Exiles and the remnant

I’ve been thinking lately of exiles and the remnant. In nearly every situation throughout history where people have been forced into exile there have been some who remained in the place of their origin. The remnant people may be small in number - most of the population was forced away - but they have an experience that is very different from that of those who go away. When, as is sometimes the case, the exiled people are allowed to return, they have led different lives from those who remained while they were gone.

This theme of the exiles and the remnant people is a strong theme in Old Testament prophetic literature. The sacred writings we know as the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures illustrate the tension within the community of Israel. From the very beginning of the book as it is now organized, we read two different creation stories. Our people have carried, at least since the exile, multiple stories that sometimes agree and sometimes strike different themes. Perhaps that is inevitable. If you ask my brother to tell stories from our childhood, you would get different stories than the ones I tell. We all see the world from our own perspective. In the case of those who have lived separate lives in separate circumstances, however, the differences are more pronounced.

It isn’t quite the case that we have divided into exiles and remand people in this current crisis, but there is a bit of that sense. While most of the congregation I serve are at home on Sundays and shelter away from the church, there are a few of us who gather. There are eight of us who have been present in the sanctuary every Sunday during our worship time. There are a few dozen who are consistent in participating with us at the same time every Sunday morning. The majority of our congregation, however, view the video on their own schedule, sometimes more than 24 hours after it has been posted on the Internet. We have become an asynchronies congregation - worshipping together, but not at the same time. I’m pretty sure that our present way of worshipping is significantly different from the way we used to do it by gathering together in the same room at the same time.

My life has been about building community, and I continue to work towards building community in the new set of circumstances in which we find ourselves. The skillset for this new way of working is significantly different from what I did before. I used to think of preaching and praying as activities for a specific moment. I tried to find the words that captured the experience of the community at that particular point in time. Now I am having to write and pray and preach with a broader perspective. I not only have to think about how a certain set of words might sound in a particular moment, but also about how it will sound a few hours or a few days later. And I am delivering those words without immediate feedback. While I am used to seeing the faces of those who are listening and reacting to their facial expressions, now I am casting my words out not the Internet and have to wait for responses. Fortunately I do get responses from some of those who view in the form of comments written. I read all of those comments, but I haven’t been making many responses to them. I haven’t mastered the art of conversation when I don’t know how to interpret the gaps in the interplay. If I write a response and don’t immediately have it acknowledged, I don’t know how it has been received.

I have caught myself thinking of the members of my congregation who are practicing nearly complete isolation as exiles. I am hoping that their absence is temporary and that the day will come when we are all back together in the same room once again. I am hoping that hugs and smiles and warm greetings without face masks will return. In the meantime, I miss those faces. I miss those people. I miss the sense of community.

The story of our congregation includes more than 141 years of life before the current pandemic cause the present separation. That means that we share a story that is longer than the span of our lives. The story of our congregation will continue beyond the end of our lives. And now that story contains the narrative of the time when we did not meet face to face each week for worship. While we continue to livestream worship and we are making a big effort to have some of the worship experience continue for our people, I know that the disruption in the life of our community is real. I know that the pandemic will be an important theme in the telling of our story from this time forward. I want the story to be one of faith. I want it to be a story of connections that are stronger than the distances that separate us. I want it to be the story of a congregation that waits patiently for the day of return. I want the exiles and the remnant people to have a joyous reunion.

That part of the story, however, is not yet written. We don’t know how it will come out. Sometimes I fear that people, having given up their routines, will not easily return. I have noticed that our closest colleagues who share the work of the church are not working their usual schedules. They work at different times of the day and different days of the week. I myself am not observing sabbath and taking time away from work in the way that I used to be faithful to that discipline. I fear that our congregation is getting out of the routine of regular gathering. For some, returning to the practices that have sustained our congregation through all of these years will be a challenge. They may prefer to worship by livestream long after we are able to gather again. We may become a group of congregations rather than a single congregation.

I don’t have a clear vision of the future. Moving forward requires trust in God who is much bigger than our moment in time. Releasing my fears and allowing my trust to grow must become another of the themes of these days.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!