In Limbo and Exile

Today’s Scripture is from Jeremiah 29:11-13,

“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. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart . . .”

Today’s blog post is by Will Newton, Director of Contemporary Worship…

In campus ministry, I had plenty of students who realized they had made a mistake.  Maybe they chose the wrong major, or they wound up at the wrong school (though FSU is never the WRONG school), or maybe they didn’t want a college education at all. Driven by a quick shove, and a society swarming around them to be “productive” and “make a career”, they found themselves paying tens of thousands of dollars for something they realized they didn’t want.

And the fall out was catastrophic – at least in their minds.  They wound up in my office, teary-eyed and worried. Had they just chained their life to this future? To this career?

Now, to us on the other side of college (or technical school), this reaction seems over-the top. Of course you can change your path after school. But what gripped these students wasn’t the need for change; rather it was the mounting insecurity and vagueness as to what that change was. They were in limbo, in a competitive professional setting that demanded them to be ever growing, training, and producing. There was no space, or time, for vagueness and doubt. Professional limbo was as good as dead, or at least frozen, in their minds.

When we read Jeremiah, we have to realize that Israel was in a twisted space of limbo.  Jeremiah is speaking to an Israeli community that was displaced in Babylon. A community whose faith was centralized to Jerusalem –  which had been sacked – leaving their Temple (the sole place to commune with God) in ruins. They had lost their home, their bridge to God, and their security – their future was vague (if not dour.) And so you can imagine the fear of this limbo came crashing upon this community.

I am going to be bold and say that we too often take these verses out of context and make this section of Jeremiah to mean one thing, when it can mean another. We want this to be deliverance, and assurance. We want escapism with God. I would encourage you to read the whole chapter, instead of settling for this cliche reassurance. Because what is truly happening, in my belief, is more powerful and difficult, than a simple escape or vacation from trouble.

Don’t get me wrong. Clearly God’s proclamation in this section is one of hope. Later in  Jeremiah, he will discuss Israel’s return from Babylon. When we read this chapter though, God begins his work of deliverance in Babylon, not in Jerusalem. His hope springs forth in the midst of the trouble, not after Israel has escaped it.

This promise of a future is stated after an important commandment for the Israeli’s  continue to build homes, raise families, and to “seek the welfare of the city” (verses 5-7.)  In fact, God says that the welfare of Babylon will be the welfare of Israel. God desires for his people to seek growth in the very nation that was their destruction. Even in the country of their exile, banished from their home and Temple, there is a purpose, there is growth, and God is present.

So back to college students. Caught half way through a degree, smack dab in the middle of a semester they can’t escape – the answer I gave was often not to drop out and escape their fear. Rather, I would encourage my students to seek God, to seek growth, in this new limbo they’ve found themselves in. Maybe the answer to their limbo wasn’t to run away, but to seek the welfare of the place they were in.

I believe there is always hope, I believe there is always deliverance. But maybe
deliverance to God is not escape, but rather a divine purpose within our places of limbo and exile.