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The Sacred Art of Departing

“You know, in Germany there are hordes of young Syrian men raping German women.” The statement hovered in the air menacingly. I suspected that I was in for an interesting encounter as I watched him stride determinedly toward me after I gave a presentation on the Syrian refugee crisis at a local church recently. His jaw was set and his brow was furrowed. I was not expecting congratulations or affirmation for the work that I had spent the last half hour or so describing, but I wasn’t expecting anything quite this stark either. It wasn’t a question or even a potential opening to a conversation. It was a crude challenge thrown down. Or a dare. Or a provocation. You have all your nice words about Jesus and love and welcoming the stranger… Well, what do you say about this?!

Not much, as it turned out. I inquired about his sources (he wasn’t sure—he had “read it somewhere”). I assumed he was talking about recent events in Cologne, so I tried to explain a bit about the differences between the European and Canadian situations, talked about screening processes, and about some of the differences in demographics here in Canada. There was much more that I could should have said. But I didn’t. I was tired and not really looking for a battle. He mumbled something about needing to go and that was the last I saw of him.

A few years ago, I attended a series of lectures at Regent College by the famous OT scholar Walter Brueggemann. In speaking about the people of Israel’s dramatic exodus from Egypt and the long, complex story that followed, Brueggemann said this:

The life of faith is, in many ways, about “learning the sacred art of departing.” It is about learning how to leave the dominant narratives of our culture.

This phrase has stuck with me ever since as a powerful description of what the life of faith is: The sacred art of departing. 

For Israel, “the sacred art of departing” meant leaving the story of Egypt—a story of oppression and injustice and slavery and dehumanizing conditions and idolatry—and following God into the future. It meant learning how to live according to a new story—learning how to trust and live in community, how to resist the lure of idolatry in all its forms, how to worship, what it meant to be a “blessing to the nations.”

Of course, this sacred departing didn’t always go very well. Israel struggled and sinned and longed for the imagined security and relative comfort of Egypt. They had short memories, as so many of us do, when God places us in challenging circumstances. They chafed under their leaders and complained against God. They constantly wandered off after other gods. They were forced to wander in the desert for forty years and, many years later when they were in the land, they suffered exile at the hands of a variety of foreign empires. Israel struggled with the sacred art of departing—they could never fully leave or resist the temptations of other stories, other homes.

I wonder often about the dominant narratives that require our departure today. There are many, no doubt, ranging from the global to the personal. But it seems to me that the narrative of fearful, suspicious, divisive wall-building/maintaining that gets so much play these days ought to be at or near the top of the list. Particularly for those of us who claim to follow Jesus of Nazareth, the one who made an uncomfortable habit of shamelessly crossing boundaries, the one whose life and teaching and death and resurrection liberated us from cherished categories of us/them, clean/unclean, insider/outsider.  The one who stubbornly rehearsed the refrain, Do not be afraid.

The sacred art of departing from tempting and easy narratives of fear involves willfully choosing to look and listen differently. It is to choose to be open to more hopeful narratives. It is to expect to find ourselves in different stories when we live as Jesus taught us to: generously, peaceably, selflessly. With arms open—even if tremulously—rather than folded in determined distrust. It is to decide in advance that some stories are only good for leaving.

So, maybe I should have tried to tell a different story to the man with the determined stride and the furrowed brow. Maybe I should have talked about the things that God drops you in the middle of when you try, however fitfully and inconsistently, to practice the sacred art of departing.  Maybe I should have said something like, Hmm, well, can I tell you what I have seen here in our community as we have tried to open our arms and our doors? I have seen Muslims and Christians and people of no professed faith coming together. I have seen them sharing food and sharing their lives. I have seen them splashing in swimming pools and shopping together. I have seen Muslim Syrians welcoming Christian Syrians at the airport and the favour being gratefully returned. I have seen kitchens full of food with hordes of children running around laughing with each other. I have seen people sitting around tables in giggling confusion as a flurry of Arabic and English criss-crosses mid-air. I have seen lots and lots of smiling. I have seen friendships forming. I have seen that simple things like kindness and curiosity and openness can go a very long way. I have seen the goodness of God. 

I don’t know what the man would have said if I had shared some of this. Perhaps he would still have gone off mumbling. But at the very least, I might have given him something else to think about the next time he “reads something somewhere.”

I am not naïve. I know that there are uninspiring, frightening narratives out there. I know that the decision to be open is not always met with wonderful Facebook-able vignettes and stories that sound good in a blog post. I know that love is not always reciprocated and that there will never be an absence of ugly stories for those looking for evidence to support the privileging of fear and the fortification of boundaries. There’s a reason that dominant narratives are, well, dominant.

But it seems to me that if I am going to do anything more than pay lip service to following the Man from Galilee, I have to at least be open to encountering and participating in better stories. I have to at least be open to leaving some narratives behind and walking toward others because I am convinced that God’s future has the right to make demands on our present. I have to trust that love and kindness and generosity and taking the risks that come with crossing boundaries are worth the effort because they go along with the story that God is guiding the world towards.

And I have to keep on being open and trusting and fearfully taking steps away from fear, even when this keeping on isn’t rewarded.  Even when these efforts are disregarded or abused or ignored.  I have to do this because of my deep conviction that if our departures are in the direction of Jesus and his way in the world, they will always be a sacred and desperately necessary art.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Christoph Koebel (CA) #

    Hi Ryan,

    I heard the same stories. We do not know all the details. I read a story of another kind from Switzerland. It was posted on a blog (in German). A young single lady (mid-30s) hosted some refugees. It turned out she took two younger guys in her apartment. I believe that lady was not a Christian. I would not recommend such a situation. But the story unfolded in a very positive way. The dishwasher was silent. The two guys did the dishes and the cooking and went out for German classes while the host was at her job. No sexual advances by these two guys happened. All these images we have about these wild Muslim guys was NOT the case. We need to hear positive stories as well. I can only encourage you as your and other churches host refugees.

    Blessings

    Christoph

    February 22, 2016
    • Thank you, Christoph. It’s important to hear stories like the one, too.

      February 22, 2016
  2. Thank you Ryan. I really needed to read this today as I have been encountering some similar resistance to engaging the Syrian refugee crisis in our community. Thanks for your courage and willingness to work toward reconciliation.

    February 22, 2016
    • Thanks, Phil. It’s good to hear from you! I wish you all the best as you seek to model the way of Christ in the challenges of your context.

      February 22, 2016
  3. Ron #

    thank you Ryan for your insightful perspective.

    February 22, 2016
  4. Ros #

    Thoughtful post. Thank you.

    ‘The life of faith is, in many ways, about “learning the sacred art of departing.” It is about learning how to leave the dominant narratives of our culture…

    ‘For Israel, “the sacred art of departing” meant leaving the story of Egypt—a story of oppression and injustice and slavery and dehumanizing conditions…’

    It seems to me that this is profoundly relevant on both sides of the debate. In fact, in the light of the Cologne attacks, the mention of Egypt is eerily pertinent, since it appears to be where such attacks originated: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mass_sexual_assault_in_Egypt

    There is a very real need among such people for the NT message that ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for we are all made one in Christ.’ And, unfortunately, they are not going to hear or understand that message if we close our doors to them. That is the frightening reality that Christ calls us to. It’s not just about sharing the message with those who already understand it. It’s about sharing it – living it – with those who don’t.

    ‘I have seen people sitting around tables…’

    A wonderful picture of the kingdom as it should be! Yes! Share it – and keep sharing it! Therein lies our hope! It’s also a picture that I find extremely salient in the light of remarks by certain British politicians that ‘sitting down’ with terrorists is tantamount to treason. Who was at the last supper, I wonder? Any terrorists?

    ‘Oh, but that’s different…’

    Is it?

    February 23, 2016
    • There is a very real need among such people for the NT message that ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for we are all made one in Christ.’ And, unfortunately, they are not going to hear or understand that message if we close our doors to them. That is the frightening reality that Christ calls us to. It’s not just about sharing the message with those who already understand it. It’s about sharing it – living it – with those who don’t.

      Well said. Thank for this and for your kind affirmation.

      February 24, 2016
  5. Appreciate & value your insights & wisdom in how to deal with new issues that are before us today. Commentaries such as this identify & point us in a better direction.

    February 23, 2016
  6. Kevin K #

    Thanks for the post Ryan. I appreciated your take on Brueggeman’s phrase. It will stick with me.

    I was somewhat disappointed that the post was not about strategies for pastors on how to leave church foyers on Sundays to be home for lunch before 1:00PM. I suppose that will have to wait for another day…

    February 23, 2016
    • That’s “The Sacred Art of Departing: Part Two.” Coming soon… 🙂

      February 24, 2016
  7. Paul Johnston #

    It is an arrival to what is true and a departure from what is false.

    The truth about us is that we are sacred representations of the Lord our God, made manifest by the Holy Spirit in communion with Jesus Christ, each in our own unique way and experience.

    We do not belong to the world. We belong to the Lord and by extension of His Holy Spirit, to one another. If we belong to one another, how can we build walls? How can we fear? How can we mistrust? How can we deny need? How can we neglect?

    Any institution that does not recognize the reality of our common Spirit and mutual fraternity, is false; the devil in disguise.

    All of them false.

    Do not confuse the good intentions of those who are not of the Spirit, with the will of God. God’s will is never served by unbelief. If they do not profess Him, they are not from Him.

    Do not fear these people, let your efforts and your prayers work towards reconciling them with the truth. Work in common with them when those efforts are understood by you and your community to be fruits of the Spirit. Depart from them when they choose to work in opposition to what you know to be true. Depart but pray. Pray for conversion. Pray that they come to know the truth….though blind that they may see….when the Spirit allows for cooperation, cooperate.

    The ones we must stand up to and confront are the wolves within our midst. Those who profess faith only to distort and exploit it, for personal gain.

    Any person who willfully chooses to neglect the needs of others, while exhorting others to do the same and calls that response Godly, is an abomination.

    They are liars.

    They do not know God.

    February 25, 2016

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