Today is our annual staff planning retreat. The office staff and clergy will pray Morning Prayer (with eucharist) and head off to a local non-profit which provides us with a quiet room. There is even time for us to eat together, a rare treat for me. At the end of the day we will have a calendar of events, times, and places set down which is the working document for the coming year. Of course we have all know "Plans: A Good Way to Make God Laugh" and we also know that many things will be added and other things will be changed. Some changes are even expected.
The two woman in our office and the associate priest are all retiring at summer's end. Poof! In a matter of weeks a most amazing collection of people will be off and suddenly we will all be new. Thank God our youth ministers intend to spend another year. [our graduating Seniors had the same youth ministers for seven years!] I cannot say enough good things about our outgoing Parish Administrator and Financial Administrator and my good friend who came to be an associate the last three years. So one of our "plans" is TRANSITION. The new folks we hire will be good people. Eventually they will get comfortable in their jobs. They will make changes, some improvements will occur. Other things will not be as smooth. They will bring different strengths and weaknesses. It is the nature of things. I plan to stay here, but we will see. I do enough funerals to know that mortals should never assume anything about the future. I can plan, but plans are what we come up with while we wait to find out what will really happen!
Jeremiah 29:11 is often identified as a favorite verse. [side note, I was interviewed in the local paper today and they asked my my favorite verse. I said I do not have one.] 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. Now admittedly, if I were going to have a favorite verse this would qualify as the type of verse I would choose (as opposed to Zephaniah 1:2 "I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the Lord" or Colossians 4:10 "Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner, greets you, as does Mark the cousin of Barnabas")
Of course, most people apply this verse to "me" and think it is an indication that God has good plans for me (and mine). At this time of year lots of Christian graduates are probably getting all manner of inspirational cards quoting this verse as a promise that God will guide them in college and career choices. I do not doubt He is active in such things. I do not think that is Jeremiah's point in all this, though. And that is why I am not a big fan of favorite verses. Out of context they get reshaped into something different from what they mean.
What is Jeremiah saying? First of all, the words come from a letter to Jews in exile. It is the remnant left alive after the terrible wrath (See Zephaniah above for an example) has been manifest in the judgment, fall and destruction of the Holy City. Temple, king and land are a thing of the past. The center of the faith is God, but the main components of the lived faith are no longer evident. Exiles are physically uprooted, but more damaging is they are spiritually uprooted. "Who is God and who are we now?" they ponder in an existential crisis which literally threatened to wipe out their religion and theology from the face of the earth (much as it has their neighbors' religions of the ancient middle east). Will their be any Jews and will the worship of Yahweh continue in any substantial form in the coming days?
Jeremiah makes clear that there will be. Yahweh God is at work in the human machinations. Does God cause it? Yes, indirectly, in and through human choices. One might say in concert with sinful men and women God finds a way to exert His influence. Yet, I recommend that we not push the idea too far. Taken to extremes we have to say that God's plan was for raping women, torturing and murdering helpless children and a host of other evils associated with ancient warfare. If you are not comfortable thinking about a small child being burned alive then it may be a sign you need to be careful about claiming God is the one who does it (without some nuance).
Anyhow, the people receiving Jeremiah's letter are familiar with the horror. First hand they tasted the evil humans can pile on other humans. Now they live, under duress, in a far off land. They are going to have to make a go of it as displaced people under the authority of other gods and foreign rulers. It is in that context that Jeremiah makes the claim that God has a plan. But reading further we see what the plan is. When you call, pray, seek me, I will hear and be found. (Sound like Jesus' sermon on the mount?) I will prosper you in that day and exclude the oppressors. (Sound like my recent post Great Omission and the verse left out about the unclean?) For an entire generation, seventy years, the Jews would live in exile. Much like the Egypt experience, they would be strangers in a strange land. Someday, the promise of return, someday they would come home. In the meantime, Jeremiah will make clear, they are to make the best of it.
That is a good way to talk about God's plans. His intent is that while in this time of exile we suffer sin and death, suffering and death are not the last words. Sin is powerful but redemption is more so. Death is real but new life is more so. God created the world to be His own, to live in His care under His rule. Someday we will submit, until then, we are in exile. Does God choose our classes and class mates, does He move people around to make sure we get all we want? Does He bring people to help us and kill others to remind us of life's fragility? I do not know. What I do know is low functioning creatures like human beings should be careful about trying to explain any of it. Too complex. Too many moving parts. Too focused on me, me, me, me, me.... (Especially the idea that God is killing someone else to teach me something. Really? Other people are just props in my life?)
As we plan for 2013-2014 we are setting a direction. It needs to focus on being holy and faithful. So that is what we will do. However, there may not be a 2014. Worlds end, after all. We pray for Jesus to come (around here) and maybe He will take note of our pleading and come back. In glory to judge the living and the dead. I wish we knew when. How awesome would it be to plan for the year ahead and write March 10, 2014 "End of World." Day of vigil prayer in preparation for arrival of Jesus and the New Jerusalam at 3:14pm.... We cannot make such concrete plans. But we can still plan for the new day coming (whenever it comes) and live like people under the promise with confident faith and hope.