A week ago we travelled down to Tshikaji for the 45th General Assembly of the Congolese Presbyterian Church (CPC). After giving greetings and listening to a few reports, we joined the General Secretary and other church leaders for lunch. These church leaders were in their element; they changed into casual clothing and enjoyed food, camaraderie, and a relaxing hour.
In the midst of smiles and seeing old faces, we noticed a large group of sixty persons sitting under a tree outside and adjacent to the large assembly hall. They were not smiling. Sitting twenty yards away was an armed police officer. He and two others were on guard. Kristi and I scanned the crowd under the tree. We saw no one whom we recognized. Perplexed, we asked ourselves, “Who are these people?” In my heart I knew, but at the same time I didn’t want to know. The following day a friend told me the truth I was afraid to hear – “The ones seated outside under the tree are those contesting decisions made by the church.” They are in exile, I thought to myself. On the other side of the Atlantic ocean, Paul Detterman, an evangelical leader in the Presbyterian (USA) Church, recently writes that staying in a denomination that has made decisions with which he and others struggle to agree forces him to reflect. He, unlike many other evangelicals, has chosen to remain. He describes his call as one of “exile.”
The reality is this – no one likes exile. Who wants to feel left out? Who wants to be marginalized, ostracized and vilified? We all want to belong. Conformity is a safe place, or so it would seem. Yet, reflecting on these matters, I suppose that there are important lessons to be learned in exile. There is the lesson of humility. There is the lesson of patience. There is the lesson of trusting God while pining away in the prairie of loneliness. There is the lesson of holding on to our beliefs, but also being open to God doing new things.
King David was a man of sorrows. For half his life he was on the run – living in caves and wallowing in wastelands. Yet out of the wilderness we hear the heart of a man after God’s own heart – a man of sorrows who was acquainted with grief and knew rejection. Yet faith and hope anchored his soul. Thus, this soulful saint was able to write such things as “The salvation of the righteous is from the LORD; he is their refuge in the time of trouble” (Psalm 37: 39). At least half of the Psalms are credited to this man who knew the painful realities of exile. Jesus, the author of Hebrews tells us, suffered outside the city gate where he bore abuse (Hebrews 13: 12, 13). He died outside of the holy city of Jerusalem. Jesus died in exile.
For those of us acquainted with rejection and marginalization, the good news is this – “God lives with us in exile.” David was not forsaken; nor was Jesus. Our sisters and brothers who sat under a tree are not forsaken. God sees our pain and knows our sorrows. Conformity is a safe place, or so it would seem. The reality is this – the only safe place is the refuge of our Heavenly Father. In exile we experience this truth.
Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.
(Hebrews 13: 12 – 14)