Yesterday my wife and I went to evening prayer in the tiny "old church" on the remote hillside above the village. It was a gloomy afternoon: a steady rain had set in, and the dark dripping avenue of yew trees we walked along seemed to echo my despondent spirits. The church has no electricity so we sang the hymns by candlelight. One of them was "God moves in a mysterious way / his wonders to perform." Yes, I thought, that's not in dispute. But would I rise to the massive act of faith that could see how "behind a frowning Providence / he hides a smiling face"? Time would tell.
We recited the Psalm set for the service, Psalm 60. O God, you have rejected us, broken our defences; you have been angry; now restore us! You have caused the land to quake; you have torn it open; repair the cracks in it, for it is tottering. You have made your people suffer hard things; you have given us wine to drink that made us reel. That feels right, I thought. It's not that a song of national defeat is transferable to post-Brexit Britain. I'm not making facile connections here. Rather, it's the mood that the Psalm caught so exactly: bewilderment, pain, despair, loss of bearings, how to understand the "mysterious way" in which God moves.
I thought of other laments in the Psalter. The most famous is Psalm 137. By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept / when we remembered you, O Zion. It's one of the angriest Psalms in the book, fuelled by the violent emotions that follow any severe trauma or dislocation. The people are in exile, far away from their own country. They have lost their temple, their king and their land. They are at risk of losing their very identity, their soul.
Their big question is, How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? How will they learn to recognise God both in the events that have brought them to this unwished-for exile, and in the place itself? What happens to faith and hope when they are driven out of a landscape that is familiar into a "strange land" where everything looks different and has to be negotiated afresh?
This seemed to me to be a good metaphor of Brexit. There's a sense in which we are bound for an exile. Some welcome it, others don't. But it's a plain fact that it is going to be a strange land for all of us. Even Leavers have acknowledged that there is so much they "don't know". It's clear that there are few landmarks and no obvious plan, no historical precedents for our nation to follow. We are on our own. We can expect to be disorientated. We shall have to set our compass bearings as best we can. And given the hurt we have caused our friends and allies in the European Union, we have no right to expect that it will be an amicable departure, though we must hope and pray that it will be.
The man who more than anyone else taught the faith community how to "sing the Lord's song in a strange land" was the prophet Jeremiah. He too was crushed by the way events had turned out for his people. He saw the disaster of exile coming and said so, much to the displeasure of his audience. If ever a prophet suffered in himself the conflicted experience of the people he was warning, it was Jeremiah. In the light of the past few days, I can understand that.
But he said something very important. It goes like this. There is no point in railing against it. Exile is going to be a fact. We are where we are. So understand that this will be your new reality for the foreseeable future. It will be hard and painful at first. But if you can make the best of it, invest in it, trust that God has not after all abandoned you but has come with you into this far-away, hostile environment, you will find that life can begin again. In one of the bravest utterances in the Hebrew Bible he pleads: Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jeremiah 29.7). It's an extraordinary - and wonderful - thing to say.
So here's my thinking as another week begins. We are at the start of a journey that will take us into exile - for leaving the EU is precisely what this is in a political and economic sense at the very least. Our place in the world is going to be very different from what it was. Brexiters (those at any rate who haven't had second thoughts about their vote) are telling us that it will be all right. Remainers are fearing the worst. Who knows what this strange land will be like? We are not going to find out this week, this month or any time soon. It's going to take years for the landscape so fractured by this earthquake and aftershocks still to come to rearrange itself and settle down.
But we should not be swayed by either the optimists nor the pessimists. The best will probably not happen, but neither may all our worst fears be realised. And even if many of them are, and as a nation we come to regret our decision as foolish and mistaken, we mustn't be overwhelmed by negativity or despair. What matters is to maintain our faith in Providence as it works itself out in the present. We must do our equivalent of building and planting good things in the land of exile, as Jeremiah not only urged his hearers to do but did himself. Above all we must keep faith with our country and with Europe by saying our prayers. As I blogged on that bitter Friday morning, we must not lose heart.
Church leaders have called for reconciliation and healing after the vote. Our churches both in the UK and in continental Europe will have a part to play in this. But it can't be hurried if it's to be deep and lasting and reach into communities that have experienced deep and bitter division. Nor must we rush into it for the sake of quick closures or the ever-alluring demands of niceness. When there is a deep wound, healing takes time, and surgery may be needed first. But the last words from the cross can help draw us all into the everlasting movement of God's wise and loving purpose for the world. There have been times when we have cried with the psalmist and with Jesus himself, My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? But might we begin to pray in a different, more trustful voice: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit? If we can, it could sow the seeds of hope for our future.