The last several Sundays, I have been preaching from the Jeremiah texts, the weeping prophet that warned the Hebrew people about the exile they would experience in the days and years to come. They had been warned many times about living justly and lovingly as God instructed them to do, but they didn’t listen, and they had to take the consequences. We are like that at times, perhaps more times than we would like to admit. We know what God has instructed, we know what we should do, but we fall short of the mark because we want things to turn out the way we want them to, not the way we know that God wants them to. We too, must face the consequences, even if we are repentant, even if we are forgiven.
I have been thinking about exile for a long time and very seriously over the last four years as I have researched and written for my Doctor of Ministry degree. I have been thinking about exile because there is so much exile in the world and, in my experience at least, talking about exiles is difficult. I am not certain why. Here in the US, most of us are descended from people who were in exile, who were refugees, who were forced to emigrate because there was little hope for a life that would offer space and opportunities to thrive. Why is it so easy to forget this very solid fact?
Why is it so easy to erase our own history, our own family’s difficulties, the situations that made them refugees and cast them into exile? And why is it so easy to forget that those who are refugees and immigrants who find themselves in exile at this moment experience life differently than our own ancestors who left their homelands because of war or politics or famine or climate events, looking for a place to settle where life could be lived, and the future generations would have a chance? I am part of those future generations that my refugee ancestors left everything they knew so life could continue and, as Jesus put it, that abundant life is possible. (John 10:10) Why are we not prouder of our ancestors who overcame so many obstacles so that our lines could be born than we are of those small glimmers of royal ancestors? (And yes, if you are wondering, I can trace my ancestry to William the Conqueror, although I am much more fascinated by the lives of my ancestors who left Germany as refugees in 1709)
Preaching from Jeremiah has offered me the opportunity to ask other questions about who exiles across the world are. I have thought about those closer to home and how we might be in exile or who are in exile around us. Perhaps we know of family members who are struggling with a situation in their lives. Perhaps we know of someone facing a difficult illness and they are tired or without hope. Perhaps we know of people whose life is in chaos through no fault of their own—war or floods or Hurricane Ian that blew over and washed over some of our beloved church members, family, or friends. Sometimes, it is us who are exiled because of situations. Perhaps we are estranged from family members or friends. Perhaps we are lonely or tired or discouraged.
Last Sunday, there were two stories that I meant to tell, in my sermon, about being in exile and sharing out of our exile, but time ran out. So, I decided to share one here, on my blog. Of course, it is a family story. All of you know more about my family than you need to, but I reflect on the lessons I learned through my family and ancestors as I hope that you do with your family and ancestors as well.
My father never called his life as a pastor an exile but moving every four years was a commitment that not everyone could make, and it was always difficult for my father and for all of us. When it was time to move, we spent months not knowing where we would go or if the bishop and cabinet would take into consideration the needs of the family. One time my father asked to move because my mother was nearly blind, and he wanted to be appointed somewhere near Charlotte, NC so that my mother could go to the best eye doctors. That year, we didn’t move at all—the only time my father stayed longer than 4 years anywhere and the next year when we did move, we moved as far away from Charlotte as could be in the conference.
I never really knew how difficult things were for my father, during this time, as he desperately wanted my mother to be able to see, but he was committed to going where he was sent. He would not have described it this way, but I know that he felt my mother was in exile because she couldn’t see, and he felt in exile because he was so far away from those he thought were the best eye doctors for my mother.
It was during this time when I noticed how interested my father was in flowers. I had never really paid attention to the many house plants that thrived under my father’s care and always moved with us, but I noticed how tender my father cared for them. And I noticed how my father could always name a flower or a tree, usually with a common name and a botanical name. It was this time, when both of my parents felt in exile, that I noticed how, out of my father’s exile he began to offer color and hope through the hobby that brought him the most joy.
I remember a bird feeder near the window in the dining room at the parsonage in Pelham, when my mother’s sight was at its worst and where she would have the surgery that would eventually restore her sight. My mother could not really see the bird feeder on the top of the green pole, but she could see the explosion of color of the pansies that my father planted around it. She couldn’t see them clearly, but she could see yellow and that gave her hope.
My father’s love of flowers and growing things went with him wherever we moved, and they were the signs of hope for my father that God was with him. Like Jeremiah’s instructions for the Hebrews in exile to plant gardens, my father planted flowers and flowering shrubs wherever we moved. Camellias, the flowing shrub found throughout the south, fascinated him. He would take cuttings and root them and create a nursery in the parsonage yards. He would cover them carefully with chicken wire and scatter moth balls around the tender young cuttings to keep out the squirrels. He would stay out there for what seemed like hours, but now I know that he was praying or trying to work out a problem or thinking through his weekly sermon. These nurseries were really quite holy.
I loved to stand with my father as he would go out to his camellia nursery every night to see if they needed anything. He knew where every cutting came from, and he had them labeled. He would tell me “This will be red, or this will be pink.” He would propagate them and graft them.
One he would even name after me. Everywhere we lived my father would plant these beautiful camellias. They were scattered across parsonages yards throughout Piedmont, NC.
Many times, the older members of the congregation or those who were sick would receive beautiful red or pink or white blooms for birthdays or anniversaries or to help brighten their sick rooms. For my father, these gifts of camellia blooms were a sign of hope during celebration and exile. But it was the exile of death that would provide the place that most needed hope. Camellia blooms were pressed in Bibles. Camellia plants were planted in memory of a loved one. These blooms and plants offered hope in the most difficult exiles of life for many of the people that he served.
My father probably never knew how much hope that simple act of growing God’s flowers brought. In many cases, he, like Jeremiah was weeping as well, but there was hope in the exile and that hope reminded people that God is always with us.
Where do you notice hope being shared? Where are we offering hope to those who may feel in exile? I pray that we are all paying attention to those who feel in exile throughout our world. I pray that we are all offering hope.
3 thoughts on “Hope in Exile”
Reblogged this on G-d in the World.
A beautiful messageof hope in exile – and a tribute to your father.
I loved reading this and gaining this insight into your dad and you! I now look at our camellia in a new way. It looks like the first photo with the pink and white. Your thoughts on exile really challenged me to think. Thank you.
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