Building Houses and Planting Gardens - A Pastoral Note from Jenny

Dear friends,

“I don’t care and I’m not getting any more cares today.”

Anonymous, 7 years old

I can imagine the tantrum as a 7-year-old says this! I feel like saying it too — except that I know that I do care. Like so many people, I am finding this year is stretching on interminably. The variety of each day is marked by numbers — how many new cases and how many deaths related to COVID-19? I keep saying I am not a “numbers person,” yet the numbers seem to be very important this year. Or is that simply the impact of media coverage?

I long for variety in my life. Actually, if I really dig deep and work out what I want, I long to have the freedom to do what I want when I want to do it. I long to have the ability to travel without restrictions. I long not to feel judged because of my postcode (and recognise within that the privilege of where I live and choices I have been able to make in the past). I long to — well, I have to admit it, I long to return to life as it was before the pandemic took control.

As the year has marched on, it has increasingly become clear that we are in this for a long haul. I have heard many people reflect on stories of exile from the Bible through these months. I have wanted to resist likening this to exile, mostly because I am aware that some people who read these notes have real, terrifying and personal experience of exile, and I cannot presume to know what they might feel. I will make no assumptions that this is anything like an exile, however I wonder if there are some things we can learn from the Bible accounts of exile that can help us through this time?

Last week I mentioned the parable Jesus told of the two builders - one who built on sand and the other who built on rock. That led me on a tangent of thought around building houses. I turned to one of my favourite prophets, Jeremiah. With the Israelite people in exile in Babylon, wailing that they have been removed from their temple and the place to worship their God, Jeremiah gives them an unwelcome message: you will be here for a long time. Twice in chapter 29, Jeremiah says to the people in exile, “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce” (verses 5 and 28). The exile was not a short-term imposition — building houses and planting gardens indicated that more than one generation would be living in this foreign land: settle down, don’t put up tents, build your houses, and learn that God is with you even here.

Most of us probably expected that we would be impacted by COVID-19 for a short while, perhaps three or four months as a maximum. I certainly thought this would be over by now. I thought that by the middle of this year we would be released from the restrictions and would be free to do the things we would normally be doing. The longer this has been going on, the more I am sensing that God is saying: “settle down, don’t put up tents, build your houses, and learn that God is with you even here.” I have been wondering for a while now whether we need to be settling in for a longer haul than we had either hoped or anticipated? Do we need to be thinking and planning that what we are doing now, including managing the regular changes as instructed by the Department for Health, is going to be our way of living and working and serving and being in mission for a long while into the future?

Jeremiah’s message from God to the Israelites in exile was not popular. All the people wanted to hear was that God was going to lead them back to Israel, and in particular to Jerusalem and the temple. If not now, in the very near future. Yet God tells them that it’s not going to happen the way they want, and they need to set themselves up where they are. It feels like a strong reminder that we are to live in this current moment and that God is asking us to remember God is with us, and we need to “plant gardens” — to find new ways to serve God and those around us in this ‘foreign land.’ (My musings now take me off on another tangent about what we are planting, as that will determine what we harvest into the future… another pastoral letter, perhaps!

I began with a quote from young child, and I will finish with a quote from another child, an anonymous 8-year-old this time: “I am hugging you with my mind.” In a time when our hugging has to be very limited, I’m planting mind-hugs in my garden. This one is just for you if you need it. May you know that I care, a whole lot. Today and every day. So does God.

Blessings and peace,