The hearts of the world go out to the Japanese people. A gigantic rent in the Earth’s crust, 240km long and 80 wide has displaced an unimaginably vast body of water with nowhere to go but spread horizontally, swamping everything in its path. Residents thousands of miles away have felt the ripples of its awesome power.
The people themselves have been displaced, exiled from homes and communities which provoked a train of thought concerning homelessness.
I have often been accused of fecklessness when I say to people that, for now at least, I’m not uncomfortable about my lack of a national home. I’d be very uncomfortable indeed about ‘home’ being a cardboard box under Westminster Bridge, but by ‘home’ I mean a national identity rather than a physical location. A part of me enjoys living in a kind of Babylonian exile and I don’t weep a lot over my captivity. I think I’m unusual, since most people enjoy a cosy intimacy with nationhood and wear national colours at rugby matches to prove it. It has been said that the church in the 21st century more than ever before is a church in exile, a view with which I have some sympathy since an exiled or homeless community is consonant with its founder who ‘had nowhere to lay His head’. We are prone, however, to losing the cutting edge, the pioneering spirit so necessary for survival as a diaspora in a foreign land and there are, it seems, several pitfalls about the exile mentality into which we have a tendency to stumble. The first is nostalgia, pining for the good old days and trying to re-inscribe them in artificially familiar terms within the reality of today. “It was always so much better when we were in the House Church…” “We’ll do Anglican just like we do at home.”. But – remember King Canute – you can’t command the tides of time to withdraw. The second danger is withdrawal, disengaging from the big bad world of today altogether and circling the wagons. It’s been done before, J N Darby’s closed Brethren were significantly world-rejecting, taking ‘come ye out from among them’ to a logical, if shortsighted conclusion. This sectarian option is not only cowardly and faithless, it is also a recipe for further decline and ultimate disappearance. And then there is the third danger, assimilation, whereby we think we can save the church by copying the ways of the world, as if all we have to do is to market and manage the church more strategically and effectively in order to be “successful”. But then the customer, not the gospel, becomes sovereign, and though the church gain the whole world, it loses its soul. “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” Jeremiah wisely counselled the exiled Israelites, running counter to the prevailing (and false) prophetic initiative of the time. Exile is the right place to prune and refine, to explore and experiment, to make tactical critiques of prevailing cultural norms, and to practise that peculiar counter-cultural way of being human called “discipleship”.