The Church in Lonely Exile

As our days of staying home due to the coronavirus turn into weeks, Christians are feeling something they have most likely never felt on Sunday mornings before, at least in the West. Of course, many churches are offering their services online to be viewed through computers and phones. But screens are no substitute for face to face relationship. This feeling many of us are being introduced to is the feeling of lonely exile.

Exile is the wound of disconnection from people, places, and roles that we once called home. In fact, exile is the wound that the entire narrative of the Bible is written from. As Israel processed their exile in Babylon, they came to understand their entire narrative through that lens. Going all the way back to the beginning, Genesis tells of a Garden Home where Adam and Eve live together in a land with the role of being fruitful and ruling the earth. But four chapters in, they find themselves exiled from the people, places, and roles they once called home. The entire rest of the Pentateuch, as well as the historical, poetic, and prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible processes that desire for a temple where God and humanity commune, a land where humanity can call home, and a king to rule the nations with justice.

In a similar way, many Christians are now finding themselves outside of their Promised Land, their Garden, their Church. As a result, like Israel, we are beginning to feel the wound of exile and are beginning to process it.

While Israel processed their wound of exile by contemplating their sin, I would not encourage the church to do that in this instance. The pandemic that is causing our exile has nothing to do with sin. It is simply the result of living in the universe. The last thing we need right now is to feel guilt and shame. But the cause of our exile is not what I’m concerned about at this time. What I am writing about is simply the presence of acknowledging the exile that we are experiencing and feeling the weight of.

It’s important not to get so swept up in smoothly run Zoom meetings or glitch free YouTube church services that we miss this moment. It’s important not to get so desperate to go back to our buildings that we miss this moment. To whatever degree you feel exiled and alone, acknowledge that and begin to grieve it.

In her book Living Things: Collected Poems, Anne Porter shares this liturgy:

None of the animals feared me, I’d given them all their names.
At night I fell asleep with my head on the lion’s flank,
All day I did nothing but sing, there was an abundance of fruit,
I had only to hold out my hand,
And the Lord would fill it with breath.

But when I woke up this morning there was no garden around me,
I was lying alone with Eve on the hard ground
And we were hungry, but there was nothing to eat.
The animals wouldn’t come to us anymore,
And where the door to the garden had been, there was nothing but fire.”

Perhaps this week, it would be good to walk outside, feel the hunger in your belly, touch the hard ground, notice how alone you feel, and grieve.