Dear Friends in Christ,
When I was eleven, my dad and I traveled to Europe to visit my sister in England and to visit his family in Holland. It was my first trip to Europe and one of the only times I ever met some of my dad’s family—apart from when I was first born, which does not really count—so I was excited and nervous at the same time. I remember the trip having two distinct components: England where my sister was and where people spoke a language I understood, and Holland where I met relatives I had never seen before and where I could not understand anything anyone was saying. The exception to the language barrier in Holland was my cousins. They spoke English but were all much older—so I did not exactly have anyone to play with. It was a difficult adjustment at first, but then I began to feel a connection with my relatives that transcended the barriers of language and culture. This strange place began to take on an air of familiarity.
This image comes to mind as I consider the path ahead in a post-pandemic world. We have grown so accustomed to self-isolation, interacting online, and conversing through masks from six feet apart that when “normal” life resumes, we may find ourselves in a foreign land of sorts. I imagine it like going home to a place where we have never been—sort of like my first trip to Holland.
The biblical correlation to this is the return of the exiles from Babylon. In most cases, the Israelites were returning home to a place they had never been. They knew of Jerusalem and the temple from the stories they had heard and the memories that had been passed down, so in that sense it was home. Still, after fifty years of exile, Babylon was the only home most of the people ever knew.
Going home to a place you have never been is paradoxical. Living in exile, the Israelites established a home awayhome. Many of the customs we see in the New Testament—like worship in synagogues, for example—were developed or honed in exile. These were new expressions of the people of God that one might argue could only flourish away from the trappings of the familiar. This resiliency was Spirit-led and would eventually allow them to sing new songs by the rivers of Babylon (see Psalm 137), even as they longed for Jerusalem. Once they left the familiar and returned to the uncertain—the trip from Babylon to Jerusalem—they would take strength in what the Lord had taught them in
exile.The post-pandemic life is in sight. We do not know when it will arrive or what it will look like, though it is likely to be a mixture of the familiar and the new. It will present us with opportunities to call upon old memories and develop new habits, inspired by the past and sharpened in exile, as we face a new reality. Life will be familiar, but it will not be the same. This will be true in the world and true for the church.
As we consider these things, I invite you to reflect on the journey of exile that we have been on since the pandemic began during the 2020 Lenten season. As we travel the forty days of Lent in 2021, we will do so with the lightness of step that comes with the light at the end of the tunnel, but also with the heaviness of heart that signals the burdens of exile. May the Lord bless and guide our way along the path through the dark valley and into the light of eternal life…to a return home to a place we have not yet seen..