We're here, but spirits often are in exile


By Lamar Massingill
Guest Columnist

Editor's Note: First in a series 

Sam Keen wrote an essay in the early 1970s called “Exile and Homecoming.” The issue he was grappling with is an important one, and I could put it in the form of a question: How does one live gracefully in time — amid the realities of past, present and future?

This is no easy thing to learn, and I think it is at the bottom of our present-day confusion. It seems to me that the church during these days is not very comfortable in its own skin, especially regarding how it relates to these three forms of time. That is sad, because past, present and future are at the very heart of our common situation. If we can’t learn the value of each, then we are indeed in trouble.

Keen begins with the image of exile and goes on to say that we humans can choose to be exiles in either of two ways. The first is “nostalgia.” The word itself is a derivative of the Greek phrase meaning, “to return home.”

This obviously refers to a desire to move back in time to some sort of illusive “golden age.” We sometimes refer to such an era as “the good ole days” when we thought times were better; when the institutional church was the center of the social order and things were as we believed they should be. This eventuates in being an exile from the present by running toward the past.

The other kind of exile takes the form of “revolution,” which is as absolute a feeling about the future as nostalgia is about the past. It is born of the anxiety of emptiness, the worry that there won’t be enough for the future and that God is not enough for the present or the future. It is a strange need we feel to “help God along.”

Here is the desire to change everything into something different by tearing down what is and starting all over again via programs, changes to the system and tools for ascertaining where we are, hoping to create a sort of “new Utopia.” The problem with this response is that no program or system or tool of discernment ever created anything new. Only life can change life. Nothing else possesses that power.

The stance of exile is very common to the human condition. I think these two things are at the heart of the spiritual turbulence of our day. If you look closely at this dissonance, you will find common features. One is that there are not many people who really care about the present. Another feature of this turbulence is that both nostalgia and revolution are born of emptiness and fear rather than the belief that God is Enough.

One group, therefore, is trying to move backward, while the other attempts to flee forward, like folks in a crowded theater in which someone yells “fire” and people run for both the front and back doors, colliding with each other in their efforts to escape the same thing.

These two groups could not be more different in what they are running toward, and yet they are just alike in what they are running from, namely, the here and now, the present, the chaotic realities of the moment.

I believe that Sam Keen is right in saying that most of us are exiles. Many of us seem to prefer a different era and live as if we are in that time. Or else we want to tear down what is and build a new time.

Either way, our bodies are here in the present, but our spirits? Where are they? It’s a most important question.

A published author, Massingill is minister at the United Methodist churches of Richton and Sand Hill, and religion editor at “The Magnolia Gazette.” His latest book is titled “Soul Places.”