To be shaped as much as to shape

I love this image of a tree growing in a barren plaza, its root system spreading across the cement pavers.

I love it, not only because it’s an image of organic life bursting forth from a pretty ugly built environment, but because the trees roots have been shaped by that very environment. They extend across the plaza, zig-zagging at the same angles as the pavers.

The tree is conquering the plaza, but the plaza is shaping the tree.

It’s a beautiful metaphor for the church.

We too have been planted in a dry and barren place. We long to grow in a verdant forest, but we find ourselves here in this strange, broken place, trying to figure out how to be in this world, but not of it.

This makes me think of the experience of those great exiles of the Old Testament – Joseph in Egypt, Daniel in Babylon, and Esther in Persia. Like us, and this tree, they too were planted in foreign soil. Literally.

All three were forced to live in foreign lands and, like this tree, all three adopted many of their host cultures’ values and practices, while remaining faithful to Yahweh. They flourished like the tree, but were shaped by the contours of their captors’ cultures.

Joseph, Daniel and Esther all prospered in their host empire. Two became virtually prime minister of their respective kingdoms and the third became queen. Joseph and Daniel effectively rearranged the agricultural and financial systems of Egypt and Babylon.

Joseph dressed as an Egyptian, took on an Egyptian name, married an Egyptian wife, raised Egyptian children, and rode around town in a chariot.

They served capricious kings and navigated their way precariously through various cultural and personal minefields.

Like these roots winding their way through the stones.

And all three were willing to resist the precepts of their empires, at great cost, or potentially great cost to themselves. But, bottom line, all three were willing to embrace citizenship in a foreign kingdom.

The prophet Jeremiah wrote to the Babylonian exiles to warn them that their internment wouldn’t be a brief thing (as other false prophets were predicting) and to comfort them with sage advice:

“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jer 29:5-7)

In other words, be good citizens. Make a home. Raise your family. Contribute to the common good, even the common good of an enemy empire.

When I wrote my book, Exiles, I figured that was the challenge that faced us too: how to live as citizens of a post-Christian empire while remaining faithful to Christ.

We aren’t called to destroy our host empire, but to bless it. To change its direction subtly and slowly from within, while also being shaped by those aspects of the culture that aren’t in opposition to God’s kingdom.

Of course, the metaphor has its limitations. Those Israelites caught up in the Babylonian exile saw their fate as a result of God’s withdrawal from them. They had brought exile on themselves because of their disobedience.

Whereas we know there is no condemnation for those of us in Christ, so we can’t view our current predicament as “our fault”.  But it is our lot.

And instead of moaning about how far our host culture is drifting into a post-truth, post-morality, post-Christian future, perhaps we need to learn to be better neighbors, to bring life – real life – in the midst of the monochromatic plaza of modern living.

What the West needs now more than ever is a forest of exiles who put down roots deep into the soil of their host empire, and who model an alternative ethic, an ethic of peace and justice.

But we mustn’t do this in some secret field. We do it in city squares, school yards, university campuses, offices, work sites, town halls, pubs, and street corners. There have to be visible roots that show our indebtedness to, and our enjoyment of, the culture that hosts us.

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9 thoughts on “To be shaped as much as to shape

  1. Great visual metaphor Mike.

  2. I resonate very much with these observations here Mike. Over my life I would not have been able to have articulated these thoughts quite as well as this. But let me share 2 examples how I would like to think this has applied to me. The first example I can think of is when I was a high school science teacher for about 16 years. I worked in state high schools. I’m not sure how people found out or knew I was a christian and a science teacher from other parts of the city or even the state but initially at least I kept getting ‘invitations’ to apply for science teacher positions at ‘Christian’ schools and even from independent schools. Some of these would come through the post from other cities or towns. I even had the head teacher of science from Barker knocking on my door one time espousing the the virtues of applying for a job there. But I had my reasons and your article above very much touches on it (although I also had other reasons too) and said things about being salty people etc. And later I think of words like ”being incarnational’. Likewise I know the decision to what school people send their kids to is a vexed one for many parents. But again for me to send my kids to a state school was an easy one. Apart from not affording the fees (or having other priorities for our resources) etc I was supportive of Christians being salt there and I know as a former teacher how Chistian kids are (mostly) good contributors to the school they go to. I was particularly grateful when I was pastor at inverell for 5 1/2 years that there was no ‘Christian’ school in town so that the Christian kids basically went to the local school and my kids had at least some Christian friends to hang out with. And by the way I have 4 kids who are now adults who are wonderfully active and committed followers of Jesus.

    The second example I want to mention is that yes currently I am attending a church regularly as a part of the flock but not nearly as involved in church based ministry/life/leadership etc as I have been historically. But I am commitedly involved, have regular contact with, support and am supported by, a bunch of great blokes who are like me pilgrims on a journey of life, have issues and challenges that face them (and me) and we help each other. Interestingly a number are Christians but others aren’t and in a sense they are more church to me than I often realise. But I would like to think that with these blokes I am doing this sort of thing. I am shaping and being shaped by them

    Thanks again for your well articulated and appreciated comments in your blog.

    1. Thanks for sharing something of your journey, George. It’s so encouraging.

  3. Really appreciate, “…exiles who put down roots deep into the soil of their host empire, and who model an alternative ethic..” Great words!

  4. Great reminder and great perspective!

  5. Awesome post, I love it!

  6. As one of the many Australians who have lived in various places over my lifetime, I was particularly struck by one phrase in the Jeremiah passage you quoted – “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you”.

    In the upheaval that comes with even a positive move, friends are left behind and griefs are felt. This verse and your entire post was a reminder that wherever I am transplanted, my call is to become a strong tree in that community, providing a shelter of grace, peace and blessing.

    Thanks for your thought provoking words.

  7. Couldn’t help but think about the way that roots prevent erosion. Thank you!

  8. Thanks for your comments, everyone. I read them all and appreciate the feedback. Please consider subscribing to my blog so you can be notified of future posts. The link is on the right at the beginning of the post.

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