Have you ever considered what type of burning bush Moses encountered when God showed up? There is a garden shrub called “burning bush” (euonymus alatus) that takes its colloquial name from the story, but it is doubtful that this is the bush that intrigued Moses.
Exodus 3 tells us the bush was aflame though not consumed when Moses spotted it in the wilderness. Putting plant taxonomy aside, is there any value in considering the binomial nomenclature of the burning shrub in the wilderness? Ancient rabbinic commentaries on the book of Exodus believed the curious endeavour was worth pursuing.
I feel that our church has entered a wilderness experience. That experience has been ‘sharpened’ by the effects of the pandemic lockdown. Like Moses, once a prince now a shepherd, our churches find themselves no longer at the heart of a community but viewed as an irrelevance, a paragraph on the pages of history.
Yet into this wilderness God will direct us to bushes that are alight with the flame of his Spirit.
Hear this good news: the story of God always begins in the wilderness. The Christian tradition is adamant that when God acts in the world, it is always with the people and the places least expected; the people called no one in the places called nowhere.
A very common cry at present is “The church ain’t what it used to be” and the decline of the Church parallels the changes in society. As we’ve lost the interdependence of communal life, we’ve also lost the ancient identity of the church’s propensity. To confront the catastrophe of church decline, we may also need to reconsider the very essence of the church. We need to reimagine the church, because in reimagining the church, we may reimagine our place in society.
This is why the ancient rabbis earnestly declared that the bush of Exodus 3 was, of course, a thorn bush. When the Divine presence creatively manifested by name to unleash Israel’s covenant in the world, it came through the same medium that imaginatively related to the esteemed Garden of Eden of Genesis. As the commentary goes, the garden of creation was surrounded by thorn bushes as a hedge of protection; a source of preservation to foster the vitality of that Garden free from the influence of ‘fallen‘ humanity. The intention of the bush theophany was a reminder that Israel, too, was meant to be a thorn bush for the world; that which protects, preserves, and sees to the life of all creation. Israel was to be a thorn bush for the flourishing of the earth.
If the church is the continuation of such a covenantal vision, is the church meant to be a thorn bush for the world today? As we scan the dismal landscapes in our desolate wilderness, we ought to take solace in our history. One may wonder, is there an organisation, a group, or a movement dedicated to making the world good and fostering the health of places by taking responsibility for its future through ordering its present life?
There is. The local congregation has been on this mission since that bush was aflame.
The prophet Jeremiah proclaimed a similar daring vision. In speaking to the covenantal people when they were staring at a future that looked nonexistent, the prophet sent word for how the Jewish people were to embrace their bleak situation and imagine a new future:
“But seek the welfare (shalom) of the city (place) where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord on its behalf for in its welfare (shalom) you will find your welfare (shalom)” (Jeremiah 29:7 NRSV). How will the exiles endure? What is their directive in a world that has been destroyed? See to the welfare – the shalom – of the places where they are.
The church needs to become thorn bushes in the places where they are. Be a subversive body for the good of the larger body. Be a signpost for God’s reign by offering healing and hope, cultivating transformation, and supporting and guiding our communities toward God’s dream for the world.
If the local church has the best propensity to form, nurture, support, create belonging, and compel relational and economic life, churches can be the hope of the ‘city’. Churches can be that force to honour a place’s memory, adapt to a place’s context, and through shared history, shared vision, tangibly enact God’s reign.
What would it look like if God is in charge here? As with the wilderness meeting tent in the book of Leviticus, we can embody God’s story in such a way to activate the imagination of the places we serve and give a glimpse of what is possible.
We need to stop trying to do the normal conception of church better, and start imagining how we can do church differently; which isn’t about being new or cool or exciting. Rather, we embraced the ancient art of being meaningfully adapted to our place as thorn bushes.
What would happen if churches used their buildings as a third space in declining communities who have little access to gather neighbours together? How might local churches use their platform, their message, and their organisational capital to mobilise the meeting of needs and catalyse the gifts of the people who call that place home? How can we foster a way of living that is adapted to our particular context?
What else could the church be?
Reimagining the church in our community might be the only thing we can do in our present circumstances; but it might also be the only thing we ought to do.
May we embrace the vulnerability of desperation.
May we take advantage of the wilderness’s bountiful imagination.
May we seize the propensity of the local church.
May we see ourselves as thorn bushes.
And may the world never be the same.
God bless, Alan.
*And yet it was not consumed (Exodus 3:2)