In 2008, the Navy sent our family on what we expected to be a grand adventure. We had orders to serve for two years in Naples, Italy. In our minds, we would be following the Griswold Family on our way to a European Vacation that would build memories for a lifetime. With our four kids and a ton of luggage, we landed in Naples not knowing anyone and not knowing enough of the language to even get ourselves from the airport to a hotel. We were very thankful for the families at our new command who blessed us and welcomed us. The adventure had begun. You could say we were praising God as we thought about His promise when He said, “I know the plans I have for you…” (Jer. 29:11)
I am confident you can already see my problem. My plans looked great to me, but my plans were not God’s plans. I may have been looking forward to my “European Vacation,” but God’s will for our time overseas had a far different purpose. The verse that I wanted to claim for myself from Jeremiah held a very different meaning to its first readers. The plan in Jeremiah 29:11 began with 70 years in Babylon, far from the familiar living of Jerusalem. God’s plan for our family did not last 70 years, but it did include a time far from the familiar living to which we were accustomed. As such, today when I look back on our tour in Italy, my wife and I refer to it affectionately as our exile.
Let me explain. We spent the first eight weeks with our family of six in a small two-bedroom hotel room with a kitchen barely capable of cooking for all of us at one time. Our inability to speak Italian meant that we were at the mercy of our local hosts in guiding us to housing. After several trips with a guide driving 160 kph, yes, 100 mph, with my family in the van across the Neapolitan countryside, we chose a home to rent in a small community 40 minutes away from the US Naval facilities. The good news was that we were homeschooling the kids. The bad news was that we would be searching the internet using dial-up (if you remember the soothing sounds of the computer modem connecting).
The good news was that we were all together. The bad news was that we could barely travel anywhere together because a family of six was considered enormous in Italy. The good news was that our Honda Mini Van arrived after three months. The bad news was that it might as well have been a full-sized Hummer as we could barely fit down many of the beautiful Italian winding streets. Oh, and did I mention the trash strike?
I can see things very differently today, but at the time I could only think about how hard things were and how slow it was to make anything happen. It felt as if every ounce of convenience had been stripped away from our lives and the difficulty meter had been cranked to an 11. “For I know the plans that I have for you…” My plan was an adventure with the world as the classroom for our kids. God’s plan was quite different.
After we finally got past the challenges of setting up a home and learning to live in circumstances vastly different from our old home in Virginia, God continued to turn up the dial. About the time we had settled, God let us know that He was increasing our tribe once again. We were expecting #5 and due to health concerns, we were limited even further, causing us to stay at home far away from the things that were familiar to us. Every time I tried to get control of something to restore some level of “normalcy,” I found again and again that I could not get what I wanted just because I wanted it. I was frustrated and I would remain that way until I stopped trying to do it on my own.
The testimony of what God did for us in the months to come could fill pages upon pages. To keep it simple, the closeness of our living, without the pressure reliefs which we relied on in the past, brought my own life, my marriage, and my family from a simmer to a boil. The idols of my heart began to fall off the shelves day after day causing me to first react in ways that raised the heat particularly for my wife. By God’s grace, only under these circumstances did I begin to see the idols on which I had been relying. With convenience stripped away, my idols could no longer satisfy.
The reason I can speak affectionately about our time in Italy is because of the work that the Lord did in my heart during these years. Only after I could see the darkness in my own heart, did He open the door to recognize and resolve hard issues that had been barriers between myself, my wife, and my family. After God showed me where my path was leading, He opened the doors for us to recognize parenting issues and marriage issues that we needed to change to prevent greater issues within our family. Most importantly, only after He showed me my self-reliance and desire for convenience, did God demonstrate to me my far deeper need for Him.
Are you in “Exile”?
As you look at your circumstances today, are you feeling like you are in exile? Do you feel as though you have lost the connections and conveniences that provided comfort, joy, and peace in the past? I imagine that this may be the case for many of us today. I do not tell the story of our “European vacation” gone bad as a badge of honor or because we did so many things right, but rather to reflect on the goodness of God as He walked with us in our “exile.” One day when we look back on these days of “exile” into our homes, will we look back to tell stories of how hard it was for us? Or will we be sharing a testimony of God’s goodness especially in a time when we had very little.
I can see the goodness of God’s plan for our family in Italy, but it was hard to see at the time. Today as we look at our family’s second exile with the whole family packed into the house again, based on the “stay-at-home” order, I am still uncertain as to the nature of God’s plan for our family. But God has enabled us to respond differently because we can trust in the goodness of His plan even when we cannot see the outcome. In order to consider how we can see the blessings of exile; we need to look at how God called His people to live during an exile.
When God sent word to the exiles in Babylon, before He said, “I know the plans I have for you…”, He told them up front that their exile would last 70 years before the promised restoration. With that promise in mind, the exiled people of Israel had a choice. They could choose to bide their time and gut it out, waiting for the promised restoration, or they could follow God’s word guiding them on how to live even in a time of exile.
If we choose the first, it would look a lot like my early months in Italy. I lacked contentment and peace because I was continually fighting for the conveniences and perceived needs that I had lost. During this time, I was missing the blessings of what God wanted to do in my life.
Instead, Jeremiah told Israel to build houses, plant gardens, and grow their families. God was calling the exiles to be a blessing to the people of Babylon. In other words, live contently and love those around you. Only after I chose to be content in my circumstances was I able to receive the blessings that came in a deeper relationship with God, a stronger marriage, and greater joy in our family.
Jeremiah’s exhortation to the exiles from Jerusalem can also guide us to how we might find the blessings in the exile of COVID-19 as compared to simply gutting it out. God called Israel to live life and seek to be a blessing to those around them, including their captors. How can we do that with COVID-19 as our captor?
- Live contently within the guidelines that have been provided for the general health and safety of our community. We must change our thinking about the guidelines from being a rule taking away what I want to be considering the principle which seeks the good of my family and others.
- Live contently within the limitations of what is available in the stores or through community services. We must change our thinking from regret for what we are missing to gratitude for what we have.
- Choose to be a blessing to your family. We must change our motivation from how to prevent being annoyed by others in our home to seeing the opportunity to know them better.
- Choose to be a blessing to your community even as we come out of exile. We must choose not to run right out trying to take our lives back, but rather choose to live responsibly within a new reality that acknowledges the benefits of social distancing and the guidelines that helped prevent the outbreak of the Coronavirus from becoming far worse.
Jeremiah also told Israel to pray for the Babylonians. Though we have no oppressors for whom to pray, prayer remains a key element to receiving God’s blessings. Be praying for others who are being impacted financially, and for those who continue to take risks so that they can help those fighting this disease. Pray that we would each grow according to the plans God has for us in this time because we can trust in the truth that follows in verse 11… “For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jer. 29:11 NLT)
When we are sitting on the porch looking back at the Spring of 2020, my prayer for each of us is that, instead of stories of gritty suffering in the face of loss, we will be giving testimonies of God’s goodness and how He gave us a future and a hope.