to all the exiles . . . Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
When I was growing up, I lived in a lot of different houses. Different houses and different configurations of family — parents and step parents, grandparents and step-grandparents, etc., etc. When I was old enough and when I was with a particular configuration of my family I went on a short trip with my grandparents.
This was not necessarily good news because, usually, when we travelled, something was happening at home that would effect me or where I would next live. But this time, some of my family had gathered together to redo my bedroom, to make it a permanent place.
There was fresh paint and a new bed — a waterbed. And my grandfather had taken an old door knocker with a lion’s face, removed the knocker and attached this lion’s head to the headboard. It was a small token, a small sign, a wink from him of royalty. There was a desk to do homework, a bookcase and the item that caused a great deal of conversation, a television — right there in my bedroom. Some felt it was a great idea; others were concerned. But the gem of it all, the item that would come to mean the most to me, was this obscure, ugly clock radio. This may seem like the most practical of items, but it would end up saving my life.
I would stay up late into the night, sometimes all night, listening to music. Not just on one station but finding a song and listening through the end, then sliding the dial down until the next thing that captured my interest. I kept tuning the antenna to listen for any good things floating on the air.
Antennas sometimes act differently in one direction than another, pick up different things. So I would reach the end of the dial’s run and I would fine tune the knob in the other direction finding new, different voices. That way, in the dark, I learned to listen.
I discovered so much on the radio, especially on the stations that were “in between” the larger local stations. I would hear story after story, song after song. I would listen so deeply, crying at the blues, laughing at the comedians, dreaming with the story tellers. And as my fingers got good at drawing in stations, I got good at listening between the pops of static.
This wasn’t a shortwave radio or anything capable of picking up those farther reaching signals, but one night the wind must have shifted and the stars must have been clearer. Around 93.9, just a little to the right, a new voice drifted in.
Just as the local station faded, there was an edge to the sound that signaled there was something else in the air. My fingertips were alert and I dialed back just a bit. And then, clear as a morning radio show, weary with life, an old man was talking about the blues. Not playing them but describing them. I was captured by his voice and his story.
It turned out to be a station in Chicago, interviewing local artists. Chicago! Imagine that. I didn’t have to imagine it. Chicago was in my room that night.
For what seemed like all night, the station came in. I was lying in my bed with the clock radio on my chest and my fingers on the tuner. When the signal would fade, my fingertips would adjust and fight for it to stay.
You know your fingerprint and the lines and scrolls that make it your own? The width of one of those lines at the tip of your finger were all it would take to make the adjustments that I needed.
My fingers fought for those stories that night. I was about 13, listening to this broken voice talk about how music had saved his life in prison. I thought about the bedrooms that hadn’t really been mine before. And then he began to sing and we were both free. A few minutes later, the wind shifted and Chicago was gone. I tuned the radio to a classical station and went to sleep.
A letter to the exiles. It is a bit difficult for us, I think, when we hear Jeremiah’s beautiful words… build houses and live in them; plant gardens; multiply in that city. It is a bit difficult for us to see that it is beauty wrapped around pain. It is poetry grounded in sorrow.
A letter to the exiles, these people in captivity, hearing that they shouldn’t come back. That there will be no quick resolution. That they should stay there. That the way to let hope in is to dig in, to grow a life in the soils of Babylon. It’s a little bit like the blues: strange words in a sweet song.
It’s hard for us to admit that we are in exile. In our lives, how many of us have looked around and wondered just how we got HERE? Sometimes it’s cause for celebration. Other times, we try to hold on to what we imagine life was like before, try to get back any way we can. Except we can’t really talk about it. We don’t have the words.
This American Life is a radio show that is still one of my favorite podcasts. The show focuses on stories that are linked by a theme. The latest episode [#597 September 23, 2016] is particularly moving and challenging and I’ll just say that if you haven’t listened, you should.
In the introduction, there is a brief story about the tense moments surrounding the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. The United States is seconds from a nuclear war. NORAD and Strategic Air Command are locked down, expecting a missile strike. The personnel in the mountain bunker are allowed to call home for what presumably will be the last time. Except they aren’t allowed to mention why they are calling.
Can you imagine — saying goodbye without any context? They can’t say anything. So these phone conversations about the most ordinary things . . . scraped knees, missed appointments, dinner menus . . . are soaked in the extraordinary and unspoken love of someone saying goodbye.
We can’t always talk about exile. We don’t have the words. We don’t want to have the words. If we name the choices or the pain that brought us here we might be admitting we aren’t as perfect as we hoped. Or that putting it into our vocabulary will make it permanent and real. And yet, exile is rarely short term.
Remember the Israelites? They had experienced exile before. In the wilderness, the desert . . . you know, Moses, the 10 Commandments, and wandering for 40 years? It took 40 years of camping to move from a generation who said “Why don’t you take us back to Egypt” to a generation that said “When will we see the promised land?” Guess which one got to the promised land?
Multiply in that city. Seek its welfare, the prophet says. Life seems to go on. Every time. I don’t mean this to be some pie in the sky “Bloom where you’re planted” speech, where I encourage you to do your best when life is tough. But when will we realize that life does continue? What does it take for us to remember the prayer at our baptism that if we paraphrase it says that we might live in the power of the God who resurrects, the who brings life? That we might live in the power of the God who resurrects.
I get so mad with people who say “Well, God must have a purpose.” Yep, God must have a purpose for that utterly horrible thing that God just made for you. I’m sorry, but that’s not quite right. You see, God does have a purpose. God calls out life, continually, not out of the situation, not out of the surroundings. God calls life out of YOU. You are the created child of God. You are the antidote to exile. I don’t know if God placed you where you are. But I know God made you. I know God wants to resurrect you wherever you are. And I know God made you to be a source of love and hope in the world. In a broken world, WE are broken and mended images of God’s hope and love.
Listening to music in the dark was more than just procrastinating sleep. The music allowed me to muffle the violence in other areas of my life. It allowed me to name what seemed familiar in other people’s stories, and the brokenness in my own life that led me to find a way out of my story and hope for another chapter. Listening between the lines became a skill that taught me about myself, but that showed me I was broken, too. And loved. And fixable.
I had a place where I could let the world in, where I could welcome others with gratitude and listen between the lines to the stories we all tell. I could listen to my own story in music and words. I had made a home in my exile. And as resurrection came on slowly, I could figure out a way that my story could be a home for others.
As Jeremiah might have put it, it is in the truth of our story that we are being made whole, it is in the places of our exile that we will discover resurrection.
The Rev. Alan Cowart
October 9, 2016