The Sky is Falling

Recently, I was looking through the book “The Sky is Falling” by Alan Roxburgh. I came across a chapter on Discontinuous Change: The Biblical Narrative. Much of it stood out to me as pertaining to the issues we are facing in the church today. Here is some food for thought from the book:

“Judah mourns and her gates languish; (her people) lie in gloom on the ground, and the cry of Jerusalem goes up. Her nobles send their servants for water; they come to the cisterns, they find no water, they return with their vessels empty.” Jeremiah 14:2-3

The imagination for living as God’s people in our time comes from two places: first, the Biblical narratives that form the fundamental story of Christian life; and second, the concrete realities of living in the midst of today’s church. The one cannot be separated from the other. Each is critical for the development of an imaginative engagement with our context.

This is not about trying to recapture some past moment, but neither is it about trying to define some radical future. Neither option takes the church seriously as it is. Both want, in their different ways, to deny the present fact of the church as it finds itself lying in confusion amidst North American culture. The cisterns are empty and there is no water, despite any contemporary Hanaiah promising that in just a short time everything will be right again. Jeremiah addresses just such a time of transition as the one we live in and offers rich resources for discerning the ways we can engage our time of discontinuity and change. Biblical narratives such as Jeremiah provide a way of hope that will seem counterintuitive as we move through 5 stages of change.

Stage One is Stability: Living as Covenant Partners
Massive discontinuous changes, on scales larger than we are currently experiencing, were always part of Israel’s history. The Old Testament narratives comprise an overarching account of God’s engagement with God’s people for the sake of the world. This was a hard relationship that required the remaking of these people in ways they could never have imagined. When Israel enters the promised land, they began to settle into a way of life radically different from who they were as wandering tribes in the backside of the desert, or even as slave in Egypt. God intended the relationship framed in desert living and covenant commitment to be the basis for their way of life in the new land. Their identity in the new land did not hold for long.

Stage Two is Discontinuity: Covenant Life Absorbed and Subsumed
Other tribes in the land and great nations in the areas brought pressure on the Israelite confederacy. Their theocracy became uncomfortable for them, and the people began to cry for a reshaping of their national identity into a monarchy. The elders and those rooted in the ancient traditions resisted this demand for change. A series of charismatic judges were offered as alternatives to a king. For a time this answered the people’s concerns, but the forces of change continued to press upon the loose clans of Israel.

Stage Three is Disembedding: Crisis and Chaos
The Israelites began to enter into treaties and commercial relationships with the surrounding groups in order to ward off conflicts; as well as guarantee their own place of economic and political control. In so doing, they rewrote the meaning and images of the covenant. Its primary demands were gradually subsumed and absorbed into the larger cultures. False images of God and covenant relationship led to false images of their own identity and purpose in the world. Eventually this world was shattered by invasion and exile. A crisis of massive proportions ensued. Nebuchadnezzar invaded the land, destroyed the temple, leveled the walls of Jerusalem, and transported the best and brightest of Judah into exile in Babylon. Because of their warped sense of covenant, it was an unimaginable event. Despite the warnings of the prophets, the people had no framework to understand, accept, or receive the catastrophic events of 587 BC. This was not only a crisis of politics, but also of faith and identity. It was the loss and ending of a world – resulting in complete disorientation and chaos. This cataclysmic event was a total shock. The alignment of God’s kingdom with the values and practices of the dominant culture had left Israel blind to what was actually going on.

Stage Four is Transition: Rediscovering God
The Babylonian exile meant Judah was disembedded from Jerusalem. The Hebrews did not know how to live or think about God in this strange, alien place. But in the midst of and because of the trauma and chaos of exile, they began to rediscover their most fundamental narratives about themselves as a people. They re-entered their primary stories and traditions from a radically new perspective. It was not handed down from the mountaintop in power and authority, but emerged from their sense of loss and confusion as they returned to the Scriptures looking for answers.

Exile became the place where the people painfully relinquished the dreams of old Jerusalem. This would not be instantaneous, but would take several generations. Exile was a hopeful moment in Israel’s life. Exile is a symbol of God’s gracious preparation, not God’s abandonment. Babylon was the place in which Israelites had to fundamentally rethink their understanding of God and their tradition. Only out of this long process would a new imagination and a new identity as God’s people begin to emerge.

Stage Five is Reformation: Returning Home
Following 70 years of exile, a generation emerged that was shaped by the exile and the process of recovering covenant memory. Ezra and Nehemiah began to express the hope of a return to Jerusalem. Although they attempted to return to the normalcy of the past, they found that it could not be recreated – too much has changed. There was too much instability. The stories of return are accounts of a people struggling through transition toward a different future. The passion was for restoration (back to the future). While some of this was essential (walls needed to be rebuilt) and required remembering their history, traditions, and older skills, this was not the only form of imagination that returned from the exile.

In the same way, there is something going on in our own time. Our time is not really new – it has been encountered before in the history of Israel and her relationship with God. In many ways, the church today is in a similar phase of transition that Judah faced in Babylon. While this place is full of great challenges and threats, it is also full of great opportunity for those who will seek to listen and understand. If we are going to transform our churches, we will need to understand the threats and embrace the opportunities presented by our time of transition.

In what ways is our time similar and different from the Babylonian exile?
What are the threats and opportunities of our time of transition?
Which of these five stages do you think we are in?
How can we help our members move through this time as God’s people?

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