Exiled to Discover God at Work in the World and in Us

I am taking off my sandals as I realize that I am standing on holy ground –in exile! Karina Kreminski recently helped us wrestle with what it means to be the church in post-Christian exile. In her post, she challenged some current approaches to this context such as imagining ourselves at war with the culture around us and she made some helpful suggestions as to alternative responses [1]. I appreciated her call for us to embrace this uncomfortable 'place' and as she referenced Jeremiah 29. I have often pondered how and why the Lord sends the defeated people of God with instructions to MAKE BABYLON THEIR HOMEnot to conquer or begrudge or retreat from but to call it, and make it home. How strange:

Could being exiled actually be a call to to engage with those around us and to discover anew that God is at work in the world beyond the church, and that there is holy ground right where we live, where He has sent us to remain?

Alan Roxburgh writes:

They [the Exiled people of God] are given strange, hugely counterintuitive instructions that would have made little sense to Jewish people—they were to settle into the city of Babylon (its name means ‘The gate of the gods’ implying that this city is the place in all the earth where the gods—of the other—come down; one can only imagine the shock of this city on the exiles). … Jeremiah’s letter suggests that the only way for these exiles to rediscover their identity as God’s people is by dwelling in the very place where they imagined God could never be. … Yet there it was—a word from the Lord telling them to embrace and enter this city they had learned to despise. [2]

Sent to Inhabit. Such a word also speaks to us today. God is present in this place and time, and God has sent us to “embrace and enter” our neighbourhoods with the Spirit here and now. Simon Carey Holt observes that “we are not created to be placeless wanderers. The Garden of Eden, the Promised Land, the city on the hill, the house with many rooms, the streets of gold: the Christian story is a story of places—the most tangible places from beginning to end. We are made to inhabit.”[3] Several comments from our Neighbourhood Life (NL) Community express this reality. For example, one participant declared, “I am passionate about neighbourhood transformation because this is where I live, my friends and family live. It is where [my child] will grow up and I will grow old. It is the shaping and defining place in which we are to live Christ together. It is home.” Thus, the prophet instructs the exiles with the word of the Lord telling them to settle in, plan to stay, make a home, be family, and be good neighbours. As Holt observes—no matter how Babylonian we might imagine it to be,

God’s call [to the exiles and to us] is a call to place. … He calls us into particular places, places that we can see, walk, smell and inhabit. God’s call is not a call to be everywhere; it’s a call to be somewhere. … So too for us, the call of God is to be in a particular place and there to embody the presence and grace of God. It’s a call to locality. Quite simply, it’s a call to the neighbourhood. [4]

An Incarnational Posture. To be found together in a place as the people of God is to shift from an attractional enterprise to an incarnational posture. The Incarnation after all is not simply “God revealed in human experience, but God revealed and encountered in place.”[5] Since God came to be one of us, flesh and blood in the neighbourhood, the gospel—to be the gospel—is necessarily grounded in the particularity of a Person in a place. The Christ is known by his neighbourhood as “Jesus of Nazareth.”[6 ] As Kevin J. VanHoozer so aptly declares, “the Christian faith is incarnational, after all, and even God became not a generic but a culturally located human being. Jesus’ followers can do no less.”[7] Leonard Hjalmarson explains that, “through the Incarnation our experience is anchored firmly in the world of things and people and places. At the same time, people and places speak sacramentally, beyond themselves, of God’s promised future.”[8] Thus, Eugene Peterson reminds us that

What we often consider to be the concerns of the spiritual life—ideas, truths, prayers, promises, beliefs—are never in the Christian gospel permitted to have a life of their own apart from particular persons and actual places. Biblical spirituality/religion has a low tolerance for ‘great ideas’ or ‘sublime truths’ or ‘inspirational thoughts’ apart from the places in which they occur. [9]

The New Testament church reflects this reality: The congregations are all identified by their place. In fact, the only factor that separates the church in the first century (unlike today) is geography. [10] She is embedded in neighbourhoods, meeting in homes and linked as one across the nations. As one NL interviewee explained, “God places us in neighbourhoods quite intentionally.” Similarly, a more traditional church goer reflected, “I know that we [the church] have ignored the theology of place for far too long, that there is a need for you and others to emphasize the place where we live as the place of witness and engagement.”

Sharing Our Lives. We find an example of this embeddedness in Paul’s description of his relationship with the Thessalonians. Paul, Silas and Timothy have moved into the pagan Greek metropolis of Thessalonica and immersed themselves in the life and culture of its residents. Having remained there, eating and drinking, working and relaxing alongside the people, a number of people believed the good news including some Jews, lots of Greeks and “not a few prominent women” (Acts 17:4). Later Paul writes to this new little community. His letter depicts the humble, alongside posture that he, Silas and Timothy assumed in the neighbourhood as bearers of good news (1 Thessalonians 2:6-12). We are told that they “shared not only God’s Good News but [their] own lives, too” because they “loved” them “so much” (2:8). NL has tried to imagine what it means to love our neighbours so much. Paul seems to equate it with being like family, describing their relationships with the Thessalonians, as children among, as a mother feeding and caring, and as a father, pleading, urging and encouraging (2:6-7, 11-12).

The intimate relationality of sharing life dominates, reflecting the nature of the Triune Communion. As one NL participant articulated, “We are created to be in community with those around us; to be part of what God intended—it’s beauty and working towards its fullness.” Thus in Paul’s story, we find echoes of Jeremiah inviting us to build homes, plant gardens and grow our families in the neighbourhoods to which God has sent us. There is also an authenticity to their faithful presence: Paul and the other disciples are not deceitful (not trying to attract with great events or false promises); they never use flattery, are not greedy for self-aggrandizement, and work hard among the people so as not to be burden. The description of their practices reminds us of the instructions given to the seventy in Luke 10. Furthermore, as they do life together it is who they are, their character, “devout, honest and faultless” that bears witness (2:10). There is a sense that to bring good news we need to BE good news. One NL Community participant described this shift in himself, “from an obligation to a lifestyle; it was about being intentional, about being the church—not just going to church.” Later in the chapter, Paul exclaims how their Thessalonian neighbours are now their “glory and joy!” which affirms again an integrity and depth of relationship (2:13, 17, 19). Many, if not all, NL Community would describe their neighbours in a similar way. Hugh Halter and Matt Smay, authors of Tangible Kingdom identify the importance of this posture:

The power of sharing our lives with others is that we’re more prepared for spontaneous interaction when God opens a door. … I’ve concluded that, almost without exception, relationships are formed, important dialogue and conversation begin and powerful moments of ministry occur during spontaneous, unplanned moments while we are sharing our lives together. … Over time, I have learned that ‘interruptions’ are the very place where I look for God to work. [11]

Jesus, the Incarnate One, always had time for interruptions. The big crowd teachings were great but the stories that changed lives and communities were those that happened ‘on the way’—those ‘by chance’ encounters where Jesus made Himself available.[12] Our stories include descriptions of numerous occasions when unplanned encounters have led to particularly meaningful conversations. In contrast, as a colleague of mine put it, “So many churches and Christians have isolated their engagement with neighbours because they are too busy driving to a building that used to offer some programs we hoped others in the area of the building might be interested in. We all know how that approach has turned out, for the most part.” Contrarily, the Incarnation reminds us that “the greatest impact in Christian mission comes through the discipline of presence;” Jesus’ life and ministry demonstrate that “the commitment to neighbourhood requires a commitment to being at home.”[13]

Sent to Seek the Welfare of the Place. “Being at home” in our neighbourhoods, according to the prophet is also vital to our discipleship and our participation in God’s mission. Jeremiah instructs God’s people to “work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile” (Jeremiah 29:7). Holt thus declares that, “neighbourliness is fundamental to spirituality and concern for the places—the local places—of our daily lives is foundational to our Christian concern for people, the revelation of God in the world and the character and mission of the church.”[14] “Brent Aldrich writes, ‘At the scale of the neighborhood, we can know by the senses of our bodies; we can meet our neighbours and strangers in common, shared spaces; and we can enter into and work towards the long work of God’s transformation in our places.’”[15] Hjalmarson agrees asserting that, “apart from a vision of the world that recognizes place as a partner in redemption, we will fail to engage deeply in God’s mission in the places where we live.”[16]

Priests of the Neighbourhood. The people of God, we can then conclude, are sent to a particular place to inhabit and bless it. Our commitment to a place is tied to our identity and mission as ‘priests in our neighbourhoods’. As Jesus sent the ‘seventy’—the whole people of God to all nations—here too, we are all sent as ordinary people to our everyday neighbourhood places. Once again, we are released from the laity paradigm of the modern church and invited to participate with the Spirit right where we live. Many NL participants have felt called and empowered to thus engage in and with their neighbours—starting playgroups and community gardens; hosting parties; joining community league boards; becoming block connectors; leading funerals, participating in other significant events in neighbours’ lives, hearing confessions and struggles, challenging injustices, sharing resources, time and skills to nurture a community of care. Paul’s instructions to Titus explicate our identity and role in our neighbourhoods. Titus is told to “appoint elders in every town” (1:5). According to Paul, the people of God have a responsibility to the community which extends beyond fellow believers. This appointment as the town’s priesthood harkens back to the word, “ecclesia” often translated, ‘church’. The “ecclesia” originally denoted, “a gathering of wise community leaders, brought together by their common vision for the ‘Shalom’ of the wider community. In essence, the ecclesia was a community within a community whose function was to add value to the place in which they lived.”[16] “We began to realize,” as one NL participant put it, “that we were responsible as followers of Jesus.” Craig Van Gelder provides further insight: “a congregation is an ecclesia, a called out assembly for the purpose of being the people of God in a particular place.”[17] Len Hjalmarson thus surmises that “politics, in God’s Kingdom, is simply caring for the places in which we dwell and in which our neighbours dwell with us.”[18] Thus, Holt invites Christians to identify themselves as “resident celebrants—neighbourhood priests who embody and celebrate the presence of God where [they] live.”[19] As Christ’s “called-out ones,” in the neighbourhoods of which we are a part, the church then is to add value and wisdom, and to cultivate a better village through incarnating the Gospel together in that place.[20] In following, as we seek to experience and embody God’s Kingdom in our neighbourhoods, we become more of what we are already made and called to be as God’s ministers, instruments and witnesses of Christ’s reign in all the earthiness of where we live.[21] As an NL participant remarked, “Our hearts are here. The needs are next door.” Another explained, “I am learning to see it as a calling that is about serving God and neighbour.”

Sent for OUR WELFARE. Finally, the Jeremiah passage teaches us another lesson about why we are to be a people committed to, and engaged in the places to which God sends us. “Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare” (29:7). The prophet tells the people that their welfare is inexorably linked to the welfare and the prosperity of the city where God has sent them. In other words, as we work for the peace and well-being of our neighbourhoods, not only are we shaping them, they are shaping us. One NL member declared simply that “it has had a maturing effect.” Another remarked, “It has refreshed and expanded my thinking, solidified my beliefs about church—what it is, versus what the culture wants it to be … in the concrete versus the abstract.” Scott Hagley thus can claim that “place or making our home with a congregation in a neighborhood is a critical part of our spiritual formation. … Certain Christian virtues such as humility and mutual dependence cannot be learned in the fluid conditions of modern life. … Our spirituality depends in part upon our particular presence in place.”[22] The authors of The New Parish agree, suggesting that “the local place becomes the testing ground, revealing whether you have learned to love each other and the larger community around you. In essence, the parish is a dare to your faith.”[23]

This “dare to your faith” was presented to the Israelites in Babylon and I believe is now before the church in a postmodern, post-Christendom world. According to Roxburgh, “staying put among people is a critical element to being a gospel people and rediscovering the gospel for ourselves.”[24] Cam Roxburgh, National Director of Forge Canada can therefore conclude,

In the end, any concern for place and living in proximity must draw upon and embody our understanding of God’s mission. The importance and practice of place-making must originate in the being of God and in His action in the world. When followers of Jesus recognize that Jesus has sent us into the very neighbourhoods where He is at work, we become a sign and foretaste of the reality of the presence of the Kingdom of God. [25]

The Triune One not only meets His people in places, but—Scripture insists— shapes and empowers us to be who we are intended to be as we discover and participate with the Spirit, in our places. Peterson declares that “everything that the Creator God does in forming us humans is done in place. It follows from this that since we are his creatures and can hardly escape the conditions of our making, for us everything that has to do with God is also in place. All living is local.”[26] Perhaps we all need to learn to appreciate that “all living is local.”

Perhaps we need to meet God more and more in the places God has sent us to remain, loving our neighbours and seeking the welfare of our communities for the sake of the Gospel and as witness to the Kingdom come and on its way… in us.

Our Song

On the inside, so sure?
No, not me, Lord, I…
But You say—
It isn’t so… let it go
Wake up and write your song
Our song… God responds,
OUR song— is whispered in the wind
It’s fresh and it’s new
and it’s as beautiful as you
And I’m reminded that we are made in
Your image
We image Who You are
Full of grace and truth
You know us.
How can we be Your light and shine?
Your Kingdom near
Where our neighbours live
Make it right again.
Make us right again.
We want to be Your people
How we saw
Your Presence at the Table
But what does it mean to be
Your people, now?
Won’t you show us how
To be as You are—to love
As you commanded and as you bless
Call and equip us…
Not just to say it,
we’ve been there, done that—
built the walls and institutions
got the programs and constitutions
We said, come and see…
but You said go and be….
Go and be….
Go and be who I made you to be
Where you are
Write it in your lives and laughter
Write my Kingdom come,
now and ever after
Sing it lovingly
So your neighbours hear and see
So the world will know
By the love you show…
Our Song.
Sets the whole world free.
And when all is said and done
Sing it
—to Me…

[Photo: Nathan ClairCreative Commons 4.0 via #InstaBLAM]

1. http://missioalliance.org/the-church-is-in-post-christian-exile-but-should-we-really-respond-like-its-a-war/
2. Alan Roxburgh, Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood, 135.
3. Simon Carey Holt, God Next Door, 77.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., 2.
6. Matthew 26: 71, Mark 1:23-24,10:46-47,16:6; Luke 4:32-34,18:37,24:19-23; John 18:4-8,19:19; Acts 2:2,6:14, 10:38, 22:8, 26:9.
7. Vanhoozer, Kevin J., ed. Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 34.
8. Leonard Hjalmarson, No Home Like Place: A Christian Theology of Place (Portland, OR: Urban Loft, 2014), 129.
9. Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 72.
10. The churches are identified by their place: Ephesus, Corinth, Galatia, etc.
11. Hugh Halter and Matt Smay, The Tangible Kingdom: Creating Incarnational Community: The Postures and Practices of Ancient Church Now (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2008), 161.
12. . For example, the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4); dinner with Zacchaeus (Luke 19); pausing on the way to save a little girl’s life (Matthew 9); stopping to heal a blind man at the side of the road (John 9).
13. . Holt, God Next Door, 89.
14. . Holt, God Next Door, 15.
15. . Hjalmarson, No Home Like Place, 124-25.
16. . Ibid., 144.
17. . Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, ReJesus: A Wild Messiah for a Missional Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2008) 32.
18. . Craig Van Gelder, The Essence of the Church: A Community Created by the Spirit (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2000), 163-164.
19. . Hjalmarson, No Home Like Place, 130.
20. . Holt, God Next Door, 19.
21. . I am aware that some might find the call to be the vulnerable ones and the call to be priests in the neighbourhood as contradictory. Walter Brueggemann however proposes that “everything doesn’t have to fit;” and that when we allow for that, we honour the original Jewish mode of reading the text which was “open to the disjointed, irrational, contradictory, paradoxical, ironic and scandalous” as that then becomes “a vehicle for the oddity of God and the oddity of life.” Texts under Negotiation, 60, 58. Conversely, perhaps the best posture for ‘a priest’ is that of listening and sitting with—as a vulnerable one.
22. . 2 Corinthians 3:6; Isaiah 43:10, 43:12, 44:8 Acts 1:8; Matthew 5:14.
23. . Scott Hagley, “Finding our Way Back Home” Missional Voice Newsletter: Why Place Matters, Part Two, Forge Missional Training Network, January 2015, 5. http://www.forgecanada.ca/january-2015-missional-voice-newsletter-why-place-matters-part-2/ (accessed February 5, 2015).
24. Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens and Dwight Friesen, The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2014), 24.
25. Roxburgh, Missional: Joining God, 140.
26. Cam Roxburgh, “The Critical Importance of Place” Missional Voice Newsletter: Why Place Matters, Part One, Forge Missional Training Network, November 2014, 2. http://www.forgecanada.ca/november-missional-voice-place-part-1/ (accessed February 5, 2015).
27. Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, 72.

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