Faithful Presence in a Foreign Land Called Home

faithful_presence

We continue where we left off in my last post discussing Jeremiah 29, focusing particularly on God’s call to faithful presence in the places He sends us.

It’s striking and, indeed, disturbing to realize that exile was God’s doing. Some would say God was punishing the Israelites for their lack of faith and obedience, that He was addressing their rebellion and idolatry. No one likes to be disciplined—but there it is. The people of God were in a foreign land and it was God’s doing. It was His plan (as the popularly quoted Jeremiah 29:11 reiterates). However, contrary to what we might assume, according to Jeremiah, exile did not mean that God had abandoned Israel. Rather, exile was the place where God was at work!

“There”

How can we be the Church in a foreign land? Perhaps it begins by believing that God is at work there. We discover God is at work there right at the very beginning, at the time of creation. For where does the Spirit hover? Over the chaos. How do the Israelites become the people of God? By wandering with Him in the wilderness—for forty years! The same has been true in my life. I learn more, depend on God more fully, and discover Him at work more profoundly when I don’t have all answers, when I don’t know where I’m going.

It’s when all else fails that we try listening to God. It’s when we don’t know what to do or how to solve the problem, when life has spun out of control, when bad things have happened to good people that we discover God is in our midst, that He is present and at work in love and faithfulness right where we are in a foreign land. Despite our discomfort, fears, anxieties, and agendas, we discover that God is there.

[Tweet “It’s when all else fails that we try listening to God. ~Dr. Karen Wilk”]

Jeremiah’s instructions to the Israelites (and to us) are counterintuitive. As strange and difficult as it sounds, God wants His People to invest (namely their lives!) in this foreign land, this enemy city, this community where He has sent them. Build, plan to stay, have a family, plant a garden, He declares. And not just for a year or two (which, admittedly, is what we thought when we moved to Edmonton almost 30 years ago)—but for the long haul.

Jeremiah informs the Israelites that they are going to be there for seventy years (cf. 29:10). That’s three generations of Nebuchadnezzar! Seventy is a significant number in Scripture, not in the literal sense as we understand numbers today, but in the symbolic and emphatic sense. Seven times ten: seven is the number of divine perfection, ten is the number of fullness. The number seven was particularly important in ancient Near East. It was sacred to the Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, and other nations in the Bible. It was connected with every aspect of religious life. In relation to time, it represented a sacred period.

The Israelites were to make their homes in the very place that in their minds was the least sacred place on earth and, by doing so, discover that that place and time, too, were in God’s hands. I wonder what I may have assumed to be defiled or outside God’s realm that God has declared sacred: hanging out with our neighbours at the local pub? The households we know in which beliefs and practices are contrary to ours? Gay, Islamic, mentally challenged, or homeless persons? “Bad neighbours”? The group home or halfway house we don’t want near us? What if God is present and at work there, in those places? Is God not present and at work next door?

The people of Israel were being called to enter the culture in which they were placed as God’s people. They were to reflect in their daily practices their distinct identity as those chosen by God to serve the common good. God’s message to the Jews and to us is that He is present with us and that we are to be present in our contexts/neighbourhoods, however seemingly foreign, too! The instructions to the Babylonian exiles remind us that the greatest impact in Christian mission comes through the discipline of presence. As with them, God sends us to “embrace and enter” our neighbourhoods here and now with the Spirit.

[Tweet “The greatest impact in Christian mission comes through the discipline of presence. ~Dr. Karen Wilk”]

What if more of us followers of Jesus went back into our communities, no matter how Babylonian we might imagine them to be, and discovered more of what God was up to right where we live? What if we learned how to be really good neighbours, seeking the peace and prosperity of the city, taking up the incredible invitation to serve as priests or chaplains of our blocks, practicing hospitality such that every neighbour was included, safe, and cared for? Jesus said the Kingdom of God has come near, and He pointed to Himself. The Kingdom came near in Him, and now it comes near in us—In us! As one participant in our Neighbourhood Life articulated, “We are created to be in community with those around us; to be part of what God intended—[being a part of] its beauty and working towards its fullness.”

Wait…Whose Welfare?

Being at home, faithfully present in our neighbourhoods, is also vital to our discipleship and participation in God’s mission. Jeremiah says that this inhabiting isn’t just about being on God’s mission for the sake of the other, the city, and the neighbour, it’s also for our welfare as the people of God! This is really hard to get, believe, appreciate, and buy into. After all, for many of us, what we’ve heard about being missional and loving a neighbourhood just seems like more work and more things to add to our already-too-long to-do list.

But I believe that Jeremiah would insist that this isn’t an add-on. And if it is, then we’re missing it somehow. This is to be our way of life. It’s about how we do life. It’s about how we go about our ordinary, everyday lives and become all that we are intended to be in that very ordinary, everyday place where we live. It’s for our welfare! (And it may, indeed, shorten that to-do list.) 

The Jeremiah passage teaches us that as we work for the peace and well-being of our neighbourhoods, not only are we shaping them, they are shaping us. Pastor and Education Director Scott Hagley explains that “place or making our home with a congregation in a neighborhood is a critical part of our spiritual formation. . . . certain Christian virtues such as humility and mutual dependence cannot be learned in the fluid conditions of modern life. . . . Our spirituality depends in part upon our particular presence in place” (“Finding our Way Back Home”).

Faithful Presence–A Dare to Your Faith

The authors of The New Parish agree, suggesting that “the local place becomes the testing ground, revealing whether you have learned to love each other and the larger community around you. In essence, the parish is a dare to your faith” (Sparks, Soerens, Friesen, The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community).

This “dare to your faith” was presented to the Israelites in Babylon centuries ago and, I believe, is now before the church in a postmodern, post-Christendom world. Alan Roxburgh, author of Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood, states therein, “staying put among people is a critical element to being a gospel people and rediscovering the gospel for ourselves.” And Cam Roxburgh, National Director of Forge Canada, similarly states, “When followers of Jesus recognize that Jesus has sent us into the very neighbourhoods where He is at work, we become a sign and foretaste of the reality of the presence of the Kingdom of God” (“The Critical Importance of Place”).

[Tweet “C’mon…take this dare of faith:”]

The Triune One not only meets His people in places but, Scriptures insists, shapes and empowers them to be who they are intended to be as they discover and participate with the Spirit in those places. Eugene Peterson, author of the popular rendition of the Bible known as The Message, declares that “everything that the Creator God does in forming us humans is done in place. It follows from this that since we are his creatures and can hardly escape the conditions of our making, for us everything that has to do with God is also in place. All living is local” (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places). A theology of faithful presence, which this passage leads us to embrace, holds the markings of a new paradigm for the church today despite the fact that it is ancient wisdom.

“A theology of faithful presence calls Christians to enact the Shalom of God in the circumstances in which God has placed them and to actively seek it on behalf of others. This is a vision for the entire church. It is a burden for the entire laity,” explains author James D. Hunter, adding, “In all the tasks they undertake, in all vocations . . . in all walks of life. . . . In God’s eyes it is faithful presence that matters. Faithful presence has implications far beyond individual engagement with the world. . . . Christians share a world with others and they must contribute to its flourishing . . . In short, commitment to the new city commons is a commitment of the community of faith to the highest ideals and practices of human flourishing in a pluralistic world” (To Change the World).

What might that look like in your personal and communal life? What might that look like for your families and the other Christian households in the place where you live and can be faithfully present? How will you begin? With a prayer gathering? A walk to meet and greet those around you? A visit to your community league? Volunteering as a block connector? How will you—and more importantly, how will we—seek the peace and prosperity of the places to which God has sent us? In order that the world may know…

[There’s a] God of this City

[There’s a] King of these people

[There’s a] Lord of this nation . . .

And greater things are still to be done in this City (Chris Tomlin)

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Dr. Karen Wilk
Dr. Karen Wilk is a National Team Member of Forge Canada’s Missional Training Network, and a Missional Leader Developer for the Christian Reformed Church in North America. Karen is the Lead Catalyser of Neighbourhood Life/NEW (Neighbourhood Engagement Workers) Community in Alberta, where she actively engages church leadership in moving their congregations out into neighborhoods. She has been a pastor in Edmonton for almost 28 years and completed a Doctorate in Missional Leadership at Northern Seminary in Chicago. Karen is the author of Don’t Invite Them To Church: Moving From a Come and See to a Go and Be Church. She is also a neighbor, wife, mom, and minister who is leading her own neighborhood community.
Dr. Karen Wilk

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