The Uncomfortable Circumstance that God Uses to Form a People

One distinctive of the missional movement is the emphasis on fully inhabiting the community in which we’re planted, and to shift from viewing our neighbors in terms of us (saved) and them (unsaved) toward a “we” orientation. This emphasis can be seen in books like Smith and Pattison’s Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community by Sparks, Soerens, and Friesen, and Staying Is The New Going: Choosing To Love Where God Places You by Briggs and Frost.

The desire to be planted is not only about mission, but stems from our own longing for deep roots in a transient world. Wendell Barry, whose writing gives voice to that longing for many, captures that longing with these words: “…And we pray, not for new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye clear. What we need is here.”

I understand that longing for a “here.” My experience as a member of the Jewish community has taught me the lessons of what it is to live a wanderer’s existence. More than two millennia of diaspora existence has hard-wired in the Jewish people adaptability, inventiveness, and the counter-intuitive notion of maintaining a unique spiritual identity not bound by place or local culture. My experience as a follower of Jesus has reframed that wandering in new terms.

Followers of Jesus live the mission of God via both rootedness and wandering; both “here,” “there,” and every step of the journey between the two. Both here and there must exist side-by-side in our spiritual lives, a Kingdom parable of sorts. But I’d like to suggest that in our rapidly shifting culture, recognizing God’s purposes in a Diaspora experience can help us live more fully into what it means to follow Jesus. Followers of Jesus live the mission of God via both rootedness and wandering. Click To Tweet

The Keen Blade of Homesickness

Biblical history is instructive about God’s purposes for those living a Diaspora experience. Exile from the Promised Land was given by God to the Jewish people as a consequence for disobedience (Deuteronomy 28), but was meant to turn the hearts of the people back to God so they’d be free to enjoy the blessings of home with him and one another in community. God’s people were called to be light to these nations, but they’d succeeded in hiding their light under a bushel for generations until it was nearly extinguished.

In the wake of King Solomon’s death around BC 931, an incurable case of sibling rivalry between his sons split the once-united kingdom of Israel in two; ten tribes in the north became known from that point forward as Israel, the two southern tribes were called Judah.

The blatant spiritual comprise of Israel’s leaders led to mix-and-match faith practice: some from the Torah, some from the surrounding pagan nations. God sent prophets including Elijah, Elisha, Amos and Hosea to these people, warning them of what was to come if they refused to return to him wholeheartedly. They refused to listen, and The Assyrians decimated them, carrying the best of them into slavery and dispersing the rest of the people among Assyria’s land holdings in BC 722.  Because their sin and spiritual compromise numbed them, they were predisposed to assimilation, and lost their unique identity within a couple of generations as they sunk their roots into foreign communities. They were no longer members of the diaspora. There was no compass, no ache for home, no recorded expressions of sorrow for the place they’d lost.

Judah was comprised of the descendants of Judah (surprise!) and Benjamin. Their land surrounded Jerusalem, with Solomon’s holy Temple connecting them to God situated in the center of their territory. Though they witnessed their extended family to the north, Israel, torn from their homes, this didn’t have much effect on their own drift toward spiritual compromise. They seen first-hand what the consequences of their compromise would be.

Those consequences came less than 150 years later, when in BC 586 the best and brightest among them forcibly marched hundreds of miles eastward into captivity in Babylon.

Only there, only then, could they remember exactly how far from home they really were. In The Breathing Method, author Stephen King wrote,

Homesickness is not always a vague, nostalgic, almost beautiful emotion, although that is somehow the way we always seem to picture it in our mind. It can be a terribly keen blade, not just a sickness in metaphor but in fact as well. It can change the way one looks at the world; the faces one sees in the street look not just indifferent but ugly…perhaps even malignant. Homesickness is a real sickness- the ache of the uprooted plant.

When the people of Judah found themselves in Babylon, it certainly would have been the path of least resistance for them to assimilate into Babylonian culture – as their brothers from the Northern Kingdom of Israel had done when they were captured by the Assyrians. But the point of their dispersion was to awaken them via homesickness to who they really were. The immersion in a foreign land served to do its work among them. Even as they built homes and planted gardens in Babylon, the “keen blade” of homesickness cut away the non-essentials and clarified for them who they were.

Not Home Yet

It’s worth noting that some in the Jewish community stayed in Babylon for more than 2,500 years, until after the end of World War II. These Babylonian Jews assimilated in some cases, but for the most part, maintained their own separate religious identity within their community. However, the story Scripture highlights for us isn’t that of the Babylonian Jewish community. It’s the one where at the end of 70 years, the homesick people were permitted to return to Jerusalem and rebuild. Their diaspora experience has refined the idolatry right out of them.

My family came to America as immigrants during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s as a result of the pogroms that took place across Eastern Europe. They fled for their lives with few financial resources, arriving in the U.S. and settling in places like New York City and Peoria, IL. Their Diaspora history equipped them to uproot and transplant again and again and again; simultaneously, their religious identity prevented them from fully assimilating. They quickly became a part of their communities, running businesses, purchasing homes and cars, sending their children to public schools while living with the reality that no matter what the location, it could never be the destination. Two millennia of persecution, inquisition, pogroms, and holocaust have permanently imprinted Diaspora Jews with the reality that no matter where we live, we are not home yet. No matter where we live, we are not home yet. Click To Tweet

One message I heard loud and clear from the recent presidential election is that many Evangelicals in this country have a very clear idea of where home is. That kind of “here” is about cultural rootedness and security devoid (or nearly so) of mission. That kind of “here” points at homogeneity and an idolatrous assimiliation. It has no space for the uprooted or marginalized.

As followers of Jesus, our default setting is a diaspora experience. even as we seek to root ourselves for the purposes of mission in a particular physical location. We do so by gathering to worship, by prayer, by service, by hospitality, always with the understanding that we are not “doing church”, but because we are a community of strangers and exiles, per 1 Peter 2:11. Our life together, whatever that may look like in a particular local context, is what forms our spiritual identity.

Those in the diaspora learn by necessity to travel light. As a result, they are able to remain responsive to the movement of the Holy Spirit. They are uninterested in syncretizing my faith with that of the dominant culture around them. They are deeply committed to maintaining maintain their unique, counter-cultural spiritual identity, even as they plant their lives in a particular place – maybe for a short while, maybe for a lifetime. Our “here” is never the destination.

A settled, comfortable life can fool us into thinking we’re home. The ache of the uprooted plant is what God uses to form us, even as we seek the flourishing of our communities.  God commanded the exiles in Babylon to bless the community even as they allowed the keen blade of homesickness to carve out the spiritual compromise that had brought them there in the first place. Exile transformed God’s people into a community of pilgrims even before they took a single step toward home. As we connect with our diaspora status, it can do the same for us. The ache of the uprooted plant is what God uses to form us. Click To Tweet