Resolved for 2022: buy a field while in exile

December 6th, 2021
Available from MinistryMatters

Jeremiah 32 contains one of my favorite Bible stories. While in prison, and with the Babylonian army surrounding Jerusalem, Jeremiah gets a vision to buy a field from one of his relatives.  It’s a field in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin.  The parcel of land is about to become the possession of the Babylonians, and Jeremiah buys it anyway. Why? Because he trusts in the plans the Lord has for God’s people, plans for a future filled with hope. You may recognize that often quoted thought from the poetry in Jeremiah 29:11.

A great weight of uncertainty saturates ministry right now, because the entire world is gripped by uncertain health and economic fallout. If we limit ourselves for the moment to the challenges facing the church, we are in the midst of exile. We’re preparing for the return from exile, since we are now back to in-person worship services, but still with the threat of new variants of COVID looming. I serve a church that erred strongly on the side of caution. We reopened our nursery in November 2021 for the first time since it shut down in March 2020. Many of our families worshipped at home.  Most of the more vulnerable among us continue to be at home. And many have not returned even as the doors opened. Exiles tend to behave like they always do: they find other homes or they have not yet wandered back to the home they once knew. 

Then we add the threat of another exile, pending in the looming probability of schism. We could face a choice to declare allegiance to one denomination or another. The reign of God will be divided once again. The trauma of a second exile looms large in ministry.  At times it feels like I am pursuing ministry from a prison cell, and certainly it feels like my people are in exile already.

In the midst of these realities, however, I’ve never felt so optimistic about our future. In March 2020, I witnessed the biggest ministry miracle I will see in my lifetime, when overnight nearly all churches (not to mention businesses) were pulled from the 20th to the 21st century overnight. All of a sudden we pursued the innovations we needed to implement decades before, and we did it with creativity and energy that only comes from the wonder-working power of the Holy Spirit. It was awkward and weird and real and wonderful.

Those days inspired in me a vision for what is to come that I cannot shake, and do not want to shake. Now we can reach people for Jesus in ways we might have waited a few more decades to try.  With the walls of Jerusalem down, I can see the field before us, and I am buying in, with eyes on the future God has for us. 

So in 2022, I will teach my church how to live fully hybrid in ministry. Everything we can attempt will be both online and in person. Both spaces will be given their due; one is not a copy of the other. No longer will people need to disconnect from church when they are on the ball field Sunday morning, or when they are caring for aging parents, or when they are working in food service or health care, or even when they move to Denmark. If the electric grid is sustained, the exile never has to happen again, no matter how far flung our people are.  The automobile did away with the geographical parish. The streaming grid makes the whole world our parish. So if we invest in a field in Bentonville, Arkansas, that field can feed the faithful around the world. 

Jeremiah knew that field would one day be his again. The field before us now is not earthbound but very literally in the cloud. Now it goes where the people go. Now it grows where the people need roots. Now it lands where the people live. The territorial limits for sustaining the community of faith are erased. Thanks be to God.  So if you’ll excuse me, I have to go see a man about a place that God has directed me to buy. For I know the plans God has for us, plans for a future filled with hope. 

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