"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."
This passage from Jeremiah often appears in devotional material and Sunday sermons that make a sort of equation out of Jeremiah's content. It goes something like this: Your Trials + God's Faithfulness = hope and a future.
I've never been terribly enthralled by these approaches, primarily because they overlook the incredible time of pain Jeremiah faces along with the rest of the Israelites who witnessed the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. You see, this - the destruction of a nation, of a worship center, of God's place amongst God's people - frames the Book of Jeremiah. This is no trite trial, but the real possibility that God was gone, and so was their livelihoods, their lifestyles, and their identities. After a war, sitting in the ruins of a burned and toppled temple, Jeremiah prophesies to the Israelite exiles in Babylon that God has a plan for their prosperity, one that should inspire hope and ensure a future.
This is no simple equation, but a complex exercise in trust.
Seminary is, more and more, a complex exercise in trust as well. I attended Duke Divinity School for three years because I believe God wanted to prepare me for doctoral work one day through studying one of the most academically rigorous theological M.Div. programs in the country. I then spent two more on internship and earning an STM at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary because I believe God called me to serve in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. One of my friends recently wrote a blog post lamenting the nature of funding in theological education in the ELCA, and particularly within her synod (see here). She is not alone. Even those of us with the best scholarships often come out of school with debt for living expenses, and that is definitely an exercise in trust.
Further, to spend three years (or four, or five like me) in graduate school in the incredibly isolated field of Christian theology leaves you with a fairly small set of job opportunities related to your degree, and that is definitely an exercise in trust.
Most of us move many miles away, leaving family and home far behind, and that is definitely an exercise in trust.
But in the midst of all that, God offers this assurance through Jeremiah, plans for prosperity, for hope and a future.
This should make us rethink what those words mean.
Prosperity, perhaps, has little to do with our acquisitions of assets, but rather quality of life. Perhaps prosperity is entirely unrelated to money
Hope, perhaps, has little to do with our comfort zones or familiarity. Perhaps hope is not about what we have and know, but about what God has in store for us.
And a future, in this light, likely looks nothing like we imagined it to be when left to our own devices. Consider that Israel never imagined to find God in Babylon. Yet Babylon is where God preserved Daniel's life in the lions' den. Babylon is where Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego walked in the fiery furnace with God, unburned by the hate of Nebuchadnezzar. Babylon is where the Persian King Cyrus, whom scripture refers to as a messiah (Isaiah 45), restores the Israelites to their land and funds the reconstruction of the temple and city of Jerusalem. Who could have imagined the future?
Not even Jeremiah. Yet from within the dust of destruction he prophesied that God, though hard to see in the present circumstance, had something better in store. A sort of prosperity that may look more like deliverance from lions than capital gains, a sort of hope born out of flames, a future born from entirely unexpected places, and so much better than we might ever imagine.
And so, I am thankful to have faced my own lions held back only by the hand of God, walked through a number of fires with the company of Christ, and sought a future with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and the Lord brought me to serve Christ Lutheran Church in Radford starting September 1st. This is not the place I had imagined, but a prosperity so much more prescient than I've ever known. This is not the call I had envisioned, but a hope much more alive than I've ever known. This is not a future I ever saw, but one I am so blessed to live into alongside these good people of God.
Together, we return from exile, and look to rebuild in the place where God calls us to minister. I am so thankful for this, and for them. Thanks be to God for the exercise in trust that has been the last five years, that took thousands of dollars, at least four moves, two degrees, countless jobs, and two great communities like Duke Divinity School and Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary.
Whatever the struggles we've faced, the prosperity, the hope, the future are worth it. I almost wish I knew that so long ago.
But then again, it wouldn't take trust.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.