North of Chicago in a little town called Mundelein there is a small lake in the woods. As I walked around this small lake, crossing over several bridges, I spied the shaggy bark of a hickory tree. Scattered on the ground were tightly closed, light green husks. After all these years, my brain pulled up a distant memory of hickory nuts. I was so surprised that I used my phone to research the hickory nut tree confirming I had correctly identified it. Being in the presence of this tree brings back memories of gathering hickory nuts. Joy bubbles up inside me as I recall a sunny autumn day on a neighboring farm; grandma had been invited to harvest hickory nuts. A handful of cousins, my brother and I helped gather nuts and played underneath the tree.
The hickory nut is a small delicious nut worth the great effort it takes to crack and extract the meat inside. It was worth the effort back then because grandma did most of the tedious work and added them to chocolate chip cookie dough. Chocolate chip cookies loaded with hickory nuts are a beautiful autumnal combination of flavors and a favorite of mine. It has been years since I have tasted a hickory nut.
Throughout the woods around this small lake were other reminders of growing up in Ohio: lichen, puff balls (a type of fungus), tree bracket fungus, red maple leaves, gray squirrels and cicada. Why does this thrill me so? Maybe it was because I was the girl who talked to trees and found comfort in nature. A small ranch house plopped down on an acre shaded by 100 trees taught me to fall asleep with the raucous sound of the cicadas and to wake early in the morning with enough bird calls one would think I lived in an aviary.
Under the trees I imagined myself living a different life than the one in which I had been planted. Isn’t that the way we are – often looking for a dreamier, better life and missing the best of life we are meant to be living. Though my family lived in chaos, I was given the gift of experiencing the woods in every season with each of their distinctive qualities. And I could often be found outside no matter the weather. On the far side of mid-life my childhood behavior of re-imagining my life has become a bad habit and has planted weeds of discontent.
In recent months I read a passage in Jeremiah 29. Those of you familiar with this chapter may have jumped straight to the popularly quoted passage of verses 11-13, “‘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 a hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.’”
But verse 14 says, “‘I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will bring you back from captivity.’” Captivity! That turns my head and eyes back a page to the beginning of the chapter. Israel had rebelled against God again and we find them exiled in Babylon – enemy territory. Jeremiah sends them a message from God, chapter 29 verses 4-7 (NIV) are the first portion of this message.
“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘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.’”
This place God has planted me is not a place of captivity; I am no longer a child trapped in an alcoholic home. I am married to a godly man who is like home to me. But I have been discontented with my neighborhood, my city and sometimes my church. This is a place the enemy loves for me to camp out – this place of deception and self-pity. I don’t like it and am not proud of my struggle. But when I read this passage in Jeremiah I was jolted out of my complacency and recognized I have some serious work to do. As I read, I felt the Holy Spirit challenge me to quit looking beyond this place.
I am to put down roots and to pray for the good of my neighbors. It is easier to grumble about them, but nothings changes when I do. Nothing changes with the neighbors and nothing changes inside me. Have you ever lived in a difficult neighborhood? Loud music and screaming, a dog yapping in the middle of the night are some of the irritations. It is loud, and sometimes disturbing noises, salted with cursing that affect me most. Some of these sounds take me back to the harsher memories of childhood, the painful years of growing up in an alcoholic home. I can let the memories hold me captive or I can take them captive by His Spirit and seek to have compassion and mercy for my neighbors.
It is essential for me to look for God in my neighborhood; to see His work, His calling and His beauty. I only have to walk a few blocks east of my home before I have a view of the Pacific Ocean. On an evening walk I may get a glimpse of a beautiful coastal sunset even though I don’t live on the beach. What is my turquoise table on this street? This is still unsettled. I am seeking God’s direction. I enjoy baking and am wondering if sharing baked goods will be the way of blessing my neighbors and inviting my heart to care. What is going well for me here and now? My own home life. Also, God is working to transform me in this neighborhood.
Brokenness breeds brokenness unless someone decides to do some mending. Mending is hard, tedious work, even more tedious than grandma cracking hickory nuts, and many do not recognize mending as an option to wholeness and peace. Living in brokenness is hard work also but the payoff is pain. So I am learning to pray for neighbors who scream and curse at one another, and to recognize the neighbor whose car alarm goes off nearly everyday is struggling to make ends meet and get kids to school on time. These people aren’t here to make my life miserable. This isn’t my childhood. These are the people around me who need Jesus; there is hope for them just as there has been hope for me. I am to make a garden in this neighborhood. I am to make home in this neighborhood. And I am to pray for this neighborhood to prosper – for God to bless these people and bring hope and healing into their lives.
In what ways have you seen God in your situation? What is He teaching you? I have added a link here to a podcast that moved and inspired me to be content and live fully in the blessings He has given me for this time.