At the corner of my desk, just beyond the edge of my computer display, sits a digital photo frame. Every day when I come into the office, I turn it on. Almost 300 pictures scroll through its slide show as I work, practically all of them of the orphaned children of Kaihura, Uganda. Mostly I do my work, focused on the screen, the lives of these children playing out on the margins of my day. Occasionally, however, I catch a child's face and eyes out of the corner of my eye, and I stop and look at him, for a moment remembering what it was like to be in the midst of so many of them during trips there the last couple of years.
There are two "tough" guys, arms around each other; an older sister holding her infant sister; the black faces and dark probing eyes of four school friends staring back at me; a crowd of faces, some smiling, some steely, some inquisitive, some impassive; a grassy plain of elephants not more than 100 miles away from the village that most of the children will never see. I can hear their laughter and chatter in Rotoro, their broken English, and their questions, feel the touch of their hands on my white skin. Soon, however, I turn back to what I am working on, the words on a page, the faces relegated once again to the margins.
One of my favorite verses of Scripture is that contained in Jeremiah 29:11, where the prophet quotes God in a letter from Jerusalem to the exiles of Babylon, as saying "For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, to give you a reason and hope." It's a verse of assurance, one I have often quoted to myself or an anxious friend to provide comfort that, despite the confusion of life at times, God is sovereign and has a plan, to "prosper," "not harm," to "give. . . reason and hope." When I think about these orphans, however, the verse begins to lose its easy quotability. What, after all, would it mean to say to an orphan that God will prosper him or her, give them reason (to live, to work, to become educated), and give them hope? The average life span in Uganda is 43, so many of these children will die at what is for us an early age, either from cholera, malaria, AIDS, or some other opportunistic disease. Many will not complete secondary school, lacking funds to pay the school fees, and only a handful, if any, will make it to university. And yet, even with such prospects, many have faith in the God of Jeremiah, the one who will prosper. What can that mean?
Verses of Scripture, like newspaper quotes, soundbytes, and memories, need context to be understood aright. Jeremiah said these words to a people in captivity, exiles who longed for the familiarity and freedom of their homeland. However, the promises he gave them were not of immediate deliverance. It would be another generation that would be delivered from captivity, as he told them it would be 70 years before they would see their homeland: "This is what the Lord says: 'When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise and bring you back to this place'" (Jer. 29:10). He gave them a very practical message, telling them to live where they were, to commit themselves to life in the present: "Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. . . . Marry. . . . [and] find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage" (Jer. 29:5-6). Far from segregating themselves from the time and place in which they lived, simply getting by until their deliverance, He told them to "seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile" (Jer. 29:7). And he told them not to listen to the pipe dreams of false prophets, people who made promises that could not be kept and gave false hope.
So what does Jeremiah 29:11 mean for the orphans of Uganda? It means the same thing it does for all of us exiles in a foreign land, who long for a homeland where things are set right, for people who sometimes cry out like Habakkuk, asking "how long shall I cry for help and you will not hear?" (Hab. 1:2). For those who believe it, the promise is not that you can be whatever you want to be if you just work hard enough, or even that God will give you money, health, or recognition if you seek Him. Rather, it is the voice of a Father telling his children that they are not on the margins of his work but at the center of his mind and heart. He's saying: "Live here. Settle down. Commit to the future of life here. Work for the good of your community. Wait for me, children. I will deliver you, if not in life, then in death. Much is at stake, more than you realize, but I will never forget you. I will come for you."
One of the songs the orphans sing, in Rotoro and English, is "God is so good, God is so good, God is so good, He's so good to me." I think it's the song of God's exiles, singing their way back home. If they can sing it, so can we.