“Exile is not, after all, a matter of choice: you are born into it, or it happens to you (“Reflections on Exile” by Edward Said, p. 146). I read this today, and I can’t shake my disagreement. It’s not that I can compare my white, middle-class, privileged life to people experiencing forced removal from their homeland. My displacement can’t even come close to that kind of horror and suffering. However, I am in exile. And I’m in exile by choice.
January of 2015, Scott and I left a church that I thought we would never leave. I used to say, “Bury me in the parking lot.” (I have always had a small flare for the dramatic.) After leaving that beloved community under dire circumstances, we limped into the next church about 2 months later, only to face similar frustrations and disappointment, that led to another exodus in May of 2019. After that, we tried to reenter church. We gave it a good, 6-month, college-try. Nope. Exile it is.
You see, we just don’t fit in certain spaces anymore. You know how you wore your favorite pair of jeans in high school? Wore them to death. And then college and babies, and dang… there is no way in hay those are getting back on. (Scott lovingly says that my hips had to grow to receive children. What a saint.) Regardless, the jeans, they aren’t getting back on this body. Ever. Sara Groves writes it so poetically in her song “Painting Pictures of Egypt”:
I’ve been painting pictures of Egypt, leaving out what it lacks
‘Cause the future feels so hard and I wanna go back
But the places that used to fit me cannot hold the things I’ve learned
Those roads were closed off to me while my back was turned…
Places that say women can’t teach, can’t preach, can’t lead. Places where women must “come under covering,” must have a man to complete them, teach them, lead them, father them. Places that codify misogyny with the degrading renaming of roles (“you can’t be a pastor, but you can be an administrator”) or use complimentary, paternalistic jargon- these don’t fit anymore. (Couldn’t get those suckers on with a crowbar.)
Places that elevate, esteem, and protect one person or a small band of people to the detriment of those they have been “called” to serve. Places that protect the entity of church rather than lay down their lives for the ones Jesus loves. Places that play secret games of codependency and abuse of power “for the good of the church.” Places that love and care for buildings and technology more than hurting souls and their own staff- done. (These actually repel me like fire.)
Places that use the Bible as a weapon to foster fear and shame, instead of love and grace. Ugh. Done. Places where power is used to cover abuse, heresy, dehumanization, greed, and lust. Done.
I confess, I wore most of these “jeans,” these viewpoints, these ideas. They fit. I loved them. I thought I looked pretty great in them. They felt amazing. Until they didn’t….
(And can I pause right here, and say to all of the other exiles-by-choice out there, “I see you. I am so unbelievably sorry that you know what I’m talking about. I see your pain. I know something, not the same, I’m sure, but perhaps something close, to your pain. Please see me sitting shiva with you. You can just hurt here.”)
So what does it mean to practice without a community, a formal church community? Many of us know this reality right now with the isolating nature of the pandemic. Hurt or not, disappointed in the systems or not, you are lonely. You miss walking up to communion together, singing your creed. You miss seeing those familiar faces, hearing those laughs, holding those hugs close. You miss knowing you belong somewhere, even nominally. In a way, so many of us are exiles-by-choice, right now. I see you, too. This is hard.
I guess, to answer my own question (“What does it look like to practice outside the formal community?”), it looks like right here. At the end of Edward Said’s reflections, he quotes a writer in exile, Theodor Adorno, who says, “the only home truly available now, though fragile and vulnerable, is in writing. Elsewhere, ‘the house is past’ (Said, 147).” Wow… the house is past. I feel it. For me, and maybe for you, practice has moved out of the building into this moment. It’s in the ground beneath our feet, wherever we are. This is it.
And… it’s lonely as hell. So here I am with you, writing my way through exile. Finding life in exile. Life in practice, in exile.