Lovett H. Weems, Jr., explains that God’s leaders always live in the tension between memory of the past and hope for the future. Effective leaders draw from the heritage of faith to point toward a new vision of where God is calling us in the future.
Church leaders stand today between a past that is gone and a future awaiting its consummation. God’s leaders are deeply steeped in the memory of God’s great acts in history, in one’s denomination, and in one’s congregation. At the same time, however, God has placed them in a present context that poses many challenges. In truth, this has always been the stance from which God’s people lead. Biblical accounts of the Babylonian exile offer lessons to today’s church leaders living in the tension between a confident past and the still-unfolding promise of God’s future.
It is not enough for leaders to name the crisis, identify the problems, and document the failures. Leaders draw from the heritage of faith to point with hope toward a new vision of what God has for us.
The exile experience reflected in Isaiah (Chapters 40-55) began when King Nebuchadnezzar exiled King Jehoiachin and 10,000 other leaders from Judah. It continued through the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem in 587 BCE and two more deportations. The exile lasted approximately 60 years, until King Cyrus of Persia ended the Babylonian Empire in 539 BCE.
Exile was much more than geographic dislocation. It called into question all secure sources of meaning. It was a social, cultural, psychological, and spiritual dislocation. It was a traumatic experience. According to Ralph W. Klein, exilic Israel was “a defeated nation that had lost its independence, its land, its monarchy, and its temple.” But, Klein continues, “the theological challenges and problems strike us as much more severe.” The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. The end of the Davidic dynasty was a theological problem. In short, says Klein, “almost all of the old symbol systems had been rendered useless. Almost all of the old institutions no longer functioned.” What kind of future was possible for people in such a situation?
Exile as Metaphor for the Dilemma and a Model for Response
Walter Brueggemann sees exile as a helpful metaphor for the situation of mainline churches today. “The mainline Christian tale has run out in exile….” The “ideology of empire” that once fit such churches no longer fits. The exile image is more appropriate.
Bruce Birch speaks of people of faith always living and serving between memory and vision. Isaiah reflects both of these dimensions. Memory is captured in the call to “look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you.” (Isaiah 51:1b-2a, NRSV). Yet the forward pull of God’s vision is seen also. “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19a, NRSV).
God’s people must always choose among alternative responses. Some unproductive choices include: 1) focusing only on memory and losing sight of today’s challenges in nostalgia for the past; 2) focusing only on vision so that the current context becomes the only point of reference and our efforts become rootless and without focus. Even less attractive are times when a church has neither a great sense of their faith history nor a passion to meet present needs. Such congregations end up simply trying to maintain themselves. Birch calls this “settling for survival.” It often leads to death, though normally it is slow, a kind of death on the installment plan.
What Does This Mean for Leadership?
It is not enough for leaders to name the crisis, identify the problems, and document the failures. Leaders draw from the heritage of faith to point with hope toward a new vision of what God has for us. Without such a rooted searching for the “new thing” that God is doing, there can be no hope. Without hope, there can be no energy for transformation.This hope comes not from a nostalgic return to the empire days of a culture gone or going. Neither does it come from adopting values alien to God’s revelation in Christ. The hope that can lead from weariness to energy is rooted in a God who brings resurrection from death, hope from despair, love from hate, and forgiveness from revenge.
Cornel West speaks of “subversive joy.” It is the joy of a people suffering from many things but who possess a joy that makes no logical sense to the world. This joy in the midst of exilic problems is grounded in a source that is not seen but has the power to liberate us from where we are to where God would have us be.
God’s leaders proclaim God’s coming new age even when signs are not always apparent. This new era will be related to what we have been in the past but will be different. God’s leaders help all the people of God write a new chapter for our time in the rich story of God’s people who have always lived between memory and vision.
Sources cited: Bruce C. Birch, Let Justice Roll Down, Westminster John Knox, 1991; Walter Brueggemann, Cadences of Home: Preaching among Exiles, Westminster John Knox, 1997; and Ralph W. Klein, Israel in Exile, Fortress, 1979.
- Becoming More of What We Have Been by Mary Alice Cunningham
- Your Church’s Creation Story by Tom Berlin
- Take the Next Step: Leading Lasting Change in the Church by Lovett H. Weems, Jr.