Okay I admit it. I enjoy reality television. What can I say? After a long day of pastoral care, property and facility disputes and sermon crafting, I come home with just enough energy to press "power" on the remote and tune in to my personal favorite: "Project Runway." There is something very feeding about watching the creative work of others in a different discipline. The contestants are all young designers trying to create the best look for the weekly runway show. The center point of the program is Tim Gunn of the Parsons School of Design, who guides the contestants through their design and crafting of the garments. In almost every show, he offers the same line to frustrated contestants whose garment is not developing as they had hoped: "Make it work!"
I was reminded of his famous line when I was wrestling with the scripture from Jeremiah 29:4-7 this week. To the Israelites in captivity, God offers a surprising voice; one with the uncanny ring of Tom Gunn: "Make it work!" God says, in this place of exile, you should build homes, plant gardens, and tend your families.
I think we can all imagine the shock of the Israelites at these words. Most all of us have experienced exile at some point in our lives, whether geographic, psychological or spiritual. Exile is not a place you immediately think to build a home or family, or continue your work.
I struggled with this idea all week until finally, last Saturday, I saw something that changed the way I came at this scripture. As I was reading the morning paper, I saw an article about those thirty-three men trapped in the Chilean mine. Truly, they are experiencing the ultimate exile-separated from not just home and family, but air and sunlight for over two months. Yet, they are surviving, even thriving, because they are following the very advice given in Jeremiah.
In their place of exile, they built homes. No, technically, they didn't construct a walled dwelling, but they began to create living conditions that protected and strengthened them. After being discovered, the first thing rescue workers did was to find a way to simulate night and day so that the miners could regain a predictable pattern of rest. They also began to deliver hot food. Doctors reported that within days, the health and strength of the miners began to improve drastically. In any place of exile, you must strengthen and protect yourself; you must build yourself a home.
They also tended their families. Twenty-three hundred feet above ground, families of the miners have gathered, living in tents now deemed "camp hope." Each miner is allowed a periodic one minute phone call with family members. NASA experts trained in addressing the psychological strain from isolation on the space station, helped coordinate this effort. "Human connection to family or one's support system is critical for psychological wellbeing," explained one expert, "especially in times of prolonged separation."
Paralleling the commandments found in Jeremiah, the miners also followed the third instruction: plant gardens and eat what they reap. In short, continue with your work. In the past two months, the miners have divided themselves into groups of eleven, working eight-hour shifts on clearing debris, measuring oxygen levels and reinforcing the walls of the mine. Even in a place of exile, there is work to be done. And the miners are dutifully going about doing it.
For over two months, the miners have worked to strengthen themselves and their place of exile. And to date, they have survived. I couldn't help but remember the last line of our Jeremiah passage: "seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile...for in its welfare you will find your welfare."
As we all watch and wait for their ultimate rescue, let us pray that the miners' lessons in survival - of finding life in exile - will be honored and celebrated by us all. For no matter where you find yourself in life, no matter how isolated or exiled you may feel, if you tend your families, build your homes and do your work, you can survive-even thrive-and ultimately "make it work."
This message was also offered as a sermon on Sunday, October 10th at Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City. http://www.mabcnyc.org/mabc-audio.htm