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Bread of hope - for exiled people

9 October 2013

refugees in South Sudan  

The conflict has forced you from your home. The house you've been brought up in, the home in which you've raised your family, is in ruins and that familiar place is no longer safe.

So you make the long trek by foot and truck to a border camp where you can be safer, but where you share makeshift tents and meagre resources with thousands of others who are in the same desperate situation as you.

At least here you can be safe, but it's not where your heart is.

Your heart and your longing is in that ruined place you still call home and to which you long to return, for only there are you truly yourself. The ruins that haunt your imagination only remind you of the desolation and hopelessness.

We don't know much about the circumstances of the sixth century BCE Babylonian exile. We know that Babylon - the ruins of which are still visible - was about 50 miles south of modern Baghdad.

We know that the exiled Jews were captives of a brutal Babylonian army led by the king, Nebuchadnezzar; that Jerusalem - and its ancient buildings and institutions - was likely razed. We know that it was a 50-year exile in this 'foreign' land.

Above all, we know that, like refugees from 21st century conflicts, 26 centuries ago these exiled Jews' heart and longing was in that ruined place, the Jerusalem they called home - where they and all Jews found and celebrated their true selves.

And we know that they could no longer sing the songs of faith that had shaped them: 'By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion... How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?' (Psalm 137:1,4)

In a 21st century refugee camp or among sixth century BCE Babylonian exiles, can the prayer of Jesus ('Give us today our daily bread') have any meaning?

Ultimately it could, and can, have meaning only when we hear it as a heartfelt plea from the depth of our being and our humanity.

A plea not only for bread (for the economic securities that make life possible for those in exiled and dependent poverty), but also for the hope and meaning, belonging and identity, secure future and safe home, that make us human.

One of Wales' spiritual legacies is an 18th century hymn by William Williams that has caught the imagination of the world. It captures something of the essence and depth of this prayer of Jesus in today's fertile, promise-filled but ruined places:

Guide me, O thou great Redeemer, 
Pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak but thou art mighty; 
hold me with thy powerful hand:
bread of heaven 
feed me now and evermore.

Our shared commitment to act, give and pray is a commitment to act out this pilgrimage prayer of hope and strength in a world of barrenness, weakness and despair, of commitment and hope.

Noel Davies, congregational minister in Swansea, former general secretary of Cytun: Churches Together in Wales and former member and vice-chair of Christian Aid's board of trustees.


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