Of Exile {In The Library}

Speaking on faith and vocation for BFA Chapel
Photo: BFA Communications

Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there and do not decrease. 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 have welfare.’

Jeremiah 29:5-7

After thinking about exile all week in preparation for my Chapel talk, it makes me smile a bit when I realize that I’m speaking in the Library. Today’s Chapel consists of six faculty members offering seminars on the intersection of our vocation and our faith, so students have some choices to make. As we have few large rooms on our campus, and I’m the English-teaching lover of books, to the Library I go. This means that I’m precisely the farthest away from the Auditorium, where the students have gathered for worship, and that they’ll need to really commit to walking up a bunch of stairs to get here. But that’s fine; I’m not the biggest fan of large crowds, anyway.

I’m speaking on Jeremiah 29 today, expanding on the story of the prophet’s letter to the Israelite exiles in Babylon. It’s not a new chapter to me, having encountered its oft-excerpted eleventh verse as a seventh grader at North Seattle Christian School almost two decades ago. We mulled over those words, back then, zooming in on the “prosper” and the “future,” because those seemed most relevant to us when we were twelve. God must want us to be rich, right? That’s cool. Let’s play basketball, prep for the spelling bee, check on our Tomagotchi pets; God’s got this covered. Starting way back then we lost the context, the story, the bigger picture into which God promises this future, and the wholehearted seeking God asks in return. As a professional teacher of books, I’m a huge fan of context, so today is a bit of a storytelling day.

Despite the cliche factor, I picked this passage for a reason, not for the promises at the end of the letter, but for the commands at the beginning, which have both comforted and haunted me at several points in my young adulthood. Since the speaking prompt had to do with vocation, I’ve chosen too speak not about literature, which I do pretty much constantly, but about teaching as a profession, specifically my first two years of it. I tell them that I almost quit multiple times during my first two years, and my sweet students, the ones who trudged all the way up the stairs to hear me, scoff. “No really,” I said. “It was hard.”

For a while, we’re in a different school, with a younger Ms. (rather than Mrs.) Dahlstrom. I tell them about the library conference room where I taught remedial reading to students who had failed the state reading exam, some of whom weren’t literate in any language, let alone at a tenth-grade level in English. I tell them about the fall I taught 180 ninth graders, and the period that had 30 ninth-grade boys, two ninth-grade girls, and a tenth-grade mother-to-be in her last trimester. Though I’m careful to distinguish my loneliness and discouragement from the suffering of geographic refugees, both ancient and modern, I tell them that for me, then, this was a sort of exile. That I would have seriously considered giving it all up for a quiet office and a pair of nice tall shoes, if not for the words of Jeremiah 29, a small piece of God’s insistent voice of calling on my life.

“‘Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens and eat their produce,'” I read aloud to the assembled students and faculty in the Library. “This is a long-term arrangement. Gardens take time; houses take time. Also, families take time. Look what else he asks them to do!”

I keep reading the passage, telling them of my crestfallenness, in those bone-tired first years as a teacher, at realizing that God had called me, specifically, to Seattle and to my classroom and to the individual students I taught. I could go work for a magazine, keep my clothes clean and hands un-markered, but it wouldn’t change the calling. Instead, God had planned for the calling to change me. That was the hope, the future.

Sometimes we get to choose the “end” of the stories we tell about ourselves. Today, I choose not to take the story all the way to Germany, to the fruition of one of the fantasies that I spun for myself in the difficult years. Because that particular exile ended two years sooner. It ended when Ingraham High School became home, when in its welfare, in this city in which I’d been placed for that season, I found welfare. Yes, eventually I moved on, but I left that school happy, satisfied enough that I knew I was leaving home, a part of my heart, behind in Seattle.

I know that for some of our students, the exile is geographic, far closer to the Israelites than I’ve ever been. Though Kandern has its charms, they’re not where they’d like to be. For others, like for me, it’s more complex, dissatisfaction with situations and circumstances still (and perhaps always) beyond their control. “I told a story about a while ago,” I tell them, “But that wasn’t my last exile. The point isn’t always to leave exile. Sometimes the point, like Jeremiah reminded the Israelites, is to meet God there. Because God is everywhere. If you seek me you will find me, if you seek me with all your heart. Exile is a great place for seeking, for looking around and paying attention to what God wants you to be doing here.”

We reset the chairs and tables in the Library with our last few minutes before the bell rings for lunch. I chat with the students, most of them ones I’ve taught or know some other way, and the teachers, most of them friends, who made the trek up the stairs. I think about how this has become every bit as much home as Ingraham ever was, perhaps even more, how I’ve literally settled down, set up a house if not built one (Keeping a basil plant alive is the same as planting a garden, right?), married and started a family in this place. It once seemed like the far corner of the world, and now it’s the center of it. I leave the Library asking God to reveal my places of exile, which clearly don’t include this cozy village I call home, knowing that He’s there, too, in the shadowy corners of my heart, asking me to lean in, to listen, to keep learning.

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6 thoughts on “Of Exile {In The Library}

  1. How lovely! One of the most good things about Ingraham was discovering other good teachers.(I do think I was good–aspired to greatness, but figured I hit on good most days). In your classroom (with you in it)-there was good-ness. Today I wrote lesson plans for my granddaughter’s third grade teacher. One of the best books (for fall) is The Widow’s broom and its story of tolerance is so needed now. I love that you and your precious family is far removed from the dumpster fire that is our national government.

    And so, my best to you–and I always felt close to my High Power when I taught– truth, justice, kindness. All of those virtues have to be expressed in teaching. Thank you for your blog– if I knew how to find my bookmarked stuff (This is an old computer) I could, would read it more regularly. Maybe I will just have a dose of Kristi to make things good.

    I will leave a copy of another spiritual blog from one of the first persons I taught with.
    He writes proverbs into haikus and must more A far more evolved teacher and Christian than I. But I always felt compelled to teach and I am grateful for the reminder. Best to you–tonic

    • Thank you for this lovely note, Toni! I’ll never forget meeting you when I still worked at Oak Tree Starbucks. You were an experienced English teacher at the school where I was about to start my student teaching! What an inspiration! You continue to be an inspiration to me as you engage with schools, students and teachers as a substitute. Thanks for all you do, and for your encouragement. I am privileged to know you!

  2. Oh my!!! Such a wonderful, insightful post! I, too, have claimed that verse several times. The most vivid was our move to Lancaster, CA in the Mojave Desert! And though I grew to love its desolate but rugged beauty, I thought we’d been sent to purgatory the 1st few months! Our shopping places: the K-Mart/Pic-n-Save Plaza, Target, Sears, Penney’s and maybe Mervyn’s. Had to drive an hour to find a mall! But the Lord led us to a good church, we eventually made friends, and several years later I began my teaching career. And yes, those first 2 years were pretty much “Hell,” even at a Christian school! I had completely forgotten these verses immediately precede Jer 29:11 (I don’t link them in my mind), but what a beautiful command/promise pair. Thanks for a most inspiring reminder!!

    Love you 3 and will talk to Brant about more support! Hugs, Laura P.s. We’re having an R&R week with long-time friends/mentors and then head out on 3 weeks of visiting supporters; another 1 wk break with our older son in San Diego for Thanksgiving; a business week in TX (visa app and biometrics + TX driver’s licenses); and finally family time with our TX family for Christmas and New Year’s. Would appreciate prayer for stamina, wisdom to encourage others, hearing from Jesus about our future.

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    • Thank you, Laura! It’s encouraging to know that we’ve all had our various “exiles” and lived to tell the tale, getting to know God better in the process! Praying for the many journeys you have ahead, for energy, clarity and wisdom in the next weeks. Love you both!

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