I love the wilderness stories, the conversations between Moses and God, the negotiating being on a never ending trip with people who complain and ask "are we there yet?", and the promises and faithfulness of the Lord through it all. I look for manna for the journey and reference the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire as natural landmarks for my faith.
But it occurred to me a few years ago that the wilderness wanderings preceded the entry into the Promised Land, they had an endpoint and destination in mind, the land flowing with milk and honey, the land where dreams could come true, the land of privilege and prosperity, and that for most people in America, the sense is that the Promised Land is where we are.
That was the dream of our ancestors, both generations past and more recent, who came to this country with hopes for a better life. That was part of the bedrock of the Declaration of Independence, and even though that declaration was not for everyone, it still declared that this would be a place of freedom and abundance. New immigrants come to this land searching for possibilities that were not present in the homes left behind, with the promise of the American Dream giving strength for often perilous journeys.
I am not in any way claiming that this is truly the Promised Land, or that everyone's experience in this country has been sunshine and rainbows. I am all too aware of the tragedies and the barricades, the nightmares and the misfortunes that are woven through our story. But the myth and the emotional pull are real, and I would contend that most people in our congregations feel like they have arrived in the Promised Land.
At least, they felt that way fifty or sixty years ago. They felt that way when the cultural expectation was that you would be in church and diversity of religion, much less any other kind of diversity, was simply not discussed. Ah, yes, the good old days when Christianity and culture and politics all combined into one overarching reality and we thought we had it made.
If we read the Hebrew texts of what happened after life was established in the Promised Land, I think we might find our own story today. Crumbling structures, both socially and religiously, uncertain leadership, broken promises, threatening situations all signal the end of the Promised Land that we thought we had come to inhabit. Lack of cultural prominence, fading importance in our communities, and new generations that do not understand the religious language we speak are all signs to mark.
We are in a new time of exile as the body of Christ, a new time where the privilege we claimed, especially as white, upper middle class educated Protestants, has dissolved, leaving us in unfamiliar territory and with few ideas of how to go forward from here.
I am certainly not the first person to point to the exile in our Biblical story as the best metaphor for the time we find ourselves in, and I won't be the last. This is not an original thought, but it is a thought that keeps returning to me. Part of the grief I think we are struggling with in our churches is this grief of being forced from the Promised Land for an uncertain and uncomfortable exile, from which we may never return.
This new exile may indeed include wildnerness wanderings, but it is marked by the fear and grief of what we've left behind and what we think we've lost. We didn't flee Egypt and slavery, we were driven into a new reality in a world that shifted around us while we weren't paying attention. I don't think there will be a Promised Land waiting for us on the other side of this journey, at least not the way we tend to imagine such a thing, and simply crossing the Jordan River is not going to make everything all better again.
No, this is a time of loss and grief, of letting go and moving on, willingly or not, into a new future. Into exile.
Ah, but that's not the final word, because God is not done with us, and exile may be one of the most fruitful places for God to be at work in and through us. We're not trying to protect our position anymore, so our prophetic witness can unfurl its wings. We're not the ones with power anymore, so we can speak truth to power as Jesus did. We're not confined by expectations of what our buildings should be and our worship should be and what it means to gather as the body of Christ, because those cultural expectations are fading away, giving us freedom to go where the Spirit moves us.
Once we wrestle with our grief and admit our fear, we might begin to see that God's mercies, which are still new every morning, and God's love, which is still as steadfast as ever, is tangibly present with us in this exile time. Maybe we'll have a clearer sense of what it means to be followers of the Christ, because we'll be following Jesus himself without being blinded and deafened by the cultural clamor claiming to know who Jesus is. Maybe our dry bones will be filled with the Breath of Spirit-filled life and our dreams will be of the banquet where all are welcome and fed. And maybe, just maybe, we'll thank God for leading us out of the trap of the Promised Land into new life.