For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Jeremiah 29:11
When I first came to FUMC Downtown Bentonville, I found a colorful, framed picture of the above scripture behind the music folder cabinet, and, after a little dusting, I hung it on the choir room wall. Like many people, I have always loved the above passage from Jeremiah. It seems so perfect to know that God has a plan for me and that the Eternal Divine is considering my welfare and is not wishing me harm. I find it very comforting and I take it personally. I know, however, that scripture doesn’t exist outside of historical and textual context. So even as I take some comfort in this particular verse, I realize that there is a context I need to know to take the full measure of this passage. This scripture of comfort is embedded in a letter from the prophet to those still in exile in Babylon. This early part of the letter sheds light on this later passage:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But 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.
What I hear in this part of the letter is that God is with you. But God is not changing this difficult situation today or tomorrow or next week, so settle in and make the best of it. Build houses and plant food. Pray for the welfare of your community and get on with life. After this difficult advice, comes the comfort of verse 29:11 where God assures the exiles that there are plans for their future and prosperity.
Reading this story of exiles reminds me of our situation today as we live through this once in a lifetime pandemic event. I admit that I continue to catch myself thinking things like, “When this is over, I will be able to rehearse with The Chancel Choir again.” Or “I can’t wait to be able to meet in person at church again, just like we did before.” Now in August, I realize that this is little more than wishful thinking. It makes me feel guilty when I catch myself thinking in this way because, in my heart, I know that this will be our reality for many more months. When I catch myself thinking like this, I know that I need to seek God’s will for the work in ministry right now – in the present circumstance. This is where we are and this is where the work must happen. In this context, Jeremiah 20:11 becomes more meaningful to me. God seems to be speaking to us now and saying, “Know I have plans for your welfare, to give you a future with hope.”
Beyond the present work, I believe we have to work to re-imagine the future as we begin to rebuild our lives during this worldwide pandemic. I ran across a quote by the writer Arundhati Roy that has really haunted me.
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break
with the past and imagine their world anew.
This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.
We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks, and dead ideas…Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.
I am not trying to argue that this pandemic has a silver lining. What I am saying is that we have to grapple with this new reality and work hard to invent new ways of living and being in the world. We should take this opportunity to examine our assumptions and the well-worn older paths. Let’s begin to imagine new ways of thinking, working, and living.
While we are working through this reality, it’s important to remember that a loving God knows us, loves us, and strengthens us as we find different paths and ways of being in a newly imagined world.
Loving God, You are always more ready to hear than we are to pray. Fill us with your grace as we struggle to live authentically as Your children. Open our eyes to see new ways to work for justice and peace during this pandemic. We pray this in all Your Holy names. AMEN.
Grace & Peace,
- Ray Wheeler, Ph.D.