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When Exile Becomes Home

Now the leaders of the people settled in Jerusalem. The rest of the people cast lots to bring one out of every ten of them to live in Jerusalem, the holy city, while the remaining nine were to stay in their own towns.
Nehemiah 11:1 (NIV)

In recent weeks the Bahamas were struck by Hurricane Dorian. The devastation was immense. Fresh in my mind are the images of the rubble as entire communities appear to have been completely leveled. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to get supplies to the island and how expensive and labor-intensive it will be to rebuild. I’m sure that there will be some survivors who will be evacuated and never return to their homes.

It’s easy for me to read the handful of chapters of Nehemiah and get the sense that the walls of Jerusalem were quickly rebuilt by the returned exiles, the gates were put in their place, and suddenly Jerusalem was settled. Mission accomplished! The people moved in and all was well. But, it didn’t work that way.

The Babylonian’s destruction of the city was devastating. It wasn’t just the walls and Solomon’s Temple that were leveled. The Babylonians destroyed and burned dwellings. Those who were left in the area seem to have largely resettled in nearby towns. The exiles who returned preferred not to live in the rubble of Jerusalem where redevelopment and rebuilding would be hard and costly. Most exiles would prefer to live easier in the countryside outside the city.

Governor Nehemiah and his fellow leaders implemented a forced repopulation of the city by forcing ten percent of the people to move into the city as decided by an ancient form of lottery. This type of forced repopulation was somewhat common in ancient times.

I was reminded as I read the chapter this morning that many of the Hebrews taken into exile never returned home. Jewish communities in Persia lived and thrived near ancient Babylon until modern times. Those who did return faced many difficulties and hardships. Rebuilding isn’t easy. Sometimes exile becomes permanent. Our concept of “home” shifts.

There’s a spiritual lesson in that for me. Among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers, we are continuing to explore the broader theme of exile. I mentioned in a message I gave a few weeks ago that exile is universal in the Bible. Once Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden they became exiles. We all did. Paul and Peter both wrote that this world is not our home; we are citizens of heaven.

I’ve observed, however, that it is very easy for my mind and spirit to be repatriated in my earthly exile. I make this world my home. I put down roots. I store up possessions. I build a home (that could easily be blown apart by a tornado just as the Bahamas were devastated by Hurricane Dorian). I invest in my earthly future. Eventually, without even giving it much thought, I find myself treating my earthly exile as if it’s my eternal home. I think that’s what Jesus was getting at…

“Don’t hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or—worse!—stolen by burglars. Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it’s safe from moth and rust and burglars. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.

Jesus

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that God’s Message repeatedly speaks of our days being numbered. Just as Nehemiah cast lots that brought exiles back into the City of Jerusalem, my number will come up one day and my exile will be over. I will return to what John’s Revelation calls the New Jerusalem. In the meantime, I’m left figuring out how to tangibly do what Jesus instructed. I must learn how to invest less time, energy, and resources on my earthly exile, and transfer the investment into God’s eternal Kingdom.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

At Some Point, One Must Return Home

Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites—everyone whose heart God had moved—prepared to go up and build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem.
Ezra 1:5 (NIV)

When I was a young man I spent five years in pastoral ministry. Three of those years were spent in a very small town here in Iowa. During those years I officiated a lot of funerals. Not only were these funerals for members of my congregation, but the local Funeral Home Director also called me when there was a family who had no particular faith tradition or church home. As a result, I spent a generous amount of time with grieving families.

During these funerals, I began to observe families in all of their glorious dysfunctions. I noticed, in particular, that these sad occasions brought prodigal children home, and that in many cases the children had not been home for many years. This taught me a life lesson: “At some point, one has to return home.” (By the way, this became the inspiration for my play, Ham Buns and Potato Salad.)

For the past few months on this chapter-a-day journey, I’ve been going through books related to what’s known as the “exilic” period when the Hebrews were taken captive and lived in exile under the ancient Assyrian, Babylonian, Mede, and Persian empires. Today I begin walking through the two books (Ezra and Nehemiah) that tell the story of the exiles return to Jerusalem and their work to reconstruct Solomon’s Temple and the protective walls of the city.

For the exiled Hebrews, their return had been something they’d longed for. Right at the beginning of today’s chapter, it’s mentioned that they’d been clinging to the prophecy of Jeremiah that the Babylonian captivity would last 70 years (Jer 25:11-12). The time for return finally arrives. At some point, one has to return home.

Reading today’s chapter, it’s easy to assume that Cyrus felt some special affection toward the exiled Hebrews and their religion. However, the decree and subsequent provision of temple articles stolen by Nebuchadnezzar represented a shift in Empirical policy. Earlier empires had ruled with an iron hand, destroying native temples and demanding that captured peoples adopt the culture of the conquerors. Cyrus, however, realized that allowing captured peoples to return to their homes and rebuild their native temples and shrines was good policy. He did the same for other peoples, as well. The move created goodwill with the people of his empire. In the case of Judah, the move also provided him with allies and a friendly outpost between himself and the yet unconquered kingdom of Egypt.

This morning I find myself thinking about returning home. It can look so different for different individuals. It might be a joyous reunion for some. For others, it’s a necessary immersion back into messy family dysfunction. There are those for whom the return home is a long-awaited return from exile. In many cases, it’s an important and necessary step in addressing past wrongs, emotional injuries, and spiritual blocks so that one can progress in his or her life journey. In many cases, I’ve observed that one can’t move forward until he or she makes the trek and faces the past. I, myself, discovered it a necessary stretch of my own journey.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself whispering a quiet prayer for those who have yet to return, those who have returned, and those who find themselves amidst the struggle of returning home.

“Return”

“For the Lord your God is gracious and merciful, and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him.”
2 Chronicles 30:9b (NRSVCE)

A few years ago I wrote a play and the entire play was created out of one simple truth: At some point, you have to return home. From there I reached out and plucked a leaf off the tree of tales about a young boy who ran away from his true love and stayed away for many years. When tragedy strikes just over a decade later he has no choice but to return home, and with it he must face the thing he’s been running from for so long.

The theme of “returning” is a big one across the Great Story. There are so many stories in which people find themselves off in some kind of wilderness. Sometimes they place themselves there and sometimes they are there against their will, but somehow they eventually return in some fashion whether they are led, they are invited, they are forced by circumstance, or they simply choose to do so.

In today’s chapter we pick up the story of King Hezekiah who is trying to help his nation heal after years in which they’ve willfully wandered from the God of their ancestors and many find themselves in the wilderness of captivity. In yesterday’s chapter, Hezekiah had the Levites clean out the temple and prepare it to be used as it had been intended for the worship God. In today’s chapter he sends out a proclamation throughout the land, even to neighboring countries where people were living in exile and captivity. The proclamation simply asked people to do one thing:  return.  Hezekiah wanted all of the Hebrew people to come to Jerusalem for the biggest annual festival on the Hebrew calendar. The Passover feast celebrated God delivering their nation from slavery in Egypt.

Along my journey I’ve seen the theme of return play out in the lives of many people in many different ways. I’ve observed that we often abandon faith in God early in life. Sometimes it’s a willful choice out of disagreement with the faith institution of our childhood. Sometimes it’s prompted by pain or a tragic victimization of some kind. Sometimes it’s as simple as choosing to go our own way. So we wander, and often our spirits are stuck back in childhood. Then later in our life journey I observe people returning, not necessarily to an institution, but to God whom they find altogether different than those childhood memories of pain, anger, doubt, and frustration. Not because God has changed, but they have changed and with it their understanding and perceptions.

In today’s chapter the people of Judah returned for the Passover. Just as Joseph returned to his family. Just as David returned after years as mercenary in exile. Just as the remnant returned from Babylon in Nehemiah’s day. Just as the prodigal son returned in Jesus’ parable. Just as Peter returned after denying Jesus. Just as Jesus returned to the Father after His resurrection.

Just as….

No matter how far we may wander, no matter where we may roam, I’ve found that God’s Spirit is always whispering to our spirits:

“Return.”

 

Stories, Themes, and Waypoints

“Do not be afraid, Jacob my servant;
    do not be dismayed, Israel.
I will surely save you out of a distant place.”
Jeremiah 46:27 (NIV)

We just finished our Memorial Day weekend at the lake with friends and the kids wanted to watch Star Wars’ Rogue One. As I watched I thought about the underlying story of the hero, Jyn Erso. The movie starts with Jyn as a young girl being separated from her parents (particularly her father), which is infused with all sorts of psychological weight. We quickly meet the adult Jyn, and we find her in prison (in more ways than one) and adrift in life. Through the entire movie we accompany her on her journey to be reunited with her father and reconciled to the larger purpose their own journeys play in the larger story. The last words she hears before that final, fateful moment: “Your father would be proud of you.”

Exile and being “on the run” is a common theme in stories. The Star Wars universe uses it over and over again. In the original Episode 4 we meet Luke in exile with his aunt and uncle on Tatooine along with a mysterious old wizard, Ben Kenobi, also living in his own exile. They leave the planet with Han Solo who is on the run from Jabba the Hut and the bounty on this head. In The Force Awakens we meet Rey living in exile on Jakku where she meets Finn who is… wait for it…on the run from the evil Kylo Ren, who in his own self-appointed exile, having run away from home to join the dark side.

Why do stories, novels, movies, and plays use these same themes and devices over and over again? Because they touch something deep inside us. We identify with them in our own respective journeys. When I listen to people tell the story of their life journey and/or their spiritual journey I’ll commonly hear people speaking in terms of “running,” “getting away,” “thrown out,” “straying,” “rebelling,” “distancing,” or being “far from home.” We get it. We connect with it. It’s part of our common humanity.

With today’s chapter we’re entering the final section of the anthology of the ancient prophet Jeremiah’s works. This final section is a series of prophetic messages Jeremiah made against the nations that made up the socio-political horizon of his day. The messages were seemingly arranged geographically from west to east, beginning with today’s prophetic word against Egypt.

After waxing apocalyptic against Egypt, Jeremiah speaks to his own people, promising them both exile (citing punishment for their idolatrous ways) and the eventual return and reconciliation of their descendants.

Exile and return. There’s that theme again.

This morning I’m sitting at the lake watching the morning fog roll through the trees across the cove. It’s the same view my parents enjoyed for so many years before me. It’s the same view our girls enjoyed growing up. It’s the view I get to introduce to our grandson in a few weeks. There something special about the places that become waypoints in the journey of multiple generations. Generations and their respective stories of being home and being on the run, of exile and return, of separation and reconciliation. The common themes that become a different kind of waypoint, connecting us to the larger story.

Decor and More

So he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.
Zechariah 4:6 (NIV)

For the past few years Wendy and I have made a post-Christmas excursion to shop for Christmas decorations. So it was that I found myself wandering through a retail ocean of decor this past week. As I wandered up and down the aisles I noticed that a fair amount of the decor ocean included various phrases and verses from the Bible screen printed on anything and everything imaginable. More than once I noticed that verses were presented completely out of context. I found myself wondering if people hang verses on their walls like a modern-day talisman, not having a clue about their original meaning or place in the Great Story.

A verse from today’s chapter is a great case-in-point. The words “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit” is a well-worn phrase I’ve heard endlessly repeated in church services and have seen on many trinkets, but I imagine few know the context. The words in today’s chapter were directed by God to a man named Zerubbabel.

Zerubbabel was a Jewish civic leader who was part of the first group of Babylonian exiles to return to a destroyed Jerusalem to begin the work of rebuilding (the story is largely told by Nehemiah). Zerubbabel was appointed Governor of the area by the Persian King Darius. It was Zerubbabel, in partnership with the high priest Joshua, who undertook the task of rebuilding the Temple of Solomon which had been destroyed by the Babylonians.

The task of rebuilding Jerusalem, and especially the Temple, was fraught with political obstacles and physical danger. One could argue that the political situation surrounding Jerusalem was as heated then as it is now. Some historians argue that Zerubbabel’s Temple initiative was made possible only because Darius was distracted by revolts elsewhere. The project was a gutsy move that could have easily backfired in myriad of ways.

Zechariah’s vision and message to Zerubbabel was a divine affirmation. God had ordained the restoration of Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple. Zerubbabel did not have to carry the weight of the task himself nor depend only on his human efforts. This was God’s project and God’s spirit would be the power source by which it would be accomplished. Zerubbabel could depend on that, and I’m pretty sure he needed that affirmation.

This morning in the quiet I’m thinking back over projects, initiatives, and ministries I’ve been involved in over the years. Many failures come to mind. In retrospect there was more than a pinch of human hubris and ego at the core of them. I can also think of a handful of projects, initiatives, and ministries that I’ve experienced which were more spiritually successful than human design, effort, or ingenuity could have devised. I sense that God, through Zechariah’s vision, was reminding Zerubbabel that his project was definitely not the former, but the latter.

As I stride down the backstretch of my earthly journey I find myself more and more discerning about where I spend my time, energy, and resources. I’ve only got so much “might” and “strength.” I find myself more intent on trying to discern where God’s Spirit is moving and tap into that flow, where my meager investment can yield the most spiritual benefit.

“‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord.” I didn’t see any trinkets or wall hangings with that one at the Big Box home decor store last week. Maybe I’ll keep my eye open for that one. Just something small for my office. Knowing the context of the phrase from today’s chapter, I can safely say that it’s a good affirmation and reminder for me, as well.

featured photo courtesy of m01229 via Flickr

Returning Home

While the angel who was speaking to me was leaving, another angel came to meet him and said to him: “Run, tell that young man, ‘Jerusalem will be a city without walls because of the great number of people and animals in it.
Zechariah 2:3-4 (NIV)

Just over twelve years ago hurricane Katrina ravaged the southern part of the United States and decimated the city of New Orleans. I remember the timing because Wendy and I had reservations to honeymoon in New Orleans and had to scuttle our plans. Residents made homeless by the storm were scattered to communities around the United States willing to take them in.

One of the “Katrina” families lived in an apartment complex across the street from us. We live in a great little community of incredibly generous people, but I remember wondering how long the refugees would stay. Midwest winters are a tough challenge for those who aren’t used to them.

The theme of exiles returning home is a particularly timely one here in the States. Our own country is grappling with what to do about programs that offered “temporary” resident status to people displaced by tragic circumstances in their own country but who have no desire to return to their home country.

The more things change the more they stay the same.

The prophet Zechariah began to record his visions during a very specific time in history. The city of Jerusalem had been reduced to rubble under the hand of the Babylonians. People like Daniel and Ezekiel and thousands of others had been taken captive to live in Babylon. Others had been scattered to live as refugees among neighboring nations.

About 50 years later Nehemiah led a group to people back to the rubble of Jerusalem to rebuild the wall and rebuild the Temple. It was difficult work fraught with obstacles and threats on all sides. Zechariah began his writing nearly 20 years into the restoration and renovation process. The question plaguing the campaign was, “Will anyone come back to Jerusalem?” The people had been living in Babylon and other countries for over a generation. They’d put down roots, started occupations, grew families and their home land had become a distant, painful memory. Would anyone actually come back?

In today’s chapter, Zechariah has a vision of two angels, one of whom assures Zac that there will one day be so many people and animals in Jerusalem that the city walls couldn’t contain them all.

Fast forward again to current headlines. Jerusalem is a boiling hot spot of people from different nationalities, religions, political bents, and cultures. It is the center of world debate and political conflict. The city walls that remain from the Middle Ages frame a small central section of the expansive city. I couldn’t help to remember this morning my own experiences of walking around the city. The featured photo of this post is one I took from the King David hotel looking at the walls of the old city at sunrise.

This morning I’m once again meditating on the theme of “returning.” The wise teacher of Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is a time for everything under the sun. There is a time for wandering, and there is a time for returning. It is a common human experience to be scattered, to wander, and even to run away. It is just as common an experience in this life journey to realize that, at some point, we need to return home.

Taking Measure of Life

I will stretch out over Jerusalem the measuring line used against Samaria and the plumb line used against the house of Ahab.
2 Kings 21:13 (NIV)

It’s been about two and a half years since Wendy and I moved into our new house. I think we grow to appreciate it more as time goes on. We’re incredibly grateful for our home.

It has been an interesting experience for me to move into a newly built house and see how the structure stands the process of settling and the test of time. The contrasting heat of Iowa summers and cold of Iowa winters makes for a tremendous amount of expanding and contracting. As we sit and have breakfast in the mornings we watch the sun coming up in the eastern sky and can hear the little structural creaks of as the suns rays warm the house and things expand. Moulding that was flush when we moved in now shows a hint of a gap. You begin to see a house’s strengths and weaknesses when measured against time and the elements.

In today’s chapter the scribes record the words that the prophets (they don’t specify who) spoke about King Mannaseh’s life and reign. They use a word picture that God shared through the ancient prophets repeatedly. The metaphor was a measuring line and/or a plumb line:

  • I will make justice the measuring line
        and righteousness the plumb line (Isaiah)
  • This is what he showed me: The Lord was standing by a wall that had been built true to plumb, with a plumb line in his hand. (Amos)
  • Who marked off [the sky’s] dimensions? Surely you know!
        Who stretched a measuring line across it? (Job)
  • “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when this city will be rebuilt for me from the Tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate. The measuring line will stretch from there straight to the hill of Gareb and then turn to Goah. (Jeremiah)
  • He took me there, and I saw a man whose appearance was like bronze; he was standing in the gateway with a linen cord and a measuring rod in his hand. (Ezekiel)
  • Then I looked up, and there before me was a man with a measuring line in his hand. (Zechariah)

Both a measuring line and plumb line are construction tools used to make sure a structure is measured correctly and on the level. Different versions are used to this day. My friend Doug is a master carpenter. Despite all of the modern technology available to him, I’ve watched him pull out his trusty, dusty old “plumb bob” when he’s hanging a door just as carpenters have done for thousands of years.

It’s a powerful metaphor when you think about it. Does my life measure up to what I say it does? Are my intentions, thoughts, words, and actions on the level with what I profess to believe? Even Jesus used this word picture parallel between life and construction. It eerily apt this morning in light of watching coastal homes destroyed by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in recent weeks:

“These words I speak to you are not incidental additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundational words, words to build a life on. If you work these words into your life, you are like a smart carpenter who built his house on solid rock. Rain poured down, the river flooded, a tornado hit—but nothing moved that house. It was fixed to the rock.

“But if you just use my words in Bible studies and don’t work them into your life, you are like a stupid carpenter who built his house on the sandy beach. When a storm rolled in and the waves came up, it collapsed like a house of cards.” Matthew 7:24-27 (MSG)

This morning I’m prompted to take an honest “measurement” of my own life. Mannaseh was King of Judah and a branch of the tree of David, who was “a man after God’s own heart,” but Mannaseh’s life and actions didn’t measure up. His life was “off-plumb.”

What about me? Where has time settled me into behaviors that have slowly left me off-center? Where have the elements and circumstances of life revealed weaknesses in my foundation? Where is my life creaking? Where are my relationships worn?

One of the things that I’ve learned as a homeowner is that its far easier and less expensive in the long run to catch small, “off-plumb” problems and fix them before they become disastrous headaches.