Then and There
I don’t know if you’re capable of imagining it … that everything you have is gone, even your home. You think some family members might have survived, but they’ve no phones so you’re not sure. Your kitchen, where you used to carefully wipe the granite countertops — now someone else’s kitchen. The yard, where you used to fret over bare spots — you now have no yard. That drain in the basement that always drained slowly — now someone else’s problem.
If it’s not too painful, try to imagine how it happened: the conflicts escalated, the angry voices on TV mounted, moral compasses became medieval. Some of them began shouting out of principle, but most shouted out of fear of being denounced for not shouting.
It became “us” against “them,” and their moral compasses even worse than ours, Neanderthal compasses perhaps. Smart people sold everything and left for somewhere else, anywhere else. Those of us who were slower adopters tightened our grips and held out for the country to right itself, for adults to prevail. Our homes, which had been places of safety, became traps. The danger crept closer and closer until it knocked on our doors. The markets crashed, the internet controlled by a few, retirement thoughts became a bitter memory. And then, very quickly, it was over; some ran, some died, some betrayed others, but it was over. The dream ended, the bubble popped. In retrospect, everyone should have seen it coming. But in “real time,” it was hard to know if it was just a blip or really truly craziness.
It wasn’t a blip. The new place to which we’ve come is OK, but only OK. We’re free from the terror, but sometimes we wonder if we can abide the grayness of this place. The food is bland, the music doesn’t move our feet, we can’t predict the weather here, and they can’t pronounce our names. They call Daniel “Belteshazzar.” What kind of name is Belteshazzar?
Exile they call it. Immigrants they call us, among other things. We are displaced and although we are not the first; we pray we’re the last.
Now and Here
We exiles dream of returning home, of things being the way they used to be. Syrians in Germany dream of leaving their concrete block homes to return to their desert homes. Venezuelans listen to podcasts from home, wondering when it will be safe to return to their fruit trees. The Rohingya huddle in camps with their tattered bags. The older they are, the more exiles long for home; the younger ones more quickly find their future in Germany or Canada or wherever they happen to land.
Exile is the most radical rupture of life anyone can experience. It rends the fabric of well-being on every level: social, psychological, familial, spiritual and physical. The exile is torn up, torn away and torn down. Exile is never God’s desire for anyone; rather, it’s where we wind up when we wander from His “house.” If we repeatedly make wrong turns, away from the good God, we wind up far from His goodness — not His fault, but because of our turns.
In January of this year, Yvonne and I drove to the ancient city of Lachish (lack-EESH) to see what was left. When Assyria, under the forceful leadership of King Sennacharib attacked Judah (this was about 700 B.C.), they conquered the city of Lachish, which was the second-most important city in Judah.
Like so many ruins in the Middle East, Lachish is now a “tel,” a small hill made of the ruins of one city piled on top of ruins of previous cities. We stood all alone on the cold windswept tel and imagined the Assyrians surrounding the city, the earthen ramps for their wheeled battering rams, the archers behind phalanxes of shields. Our imagination was fueled by the hours spent in the British Museum in London where a whole room is dedicated to the siege of Lachish. The museum’s carvings, the actual ones Sennacharib commissioned for his palace in Nineveh, clearly show some of the defeated Hebrews being flayed alive, the “lucky” ones being led in humiliation away from their homes — exiles to Nineveh.
The same thing had already happened to the northern 10 tribes and would soon happen in Jerusalem. Nearly everyone was dead or exiled. That’s how they did it in those days … forced resettlements to get them away from their localized deities. But they didn’t know they were messing with the one true God who wasn’t localized. He wasn’t just the God of Canaan; He was the God of Nineveh and Babylon too, the God of Kalamazoo and Portland.
But let’s not pretend: No matter what our problems, 99 percent of those who will read this do not experience anything that can seriously be compared to exile. Nothing in most of our lives gives us even a glimpse into the complete bulldozing of the lives of exiles. Are you lonely, anxious, overweight, underweight or suffering verbal abuse? Does your kid have a needle in his arm, or is your wife cheating on you? Please don’t call it exile. Exile is when everything is gone except life itself, and perhaps a dim hope. So take heart, friends! We may have problems, but we’re not in exile!
Even though I refuse to minimize the reality of those who actually have been moved from their homes, whether by war, famine, criminals or natural disasters, there are lessons to be learned from the exile experience by those of us who suffer on a lesser scale.
When our problems are bare spots in the yard and slow drains in the basement, we forget to be thankful for the yard and the drain. But when you’re in a life raft in the Mediterranean or a squalid tent village in Tijuana, “Our Daily Bread” isn’t a devotional reading; it’s about real bread and a slice of it is reason to rejoice. When’s the last time you celebrated a slice of bread? Just plain ol’ white bread? Not multigrain with wheat berries, just plain ol’ bread? Or a drink of water? Thankfulness is one of the lessons exiles teach us — thankfulness for the basics, bread and water.
Exile also teaches us about the longer story. To survive, exiles must place their suffering in the context of a longer story: Things will get better if we make it through this tear-filled phase. This is another way of saying that exiles teach us about hope, however dim it may be. Not hope in themselves or political parties or leaders; the true hope of the world has always been one, the Creator of the world, the Lord of heaven’s armies. Jesus is His name. When life-as-we-know-it irretrievably slips away from us, exile is a reminder that God is telling a long story of redemption, not a TV drama that neatly wraps up in 22 minutes plus commercials. Our lives may not all be fixed before we die. But our hope is not that shortsighted. We can see our homeland over the horizon of death.
And finally, all exiles are warnings. You may not be in exile presently, but you might be seeing signs of it looming. Our poor decisions, our rejections, our wrong turns, our obstinate rejection of the goodness of God will ultimately lead to humiliation, defeat and exile from His goodness. If not exile in the here and now, exile in the there and then. Look for Him while He may be found. He is our Home. He is our Homeland. We can never be exiled if we’ve made Him our resting place. That home cannot be lost.
Bishop David Roller served for 17 years as a Free Methodist missionary in Mexico and then for 10 years as Latin America area director for Free Methodist World Missions. He was first elected a bishop in 2007.