February 13: Exile – When can we return?

Scripture Reading (CEB) Daniel 4:1-14, 18, 29-33

1 King Nebuchadnezzar’s message to all the peoples, nations, and languages inhabiting the entire earth: “I wish you much peace. I’m delighted to share the signs and miracles that the Most High God has worked in my life. God’s signs are superb! God’s miracles so powerful! God’s kingdom is everlasting.  God’s rule is for all time.   “While I, Nebuchadnezzar, was safe in my house, content in my palace, I had a terrifying dream. My thoughts while I was lying in bed and the vision in my mind overwhelmed me. I ordered all Babylon’s sages to come before me, so they might tell me the dream’s meaning. So the dream interpreters, enchanters, Chaldeans, and diviners came. I told them the dream, but they couldn’t interpret it for me. Daniel, who is called Belteshazzar after the name of my god, was the last to come before me. In him is the breath of the holy gods! I told Daniel the dream: “Belteshazzar, chief of the dream interpreters, I know the breath of the holy gods is in you, and no mystery is too difficult for you. Tell me the meaning of the visions I had in my dream. 10 In my mind, as I lay in bed, I saw a vision: At the center of the earth was a towering tree.  11The tree grew in size and strength; it was as high as the sky; it could be seen from every corner of the earth. 12 it had enough food for everyone. Wild animals took shade under it; birds nested in its branches. All living things lived off that tree. 13 “In my mind, as I lay in bed, I saw another vision: A holy watcher came down from heaven. 14 He proclaimed loudly: ‘Cut down the tree and shear off its branches! Strip its leaves and scatter its fruit! The creatures should flee from its shelter; the birds should take flight from its branches… 18 “This is the dream that I, King Nebuchadnezzar, had. So now Belteshazzar, tell me the meaning because all the sages in my kingdom were unable to interpret it for me. But you are able to do it because the breath of the holy gods is in you…” 29 Twelve months later, he was walking on the roof of the royal palace in Babylon. 30 The king declared, “Isn’t this Babylon, the magnificent city that I built as the royal house by my own mighty strength and for my own majestic glory?”  31 These words hadn’t even left the king’s mouth when a voice came from heaven: “You, King Nebuchadnezzar, are now informed: Kingship is taken away from you. 32 You will be driven away from other humans and will live with the wild animals. You will eat grass like cattle, and seven periods of time will pass over you until you acknowledge that the Most High dominates human kingship, giving it to anyone he wants.”  33 Nebuchadnezzar’s sentence was immediately carried out. He was driven away from other humans and ate grass like cattle. Dew from heaven washed his body until he grew hair like eagles’ feathers and claws like a bird.

When can we return?

The where, how, who, and whys of exile speak to those times in our lives when we are caught up in situations we have little control over.  Losing those we love, losing our health, or jobs, or even faith, can be defeating and destructive.  And as hard as it is, these times require us to not just sink into despair.  That may be all we want to do.  Sometimes that’s all we feel we can do, as we become insular and self-protective for fear of the feelings of loss and grief that wash over us. Those times when we’re afraid of losing more or losing our very selves…

Because it happens: I’ve been present with people whose partner dies after fifty years together, who reflected on how they’ve buried a part of themselves.  In his journal entry from Thursday, February 14, Teddy Roosevelt reflected on the death of his wife (who died in childbirth) and his mother (who died of Typhoid) – both on that same day.  He wrote “The light has gone out of my life.”  The darkness of Roosevelt’s grief was so profound that he wasn’t able to raise the daughter[1] born at the same time of his wife’s dying.  Giving in to our grief is maybe all that we feel we can do, but the Israelites discovered another way the honoured both life and death.  While despairing only made their situation worse, and doubting God was understandable, it was also self-defeating.  Instead, the suffering of the Israelites gave them a particular understanding they didn’t have before, allowing them to rediscover meaning and purpose.  They realized that God was calling them to alleviate the suffering of others, and in doing so, it allowed them to regain a sense of self, a sense of community amidst division.

The most recent divisiveness in our country (and spreading around the world) catches me wanting to go back to March 2020.  There was such clarity of purpose: universal belief in the lockdown as we meticulously followed those arrows in grocery stores like breadcrumbs to keep us safe, we made space for our seniors to shop alone in stores, wore masks because there were so many uncertainties that we believed we were all in it together.  I miss those days.  Yet some would say we overreacted, or are still overreacting.  Some want to blame the restrictions as causing division[2] rather than the human beings who like my five year old, throw a temper tantrum when they don’t get their own way. 

Jimmy Carr, a shock comedian out of the U.K., released a special recently that began with one of the best jokes about covid…he said: “Do you think we overreacted to COVID-19?” Crowd: “YES!” Jimmy Carr: “Yeah, a lot of the survivors think so…” 

What a privileged place we find ourselves to be able to protest in Ottawa, to go grocery shopping without masks, to complain that our church is still not open…all that privilege to not be in a place of real pandemic like we were anticipating two years ago with field hospitals and refrigerated trucks to store bodies.  I remember those warning photos out of Italy and New York City imagining a time when we too would be overcome with loss and grief.  “Do you think we overreacted to COVID-19?” …“Yeah, a lot of the survivors think so…”  (Jimmy Carr actually goes on from this joke:) “Yeah a lot of survivors think we overreacted but I think if you could do a survey of the dead…they would say…we coulda done more.”

Could we have?  Last year in our region, we managed to get almost 90% of people vaccinated.  (Even truckers are something like 90% vaccinated.)  But since then, something like only 50% of children have received the shot, and about the same percentage of adults have the booster.  Could we have done more, when we’re all just tired, wanting it over and done with?  We find ourselves, just like the Israelites, asking the question, where do we go from here – when do we get to return?  When do we go back to normal? 

For me it comes down to this dream of King Nebuchadnezzar.  We haven’t spoken of him for a couple of weeks, but like the other kings during the exile, they’re in the background of this whole exile story as “the captor,” but reading the Book of Daniel, we experience another side of this ruler.  In Chapter 4 we don’t find a king flexing his power by knowing all or tooting his own horn of self-importance.  Instead, he was aware of all he didn’t know[3] – actively seeking out advisors like Daniel (whom he called Belteshazzar) to help him find a way forward.  The prophet Daniel fulfilled a role much like Joseph in Egypt (from the book of Genesis), helping foreign leaders understand their dreams and visions for what came next. 

In Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, there was this tree. This tree appears twice, but in both, it is at the centre of all things, the centre of earth. 

The first time Nebuchadnezzar sees the tree, it is large and power – growing to the heavens, strong and deliberate.  It had enough food for everyone.  It offered protection.  All living things lived off that tree.  

In his dream state, Nebuchadnezzar rolled over, and the dream faded out and faded back in.

The tree that stood tall was now a stump, branches cut, leaves long gone and nothing survived.  Nothing thrived.  No protection was offered.  No good could be seen.

The morning came and Nebuchadnezzar couldn’t shake the image.  He knew that he was the tree – thriving and suffering – and he needed Daniel.  Daniel confirms this:

22 Your Majesty, you are that tree! You have become great and strong; your greatness has grown until it reaches the sky, and your dominion extends to distant parts of the earth…  25 You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals… 26 your kingdom will be restored to you when you acknowledge that Heaven rules… 27 Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue.”

Your kingdom will be restored…when you renounce your sins by doing what is right.  Daniel doesn’t say what the king wants to hear – that his kingdom will be restored when enough time has passed, or when the king just wanted it over and done with.  We can only return when we renounce our sins. 

So what are our sins that we need to renounce, before we can return?

(I think our greatest sin is that…) We went from believing we needed a “polite” society – actively avoiding talking about politics and religion – to now, that’s all we talk about.  Our greatest sin was avoiding those difficult conversations, because over these last two years, that’s all we’ve had to talk about.  We’ve divided our families and friends over stands taken on vaccination, masks – cloth or n95, truckers, or whatever the news story of the day is.  I’m not wanting to go back to the fake politeness of before, because clearly, we need to own that we’re not as united as we thought we were. There’s work to be done.  The dissenting minority are getting louder.  The divisions between us are growing deeper.  People on both sides are complaining that they’re not being heard.  And we’re tearing ourselves apart. 

We should have dealt with these differences with all the time we had in the past, had those tough conversations and disagreed in love, and come closer to one another.  But if the best time was then, then the second best time is right now. We must see that there is both a healthy tree, and a stump, before us.  There’s life and death before us.  Seeing both sides helps us realize that there is suffering everywhere.  Standing in judgement of one another only seeks to give into our base human instincts to protect ourselves first – but it was Margaret Mead, famed anthropologist who said that the

evidence of the earliest true civilization was a healed femur, a leg bone… She explained that such healings were never found in the remains of competitive, savage societies. There, clues of violence abounded: temples pierced by arrows, skulls crushed by clubs. But the healed femur showed that someone must have cared for the injured person—hunted on his behalf, brought him food, and served him at personal sacrifice.[4]

Do we believe that we’re closer to the competitive, savage society, or the one that served the broken at the risk of a personal sacrifice?  Can we disagree in love and still hold community together? 

Maybe the better question is, which society would you rather be a part of – the one that recognizes that it had enough food for everyone,[5] where all living things lived and thrived, or the one that was out for themselves, stripping the tree for their own well-being.  For the possibility of both are alive and well at this time.  Both dreams are fighting for interpretation.  Both dreams are a possibility even now.  For    

God wills our liberation, our exodus from Egypt.

God wills our reconciliation, our return from exile.

God wills our enlightenment, our seeing.

God wills our forgiveness, our release from sin and guilt.

God wills that we see ourselves as God’s beloved.

God wills our resurrection, our passage from death to life.

God wills for us food and drink that satisfy our hunger and thirst.

God wills, comprehensively, our well-being — (and) not just my well-being as an individual
but the well-being of all of us and of the whole of creation
.

(“The God We Never Knew” Marcus Borg)

And we can return, when we will the same thing for all people. 
May it be so.


[1] https://vintagenewsdaily.com/the-light-has-gone-out-of-my-life-teddy-roosevelts-diary-entry-on-the-day-both-his-wife-and-mother-died-1884/

[2] https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2022/02/08/alberta-to-ends-its-vaccine-passport-system-begin-loosening-restrictions-for-children.html?li_source=LI&li_medium=thestar_canada

[3] https://www.britannica.com/science/Dunning-Kruger-effect

[4] Brand, Paul and Yancey, Philip, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made: A Surgeon Looks at the Human and Spiritual Body quoting Margaret Meade from https://quoteinvestigator.com/2021/07/25/femur/

[5] https://foodfirst.org/publication/we-already-grow-enough-food-for-10-billion-people-and-still-cant-end-hunger/

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