Scripture reading for today:

Isaiah 42:10-18, Psalm 80:1-7, Hebrews 10:32-39

Perils and Possibilities

The margins are both a perilous and a creative place to live. Recently one of my students from the seminary where I teach shared with me how a couple of his friends who have been raised in the church and have professed and lived out Christian faith are in the process of leaving the church, and perhaps even the faith. My student shared with me how there were multiple reasons for this, but part of it is just the challenge of maintaining Christian faith in a time when it is not only less accepted as “the” religion of the culture, but also when it is even seen as a hindrance to cultural harmony. In other words, as Christianity becomes an increasing minority view it becomes more difficult to hold to the faith against the powerful, hegemonic forces of post-Christian culture. This is the peril of living on the margins and it is nothing new.

All marginalized people struggle to maintain their identity. This is true for new immigrants in any country where they are the vast minority. Especially for those of the second and third generation when it is much easier to identify with the host culture and adapt to their ideals and customs rather than remain steadfast to one’s culture of origin. For people of faith, it is no different. Ancient Israel was conquered by the Babylonians in 587 BCE and many of its leading citizens were exiled to Babylon. For some, it made sense to abandon Hebrew faith traditions and accept Babylonian ones as a way to get along in this new, marginalized space that they found themselves in. For early Christians, maintaining their faith was a challenge in light of powerful Roman ideologies and the physical persecution that was sometimes meted out on those who dared to proclaim Jesus as Lord when it was understood that Caesar was the real Lord. For some early Christians, this was too much, life on the margins was too hard and thus it was just easier to return to the mainstream.

Today we are all aware of people who, like my student’s friends, find it hard to maintain their faith when the prevailing wisdom of the culture tells them it is antiquated and intolerant. They don’t want to live on the margins, so they move to a different space, leaving their Christian faith behind in the process.

However, the margins are also places of creativity and innovation. It was while in exile that Israel began to form the collection of books that would become our Old Testament. At its core, this was the work of identity formation as the people decided what it meant for them to live as God’s people in exile among a nation that had little time or interest in them or their faith. The early church did the same work of identity formation and also figured out how to engage in its missional calling to make disciples while living in a context where it was a puny minority, declaring a faith that was largely unknown at the time. It was out of a place of being marginalized within the church itself that some took up the cause of what we now call the Protestant Reformation and changed, not just the makeup of Christianity but the Western world as a whole. Living on the margins calls people to define themselves, who they are, what they believe, why they believe it and how they will live as part of a society that may not always be a welcoming host. This takes creativity, it takes innovation and it takes work, but it is filled with generative potential.

The writer of the New Testament letter to the Hebrews addressed the marginalized situation that the church found itself in during the first century. The letter as a whole deals with the topic of those who have fallen away from the faith and speaks directly to those who are feeling tempted to fall away. In chapter ten the writer draws from the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk as a way to remind the reader what is at stake,

My righteous ones will live by faith,
And if they shrink back,
I will not be pleased with them. (v.38)

It is a life of faith we are called to, no matter the circumstances, and God, according to the Old Testament prophet and the New Testament writer is not pleased when we “shrink back” from our commitment to him. This is probably a good thing to be reminded of from time to time. We need to recall that the life of faith is serious business. Staying faithful to God and his purposes in this world are his will for all humanity and it grieves him when we give up. However, the writer moves from this admonishment to a word of encouragement in the next verse.

But we are not those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved. (v.39)

May that be true of us as we wait on the margins. May we be those, who like many of our ancestors in the faith, are not overwhelmed by the challenges of being on the margins, but instead are those who don’t shrink back, and rise to the challenge of engaging in the generative work that the margins call us to. It may well be that this is a time for the Canadian church to reimagine itself and the faith that it holds to. This will call for the work of creative theological reflection so that we can express our faith intelligently and winsomely. It is the work of finding new ways of living our faith in this context so that it engages our culture authentically and effectively. Ultimately it is the work of shaping Christian identity so that God’s kingdom may continue to come into this world for the blessing of many. The expressions of that Kingdom may come in small, fragile ways because they emanate, not from centers of power but from somewhere out here, on the margins. So while we wait, we work, and God will come.

The expressions of Christ's Kingdom may come in small, fragile ways because they emanate, not from centers of power but from somewhere out here, on the margins. Click To Tweet

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photo credit: Fabrizio Verrecchia