For three of the last four American autumns/South African springs, we have waited for babies to be born. In November 2007, Levi arrived; last year we welcomed Jesse; this year we waited with our colleagues, Karen and Andrew Suderman, for their daughter, Samantha Joy, born on 19 October. As Anna had committed early on in the pregnancy to serve as Karen’s doula (labor assistant), and as the Sudermans reside a five-hours’ drive from Mthatha in Pietermaritzburg, waiting for Samantha also meant separation for our family. I stayed home in order to see Isaac and Moses through their school schedules; Anna, Levi, and Jesse settled in with the Lindell Detweiler family, colleagues with Mennonite Mission Network, near Pietermaritzburg as they waited with Karen and Andrew. As our separation threatened to enter its third week, we decided to take the boys out of school and to Pietermaritzburg for a few days, convinced that the baby could not delay much longer. In the end, that decision was rewarded: Samantha finally came (the boys missed only four days of school), and, in the meantime, we enjoyed some great team bonding time.
Our period of waiting and separation coincided in the Revised Common Lectionary with the reading of Jeremiah 29:1, 4:7, “the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles . . . whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon” (v. 1). In opposition to the lying “prophets and diviners” among the Jewish exiles in Babylon who had prophesied an imminent return to Jerusalem, Jeremiah implored the exiles to “build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (vv. 5-7). In short, Jeremiah was telling the exiles that they must not delay—that they must not wait—to live their lives though they be away from home. Though they be away from the familiar, from that place where they had always lived, from that place which was to them life itself, the exiles would have to learn to live a new life. Only in that living anew would they truly live. Only in seeking the peace of their new surroundings would they themselves find peace.
Though I was the one left behind, I felt no less than Anna “in exile” in my life without her, Levi, and Jesse. Though I was tempted to treat the period as an interim, as a time between the time of union and reunion, I resolved to carry on the regular duties of the home as much as possible. In that sense, then, my particular challenge of living in exile was not so much, as it was for the exiles in Babylon, to build new homes as it was to maintain the home Anna and I had already made together for our family. Indeed, it was only in that maintenance that I would find my peace, in my work that the waiting became bearable. Indeed, without the resolve to work, the passing of each day in the long wait is as the sign of an interminable wait; without work, hope dies.
Karen, the expectant mother, said something similar during her long wait. Each day that passed seemed to decrease “the probability that this baby would actually be born.” But, she said, maintaining her hope, the passing of time actually “increases that probability”. The work of her waiting was eventually rewarded: labor finally came, and, after more work of another intensity, joy—Samantha Joy.
It seems, therefore, most appropriate that the apostle Paul compared the fulfillment of the kingdom of God to a woman in labor (Rom. 8:22; 1 Th. 5:3). As we wait for the arrival of the King, we work so as not to lose hope. Though our work does not bring God’s kingdom, it prepares us to welcome it when he comes. It allows us to experience beforehand, as a woman who finally gives birth, that the kingdom is joy, not fear, and that “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Th. 5:9). “Blessed,” then, “is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives” (Mt. 24:46).