Recently I have heard a number of preachers refer to those periods of Jewish history outlined in the Old Testament and referred to as exile. The exile they have been talking about is the exile in Babylon and not the exile in Egypt, though this would have served their purpose equally well should they have chosen it.
Their theme will be familiar. If my memory serves me well I preached on an exilic psalm myself on the occasion of my inauguration service in the Cathedral almost ten years ago (time flies when youre enjoying yourself!). Preachers look around them and take in what they see.
What they saw in the community of God's people in exile in Babylon has some parallels with the Church in our nation today. The sense that the Church is a marginal and minority voice in a world of boundless unbelief and secularization. The 2011 Census results show that those who self define themselves as Christian has dropped by 11% in just ten years. Like those Jews of old in exile, we wonder where it will all end?
Living in a culture whose values and beliefs are not our own is not easy. Feeling we are a minority is not a bed of roses either, although it does at least help us better empathise with other minority groups. Of course its easy to overdo this and not everything that the world regards as progressive is bad simply because we didnt think of it. We need the wisdom to be clear in our minds so we can see the difference between good progress and bad.
That said, I can see some parallels between the mindset of those Jews of old and where we Christians find ourselves here in the West in the 21st century.
They showed signs of flagging morale. The culture in which they found themselves was alien and not necessarily open to them practicing their religion. They constantly wondered where God was in all this.
They showed a sense of lost perspective. They stopped believing that things could only get better. They had an inclination to behave and identify themselves as victims. In Ezekiel we also see a people who blamed their present lot on the sin of their predecessors (Ezekiel 18). They almost became their own self-fulfilling prophecy.
They didnt know how best to live in that alien culture. Should they withdraw and keep themselves to themselves? Well such tactics really never work and tend to create a very inward looking community absorbed with issues that frankly no-one else remotely thinks of as even worthy discussion.
Should they simply accommodate the new culture. Just go with the flow. To some extent we all find ourselves doing that and the fact that today, many of the people who attend our churches look like everybody else, is proof enough that none of us will escape the need and the tendency to accommodation, but only up to a point. The problem is that we cant agree on when we have passed the point of no return!
Or the other temptation is just to endlessly complain. I am of the age now where that is such a temptation to my friends and me. Supper parties where we all bang on about health and safety gone mad, politicians, the way the world is compared to the (sentimental) world in which we were brought up, those wonderful red telephone boxes and the sound of a steam train, yada, yada It maybe good sport, but it doesnt really move anyone on!
Alienated people have a deep need to complain.
You can quickly begin to see that there are some parallels. It would be easy to let our morale sink in our present context. It would be easy to wonder where God is in all these depressing statistics. Its easy to blame others General Synod, our forbears, the way we're trained, politicians, whatever, but we must never allow ourselves to sink in the mire of blame culture. Apart from anything else its extremely disempowering. It means we shall never take responsibility for improvement and just get stuck.
The prophets told it how it was and how it might be. They pointed out some hard truths, but they were also bearers of hope. We are a people of hope. You will read this with Lent drawing to a close. I hope and pray that Lent has been a growing time for you this year. St Theresa thought of Lent as preparing for the joy of Easter. Before that joy there was a cross, but that was not the end of the story, for the cross is today an empty cross.
We are people of hope because we are people of resurrection. As Tony Campolo put it, its Friday, but Sundays acomin.