Build a House Inside The Problem
Last week we talked about when Jesus was having a bad day. Today we begin with the Israelites in the Book of Jeremiah, who are having a bad century.
Jeremiah is speaking to a people who have been utterly decimated by Babylon. They have been invaded, lost the war, and been carted off to exile in a foreign land.
They have lost friends and family members in the siege of Jerusalem. Their last memory of their homeland is of their beautiful temple lying in smoking ruins, fading slowly into the distance behind them as they are dragged away.
They are beaten, humiliated, devoid of hope.
Now Jeremiah writes to them, and he’s writing to everyone, from whomever is still alive among the leadership down to the common people: “These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.”
This is a people hurting and embittered. They are desperate to hear that even now God is stirring up God’s wrath, ready to rain down fire and destruction on Babylon and rescue God’s beloved people to bring them home.
What they hear is totally shocking and jarring.
“Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But 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.”
Now the Israelites have always hated what Jeremiah has preached to them, constantly calling them away from their sin and superstition and greed, but this is simply too much.
Build houses and gardens in the land of exile? Just act like there’s no hope of returning home?
That would be giving up! Why on earth would we want to build homes and plant gardens in this hated, awful place?
And oh, how bitter this commandment to give our sons and daughters in marriage so that they may have children and grandchildren.
That’s as much as admitting that we’re not going to escape from exile in three weeks or six months or a year.
That’s a prediction that we will be in the land of our enemies for generations to come.
And then the final insult: “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 cannot possibly be serious.
We’re supposed to be good citizens of Babylon? We’re supposed to actively work and pray for the welfare of the city that is our prison, for the people who dragged us away from our homeland in chains?
It’s utterly ludicrous.
No wonder Jeremiah was never a popular prophet. Maybe he was one of the inspirations for Jesus’ saying about a prophet never able to receive honor and acceptance in his own home.
So what is this strange preaching about giving up and giving in? Is that what God wants us to do in our own lives?
The key to the entire situation is the type of circumstance in which the Israelites find themselves. They are captive people of a civilization vastly superior to them in numbers and military power.
They are, quite simply, completely stuck.
This is advice for people who cannot change the situation they are in. Throughout the Bible, we are called to make positive changes in our personal lives and to fight against injustice in our society.
But what about the circumstances in our lives that we can’t change?
We all have them.
A parent is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. We are stuck in a job we hate but the economy and our finances have us trapped there for right now. We discover that our child has a specific learning challenge that is going to make school an uphill battle for the next eighteen years. It becomes clear that a dear friend is not going to win her battle against cancer.
There are things in our lives that are difficult to deal with, that we have no power to change, and God’s advice to us is to build our house there.
It is a strange piece of advice at first, but I have actually found it to be very fruitful in my own life. I used to fight and struggle and thrash against problems in my life, thinking if I just pushed hard enough I could break through.
Sometimes that is exactly the right way to go: apply your will and determination and persistence and battle your way through.
But we all have these burdens in our lives that we can’t break through. And fighting against them constantly just drains us of energy and hope.
Have you heard the saying, what you resist, persists? Sometimes in life we have to realize that beating our heads against a brick wall is never going to hurt the wall. It only leaves us with an ever-worsening headache.
But notice what God is telling the Israelites and us in this passage. God is telling us to “give up” in the sense that we are to quit fighting, but it is a very specific type of “giving up.”
It’s actually not really giving up at all.
It’s coming at the problem from a completely unexpected and new direction. God tells us to build a house and plant a garden right in the middle of our problem.
What does that look like?
Building a house and planting a garden in the middle of our problem is essentially about an emotional realignment. It is a shift from a futile and painful approach of trying to break through or run away from a problem, to a positive and empowering approach of building something new and beautiful within a problem.
God is calling the Israelites to transform the alien and hateful landscape of Babylon into a place that is marked with their own sense of what is good and beautiful, marked with their homes and gardens, with things they will build and tend with their own hands.
Consider how our lives could be transformed if we applied that approach to our own problems.
So our parent is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
What would it look like to build our house and plant our garden there?
Rather than focusing exclusively on how our parent seems to be slipping away mentally, we would be taking time during her better days to cherish stories of the past, and on the bad days looking for the grace of caring for our parent in a new way that would never have happened in the days when she was more independent.
So we are stuck in a job that we hate, trapped there by the economy and our finances.
What would it look like to build our house and plant our garden there?
Rather than be miserable and angry all day at our boss or coworkers, we could find ways of building our skills to make getting a job we do love easier, or simply take advantage of the lack of emotional engagement we have with this job to dream really big and start planning to start our own business or go back to school or strike out in some other completely different direction.
So our child has a learning challenge that makes school an uphill battle every day.
What does it mean to build our house and plant our garden there?
Rather than be consumed by frustration and grief, we not only become our child’s best teammate, cheerleader and coach as we find creative ways to help him accomplish his schoolwork, we rejoice to see our child developing a type of resourcefulness and spirit that could only have developed through having this unique struggle.
Building a house and planting a garden inside our problems is not some kind of pop psychology positive thinking.
It is much deeper than that.
The problem of exile that we’re experiencing in the myriad of ways it is manifest in our lives is way too deep to be covered over with a band-aid of just acting like everything will be fine. God is not telling the Israelites to just smile and the world smiles with them.
This is not a fancy way of entering denial.
God would never so dishonor our pain and our grief.
Instead God is calling us to transform our lives by calling up God’s blessings with our own good work, right in the midst of our problems.
It is easy to harvest grace from beautiful sunsets and happy events in our lives.
It is a longer investment, deeper and more delicate work, to harvest grace from the darkness in our lives.
But it is profoundly rewarding.
It deepens us spiritually to enter the darkness with our eyes wide open.
We go somewhere new when we lay down the ineffective weapons of entertainment and consumption and distraction and actually look at the pain in our lives and say, okay, this pain is where I live right now. How can I make friends with it?
Our temptation is always to push through and to push past the difficult moments and seasons of our lives. When we are lonely, when we are depressed, when we are grieving, when we are hopeless, the assumption is that this is a condition from which we must escape immediately, or failing that, endure grimly with our senses deliberately muted and all our attention focused on what life will be like when things finally get better.
We act like little kids who put their fingers in their ears and hum loudly with their eyes closed. But as you know from when you attempted that as a child, it never actually helps you not hear what you don’t want to hear.
When we build our house and plant our garden in exile, we are investing in the opportunity for spiritual growth that we have been given, and we move from victims to agents. We are no longer helpless and despairing. We may still be despairing, but it is for a purpose.
We open our eyes and begin to really observe and pay attention to the pain, and suddenly it loses some of its power over us.
We see that there is a richness to the landscape around us that we couldn’t see when we were fighting so hard against it.
Rather than prisoners and captives there against our will, we are builders and planters, people who have said, “Yes, this is darkness in my life, but it is my darkness, and I can make it into anything I want. I can enter into it and tend the new and fragile movements of the Spirit that are budding within me.”
We have the greatest model of all for a precedent in this process: Jesus Christ.
Where did he go when he wanted to go deeper in the Spirit?
He went to the desert.
That was in fact his first priority after his baptism, to go out into the wilderness alone, to the place of desolation, because he knew it was the place of the richest potential for new growth in the Spirit.
And then he went to the final extreme and entered willingly into suffering and death, going in with his eyes and his mind and his heart wide open, because he could not transform and redeem it without entering into it fully.
So it is with the darkness in our own lives.
As long as we are pushing it away and denying it and hiding from it, it remains unhealed.
We must build our house and plant our garden that we then tend and nurture right in the midst of our most unsolvable problems and most painful griefs and regrets.
Though it may come slowly, as we see the walls of our resilience rise around us while we build this house here, we know the foundation stone is Jesus Christ.
Though they may bloom slowly, the blossoming of the trees and flowers in the garden we tend here are the bright colors and life-giving breath of resurrection.