« Exile And Return »

Exile and return is a major theme in the Bible, and therefore in the lives of Jews and Christians. There is of course the Exile ("big E") of being carried off to Babylon for a couple generations, watching Jerusalem being laid waste and the agony of not knowing how or even if it would be possible to worship Yahweh while displaced from his favored city on earth. But more broadly speaking, the Bible as a whole tells of exile and return, starting with Genesis and being sent from Eden—the primeval state of undivided wholeness—into the world where division is a central fact of life. It seems we thought we knew better than our creator. From wholeness to being fragmented, we are exiled and through the bible, God does all sorts of tricks to get us back into one piece. None of them work too well or has much promise until a genius moment of presenting Jesus to the world, a figure who subverts all our typical understandings of what is required to live a faithful life. By the end of the bible story, the early believers and writers concluded that Jesus was the cure for this division in our lives. He was, for them, the end of spiritual exile. If we haven't forgotten it, even today he is the end of our spiritual exiles, as individuals (ah, I hate to say it: your "personal lord and savior") and also as all of humanity (through his commandment to love one's neighbor like oneself), offering the example of what we need to function as the community God envisions for us—the Kingdom of God.

My recent experience of joining a church by conscious decision has raised some questions for me. It is the first time I joined a church by intent, and not just by being confirmed into my existing congregation—an experience which does not seem to register clearly with me as a definitive moment in my life. Part of the reason for joining my new congregation has been that unlike the old one, there is a structure in place for actually doing some spiritual discernment and development work in a group setting, among many other ways to live a satisfying community life. My experience initially was a bit timid, but I was interested in being open with people. I actually didn't have plans to join as a member; that sort of grew on me over the last nine months or so. Suffice to say, having a setting in which to explore themes of how I experience the divine moving in my life has been an agent that helped me feel that this congregation was right for me.

If I do get any revelations from God, then they surely come in the "still small voice" variety such as Elijah experienced in Kings. I have to admit to being sort of dense in that regard. But revelations aren't always presentations of things not yet known; often it just takes a new insight to put together the pieces of many things already well known. Some write this off as coincidence. I have to wonder how it all works. But I am gaining in trust that it does, and that it happens for reasons we learn only on reflection.

So what compelled me to dig out a box of my journals and letters from the summer and first year after graduating high school (1991-92)? Especially since all that sort of stuff (filed neatly in annual collections in a series of boxes) now is garage filler, and no longer within reach in my closet like it tended to be for years before I began to move house every few months. For a long time, I did too much of this digging and I forgot to live in the moment, by hanging onto a detailed memory of all sorts of stuff that perhaps expired in usefulness before it was even written down! Having not had that opportunity in most of the Kelli years (since 2002), now it seems safer to periodically have a look. I draw some interesting revelations from this material.

This week I revisited the 1991-92 box featuring absurd amounts of pining for Shelby Duncan, a certain girl who never reciprocated my feelings (and with whom I kept that that dance going for another eight years or so—don't ask); stories about my early outside drumming under bridges and at other places because my home neighbors hated the noise; the news of an ever-growing drumset, with a few drawings indicating the changes; a few other minor tales of girls who never ended up being more than a fantasy or peck on the cheek; a considerable cache of letters from my first girlfriend Melissa; subversive correspondence from my stepmom who exited the family in 1983 but who wrote to me on the sly for some years before our early 1992 reunion; my early experiences and embarrassing writings at Mesa college...

But even more ink was given to how ridiculously bored I was, and how busy I was at work at Subway, and how I was often desperately lonely—enough to make a social life by going to work on my off hours!

The time I am speaking of is now approximately smack dab in the middle of my life. I graduated at 17 and started Subway and classes at Mesa a few months later, and turned 18 shortly after that. Now I am twice that age, nearly 36. One thing that I have always been aware of is how I spent roughly the last two years of high school as a pretty regular and committed churchgoing guy. I did a lot of things there. In fact, I did everything I could do there. It was my community. I wasn't really so connected to my peers; I was always more into adult conversations and concerns. (I went to study Martin Buber at an evening meeting when I was 16.) It was a good time on the whole. That is, until years later when I began to see them too as a family riddled with their own dysfunctions. Anyhow, let me not spoil what was perhaps a lifesaver on a number of occasions. At that time, ignorance was bliss. I felt cared for there, and put a lot of time into it for a while.

When I got the job at Subway, I was put on the closing shift, a shift that got me out of work at nearly one in the morning. I worked alone past 10 pm. My school schedule could accommodate that; class started at noon. But church started for me at 9 am, so for at least the first two months or so while the newly opened store got its bearings, it was closing at midnight. Eventually it changed to 11 pm and provided a partner, and things went better. But by then I had already made the critical decision: something in my schedule had to give, and the choice I made was one of economic benefit over community. I basically sent myself into exile from my community, for want of the sort of independence that having a first job seems to offer.

The journals for those eight months of Subway—and several months that followed—reflect an honest attempt to play by the rules and do a good job. If ever I played the part of the company man, this was it. I was the more senior of the closers after just two months. I really didn't know how to handle the task of delegating responsibility, even though I knew all the jobs well enough. I really put myself into it. Eventually, I took a day shift and got a bit closer to my boss, a delightfully sarcastic and funny guy named Chuck. I was third place after him and the manager Steve. In some ways, Chuck began to like me more than Steve and his complacency. But Chuck had plans to offload the store only about eight months after he opened it. I was apprehensive whether my hard work would amount to anything since new owners meant that I'd probably be reduced in rank or let go. Long story short, it didn't do me any good at all. In fact, it was really just rejected by the new owners, and sent me into a whole mess of drama that terminated in a court restraining order against me! Anyhow, I had internalized the values of the marketplace, and was living that story.

Meanwhile, I was desperately disconnected when away from work. I had Matt Zuniga as a new "friend" but he was way too weird for me. But we shared my drums when we went and did our outside noisemaking and from that effort to kill time came all my interest in recording music and making tapes and later CD's. My best friend from high school, Stephan, was an exchange student who had since gone back to Germany. I had gone to Europe that summer of 1991, and toiled mightily at Subway solely to pay for another trip to Steve's house in 1992, to more properly close up our in-person friendship before who knows what would take over as "real life." Matt, by comparison, was no one. (Of course I feel differently now, but he was quite a character then, unlike any I had known.)

Oh, what misery it all consisted of.

In my journals I noticed scarcely a mention of church. That's because I essentially dropped out as much as I had been in for a couple years. I don't suppose it actually had to be that way. I just had no sense of balance. After Subway began closing earlier in the evening, I guess there was no actual reason for not being able to go to church on Sunday mornings, or to do other activities. But for whatever reason, I stayed away, somehow feeling that this new world of work and school was more important. But wow! All the journals were quite miserable. Maybe it would have been better to stick around at church, to retain that community life. What I didn't know then was that my time off would last for about ten years, until I was 28. This Subway experience was just the beginning of a long dark period.

Fast forward to 2005 when I was developing enough of a sense of self to take a stand when employers threw me shifts that would intrude upon my life. Essentially, my firing from AV Concepts was based on my sticking to my guns for my own good. (They didn't seem to mind the request for Sunday off, but they chafed at my retention of my weeknights off so I could go to therapy to get my life in order after that disastrous summer.) That was one step in redeeming my 1991 decision to wander from church. And, early last year when I got my current job, I was in a dreadful way when it looked like I'd have no control over the hours I work because it seemed that they could get me just about any time from 4 am till 8 pm, seven days a week except for three Sundays I negotiated to have off each month. I did the math of the total hours they could draw from in a month and just about went into shock at how much of my life could be tapped for commercial work. This was quite upsetting since in 2006 after AVC, I was quite into learning about sabbath economics, and one central idea is that work should have limitations put around it so it doesn't take a person over. And that is just what it seemed might happen. Over several months, I played company man enough to negotiate a fixed schedule that has at least fluctuated within reason, and not by shocking daily jumps of five hours forward or back. I've been able to have Sundays off since September, and it has been good.

Good because I have the feeling of returning now that there is a niche of time carved for this purpose. Strictly speaking it is not a return to my old church life because that is history to me now. The return to feeling part of a community is running strong in me now. Having the time to take part helps, but having the will to do so is more satisfying. I mean, at any point in the dark years of exile, I could have chosen to drop by at church at least sometimes. I didn't. Somehow, I am taking back the decision to let the Market inform my value system. In 1991, it was an innocent and curious youthful enough move to see what another world is like. I didn't realize my age would nearly double before I found it in me to take my place in the body of Christ, with the conviction that that was a better choice to make. Some people, I suppose, never come back. And I suppose some don't get as far away as I feel I did.

I don't suppose people think that having a "real" job is an experience of exile. Much of the time it is deemed the only socially responsible thing to do, and the wise person makes all the time for what work requires. But consider the compromises that often accompany commercial work. And consider how things are torn asunder now in the "job market." The facade of the Market-as-deity is crumbling now. Maybe the crumbling of that—expressed by increasing layoffs in most sectors—will call people out of exile. Maybe it will call them out or even force them out of the individualistic pursuits of material gain over whatever community or family life they had to leave behind to accomplish that. What, but for the collapse of an economic system that is constructed on division of labor and division of relations, could be better? It sort of strikes dead the notion of "what's good for the corporation is good for America." Little by little, news reports and other anecdotes are indicating a shift away from the predominant story of the Market-god (upheld as it were by our sacrifices to it, in the form of our working hours and consumption that follows—giving back in money what we did not give in labor), and toward the types of community solidarity and togetherness that has been brushed aside, but that is the only thing that will save us and bring us back home from exile.

The urban life is a disconnected life based on consumption more than generation, a proposition which is inherently unsustainable. Our dilemma is a new one mainly because of our flight from the land to the city. It is no surprise we find so much alienation if we are fundamentally detached from the basis for our lives. The urban existence is literally an uprooting from the soil, from the ground people have traditionally been tied to, and where—for generations at a stretch—networks of relations have been constructed out of necessity. Some might argue that we have to embrace the new reality of urbanization and get on with it. But that is the way of death. We don't have that luxury. Just because we have a brave new world doesn't mean it's not foolish new world. No less a figure than Jesus spoke about the deadly trends in this type of lifestyle: his good news, his gospel, was that there is a life of vibrancy for those who reject such things as the world has created. I don't say this to be a Luddite-traditionalist, but the path of higher technology and more urbanization is the way of death so far, and we don't have time to mess it up anymore. You might think of it as "old is the new new." The ancient wisdom had it as right as we need it to be today. There seems to be a reawakening to this, and manifestations of it are turning up in various community efforts—in small scale agriculture, church community, arts, even online where things like Wikipedia restore the notion of the commons, where the world is seen as a place to be shared because of our common lot. It is a rejection of much of the centralized power and top-down order imposed by political and corporate structures of our time. People may think our present world situation is better off religion-free, but as I think theologian John Cobb would say, this is a profoundly religious matter. What we need is to get rid of the bad religion and bad myths that will destroy us if we live by them. Maybe what we need is the "religionless Christianity" that Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of.

The story of exile from Eden is a story of being separated from that which gives eternal (wholeness of) life, and it seems that it tells a story that narrates the move from decentralized roaming peoples who had what they needed for the taking from the common pot, into the world of cities and their inherent structure based on hierarchy, classification and division, not to mention scarcity from the not-natural notion of private ownership. Sure, for a while we've dabbled in our human knowledge and our economic orgies that glorify individual pursuits, but all that has been exile for us. Notice if you will that that system isn't doing too well now! The story of Jesus, by contrast, is the story of reinstatement to our whole humanity; by again living the life undivided from God and the divine plenty. Jesus didn't speak in terms of the modern corporate world, or of Adam Smith's economic theories. He spoke to us in terms of nature and its indiscriminate providence. No wonder we can't find our way. We've declared war on nature, and by doing so, we've declared war on ourselves. So a return from exile is needed. Repentance. Metanoia.

I've seen my little part in it in my microcosmic version of that struggle, and have decided to turn toward what promises the life I left behind for a decade and more. I feel like I got part of myself back when I got happened into community again—even though it is really not the same bunch as before. We are, after all, relational beings who gain our identity from our relations to others. Little surprise then that for a decade there, I really didn't know who in the world I was because I was cut out of so many life-giving connections. The last few weeks have had a remarkable feeling that I am coming home.

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