August 26, 2001
DANDELIONS AND DISTANT PLACES
Terry L. Brensinger, Ph.D., Pastor
The Grantham Church
We frequently designate various experiences in life as temporary, and rightly so. The summer before my freshman year in college, I worked at the factory that manufacturers ALPO dog food. As a general flunky, I performed a wide variety of exciting jobs. I tapped cans on the conveyer belt to make sure they were full, threw horse bones into a grinder to produce a calcium-rich mush for the dog food, and periodically steam-cleaned all of the equipment. My favorite assignment, however, involved supervising the long drain beside the filling machines. I had the privilege of shoveling back into the machine any meat that fell to the floor. In 120 degree heat. With fans blowing ineffectively on my back. On more than one occasion, I recall saying to myselfthis is temporary.
On our first trip to Israel in 1980, Deb and I arrived in Tel Aviv late on a Friday evening. Because Shabbat was about to begin, we decided to spend the weekend there and travel to Jerusalem on Sunday. Being the inexperienced traveler that I was at that time, I asked someone at the airports information desk to make arrangements for us at a cheap hotel in Tel Aviv. When the taxi dropped us off at the Hotel Riviera, we found a foam rubber pad in place of a mattress, scorching heat with no air conditioning, and a communal bath frequented by cock roaches. While lying in our room on the first night of this, our great adventure, we tearfully said to each otherthis is temporary!
Labeling certain experiences as temporary can help us cope with stressful situations, endure unusually demanding occurrences, and maintain a more balanced perspective of life in general. In fact, the Bible invites us to view the world itself in this sort of waylife on earth is temporary, and the life to come is of inestimably more importance.
The problem with labeling experiences or situations as short-term, however, is that we run the risk of never living the moment in any authentic way, continually looking instead to what happens next. When we are dominated by the temporaryor what Mark Buchanan aptly calls the Cult of the Next Thing, we fail to develop meaningful relationships, avoid getting involved, and never put down roots. Before long, life becomes a fast-paced series of temporary situations that all too often lack meaning in and of themselves.
When I think about my own life, I am reminded of four years in college, three in seminary, one in Israel, four in graduate school, one in Africa, two more in Israel, and two interim pastorates of two years duration. So many temporary situations. Yet some of these seemingly temporary experiences now rank among the most significant of my entire life.
The prophet Jeremiah tells the story of the people of Judah finding themselves in what they believed to be a temporary situation. In 597 B.C., King Nebuchadnezzar deported many of Judahs leading citizens to Babylon (v. 2). It was a time of considerable unrest in many corners of his sprawling empire, so Nebuchadnezzar sought to abort any brewing revolts. The writer of 2 Kings informs us that in the process, Nebuchadnezzar attacked the city of Jerusalem, either confiscated or destroyed the furnishings of Solomons Temple, and took the leading citizens of Judah prisoner (24:8-17). One might easily imagine the railroad cars, etched so deeply in our minds, in which the Nazis transported Jews to distant lands. Yet, some prophets among the people strongly advocated that the community view this experience as just a passing ordeal or fleeting inconvenience (Jer. 29:8). Just let it pass, they cried. Jeremiah, however, had other ideas.
Standard procedure of the day required subservient rulers to keep the king posted on events in the various regions of the empire. On this particular occasion, Zedekiah, Judahs new and rather inept ruler, sent an official report to King Nebuchadnezzar through an envoy. Jeremiah somehow managed to attach to the report a letter addressed to his people exiled in Babylon. In contrast to the message of those prophets who preached, Its temporary; just let it pass, this is what he wrote
1. Put Down Roots
Jeremiah, first of all, encourages these displaced people to put down roots. Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters,...(vv. 5-6). Rather than simply biding their time, waiting for the situation to work itself it out, Jeremiah instructs the people in exile to establish themselves within their new surroundings.
When people today consider whether or not they want to live somewhere for an extended period of time, they typically ask a series of questions: Do I want to purchase a house in the area? In what section of town? Are grocery and department stores conveniently located? Is it a healthy environment in which to raise my children? Where should I send them to school? Many of us have wrestled with these same questions, and we perhaps have developed a lengthy list of criteria as to what constitutes a good neighborhood. When Deb and I lived in the Bronx in the mid-eighties, we confronted firsthand the issue of raising children in a terrible section of a major city. A few years ago one of my colleagues at the college, herself a city person, purchased a house here in Grantham, and several of us took that as a sign that she hoped to stay here for quite some time. She has since moved on. We ask the questions, we struggle with displacement and the feeling of isolation, and we long for a sense of permanence.
And here are the people of Judah, in exile, banished to a distant land. Everything is strange, the familiarity of home light years away. Build a house, Jeremiah cries, and raise a family. Dont label this new experience as temporary and miss the opportunity that lies right before you.
I wonder how many of us this morning feel as though we are in the middle of temporary situations. For some its more obvious, at least on the surface. Our own teenagers, or students at the college. You have a year or two left in high school, or a predefined set of courses, and you can envision a graduation date. Workers recently transferred into the area by their respective employers. You dont even know where Lisburn Road is, much less where it leads. Residents at Messiah Village who think that the meaningful part of your lives has passed you by, and you are just hanging around, unneeded and perhaps even unwanted. People among us who feel as though they are in educational, vocational, or generational exile.
But for others, the temporary qualities of life are less apparent, though no less real. For you, the sense of distance is not geographicalyouve lived in the area for yearsnor are you knowingly moving on to something new in the near future. Yet, you just dont fit, you dont quite feel at home. The friends you long for never come along. The job you want never seems to materialize. You feel disconnected, cut-off. Youve been exiled in your own backyard.
For all of us today, the word of the Lord might very well be Build houses. Take risks. Reach out to someone. Develop relationships, get involved, have the courage and imagination to make the most of the present. Like a dandelion in the middle of an asphalt driveway, put down roots
2. Seek The Welfare of the City
Secondly, Jeremiah instructs the people living far away in Babylon to seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf...(v. 7). Now remarkably, this is a city to which the people of Judah have been brought forcibly. They didnt choose to move here. They never contacted their local travel agent and signed up for a special Babylonian vacation. They were brought here against their will by an enemy king and his militaristic thugs. Yet Jeremiah says quite clearly: Put down your roots and seek the welfare, the shalom, of your captors.
Jeremiahs counsel sounds rather revolutionary. It seemingly supercedes the standard of an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, and even anticipates the very words of our Lord: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,... (Matt. 5:44). Now, if the people of Judah are instructed to deal in this way with their captors, how might the rest of us transplanted people who reside in a less hostile environment respond to those living all around us?
In all fairness, some of you might be here in this distant land against your better wishes. Your parents agreed to pay your tuition, but you had to go to a Christian College in general and perhaps even to Messiah in particular. Your employer told you to Move or find another job, even though you enjoyed where you lived before and had wanted to stay there. And your children? Taken out of familiar surroundings and drug along. Perhaps even God is the culprit! He called you here, showing no regard whatsoever for your desire to live and work in Fort Lauderdale. For whatever reason, you are here, and you feel as though you have no real choice in the matter. Youve been taken captive, exiled in a distant land, living among the enemy.
Many of us, however, are not in that situation. We chose to be here. We asked all of those questions about good neighborhoods and grocery stores and schools. Yet the awareness of our own freedom to choose comes as little consolation now that we too feel displaced and alone. Put down your rootsoh, I know, some of you have a bit of running around to do firstbut then, put down your roots, spread your wings, and seek the welfare of this communityHarrisburg, a small city with big city problems; Messiah College, a gathering of learners with much yet to learn; the Grantham Church, a family of imperfect but growing believers waiting eagerly to benefit from your creative contributions. Serve at a soup kitchen. View your classes and assignments as potentially enriching experiences rather than as means to another end. Give yourself to those among whom you are residing. Share your gifts. Change a dirty diaper in our nursery. Teach one of our Sunday School classes. Sing in the choir (well, maybe some of us shouldnt do that, but there are plenty of other options). And pray. Dont allow the strangeness of this distant place or the unsettledness of the future prevent you from recognizing and seizing the value of today.
3. Have Confidence in Gods Plan
And finally, how is it that we might dare to put down roots in a distant place? How is it that we might make ourselves vulnerable and offer ourselves to a community that seems so new, so unfamiliar? Here it is in one word faith. Or better yet, trust. Faith is a noun something that we have more or less of. Trust, by way of contrast, is a verb. Its a do word, as H. Richard Niebuhr rightly points out. We need not merely sit back and mope while we wait for a supernatural endowment of faith. We can act. We can take risks. We can become vulnerable, even in distant places, because of the shere and overwhelming goodness of God. 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 (v. 11). I know that you are in Babylon, some 700 hundred miles from home, the Lord reminds his exiled people. Im perfectly aware that your surroundings are strange and unfamiliar, and that you miss being back home. But I also know the plans I have for you, and they are good. Trust, Jeremiah reminds his people, in Gods plans.
In my own personal journey, I look back with amazement at just how many apparently temporary situations provided me with remarkably long-lasting benefits whether lessons, experiences, or friendships. I think, as just one example, of my experience in Graduate School. I had been accepted into the doctoral program at Cambridge University in England, and Deb and I were all prepared to go. We had an apartment waiting at Tyndale House, and everything was in place for me to study with the faculty member that I had so much wanted to work with. Then a letter camePrime Minister Thatcher had just decided to revoke financial aid for international students, and my expenses doubled in an instant. I needed to verify that I had access to $60,000 before coming into residence.
Disappointed and dejected, I scrambled for alternatives. Should I try to work and go to school the following year? Should I attend one of the other schools to which I had applied? Finally I moved to Madison, New Jersey, still disappointed, and enrolled at Drew University. I felt as though I was exiled in a distant land. Against my wishes. But look what happened. I not only benefitted immensely from my formal educational experience there and made some of the best friends I could ever hope to have, but I also went through one of the most crucial experiences of my entire life. Near the end of my first year and just a week or so after deciding that we would not pastor a church while I was in graduate schooltime demands were too greata call came inviting Deb and me to come to Fellowship Chapel in the Bronx. And what began as a brief, interim pastorate soon gave way to our moving into New York City. What I received from that congregation far exceeds anything I ever gave to them. And one thing is for sure Fellowship chapel would not have been in my life had I moved to England. It was a temporary situation, but we seized it. We put down roots, sought the welfare of the community, and trusted in the goodness of Gods plans. What about you?