“Our sense of who we are is very much determined by the place we are in and the people we are with. When that changes, violently and abruptly, who are we?”
The men’s small group I meet with every Saturday is currently studying the life and message of the prophet Jeremiah as presented in Eugene Peterson’s book Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best. This past week we read of Jeremiah’s letter to the Jewish exiles that were taken from their homeland of Judah to Babylon following the conquest of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. We were struck by the parallels to our church family and neighbors who lost their homes in the North Bay fires.
When we meet, our pattern is to take turns reading from the chapter aloud. Then we discuss the content and share about our own lives. Two men in our group lost their homes to the fires. One was present last week and when it was his turn, this is the section he read:
The essential meaning of exile is that we are where we don’t want to be. We are separated from home. We are not permitted to reside in the place where we comprehend and appreciate our surroundings. We are forced to be away from that which is most congenial to us. It is an experience of dislocation—everything is out of joint; nothing fits together. The thousand details that have been built up through the years that give a sense of at-homeness … are all gone. Life is ripped out of the familiar soil … and unceremoniously dropped into some unfamiliar spot on earth. The place of exile may boast a higher standard of living. It may be more pleasant in its weather. That doesn’t matter. It isn’t home.
When we finished reading the chapter, we circled back to ask our friend about the parallel of what he read was to his own experience of loss and change. He answered, “Yes. In fact, if you had asked me to read this prior to today (three weeks after the fire), I doubt I could.” Still feeling the effects of his experience of loss and dislocation, and trying to accept what it all means, he said, “It was more than just material goods … we lost family treasures and mementos that held valued memories of our lives.”
A disaster that takes away our home is more than a loss of our possessions and belongings. It is a loss of orientation, direction, and our sense of being where we belong. It strips away the familiar and lands us in a place that is new and unfamiliar. Like Judah’s exiles, we may reject these new surroundings and wish we could return to the way things were. Or we might allow the strangeness of this displacement to open us up to a new reality. Rather than rely on the predictability of a given day and our usual routines and patterns, we may become aware that each day is distinct with its particular challenges and opportunities. Rather than depend on our own self-reliance and self-sufficiency, we might become more dependent on God.
In this new place, this new setting, we might just find ourselves where God is.