Exiles, 20.6.11

“Pause for thought” on BBC Radio 2’s “Vanessa Feltz Show”

Imagine waking up this morning knowing that you could not return to your home this evening.  Some mornings it can be difficult enough simply wrenching ourselves out of bed and the comfort of home to get on with the day’s business, but to have to leave home unwillingly or unexpectedly is a deeply disturbing experience.  This week’s theme on ‘Pause for Thought’ is ‘Exiles’ and we will be reflecting on the importance of home – and what can happen if we are uprooted and suddenly find ourselves living in new and alien conditions.

For many people across the world today such unwanted home-leaving is an unpleasant and un-nerving reality.  It can be a result of natural disaster – such as the thousands affected by the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan; or human conflict – think of those caught up in the civil war in Libya; or economic collapse with no hope of a livelihood – for example those from some African countries desperately seeking a better way of life in Europe and making risky and often illegal journeys in search of a new life.  Here in the UK many are faced with a very uncertain financial situation which can mean having to move unwillingly from the place we call home.

When we face such upheavals in life the immediate issues are keeping body and soul together as we seek shelter and sustenance.  But as the experience of exile goes on it raises deep questions about our sense of identity, belonging and purpose in our lives.

Over two and a half thousand years ago the people of Israel suffered a catastrophic exile.  Their land was over-run by the mighty Babylonian army – the super-power of the day in the Middle East.  The capital city, Jerusalem, was sacked and the great Temple destroyed.  Large numbers were transported to Babylon.  There seemed to be little or no hope.  It led to a profound soul-searching – had God simply abandoned them?  The first verse of Psalm 137 captures something of the desperation of those in exile, ‘By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion’.

However, as time went on, this process of self-examination led to one of the most fertile and imaginative periods in Jewish history – with new and deeper understanding about life, about what really mattered, and about God.

Times of exile are profoundly difficult, but they can also lead to much deeper appreciation about what really matters in life.