My mentor in ministry gave me this W. Somerset Maugham quote two decades ago as I began the process of becoming an Episcopal priest. There was a group of us identified as aliens in the world seeking for home.
We came to the church from diverse backgrounds, different countries, and yet found a common language as we sat drinking coffee and beer and occasionally wine. We served together in various ways the Rule of God at Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix.
It was a fleeting moment of solace in lifetimes of search for a due place to call home. I have spent the decades since trying to create spaces in liturgy and teaching for people to experience that fleeting apprehension of a place to abide for a moment with God.
There are those I suspect who have never found themselves with that sense of exile. But exile is one way to see the condition of those cut loose by history and culture from some past settlement of Christianity. Many people feel like they have never found a spiritual home.
In Sunday’s reading from 1 Peter 1, he refers to life in Christ as an exile. I suspect that he means an exile from the world around the early believers he is writing to, and that is something we can all relate to.
To turn toward God and a way of life that honors what God intends for us is to leave behind ways of living that are not godly. I would not have put things this way in my twenties. That feeling of exile was something I placed mostly in my leaving the church of my childhood. But in truth in searching for God I put myself outside of both that church and the world around me.
I was neither fish nor fowl, according to that ancient cliche. This place of exile can be the place where we learn to really be in relationship with God, relying on his love and presence. It can be the place where we learn to pray and search with real humility and honesty. But it can also send us looking for comfort in inflated self-righteousness or group-righteousness.
Self-righteousness is when we do what seems right in our own eyes. This phrase was a puzzle to me the first time I read the Bible through by myself. Shouldn’t we do what is right in our own eyes? We certainly tell people to all the time. But at the center of a healthy biblical life is seeking to do what is right in God’s eyes. We sometimes have to rely on our own compass, but that compass is set to God as revealed in Jesus in the Bible.
Group-righteousness is just as popular. That is when we seek to do what a group around us considers praise-worthy. I had terrible friends in eighth grade, so it was obvious that was a problem, but now my friends are good upstanding people. Or maybe it is not friends but family, or even our “friends” on social media. We absorb quickly and effectively what is good and evil based on the group and go along for deep-seated reasons of survival.
Biblical righteousness means “having God’s approval.” What is it that God approves of? The Bible offers us loads of answers, many of which we shorten to “love.” But I want to offer you two different words, since love is a little stretched these days.
“Godly.” In English, this word became “good.” Remember who the God we worship is. The Divine Creator of all things, merciful, bringing to life, quick to forgive, incarnate in Jesus. Be like God in your words and actions then. Ask, is this godly? and you won’t go quickly wrong.
“Beautiful.” In 2 Thessalonians 3:13 Paul summarizes his correction to idle, disruptive busybodies (vs. 11-12) and then says, “And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good.” The word good there is kalopoieo which means “beautiful creating.” It gets translated as either “right” or “good.” But the roots are way more interesting. Kalos is used to refer to fruit, soil, and jewels decorating the temple of God. Poeio is the root from which we get poetry and poem. So do what is beautiful, what is creative.
To return to that feeling of exile, godliness and beauty should define our home. What we seek for and what we seek to create in our own spaces and work. The church would be a wonderful place to return to if we all sought these two attributes.
So never tire of doing beautiful and godly things, and you will find your way home. So says Peter, and I agree. Come home, O Easter people.