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.