You see it everywhere- graduation announcements, t-shirts, monogramed stationary, coffee mugs, home decor; basically anywhere you might also find a Pinterest user drinking a Pumpkin Spiced Latte. The verse. Jeremiah 29:11. “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.” Any proper southern belle has had it stitched or printed at least once, and many of us cherry pick it quite often when we are feeling anxious about the uncertainty of upcoming plans.
All of that sounds a little cynical, though, doesn’t it? I don’t mean for it to. The words in that verse are a timeless masterpiece inspired by our creator. But what if we’ve been using that verse all wrong.
Sitting with my sons in church on Sunday morning, I heard the preacher ask the congregation to turn in their bibles to Jeremiah 29 (before he announced the rest, I had mentally recalled verse 11 to my head and dismissed the sermon as unimpressively ordinary). Then, a record scratch. He asked us to turn to verses 1-9. I decided to let him momentarily recapture my attention. I listened as the preacher explained that Jeremiah was writing this letter to the Jews, who had been captured by the Babylonians, to explain to them that they were not going to return home any time soon, as some of their false prophets had been telling them. But it was somewhere around verse five where it all began to resonate with me. “5 Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 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. 7 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.”
Huh. Well that sounded just like the exact opposite of what I thought Jeremiah 29:11 referred to. I mean, isn’t Jeremiah 29:11 supposed to be saying, “Go, spread your wings and fly! Find out what life is all about! Trust me on the way and I will guide your steps!?” Nope, that’s not at all what it’s saying. Right there in black in white it says to build a house, plant a garden, have children, and become involved in the community. Stay. There is a place for finding inspiration to ‘spread your wings’ in the bible (Proverbs 3:5-6). However; after reading the verses just prior to Jeremiah 29:11, I knew that this was not the place and that I had been grossly misinterpreting one of my favorite verses for probably the last 30-ish years. Dang.
At that point, I decided I would at least look up this preacher’s name. Austin. We had only been to this church twice, but this guy is causing me to have some kind of existential crisis, so I felt I should at least find out his name. Austin began explaining wanderlust- a strong desire to travel or to find the next adventure. I knew the feeling well. Adventure, travel, voyages…so romantic, right? That’s probably what persuaded me to spend time as an exchange student in Costa Rica. But not only did I want to go different places, I began constantly search for the next big thing. The American way, right? As I reminisced about rain forests, beaches, and touted myself for still remembering how to speak some Spanish, Austin further explained that the problem with wanderlust wasn’t the desire for adventure, but the inability to find God in the ordinary. Ouch.
The problem was not that I couldn’t dream big enough. The problem was that I couldn’t dream small enough. This unrest, this uneasiness, this… wanderlust.
As if he had read my mind, Austin then said,”If you can’t make your peace with the simple, ordinary thing that life fundamentally is; if you can’t find God in the normal and the boring, then you will spend your entire life on an understandable, but ultimately childish, quest for significance, adventure, and heroism.” Wow. It all made so much sense. Everything that I had needed to hear was just on the other side of Jermiah 29:11.
After hearing his message, I have been able to laugh with my kids, play with my dog, stare at a sunset, and miss my husband. I allowed myself to sit in my emotions. Easy enough, so why did I need the permission of a preacher I barely knew in order to do that?
Beside the fact that we, as Americans, are encouraged to never be satisfied…life had just gotten messy. The kind of messy where you just want to pick up and move from the land of exile. The kind of messy where it is easier to turn emotions off than it is to feel them. And that messy feeling left me with wounds that I began to try to mend by seeking things which had not been promised to me. While that feeble attempt at control continually left me feeling helpless, I can now hear my Jesus telling me to stay, build a house, plant a garden, have my children, and better my community while I begin to heal those messy wounds. Because I’m here for a while. I’m not going home anytime soon, so I might as well get comfortable. After all, the adventure is not in escaping an ordinary life, but embracing the life you can find just on the other side of Jeremiah 29:11.