A few weeks ago, as I accelerated to merge into traffic on Interstate 84, I saw a billboard that said: “For surely I know the plans I have for you”—God. This comforting portion of Jeremiah 29: 11 appears frequently on many inspirational items these days, including coffee cups, plaques, and now even billboards. But, as with most things in scripture, God’s comfort comes with a challenge.
Jeremiah is writing from Jerusalem to leaders of the city who are being held hostage by their enemies. They feel abandoned by God and miss their familiar homes and place of worship. They desperately want to go home and get back to the life they once knew, a life they idealize because it was taken from them. Jeremiah’s first word to these nostalgic exiles is, “You know that thing that you want, the thing that you think will make everything right again. You’re not going to get that. You’re not going back to the place that once was home for you. You need to make yourself at home in the place where you are, to work and pray for its well-being. You need to form new families for yourselves, to get to know and love the place and people where you are. Your future will not be a re-creation of the past you have idealized.”
Many churches today long desperately for something they once had: the full sanctuary, the 1000+ members, the church school bursting at the seams, the fair that caused a traffic jam on the green, the staff that occupied every conceivable office space, the budget that was balanced without even an ask or with a few discreet phone calls to key donors, the endowment that could be saved “for a rainy day.” Through the words of Jeremiah, God speaks to a church that is too focused on what it has lost. “You know that thing that you think would fix the church if only you had it back. Yeah, that thing. You’re not getting it back. You need to live in the present. To be the church in this time and place for your neighbors who are created in my image. To be healers of a creation that I created good but you have nearly ruined. To care for one another with unconditional love and prophetic challenge. To be my body broken and reset for the world.”
Not all churches are focused on what they have lost. Many are discovering, slowly and sometimes painfully, what it means to pray and work for the well-being of our neighbors here and now. We can challenge each other and encourage each other as Jeremiah encouraged his contemporaries long ago. Together, we can discover the future God has in mind for us.
Rev. Michael Ciba is the Senior Regional Minister for the CT Conference.
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