Our congregation’s director of senior adult ministries made a scriptural connection several weeks ago that stuck with me and has intensified in its urgency since then. She cited Jeremiah 28 and 29, noticing that in these chapters some of Judah’s prophets declared that Judah’s exile in Babylon would only last a few years. Defying these wishful thinkers, Jeremiah wrote a letter to the exiles in Babylon, in which he encouraged them to settle down and wait, for it would be 70 years before the exiles would return home. “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7).
Similarly, we find ourselves in a pandemic in which we’re getting lots of mixed messages regarding how long our physical isolation will last. In Houston, our civic leaders issued a stay at home order for all nonessential services and workers through April 30. Our school district has said it will remain closed through May 4. But this was after an initial closure that would have taken us just through Easter. An order of a few weeks has already stretched to a month and a half. And while I don’t want to believe it, I have suspected that our need to physically distance ourselves from others and wear masks when we’re out and about will last into the summer.
Only recently have I started to wonder if this time of isolation could last into the fall. My brother, who is a schoolteacher in Washington state, has been instructed to plan as if he will be teaching remotely into the fall. What if this difficult and chaotic rhythm of working from home and caring full-time for my preschooler extends not just through the summer but through the fall? What if we’re not back to “normal” until the beginning of 2021? What if it takes longer than that?
I suspect that the prophets who predicted that Judah’s exile would end within a couple years were sincere. They genuinely believed that God’s faithfulness to them would mean their suffering would be brief. And perhaps they wanted to encourage the exiles so that they would not lose hope or fall into despair. But what if this wishful thinking kept them and the exiles from embracing their reality?
Jeremiah on the other hand said, “Settle in the for the long run.” And not only settle in, but seek the shalom of the place to which you’ve been forcibly taken. Seek that city’s welfare, its peace, its wholeness — the very best for it. Jeremiah also promised that their exile would end, but it would be far longer into the future than anyone wanted. Still, Jeremiah leaves the exiles with this hope: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). God’s plans will be fulfilled and there will be restoration, but it will take far longer than anyone wants.
What would it look like for us to seek the welfare of the city in which we’ve been planted during this extended time of COVID-19 isolation? For me, it means that I maintain my physical distance from others, as hard as it is, for as long as it takes. We seek the health of others by helping the virus not to spread further. Perhaps it also means that we do so without viewing others with suspicion or hate. We continue to greet one another in the grocery store, if only a glance and a smile from under a mask or a wave of the hand. We fight xenophobia and other stereotypes that cause hurtful words and violence between us. We care for our own mental health so that we can continue to care for the people around us. A promise I see over and over again in the Bible is that God is present with us, in good times and in bad. God does not abandon us to face our challenges alone. And this gives me hope to settle in for the long run.
RACHEL YOUNG is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Presbyterian as the director of contemporary worship and media.