Like many Christians around the world, I take time at the turn of the New Year to reflect on the past and hope for the future. Some of my hopes are bound up with my own life as I reflect on the many practical steps I want to take to be more like Christ in 2015. But, I also have some hopes which are really massive and transcend the horizons of my own life and work. I know that I can only play a tiny part in the unfolding of these hopes, but I have them nonetheless.
One of these hopes is my hope for the renewal of Christian vitality. The church, especially in the West, is currently at a spiritual nadir which I cautiously hope has finally reached rock bottom. We would all quietly prefer to live in better times. It must have been breathtaking to see the Red Sea part, or Goliath fall to the ground, or the Temple dedicated, or wise King Solomon sitting on the throne. Those are great days to be numbered among the “people of God.” It is a different story when you are being chained up by the Assyrians, thrown into a well like Jeremiah, or seeing your children ripped out of your arms and sold into Babylonian slavery. “How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a foreign land?” is the anguish cry of the Psalmist which once seemed like a distant cry, but is gradually moving to our own horizon.
We know, looking back, that the exile was a time of cleansing and purging, creating new spaces for holiness and, ultimately, preparing the people of God for the Messiah. Living in exile can actually be wonderful days of remembering the gospel, growing in holiness and renewing a life of earnest prayer. In fact, there are many lessons which can only be taught by those three sturdy tutors known as hardship, pain and suffering.
Living in exile also marks the end of what I call “Christian kitsch.” Kitsch, of course, refers to all the gaudy, tacky, sentimental stuff which dominates popular culture. Cracker Barrel makes a living selling it. It is the plastic pink flamingo which someone buys and sticks in their yard and actually believes it connects them with nature. It is the little miniature statue of the Eiffel tower which sits on your shelf so people will think you are well traveled. Popular American Christianity has its own version of this. I don’t just mean the “precious moments” angel display at your local Christian bookstore or the Jesus is the Reason for the Season magnet on your refrigerator. It is found in the face of a smiling pastor promising a packed house of suburban Christians that God has promised to give you all the desires of your heart today. It is found in the darkened “contemporary” church service where everyone sits around tables and drinks coffee while they watch people sing on stage and file out an hour later saying they were “in church.” It’s found in the latest Christian blog which enthusiastically gives seven ways every pastor can help make the gospel “relevant” for this generation.
The church has a lot of pink flamingos stuck in the ground. The good news is, help is on the way! Exile strikes the death knell to all the “pink flamingos” in the life of the church. When the house is set on fire, and you and your children are being taken into exile, people generally leave the pink flamingos behind.