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Surviving – and Thriving – in your exile

We are living in dark times, and it’s hard to see the glimpses of light. Many of us are having to isolate ourselves – either because of vulnerability due to our age or our health, or because we are feeling unwell, and have no idea whether it could be the virus – so have to stay in, in case, for 14 days, according to the government.

We are in a strange land. We are in exile.

This may seem a rather odd thing to say. After all, our homes are our familiar places, our places of rest and refreshment and familiarity. Places we feel safe. Yet, for many, we may feel that the rug of familiarity and rest has been violently dragged from under our feet, leaving us sprawled out on the floor, wobbly with uncertainty and fear. For some, our homes may now seem a threat, and place of difference, of loneliness. Some may face 12 weeks or more alone, within four walls, and cannot envisage how to cope, because this is not your normal.

These are dark times.

For me, it is perhaps a little different, for I am used to my home being a cage, for weeks and sometimes months on end. But I am still apprehensive about the times ahead – partly because of my natural extroversion and needing people, and partly because of my own sense of vulnerability and being starkly reminded of my own mortality. The mentions of this virus being particularly aggressive for people with long term respiratory diseases keep piling up. So I choose to isolate within my home, but there is still the question of my family. Do I isolate from them? I do not want to. I’m not sure that’s needed, yet, but I will keep seeking and taking advice. Either way, it’s so easy for me to give in to the sneaky sense of fear snaking its way around me and through me. What if….?

So many of you are struggling today, I know. Things you were looking forward to have been cancelled. Social events may not go ahead, leaving you adrift in a sea of unease about the future and your present. Many of you have young children and find the idea of being stuck in with them for weeks on end fairly terrifying (I would have been!!) I live in these kinds of disappointments regularly, and I recognise your pain and your anger, as well. It’s hard.

You are going into exile.

But I want to bring a note of hope into your anxiety today, and to do that I’d like to have a look at another set of exiles – from around 2,500 ish years ago, and the words the prophet Jeremiah spoke over them. I know you’re not all followers of Jesus, but I believe his advice can speak to all of us. He was talking to a bunch of people who’d been uprooted from their beloved homeland and sent into Babylon, a place none of them knew. A place where they feared loneliness, where they felt unsafe, where they didn’t know what was going to happen next. Sound familiar?

The most famous verse in this passage – from Jeremiah 29 – is verse 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. 

Jeremiah 29:11

We’ve heard this one a lot. Right? It’s all going to be OK, it says to us. We don’t have to worry. We’re not going to be harmed…yes?

Yet when we place it in the context of the preceding verses, another picture takes shape. Instead of Jeremiah gushing with cliches about how they should just stop worrying, he advises them to embrace the situation:

Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.

Jeremiah 29:5

He’s urging them to take courage where they are. He knows that it’s scary, that it’s different, that things will never be the same for them, but instead of allowing them to wallow in their pain he encourages them to stand up, to settle down among the people in their exile. He goes even further when he advises that they should

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.”

Jeremiah 29:7

It can’t have been easy for the Israelites to hear this advice, when they were living in so much uncertainty, yet Jeremiah knew something about how to survive – and thrive – in exile: instead of allowing themselves to sink into bitterness and despair, they should try to live in peace and seek the good of all those around them, and to accept the constraints upon them at that time. In this context they could draw much hope from verse 11, because they understood that Jeremiah wasn’t giving false hope, but that he was encouraging them with God’s plans for their good in every situation they found themselves in.

How can we apply it to ourselves, and our own exiles? How can we embrace and accept this situation when it is so out of kilter with what we are used to, and we cannot imagine our lives in it? I think that a decision to be courageous in the midst of the storm does not come easily, but can be a decision for the good of us all, not least for our own mental health. That decision to accept and to settle where we are may be about finding the positive – for me, it will give me a chance to finish writing a couple of books I’ve been working on. For others it may be time in the garden or to decorate your home. I know that for many it is so difficult to find any positives in this, dear friends, and I am not minimising this – but a ‘count your blessings’ mindset can be helpful, a daily decision towards gratitude for that which we have and those whom we love.

Perhaps most of all, what can help us is a call to hope. Hope always lurks round the darkest of corners, pinpricks of light nudging through the gloom and drawing us towards greater illumination. For me, the greatest hope is to be found in Jesus, who knows better than all of us what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land, away from all he knows and loves and longing for things to be right once again. Jesus understands our fears and our loneliness, experiencing the greatest burden of these we could ever imagine, and far beyond that. The hope we find in Jesus is long and deep, it’s high and wide, it’s far reaching and inexpressible, it’s soothing and it’s glorious. Even in our isolation we can reach for this hope and take hold of it and live within the great wild spaces it offers to us.

Even in our isolation we can reach for this hope and take hold of it and live within the great wild spaces it offers to us. Come and join with me on this uncertain journey as we begin to live in our exiles. Share on X

For those who are living in uncertainty today, may you catch enticing glimpses of this hope that shatters darkness. May you know the peace that goes far beyond understanding, and the love that contains you, that surrounds you both in joy and in exile.

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