In a Strange Land

Standard

 

bible-art-Theme-verse-exodus.jpgOn the 23rd June the people of this country made a historic decision to leave the European Union, the political, economic, social, and cultural repercussions of this are still being felt.Immediately after the result, I alongside with many others who had hoped for a Remain victory felt myself in a place of lament, here are the words I wrote the day after the referendum:

A Lament on Leaving

“We must leave” he said, “It will be better if we do.”

But I did not want to leave here,

Here I have enjoyed years of peace,

Here I have made friends, loved my neighbour,

Here is my home.

“Here is not a place for decent folk” he said “We must take back control.”

And so I wake to find myself in another place,

No longer knowing anymore where I am,

Or what path lies ahead.

(24th June 2016 – Nick Waterfield)

 

Since then, we have already been given a new Prime Minister, the Conservative, Labour parties and UKIP are all facing, or have faced, not just elections and challenges around the leadership, but ideological struggles for what their party stands for as we move beyond the immediate aftermath, and now there are even calls for a General Election – the outcomes are by no means certain.

Economically the immediate uncertainties have caused short term problems with the longer term consequences still anyones guess.

Socially and culturally it has unearthed and exposed a wave of open hostility and racism, that many of us sensed had been kept “politely” out of sight, but which now seemingly has gained a new found confidence. It has led to increases in overtly racist attacks and abuse, prompting even our own Methodist Conference to take action and issue a statement of opposition last week.

I voted to Remain – I have friends who voted on both sides of the debate – I understand why some of them voted the way they did. I  understand the desire to feel like it was a shot across the bows of the powerful, how it could ultimately be a way of restoring democratic accountability to our own sovereign Parliament, I can even understand (whilst profoundly disagreeing with the sentiment and most certainly the racism that has fed from it) the concerns that immigration has stretched the nations resources rather than assisting them. I understand, but even so I admit that I have spent much of my time since then feeling like “a stranger in a strange land”.

And as I’ve reflected on this feeling I have contemplated two biblical stories:

First, the destruction of the Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile, and in particular the words of lament from Psalm 137 which have gone round my head time and again in the past few months, but especially since 24th June:

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.

(NRSV)

Secondly, and the one I want to focus on here is the escape from Egypt, as we read in the book of Exodus.

I guess many of us know the story from Exodus – the people of God are being held as slaves in captivity in Egypt. Pharaoh refuses to listen when Moses and Aaron ask that he set them free, so Egypt is beset by a series of plagues. The Jews flee from Egypt and escape through the Red Sea (Exodus 14). Finally they are free from the shackles of Egyptian enslavement and the domination of Empire.

BUT it’s then that things get interesting, then that things get complicated, and there I want to start.

It all starts with triumphalism, Miriam (Moses sister) leads the songs of victory, yes they are songs that offer thanks to god for their rescue, yes they are songs of liberation, but they are also songs of death and defeat for the enemy Egypt. “The LORD is a warrior…” (15.3) says the song as it tells of how Pharaohs officers, men chariots and horses were hurled into the sea and drowned, sunk to the depths like a stone. The song continues with a tone of expectant and hopeful conquest:

“The nations will hear and tremble” (15.14)

“The chiefs of Edom will be terrified” (15.15)

“Terror and dread will fall on them.” (15.16)

Celebration of victory always takes place, in war, in politics, in sport, anywhere …. But when we are on the winning side, we need to think about the tone of our triumphalism. John Wesley in his advice on voting concluded by saying …. [Our] “spirits [should not] sharpened against those that voted on the other side.” a sentiment that ultimately rings true whichever side we find ourselves on.

But, back to Exodus. Just some six weeks later (on the 15th day of the second month 16.1) they began their complaining; “In Egypt we had food…” now maybe these divisions were already there, some people no doubt did better out of the Egyptians than others, just like some of our fellow citizens were able to gain advantage from the EU that many others couldn’t. The divisions amongst the Israelites, just like our own, didn’t just appear overnight – they’d been brooding for some time. But here in Exodus we hear that just six weeks after leaving those voices were being heard loud and clear. “In Egypt we had food…”

God responds with love and grace …. (16.4) Manna and Quail are somehow miraculously sent so that the complaints over food are silenced (or quietened) at least for a time.

But still the complaints are there, lurking beneath the surface (dissatisfied voices) but also a distrust and misunderstanding of Gods provision. “Why …” repeat the voices (17.3) “…did you bring us out of Egypt?”

God responds with love and grace …. (17.6) Providing water to come from rock

Next the Israelites are attacked by the Amalekites, but Joshua defeats them in battle and makes his mark as a future leader.

Jethro (A Midian priest and Moses father in law) hears of the escape from Egypt and everything that has happened since, and although impressed, offer his son in law advice on how to govern well (Chapter 18)

Then in chapters 19 and 20 we get the familiar story of Moses on Mount Sinai, with another rebuttal of God  by the Israelites when they fashion themselves a new idol (The Golden Calf  ) but once again;

God responds with love and grace ….. ( 20.1-17 ) The Ten Commandments unpinning the basic truths that the best way to live is through a Love for God, and Love for Each Other, all underpinned by a knowledge that God loves the World.

So where does this leave us today?

I guess it depends on who we see ourselves as in the story. Perhaps – over the coming days I might ask that each of us will find time to sit with this story, read it again, try to immerse ourselves in it. And that we think of it in terms of where we are now in the United Kingdom 2016 – and what we as individual Christians, and as the people of God, the body of Christ are challenged to be and to do in the season ahead.

I wonder who you might feel most like?

Maybe you’re feeling in  triumphal mood like Miriam?

Or maybe you’re amongst those who simply want to go back?

I wonder who (like Jethro) might be the providers of wisdom in these times – remembering that Jethro himself was an “outsider”?

and

I wonder where might we look for the signs of Gods love and grace amongst the, perhaps inevitable. mess and chaos we are experiencing right now?

 

 

 

Love Your Neighbour

Standard
union-flag-837x438
Today is June 6th, 72 years ago “Allied” forces fought on the beaches of Northern France in the D-Day landings to start the liberation of Europe from the horrors of Nazism. Thankfully Europe has not seen war in its midst on such a scale since, although sadly it continues in other parts of the globe. Europe however, is facing it’s own very real crisis of identity and politics – the upcoming EU Referendum in Britain is but one part of this.
Whatever the result on the 23rd June the thing that now seems clearest is that from the 24th we will be left with a dis-United Kingdom. It is unlikely that either “side” will win a convincing majority, and  it is quite possible that Scotland, Wales, the North of Ireland will each vote differently to England. Whether #Brexit or #Bremain win the day it is  unlikely that we will have arrived at a view about what being a UK citizen in the 21st Century looks and feels like. The big questions the debate has helped open up will remain; “what do we  (UK) stand for” “who we are” as a nation will still be open to disagreement.
The debate on each side has been dominated by economics and immigration policy – and each side has used its share of negativity and “fear” projections. Each side has also contained its own progressive and reactionary elements within it, at times adding more confusion and haze and fog to an already unclear picture of the true direction of travel following whichever outcome triumphs.
A a Christian I believe that our voting on the day, and our reactions to the result and the re-forming process beyond should largely rest on two key commands (Mark 12. 30-31):
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ [and] ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
Of course the question that underlies this command, and that any demands our prayerful thought before June 23rd, and constant consideration beyond is “who is [our] neighbour?” (Luke 10.29). Now clearly we live in a world where nowadays it obvious that there is a legitimacy in regarding every person from every nation as our neighbours, so we  need to dig deeper in our response to avoid well intended but essentially glib responses. In my life I’ve had many neighbours; some of them have been good friends, they’ve dropped round for a chat, they’ve helped out in times of need. I’ve also had bad neighbours, neighbours who were noisy, neighbours who have kicked down my door and even stolen from me.
Of course, the Bible tells us of Jesus response to the who is my neighbour question. It’s there in the Parable of the Good Samaritan – once again reminding us that we don’t pick and choose our neighbours, in the same way that good neighbours don’t pick and choose when to do the right thing.  Now of course, if we truly loved our neighbour (and they loved us) in or out would make no difference because the end result would be the same – Love  requires us to do what is best not just for ourselves but our neighbour too, as such love needs no treaty to ensure it is fulfilled.
Whatever the result is declared on 24th June will have a profound effect on the UK , it will undoubtedly effect our own domestic political landscape, it is likely to lead to further questions around the nature of Union and Devolution within the UK, and will also demand further examination of what “Britishness” and being a UK Citizen mean in the 21st century.  How we relate to each other within the UK, Europe and the rest of the world as good neighbours will all need examination following the referendum result, I hope that it is a challenge that Christians will be up to.