David in the cave of Adullam. Moses in the desert for 40 years. Joseph in Potiphar’s house and jail. Paul in Tarsus for 14 years. John on the Isle of Patmos until the end? What do all of these have in common? Exile. Sometimes intentional. Sometimes forced upon them by others. In all cases, significant time. In all cases, an incredible outcome. Exile. Glorious exile.
Dictionary.com defines an exile this way – “anyone separated from his or her country or home voluntarily or by force of circumstances”. Although it focuses primarily on a physical place (e.g. country or home), if we expand the scope to include family or social organization perhaps the impact becomes clearer. Being separated from a place is one thing. However, being separated from a network of relationships is something deeper. Often the two separations go together. Sometimes not, but always exile involves a sense of aloneness and separation from human relationships. This is what gives it such power to impact us.
We have just come back from a wonderful visit with some friends in Spain who are traveling a path somewhat similar to ours. All of us exiled from the institutional church in various degrees. Perhaps partly intentional and partly imposed upon us by others and our circumstances. In all of it, a true sense of camaraderie that only fellow “exiles” can share. There is a sense of a common experience that can only be felt as it is telt.
As I reflect on this I wonder about our modern experience of exile versus that of David, Moses, Joseph, Paul and John (and many others throughout the history of God’s people). Back then there was no option to text, email or Facebook message a close friend. Just days, months, years and even decades of being alone. Time to reflect and press on. No way to communicate unless someone dropped by the cave, sand dune, jail, tent-shop or island. So much time to ask God questions, contemplate and go deep and perhaps realize that it is not all about you at all.
However, the best thing, the exciting thing and glorious thing is what came out of the process. Incredible times and history changing events. The establishment of the Kingdom of Israel and temple in Jerusalem. The saving of a nation in Egypt and the eventual exodus to the Promised Land. The grafting in of the Gentiles and explosion of untold millions of followers of Jesus. A book (Revelation) that comforted a persecuted church in the first centuries of its existence and continues to give us promises today in the 21st century. No small thing.
What do all of these and other stories have in common? As shared by our Spanish friends – suffering and time. Something we are aware of, believe fervently in and were thankful to be reminded of. Also something that seems lost in today’s happy God, Spirit party, hyper-grace atmosphere in much of western Christendom. While it may be hard to ignore that some are having a good time, this will simply not get it done. The road is narrow that leads to life and few there be that find it. Great things are typically not done by people who travel in groups and value acceptance by the crowd more than doing the right thing. The life of a true leader is often a lonely one.
As you pick yourself up to fight another day, commit yourself to leaving a mark on the earth. A place whether others who follow will know that you have been there. Be willing to face and even welcome exile. Fight the desire to be accepted into whatever group is threatening to push you out. This is the way of our forefathers and mothers. No matter how alone you may be. Recommit yourself to fight the good fight. Embrace the cross; despising its shame but looking forward to the glory that will come through your time in exile.