I remember when I first moved to Norman for college in the summer of 2006. I despised everything about the town except for the university. I hated that I would walk by a beautiful house on one street and find a dump within 50 feet of it (what zoning?), thought it was weird that there were bus stops and people actually waited at them to catch the city bus (where is your new BMW?), and lamented the loss of my Lifetime Fitness membership because most gyms in Norman are not big, corporate establishments. Growing up in suburban Dallas with a bunch of rich, white folks left me with little tolerance for much that was different from the people and lifestyle I had grown accustomed to over the past 18 years.
During my years at the University of Oklahoma, I met my husband, who, much to my dismay at the time, is from Oklahoma. We married and settled down in Norman, a place I swore I would leave as soon as I graduated. I’m still here, almost 10 years after I arrived. And, by God’s grace, I’ve grown to love this place.
Every Christian seems to know Jeremiah 29:11 by heart. Come on, say it with me: “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.’” What most people don’t realize, and what I had not grasped until recently, is that the Lord says these words to a group of exiles who were stuck in a place where they didn’t want to be. In the verses leading up to Jeremiah 29:11, God tells his people to “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” (verses 5-7). Another translation says to “seek the welfare” of the city and find your own welfare there.
God is calling us, just as he called His people in Jeremiah thousands of years ago, to be present wherever he has placed us- even if we feel like exiles. The thing I love about the passage above is that God does not expect extraordinary things of the Israelites. He simply instructs them to go about their days as they did in Jerusalem. Instead of wishing for a different location or a different season of life, God says to plant gardens (work), get married, and have children. He directs them to pray for the city where they are exiled. And he tells them to do those things now, in this place- not in 70 years when he releases them from their dispersion and brings them back to their “home.” He also doesn’t say, “Go and serve at the local homeless shelter, for there you will find your welfare,” or, “Volunteer at a crisis pregnancy center,” though loving a city can and often does take on such forms. Perhaps when God commands His people to seek the prosperity of the city where He has sent them, He is really just asking them to show up.
Too often, I am prone to wish my life away and miss the opportunities that the Lord has set in front of me. He places me where he does on purpose, yet I waste entirely too much time thinking of how I can get out of those places. A good starting point in loving our city might just be to go about our daily lives and find joy there instead of putting everything on hold until we are in a more desirable location or phase. “Put your roots down here,” He beckons. So, whether we find ourselves in an unattractive city, a monotonous job, or a trying chapter, let’s fight the urge to seek a way out and instead pray that we would love God right where we are. Sometimes, seeking the peace of a city means participating in service projects as we traditionally think of them, but sometimes it means starting small- by growing where we are planted.