With another in-person semester underway, this year finds us getting on with UNW campus life in the midst of COVID-19. Yes, the United States has more cases of the virus in 2021 than in 2020. Yes, Minnesota is still fighting record hospitalizations. And tragically yes, our communities are still deeply grieving the escalating losses of precious lives. However; instead of being crippled by the numbers, we are finding our way as a Christ-centered community. At Northwestern, we are learning to live life fully in the midst of the challenges.
Parents, how often do we inadvertently teach our students to believe that everything always gets better when that may not always be true? At the milestone of their graduation, we eagerly gift our students with Jeremiah 29:11, as if it predicts what’s next for them. “’For I know the plans I have for you’, declares the Lord. “Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” We hear ourselves saying, “just wait--everything will turn out fine.” Wanting to encourage our students through present predicaments, we parrot our own parents with, “you have your whole life ahead of you,” and, “the best is yet to come.”
However, as Christ followers, we also know with certainty that what comes next is not always the best. Our broken world will continue to experience war, corruption, greed, poverty, hunger, and disease through the end of our days on the planet. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise to us that we are unlikely to eradicate COVID-19 entirely. It might be more realistic to send our students into the world with, “it’s rough out there - expect the challenges to get bigger as you get older.” That carries truth, but it’s also true that those who place their faith in Christ are overcomers with every reason to have hope. We know the ultimate truth is that all will be made right in the end and that the Lord has prepared a place for His own in an eternity free of sin, sadness, pain, and death. With our minds set on paradise, it is no wonder that we naturally teach our students to expect the trajectory will end on a high note and that their potential will outweigh their obstacles. We need to be careful to distinguish between living fully as believers in the context of this imperfect world and our faith in a perfect future in eternity.
Remarkably, if we look at Jeremiah 29:11 in context, we have a model in scripture for how this works. Jeremiah 29 is written to the surviving elders, priests, and prophets—the spiritual parents—of the Israelites remaining in Babylon. They were not in the midst of a pandemic, they were living through 70 years of exile. Having literally been stolen from their homes in Jerusalem and taken by force to a foreign land to be enslaved. Their “virus” was pervasive, inescapable captivity. And yet, the Lord their God told them to teach this to their spiritual family, “build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:5-7)
That changes the perspective on our circumstances. Before we read the “plans for you” in v. 11, their instructions were to create a community, live fully, bless even the city of those who were their enemies, and in carefully moving forward with life within the context of their captivity, the Lord would bring about the “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a future and a hope.”
Parents, the last couple of years have been understandably discouraging for our students. Life has thrown them some giant curve balls. Can we help our students learn, like the remnant of Israel in Babylon, to live rich lives in the midst of COVID-19 captivity? Thriving in our present Babylon requires living in context. We don’t ignore the enemy at hand, but neither do we let the situation steal our joy. Living as believers means we are not unrealistic about the challenges we face in a broken world, but we remain optimistic about the future despite them. Let’s encourage our students to take care and stay safe while continuing to pursue community, spiritual growth, and their education—living fully in context at Northwestern.