Watershed Formation Studies

Chapter 8 - Conceit

In chapter 7, we heard of the era of the kings in Israel. The Israelites dreamed of having a monarchy like other nations, but the reality was not as great as the dream, since the kings were not often loyal to Yahweh.

In chapter 8, the old man’s story came to an end as he related the story of the kings of Israel and Judah, which ended in the current exile in Babylon.

Throughout the evening’s story, the people wondered — would the Story of God end here in exile? God had spoken through the prophets that one day the people would return to the promised land, but the bitterness of exile was palpable.

While the old man desired healing with them, he also knew the deeper side of the story — how the prophets had said the exile in Babylon was not a random event. It was God’s judgement on the people’s pride, conceit and failure to keep the covenant. Ezekiel had even warned them of the destruction of Jerusalem and even of the Temple, God’s dwelling place.

The people’s conceit had been their undoing. They had acted against the Torah, living however they wanted and then dared to ask for God’s blessing. But even then God would not abandon them, inviting them always to return to covenant faithfulness.

Though it seemed to be the end, the people in exile knew God would be faithful to the covenant, even if they had not been. A new exodus was possible, for Israel, and for the whole world.

Questions for Discussion

1) Have you heard the OT this way before?
2) Do you recognize any modern prophets?


“For has not God spoken through God’s prophets that one day his people would return to the Promised Land? But when they do return, what kind of people will they be?” The voice that calls for repentance seems to continually ring-out through the prophets of the OT. Have you heard the larger arc of the story of the Old Testament told in this way before? Does anything strike you?

Linda Tiessen-Wiebe: I remember years ago when we studied Genesis in the Kerygma course, I was fascinated by the idea that Genesis was written during exile, and that a time of testing could produce such rich and hopeful writing, pointing to a merciful Creator God. I know we've talked about a canonical approach to the Bible before, reading the entire Bible through the lens of the life and death of Jesus, but what strikes me about this book is that it traces a narrative through the whole Bible, in spite of all the strange stories and contradictions. It isn't a hodge-podge collection, rather, the stories have a shape. Contradiction and multiple versions of stories are part of that shape. Its like a narrative thread that is deepened not threatened by tensions.

The quote in the question: "...what kind of people will they be?" is a great question. Some of us were talking in the kitchen on Sunday about how God enters the stories we tell about God and keeps nudging us towards a deeper, more inclusive understanding. I think that gets at this quote. It's not that God made all these things happen to Israel to shape them. Rather, in spite of their failure to keep covenant, God keeps covenant by continually trying to reach them in whatever circumstances they find themselves in. And whether or not they would have entered exile if they had kept covenant isn't really the point. It's not behavior modification, but rather about learning a deeper understanding of covenant.

There is a consequence to forgetting your true identity in God and instead finding identity in the easy markers of culture. But God never gives up and keeps calling us back to who we really are, because God remains who God really is. Sometimes our straying leads us to very painful experiences and these are natural consequences. The interpretation that the Prophets gave to the Exile was all part of the call of God back to the covenant: it really matters how we live with each other, with our neighbors and before God.

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Lydia Penner: In this chapter, I was struck by the “voice” of the old man. He has “been there, done that” when it comes to exile, and so he is not quite in the blame game that the young musician is. You could say he is more humble, having realized that he too has not learned the needed lessons and consequences of his disobedience. So he asks the same question as the prodigal son: “When we do return, what kind of people will we be?” Instead of asking for vengeance against his captors, he is asking what can he learn. In a very real sense, he has begun to see himself as God has always seen him, very prone to the old HPtFtU! (translation: “HPtFtU” is author Francis Spufford’s definition of sin as the “Human Propensity to Fuck Things Up”).

I think of how I continually fall into the same patterns of “it’s about me” living, and then consequences follow me. Lately Paul has been pointing out to me that the consequences are like having a hangover! So the old man’s question is I think a very good one for all of us now! A perennial question: “When we return, what kind of people will we be?”

As a follow up to this question, I was also very struck in this chapter that our rebelliousness is not the end of the story. "God is always doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves.” (p. 147) Or, “God will be faithful to the covenant, even when [not if] we are not.” (p. 146)

Spufford’s writing, (in his 2012 book Unapologetic) dovetails in theme to this week’s chapter in Gladding, especially in the chapter called Yeshua where he talks about Jesus. There are so many parallel quotes, from the quote that we all loved, “Far more can be mended than you know,” to “I am the door where you thought there was only wall”, to this rich one: “The doors of his heart are wedged open wide, and in rushes the whole pestilential flood, the vile and roiling tide of cruelties and failures and secrets. Let me take that from you, he is saying. Give that to me instead.” (p. 144)

All these quotes speak of God doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

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Dave Berg: Listening to the story as a whole gives a sense of the vicissitudes of the human journey as expressed particularly in the people of Israel over time. There are a variety of pulls that occur on the people in the stories. Starting from Adam and Eve there is the pull towards the desire for knowledge and power over creation. With the story of Cain and Abel there is the realization of fear as a driver which pulls humanity towards violence and death. The corruption and violence escalates until God almost wipes out humanity because of all the wickedness. But with Noah, God moves towards the preservation and protection of life and makes a covenant with creation to protect it. Post Noah there is the pull towards expansion and inflation of the human project - Tower of Babel. Then in Abraham there is the pull of God's vision of a humanity blessed by God and transformed to be a blessing to one another and to creation, rather than being a curse upon one another and creation. Knowing which pull to listen to is crucial in the faith journey.

During the story of Israel there is also the push (mostly from the prophets) to remember God and keep close to him instead of all the other things that pull at them. God is always giving and acting and wanting to guide them but the people keep getting distracted and sidetracked by the lesser goods/gods.

It is unique to see the story being told to a people who completely identify with the story - politically as well as spiritually. The story is told from the perspective of the people in exile. We hear the story from the perspective of need as well as anger. Where is God now? He was there in the past but he seems to have vanished for the people in the exile. The pull is towards salvation - unfortunately the people want to configure salvation as vengeance towards the oppressor. Thankfully the old man reminds them that salvation is for all people, including the oppressor. That takes tremendous maturity to stand in that place.

Hearing the story as a whole, as a grand narrative, makes me aware of how the people of God have such a long history that includes both betrayal and faithfulness. Much more important, God as a character begins to shine through the story more and more brightly and God's grace and covenant faithfulness deepens and intensifies more and more as time goes on. To the extent that the people's attention shifts from their own perceived needs towards what God is doing and providing they are transformed and remade to reflect the vision of God for humanity: compassion for others, living with justice, walking in humility, seeking the welfare of our neighbors, celebrating God's generosity.

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Marilyn Heidebrecht: "But when they do return, what kind of people will they be?"  

What a striking question!  When we emerge from tough circumstances, what kind of people will we be?  It reminds me of something my former pastor Bill said, as I listened to an old sermon of his yesterday evening: “God not only brings life to us, but also allows us to be broken.  We can emerge from circumstances bitter, or broken.  From a broken vessel, the Spirit flows out into the lives of others.”  

I definitely resist suffering.  What would it look like to accept the suffering that is already in my life?  To even recognize it.  And be sustained in the midst of it.

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The prophets challenged the people in a particular time to see the deep dark dismal truth of their failure to heed God’s words but also pointed towards a deep hope in God’s faithfulness and ultimate restoration. What significance does it hold that these writings came out of this difficult period? Can you think of any modern prophets who might also show this same pattern (challenge and alternate vision of hope)?

Bev Patterson: Hope and truth telling seem to go hand in hand for these exiles. You really see this at the end of the chapter when the old man rekindles hope not only for his "charge" of homeless wanderers but in himself as well, through the telling and the listening, particularly to the young girl. There is a judgement tucked away in the predicament they find themselves in and because the old man was willing to be vulnerable and confessional with his own rebellious personal history, he was able to invite the others to open their eyes to both their fallen state but also to the hope that calls out to them, from the future.

Exile is good news but only insofar as it keeps us on the difficult path of honesty and contrition. Only out of our confessions and admissions of how we have turned from God and his covenantal faithfulness can we keep walking towards the light of a new identity that God is crafting for us. The safety of being held captive in the status quo, where all will be provided for through hoarding and stockpiling, may provide comfort but in the end it is bad news for our souls - here the banal and the superficial wins the day. As Brian McLaren says - "we find our way by walking" which is another way of saying we find that we are alive when we are exiled from Empire.

A great moment in the chapter was when the wise old man lights up after the young girl makes a comment and calls her a prophet. I wonder if there was a wise old man in Malala's village who celebrated our future Nobel Peace prize winner by calling her 'a prophet'. A young woman who saw the injustice of her culture towards other young women and risked her life by calling for the light to shine on the dark places where young minds and aspiring intellects were kept from the light of learning and banished to the margins and whose unique personhood were taken from them.

I also am glad for the young musician — how many disillusioned song writers, most notably in the 60's, eventually got to the place where their poetry transcended the angry outburst in order to give voice to hope and love and were then able to spread these loving verbal icons for all the world to hear. Richie Havens "Sugarman" comes to mind - but I know there are others.

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Linda Tiessen-Wiebe: I think that some of the writers we've been reading lately do something similar to the prophets: Walter Bruggemann, Brian McLaren, Peter Enns. There are others too. I think "Bruggie" has been a prophetic voice encouraging us to stay with the tensions that texts create in us, and not try to resolve them too quickly. That's a big temptation, but he maintains a prophetic stance that says staying with the pain of a text which doesn’t say what we want to hear can open our hearts and minds to the Spirit.

McLaren has talked about how the dismantling of Christendom and the institutional church is actually a blessing for believers. We can't coast on the cultural norm. Instead, we have to think about what discipleship really means. Sometimes it seems mega-churches are on the rise; and to be fair, God can be anywhere. But what is also on the rise is criticism and prejudice against Christianity from culture. This is partly due to the vocal minority of fundamentalist interpretations, which are often pugnacious and confrontational. So this challenges believers to give authentic witness, to rely on the Spirit and not primarily our own understanding or rhetorical skills. And I think in the spirit of light to all nations, this context could also evoke a sense of compassion for the need for spirit-led biblical education.

This is where Peter Enns is so good, especially in his latest book The Bible Tells Me So. His subtitle is: "why defending the bible has made it impossible for us to read it." Through his own story, he compassionately tells how people are shaped by their religious culture to make pre-suppositions about the Bible that can actually prevent their faith from deepening. It makes scriptures into a kind of millstone around their neck, something that needs to be defended, and so it keeps them from reading it in all its richness (contradictions, traditions, streams of interpretations). Again the painful experience of having this revealed to you can lead not to a loss of faith but a deeper faith, living in freedom as the Spirit of Christ transforms scripture to the living Word.

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