From Exile to Promise

From Exile to Promise

By Erik Grayson 

Have you ever been lost? My worst experience being lost came several years ago. My college roommate, Robert, and I decided to enter an adventure race. We had never done anything like this before, but were excited at the prospect. It was a race against multiple teams where you had 12 hours to find 30 checkpoints in the wilderness with only a handful of coordinates, a compass, and a topographical map. And by the way, the checkpoints are scattered across the Francis Marion National Forest, which is only a mere 258,000 acres. 

A few hours into the race we started to notice a change. We were suddenly separated from the other teams, who were, by the way, searching for the same check points as us. But we kept persevering, trekking through what had become a swamp. Weary, tired, and up to our knees in swamp water, we finally admitted it: we were lost. We couldn’t hear another living soul. The only other living creatures we could hear were the sounds of mosquitoes buzzing in our ears. Everywhere we looked, there were trees, swamp, trees, and the constant fear of snakes and alligators. We didn’t know if were wading in a straight line or going in circles. We were hopelessly lost. 

Fortunately, I’ve never been lost like that ever again, but I’ve come to recognize that same feeling of confusion and uncertainty in another aspect of my life. I’ve come to sense that same wilderness wandering coming from our beloved denomination. 

Now I want to acknowledge that I love The United Methodist Church. It’s been the denomination that’s nurtured my family for generations. I was baptized as an infant in the church. As a youth I returned to The United Methodist Church and it was there that Jesus touched my heart, renewed my soul, and gave me a new vision of life. It was in The United Methodist Church one night for Sunday evening services, sitting next to my best friend, that I heard a sermon that made me think, “I could do that. I could be a preacher.” After the sermon I leaned over to my friend and told him, “I just had the craziest thought. I was just thinking about being a preacher!” And he said, “No way, me too!”  Today we’re both pastors in The United Methodist Church. I will forever be grateful for the profoundly powerful ways that God’s changed my life through this church. 

Yet all the while I was experiencing God’s grace through the church, I was also growing aware of a different story. I was learning about the story of our ongoing conflict, our disagreement over sexuality, that we were divided on how to read Scripture, that we didn’t have the same ideas about covenants, vows, and accountability, that we saw salvation differently, and that at times we even disagreed on Jesus. 

I felt so torn. I loved the church and all the many ways I had experienced God in this holy place. Yet I also saw that with each successive year the issues plaguing our church grew ever more serious and ever more toxic. Our beloved denomination was stuck, knee deep in a murky mess, wandering in circles, trapped with no obvious way out. 

I struggled with those two realizations. On the one hand, I yearned to preach, teach God’s word, and lead God’s people. On the other hand, I was deeply concerned for the church I loved and the Wesleyan tradition that had shaped me. I remember struggling and asking, “what do I do?” As I wrestled with the question, God laid a word on my heart. He told me, “This is where I am calling you right now.” I mulled those words over in my heart. That set me free not to fear for the future. God had something for me to learn in the present. I’ll follow God where he leads next, but this is where I am called right now. 

More than 2,000 years ago, the people of ancient Israel found themselves lost as well, though not in a swamp. The people of God had been scooped up by the Babylonians and forcibly taken into exile. They were nowhere near their homes, the Temple, or the Promised Land that God had given them. They had to adjust to living in a strange land among a foreign people. Exile meant being taken away from everything they called home. 

Can you imagine how traumatic it would be to be plucked up and taken away from your home, your place of worship, and to lose your sense of community and how you understood the promises of God? The prophet Isaiah refers to the experience as a wilderness. 

But the good news is exile doesn’t last forever. 

When I was lost in the wilderness I can tell you that my senses perked up, especially my hearing. I started listening for any sound of civilization. I knew there were occasionally service roads in the woods, so I was listening for a car, or a radio. But most of all I was listening for the sounds of voices. I was hoping to hear another team in the distance. That voice would mean I was saved. I would still be in the wilderness, but at least I’d know my journey was coming to a close. 

After decades of exile, the people of Israel finally heard a new word from the Lord. In Isaiah chapter 40, God speaks through the prophet, saying “comfort, O comfort my people.” A voice cries out in the wilderness, “she has served her term.” God is announcing that exile is coming to an end. Suddenly those long years of suffering, waiting, and yearning are about to produce something new. The people of God are on the precipice of that new thing God had promised long ago. 

Can you imagine what it is to be stuck wandering in a wilderness for decades and finally be told your time of renewal has come? Let’s be clear, this is a word for the people of God – the people of God in ancient Israel and the people of God living today.

Exile is coming to a close. 

Now God is giving the people a word before they can embrace the new thing. Exile wasn’t just a holding pattern. It wasn’t just a waiting room. Exile was a space where God was reminding the people who they are. You can’t get to the land of promise if you don’t learn the lessons of the wilderness. 

The Lord tells the people that “All people are like grass.” He goes on to say, “the grass withers and the flower fades.” It’s a cheerful message, right? But then he also says, “But the word of our God will stand forever.” 

On the one hand this means that we’re finite. Human decisions and choices do not last. How was it that Israel ended up in exile in the first place? One of their enduring problems was poor leadership. They had pre-exilic leaders who didn’t take their God-given responsibilities seriously. The land was polluted with idols. The leaders compromised their values with foreign ideas. They proclaimed, “Peace, peace, when there was no peace.” 

Leadership matters. I wonder if we as a denomination have been guilty of those things? Have we brought the idols and ideas of the nations into the house of the Lord? Have our leaders proclaimed “Peace, peace, when there is no peace”? 

No enduring movement of God is sustained by human initiative. If we want to see this next phase of Methodism thrive then we’re going to have to heed the second part of Isaiah’s message: the word of our God will stand forever. There are some good ways and some not so good ways that we can put this into practice. 

We cannot simply adopt a slogan or catchphrase declaring that we’re a biblical church. We cannot adopt a contextualized reading of scripture that dismisses two thousand years of consistent biblical interpretation. We cannot adopt a regionalized reading of the word that places an iron dome over our culture’s reading and rejects the wider witness across global Christendom. 

The new Methodism will need to catechize believers in the faith in such a way where Scripture flows forth from their hearts and minds. We will need to make sure that Scripture is our primary authority in matters of worship, theology, and social witness. 

The success of our movement will not be known for some time. In the present we’re all united by a shared experience. We’re going through this transition together. This unites us. The builders of a movement stick together. The real test of our movement will come a generation from now when future Methodists face another thorny issue. Will we have provided them with a shared biblical theology? Will their worship enable the word of God to flow forth from their hearts and minds? In times of trouble will they have spiritual disciplines grounded in the word to fall upon? I believe that the success of this movement will hinge in part on how well we center our common lives around the Holy Scriptures. 

Isaiah’s warning to the people is a reminder that no enduring movement of God is ever built on human initiative, but on the word of our God that stands forever. We must learn the lessons of the wilderness to be prepared for exile’s end. 

I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on what the end of exile looked like. I’ve always wanted to imagine a very simple and clean end. I want to picture King Cyrus waking up one day and saying, “Okay, everyone go home!” I want to imagine that they just threw their families, their livelihoods, and their communities in the back of a UHaul truck, drove down the road, and enjoyed a move-in ready parsonage. 

I hate to admit it, but exile didn’t end that way. The end of Israel’s exile was a little slower and messier. From Cyrus to Nehemiah to Ezra, we know it happened in waves. 

I imagine there was a hardy group that was ready to go first. They had been praying for this, watching, and making preparations. As soon as the word came out, they were out the gates. Every movement needs someone to go first.  

Yet I imagine there was probably a sizable chunk of people that wanted to make the jump from exile to promised land, but weren’t quite ready. They had to do the hard work of getting their affairs in order, wind down their businesses, and prepare their households. They were eager, but it would take them more time. 

Still I imagine another group. I picture them as eager to move but they’re waiting for permission. Just like Nehemiah had to get permission from the king, so too do people have to wait to be released for the new thing. 

I wonder how different people decided when they’d leave exile. Yet leaving wasn’t the only thing to consider. The journey itself wouldn’t be a walk in the park. We’re not talking Two Men and a Truck here. Imagine packing together all your earthly possessions, and either riding on a donkey or beast of burden, or a cart if you’re lucky, but likely traveling on foot. You’re on dirty, uneven roads enduring the dangers of the countryside and braving the elements. The journey will be difficult. 

And then, on the other side you’re not arriving in luxury. You’re showing up in to begin the real work of rebuilding or building from scratch. Building the Temple. Rebuilding the walls. Standing up the infrastructure. There’s work to be done! Exile didn’t just end. It took time and it was hard work. 

There’s no question that moving from exile to promise will at times be challenging, but that’s the wrong question. The question we should be asking is, “Is it worth it?” If we were to ask the people of ancient Israel if it’s worth it, if we could speak to those who got to worship God once more in the Holy City, I believe they would tell you, “yes, it is.” If you were to ask the prophet Isaiah, he would say to you that Israel “has served her term.” And when we ask the Lord, I believe he may very well say, “this is what you are called to do.” 

Sybil’s exile comes to an end

The church I pastor is a wonderful congregation located in a very impoverished area. There was this stretch of months where a woman named Sybil had been coming to our church food bank. The lines in her face made it clear she had lived a rough life. She was stuck in a loveless marriage she longed to escape, struggled with substance abuse, and it rained inside her house but her husband was too proud to accept any help. And to add insult to injury, Sybil had convinced herself that she was the worst of all sinners.  It was an emotional struggle for her to step on the church grounds just to come to the food bank. Worship was completely out of the question for her. Her own sin and her self-perception of her brokenness made her into an exile, cut off from community. 

Each week we had to beg her to accept the food she picked out, saying, “Yes, it’s okay for you to take this.” This went on for countless months until one Sunday, she showed up in the back of the church. You can imagine my surprise when I saw Sybil, sitting on the back pew, tears quietly rolling down her face. Something had happened inside of her. Her exile had come to an end. God was on the move. 

Toward the end of the worship service I led communion. At the end of the communion liturgy I asked our servers to come forward, yet this week for some reason no one stood up, with one exception. Sybil rose to her feet and began shuffling down the pew. Every eye in the church was glued on her as she limped down the aisle. You could have heard a pin drop. She got to the chancel steps and paused. She wobbled for a moment and abruptly crumpled over at the waist like a wet noodle. With her hands on the steps, she crawled on all fours up the chancel steps. She reached to the altar and pulled herself up, and she stretched out her hands. And I got to serve her. This is the body of Christ, given for you. And this is the blood of Christ, given for you. 

It was the most undignified, awkward, and difficult journey to the altar that I’d ever seen. It was also the holiest. 

The journey from exile to God’s new thing will be difficult. There will be challenges, obstacles, and questioning about when and how. Yet despite the challenges, when God calls, we will be more than conquerors.

Erik Grayson is pastor-in-charge at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in North Charleston, South Carolina. Erik and his congregation created a non-profit called Holy City Missions which is pursuing the establishment of a $4 million missions campus and year-round shelter for marginalized people. This article is adapted from his address to the Wesleyan Covenant Association Global Gathering in Indianapolis in May.