It has been an incoherent summer here at the Curatage – a summer of ups and downs, where some things worked out and lots didn’t. The Story of the Jews (on iplayer for a month until the beginning of October 2013) told of a people bound together by the fact they shared a story of exile and of wandering, waiting to enter the Promised Land. As I job hunt, with all the complexities of discerning what God wants, and the practicalities of education and family life, I have some idea of how they felt. There are hope filled signposts and blind alleyways to negotiate.
But being in the Promised Land isn’t easy either. Simon Schama reminded me of an essay I wrote about the Old Testament book of Ezra – the story of what happened when the elite of society, exiled by the Babylonians for five generations, returned. Ezra read them the Law, and then discovered that the people left behind – the normal people, the ones who weren’t ‘important’ had intermarried with other tribes. In effect, the elite had had five generations of captivity to figure out why they were special, and to hone the social and religious identity which kept them going through exile. The people left behind had to survive without their leaders in a shattered society. No wonder the paths diverged.
You can hear the same tensions being played out today with Christianity – who is in, who is out, who can and should be baptised, married, buried….who is so secularised that the meaningful sacrament is understood as a mere prelude to a party? Who has wandered too far? But the tension reaches far further than religion and faith – who assimilates to “our” society, and who doesn’t? How is “our” society changed by those who assimilate to it? Where in the world should “our” norms be imposed on others?
Ezra’s answer was stark – he insisted that families be torn apart as ‘foreign’ wives and children were repudiated. The people had wandered too far over five generations and needed to be brought back to purity, their identity needed to be clear again. I don’t buy that. If anything, I read Ezra as a warning of how not to lead, not how to lead. I know that Christians are to be in the world but not of the world. I just don’t think that tearing relationships apart is conducive to proclaiming the saving love of God.
I put a new photograph of me on my About page yesterday. In it, I am about to take a burial. I am wearing (as usual for a funeral) a black cassock, a white surplice, and a purple stole. Less usually, I am wearing a biker’s leather waistcoat. It isn’t mine, it belongs to a member of the congregation, who asked me to wear it because I wasn’t properly dressed. And compared to what most of the mourners were wearing, I wasn’t. A little assimilation went a long, and positive, way that day. But for some people, seeing me dressed like that will describe what is wrong with church – that boundaries aren’t clearly laid out, that the priest’s personal identity must be put to one side in services, that to wear such an item speaks of self promotion. I disagree. I tried to meet people in mourning where they were. Publishing the photograph, on the other hand, blogging, tweeting – ah yes, there is the line between sharing the Gospel and self promotion. The idea is to glorify God, not me. There it is again, the tension between identity and function, between the world and faith. Ezra would, I think, have disapproved.
But Ezra’s identity was forged in the isolation of Exile, of clinging to the memory of ‘how things should be done’. I am fortunate enough to be set within communities which care for me, and for which I care. I am fortunate enough to be able to chose to walk the line between ‘what works’ and ‘how we do it’ and ‘what God wants’ and to be able to pray publicly that I will get it right, and to be able to say ‘sorry’ when I get it wrong. Wherever I am, I am never beyond God’s reach, and my identity is rooted in being God’s beloved daughter. That is a thought worth holding, while I wait to see which particular bit of Promised Land is waiting for me.