want to do it in ways that allow God to speak more than me. I have to be quiet. We all do. We have to let God do the talking in contemporary ways. Then we can move forward and stop the status quo entrenchment of extremist polarities that are holding us back.

I’m not saying that we need to check our understanding of good theology at the door, but we do need to open ourselves to a new word from God.  Not a new Word of God, but a new epiphany so that we have a personal theophany with the Living God. Of course, this is where chaos reigns in our discussions. Who decides what is God’s W/word for today, this generation? What does this kind of thinking do to the unique salvific person and work of Christ? How do we objectify the Immortal, Invisible God that we see face-to-face in Jesus? Is there a way for us to hold in tension the apparent paradox and oxymoron of a God bigger than all, that created ex nihilo, yet is made incarnate  and truly human while remaining very God of very God? “Whew!” is about the best response I can make because I can’t answer all of these questions adequately. However, I will not yield on who Jesus is and what Jesus does or what Jesus says. He is the Logos! But, until I give up a great measure of what I think that I know, I know that I won’t know the God of the Apocalypse. There can be no revelation (apocalypsis) if everything is already revealed. Isn’t this the essence of our dilemma? Is God dynamic or static? Is God immutable only in God’s loving nature? Is God ever-changing in nano-second immediacy in response to God’s loving relationship to creation? If not, then why pray? The questions continue, leading from one to another, and yet we need a clarion call, a sure pronouncement from God. I contend that we will not and cannot hear such a pronouncement until we give up our human machinations that put words into God’s mouth. Where we are is between chaos and emptiness and this is where the Old Testament’s prophets found themselves. They, like Jesus after them, were strangers among their own people. They spoke God’s truth of judgment on a wicked and idol-worshipping people. They spoke also of a God eager to love. They were the voice of exile, and out of the Hebrew Exile came the most profound renewal: Dedicated care for the poor and oppressed, overwhelming revitalization of worship practices, and absolute dedication to community.

We, too, can find hope in our time of chaos and emptiness, our sense of exile from our glory days of yesteryear. Our hope is found in our hopelessness. Our salvation isn’t found in empirical data mining called metrics for the Spirit blows in unseen ways before there is fruit even imagined. Just ask Nicodemus. Our Gospel is a saga of exile to hope, death to resurrection, crying in the night before joy in the morning. To bypass chaos and death diminishes the cross’ victory! Now, that’s a paradox – “the cross’ victory!” But this is our Gospel after all. God redeems! Jesus died and rose again. We are not stuck between Good Friday and Easter. We are post-Pentecost Christians that supremely worship a Living Lord who can make all things new! Think about Jesus and the wineskins analogy or I Corinthians 5:17. Something’s got to give if we are to move past our semi-idolatrous harkening back to the supposed “good old days.” Polarities are keeping us from admitting the failure that is ours in reaching a confused generation. Revival can come only if we repent. If we will repent then we are able to have hope. If we focus overly on what was or is then we miss what can be and will be. We absolutely must give up all hankering for going back to the Garden of Eden and press on toward the New Jerusalem – a place described, interestingly enough, a lot like post-exilic Judaism: care for the least, last, lowest, lost; fantastic worship; blessed community.

So first things first. We can’t get to the New Jerusalem without going through real chaos and emptiness. Therefore, it behooves us to lament, to cry out, to express our anguish. GC2012 and Election Year 2012 have me convinced that theological and political gridlock on top of economic disaster is real.  We cannot dare to be priests or prophets who say, “Peace, Peace – when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14, 8:11), in a divided world or church. We cannot put a useless band-aid of denial on our situation and strike a passive stance of do-nothingism on our dismal condition. If we want to have hope in the God who sends exiles home and resurrects the dead, then, like the Hebrew prophets of the Exile, we must declare our utter failure at trying to manipulate and manage God. By accepting our emptiness and expressing our grief we acknowledge that God has judged us. Listen to the prophet in Jeremiah 30:12: “This is what the Lord says: “Your wound is incurable, your injury beyond healing.”  We are judged by God who then enters our grief and surprises us. When all hope is seemingly lost by virtue of self-caused and God-judged chaos and emptiness we are surprised by God; i.e., Jeremiah 30:16-17: “Therefore, all who devour you will be devoured; all your enemies will go into exile. Those who plunder you will be plundered; all who make spoil of you I will despoil. But I will restore you to health and heal your wounds.” Only grief allows newness and only newness can come from God entering the judgment we have brought upon ourselves. Jesus saves, not this group or that one. Only Jesus saves! That is the essence of my report about General Conference 2012, and it is my message to everyone about the state of our world: “We’re broken and we’ve tried everything we can to fix things on our own, and it hasn’t worked. God help us! And God does help. There is our only hope. God is our only hope!”

By the way, you need to know that this hopeful comparison of the Hebrew Exile to today is thanks to the gentle prodding of retired Bishop Ken Carder to reread Brueggemann. His book, Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile is a must read. The book’s premise of Hebrew Exile as a means of renewal is more than a timely word for us. It was published in 1986 yet its words speak as if written today (pp. 45-47) (Hint: When you read “city” think Jerusalem, Church, Enlightenment, or Culture, etc.):

“I believe that we are in a season of transition, when we are watching the collapse of the world as we have known it. The political forms and economic modes of the past are increasingly ineffective. The value system and the shapes of knowledge through which we have controlled life are now in great jeopardy. One can paint the picture in very large scope, but the issues do not present themselves to pastors as global issues. They appear as local, even personal issues, but they are nonetheless pieces of a very large picture. When the fear and anger are immediate and acute, we do not stop to notice how much our own crisis is a part of the larger one, but it is.

When such a massive threat is under way, so comprehensive in scope, so acute in personal hurt, frenzied, dangerous activity takes place. Such activity runs from arms stockpiling to frantic self-fulfillment to oppressive conformity. All of these are attempts to hold the world together enough to maintain our dignity, our worth, our sanity, and probably our advantage. I believe these attempts can be identified among conservatives (including theological conservatives) who want to stop the change by formulae of authority and conformity. I believe these attempts can be identified among liberals (including theological liberals) who want to keep power in place because liberals have had a good season and still trust the worldly knowledge of the social sciences to keep us human and to keep us safe. The voices of newly revived conservatism and responsible liberalism are important. Both voices have something to tell us.

Neither voice, however, touches the issue of the death of the beloved city that must be grieved. Indeed, one can argue that the polarities in our society are a game on which we have agreed in order to keep us busy, so that we do not notice. Powerful vested interests are at work, perhaps mostly unwittingly, to keep the grief from notice. In one way or another, we believe the ideology of our party, our caucus, our nation, our class, because ideology serves as a hedge against a serious diagnosis. If one denies serious illness, then there is no need for the diagnosis. There is then no cause to weep over the city. There is no call for such poignant poetry. But if the city is dying, if the old order is failing, if the poet has diagnosed rightly, then the grief is urgent. It is a personal grief. It is a quite public grief. It is facing our true situation, in which living waters have been rejected and we are left with broken cisterns (Jeremiah 2:13), in which all our lovers despise us (Jeremiah 30:14), in which we are like restive camels in heat (Jeremiah 2:23-34). All the metaphors mediate our broken, beaten fickleness. The news is that God enters the broken, beaten fickleness.

In God’s attentive pain, healing happens. Newness comes. Possibilities are presented. But it all depends on being present with God in the hurt, which is incurable until God’s hint of healing is offered. We wait, along with the poet, to see what the tone of the next ‘therefore’ (Jeremiah 30:16) will be.”

This post is long, but long overdue. Where is our hope? The answer is found in our hopelessness. We can only find hope in Jesus! Exile is hard! Life is hard! The alternative is deadly! Let us give ourselves to Christ, the Only One who raises the dead back to life!

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7 thoughts on “UMC In Exile

  1. Jesus saves. No one else. Seems we all have to go through a lot of words, thoughts, actions and pain to come back to that realization, that choice, that acceptance. It took me decades. As a result, I do not see GC 2012 as a failure, and am amazed at all the lament and anger from both “sides.” The last two General Conferences overreached themselves in trying to refashion and restructure everything. Incremental change, with one eye on the horizon and with dreams shared about what may lay beyond may be more helpful and more constructive. Trim, realign, try this or that, trust in God, will do more positively in the long run. Sweeping changes without consideration of our purposes and theology will bring other agendas into play, but not necessarily those of the Lord. Impatient demands and tantrums may eventually precipitate an exhaustive overhaul, from the direction of one “side” or another, but it may be more productive to share our visions and dreams and remind ourselves, as you have done in this post, that only Jesus saves.

  2. I wonder, would repenting of our failures not be easier if we stopped trying to “storm the gates” of the New Jerusalem and worked ourselves into a humbled receiving posture of dependence upon the sustaining life of Christ to incorporate us into that prime community that is, it seems to me, coming to us. Like other Methodists, I believe e cooperate in our salvation and that we are indeed cooperating with Christ in building His Kingdom. But I wonder why it seems that we are beginning to think that we must build the Church in our own wisdom? My impressio from reading commentaries from some of our bishops regarding the failures of GC2012 is that we seem to think that renewal is rooted in policy and structure rather than a redeemed communal relationship with the Living God. Are we not suddenly reminiscent of the elders who came to Samuel wanting a new kind of king- not a divine King but one like our neighbors have? We want to be like the Fortune 500 Corporation that finally, matured in our wisdom, put the right leader or board into authority. We want to be like the entrepaneur who developed a bright, shiny new widget the band of crows we call consumerism just couldn’t live without. It all makes my head hurt.

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