It is staggering to see how much – and how fast – everything has changed in our world. Just 17 days ago, we were gathered for worship as usual at the Lyric Theatre. As the last boxes and crates were packed and the doors were locked, we had no idea that our whole world was about to change. In 3 days, we were calling off our gathering for Sunday in accordance with the Governor’s instructions, while many were still planning to meet. I struggled with the decision, in part because so many churches were still planning to gather for worship. But two days later, most of them, too, were making the difficult decision to close (while several met anyway.)
We now approach our third Sunday of worship online, adapting weekly as the demands of social distancing and the call to stay in our home continues to grow. Like everyone else, I have grown increasingly antsy and discontent in our current predicament. Even in the incredible ways I’ve seen God at work in these difficult times, my heart is drawn to the longing for a return to normal. I miss my family and friends. I miss worshipping with our the bunch of misfits we call Restoration. I miss the coffee meetings, the conversations over lunch, the meals we shared in homes… I miss it all.
Some voices have suggested that this time of separation will be over sooner than later. I’ve even seen and heard religious voices suggest that “true Christians” would be meeting for worship – in spite of the prohibitions on gathering in groups larger than 10. At the national level, it’s even been suggested that we’d be free to meet by Easter. And while I want to believe them, every indication points to this being a longer road ahead than we’d care to take. Even if these restrictions were lifted in 2 weeks, it may not be medically safe to gather for worship for some time. I grieve this, but I sense it to be what lies before us.
And it’s reminded me of one of my favorite passages of Scripture – a story that’s taken on a whole new meaning in these difficult times. In Jeremiah, the people of God find themselves in exile, carried off to Babylon as political prisoners. To make matters worse, the armies of Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed the Temple, the center of their faith and the seat of the presence of God. Both their Temple and their land were the defining identity markers for the Israelites, and now in exile, they had neither. Surrounded by a pagan people with different religions and customs, it could seem like all hope was lost.
In Jeremiah 28, along comes a prophet named Hananiah – and he’s got good news! According to him, God was declaring that Babylon would be broken, and the Israelites would be home within two years (Jeremiah 28:1-4). It was exactly what people wanted to hear… so it had to be from God, right? Don’t worry about settling into your new surroundings. They were to live out of their proverbial suitcases, because it wouldn’t be long before they’d be back to where they were. And if you commit yourself live in that kind of limbo, you never learn to see what God is doing right in front of you.
But Jeremiah, on the other hand, sees right through these empty promises. In Jeremiah 29, he has a totally different message from God:
“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper (Jeremiah 29:5-7).”
In other words, the sooner you stop trying to escape where you are and start trying to thrive where you are, the more you’ll experience the fullness of God. And his encouragement in these difficult times? Plant gardens, build families, seek peace, and pray.
I don’t know about you, but these words seem relevant to a time like our own. We, too, find ourselves in a place we don’t want to be. And if we allow it, we can become so paralyzed by our desire to escape to the future that we miss what God is doing in the present. We can unknowingly gravitate to voices – religious or not – that eloquently tell us what we want to hear. And all the while, we miss the God who is with us right in the midst of our deepest longings, calling us to put down roots into His activity right where we are – in the midst of exile.
Here’s what I’m suggesting: what if the simplest of places of our lives – our homes, apartments, families, friendships, and even gardens – are the very ground God is planting seeds of renewal? Like the Israelites in Babylon, we are wise not to speed up what God is slowing down. Beyond the medical realities that push us to make wise decisions in order to protect our neighbors (especially the elderly and those who are vulnerable), we should be very suspicious of religious voices that assume that the easiest, most comfortable, most preferable outcome is the will of God. As followers of Jesus, loving our neighbors in this season means making the difficult choice to stay home and protect one another from the spread of the virus. But God is not pressing pause on his activity. What if He’s shifting the center of His work out of gathered spaces into the places we too often overlook? If this is the case (and I believe it is), we, too, should heed the call of Jeremiah.
Plant gardens. If you have the space and ability, take this literally. The work of gardening…well, it grounds us. It slows us down, teaches us dependance, and gives us an opportunity to literally share the fruit of our labors with our neighbors. If you don’t have the space or ability, ask yourself this: what can I cultivate and create in my environment that slows me, grounds me, and gives me an opportunity to be fruitful? Much has been made of the classic works created during times of widespread illness. What might God be growing in and through you during these times?
Grow families. Taking this literally? That’s up to you! But in this difficult time, investing in our biological and spiritual families will be increasingly vital. Even in our separation, we can use our greater abundance of time to invest in the people close to us. How might we get to know our friends better? How can we more intentionally invest in our kids? How can we work on our marriages? How can we continue to connect in community from a distance?
Seek peace. The word for “peace and prosperity” we see in this passage is the Hebrew word shalom. It means far more than an absence of conflict and struggle. Shalom is wholeness – the way things should be. In our time of separation, we can seek to meet our own places of brokenness with God’s healing shalom. And as Jeremiah prophecies, we should seek that same wholeness in our city. How? The simplest way is to stay home and avoid the spread of the coronavirus. Beyond this, we can use the resources we have to be generous to the needs we see around us as they arise.
Pray. Finally, times like these should challenge us to return to prayer. It is normal to feel helpless in a time like this, and these feelings should drive us to prayers of dependance and trust. Not only is this time an opportunity to grow in personal prayer, we should take Jeremiah’s call seriously and engage in intercessory prayer for our cities, state, nation, and world. God directly ties our own shalom (wholeness) as a people to the city in which he’s called us. Many voices are continuing to push an “us vs. them” mentality in this crisis, but as followers of Jesus, we need to simply have an “us.” Every desire for life and healing we want for ourselves should be shared with our neighbors – and even our enemies. We should work to protect all life, especially those vulnerable in a time like this.
It is after these calls to a rooted, patient, dependent faith in crisis that Jeremiah makes a statement many of us have heard. In American Christian life, it’s a verse that’s been removed from its context and plastered on every coffee mug, bumper sticker, and memory verse card we can find. Yet now, rooted in the context of it’s story – and our story – allow it to take on new, deeper meaning:
For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11).”
God’s covenant faithfulness is with us in these places of weary longing, and in all things, he is still carrying us towards shalom. This, my friends, is what we should cling to in our uncertain world. Even when things are difficult and dark, we can trust God is leading us to wholeness within our struggles, not apart from them. The promise of hope and a future? Those are seeds planted in the here and now. Our job is to cultivate that hope in the fertile ground of our struggles, learning to trust in the One that that Bible says is, himself our peace (Ephesians 2:14).
Know this day that you are loved, prayed for, and united to a big, beautiful, messy family called the Church. Even in the distance that is between us, God intends to grow us closer together in faith, teaching us to love more deeply and lead one another out of exile on the other side. Until then, let us be patient. Let us consider the simple things wherein God might be actively seeking to move and grow. The resources of heaven are still at hand, and the ground is rich and ready for growth. My prayer is that we’d begin to plant the seeds of renewal right where we are.
With love in Christ,
Pastor, Restoration Church