I know folks rarely sit down to read the book of Jeremiah just for fun! But it contains some profound truths we need to pay attention to – and one of them has become a bumper sticker.
In Jeremiah 29, the Israelites have been conquered and captured the Babylonian armies. They're in Babylon, far from home, and they're grieving and angry and miserable. Jeremiah's word to them is NOT what they want to hear. They just want out of there! And yet, Jeremiah tells them … and us … that even though they're in exile, they're to settle in, not only accept it but try to make the best of it. "Build houses," Jeremiah says. "Live in them. Plant gardens. Let the young folks marry and have children. Build your numbers. Thrive!"
While other Hebrew prophets are promising one or two years of exile, at most, Jeremiah is telling the Israelites to accept the situation and thrive: it'll be seventy years before you'll see home again.
Accept … and thrive. Jeremiah calls the Israelites – and us – to a deeper kind of hope. It's not hope that depends on circumstances, or deliverance from our problems, or God just making it all go away. It's hope that rests on one thing only – and that's God himself. It's faith in God, in who God is, in his goodness, his plan, his steadfast love for us. It's faith that says no matter what, we're safe with him.
Years ago, I knew a man, only 50 years old, who had a huge stroke that left him pretty much paralyzed on his right side. He was soon let go from his job, collecting disability, and spending most of his time in a recliner in his living room, brooding. He had gone from being a definite "Type A" personality, to a person who had to depend on others just to get around. As time passed, he fell deeper and deeper into depression, and quit making any effort at all, either physically or spiritually.
I asked his physical therapist one day, "Diane, what's the difference? What makes some patients adjust to their new life and make the best of it, and actually find a way to ‘bloom where they're planted?'" And her answer was both simple and complicated. She said,"The ones who do well are the ones who accept, really accept, the new conditions of their life."
This is a tall order, this idea of acceptance. Some folks find acceptance, and still keep their hope and faith in God. Others never do.
The man who had the awful stroke had some choices. He could have fought like a warrior, worked hard in rehab, and regained as much strength as he could. He could have talked to a counselor about his loss and his disappointment. He could have spent time with his pastor, searching for an experience of God in the hard times … because God is ALWAYS there, no matter how hard the times are.
And finally, he could have ACCEPTED. He could have continued placing his faith in God. He could have found not only a way to live, but also to bloom and thrive, exactly where he was.
I have no illusions about this – it's a tall order! But our deepest calling is not to have faith and trust in what God will DO for us … but in God himself.
Getting there doesn't happen overnight. We may have to grieve and be angry for a while. To get to that place of acceptance, we need to first of all decide that's where we want to be … and then, we pray. We open ourselves to God and his Spirit. We ask for help from those who love us. We pray some more. And then, we pray some MORE.
Jeremiah 29:11 helps us with this: "For surely I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope."
These are the words of a God, who loves us, who's with us whatever's going on, however difficult our circumstances are, even when we feel we've been exiled to a life and a situation we never wanted. God's message is clear: Put your hope in ME. Have faith in me. I have your welfare in mind, and you can trust me.
Wherever we're planted, there's something to give thanks for. There's someone to help, a garden to grow, and a life to build. We're in the midst of it all, and God is, too. With his love, we can bloom and we can thrive … wherever we're planted.
Rev. Susan Bennett is pastor of Stockbridge Presbyterian Church. She and her husband live in Stockbridge with two giant Rottweilers and a 15-pound rescue dog who is the boss of everybody.