Emails and landmarks

It hardly seems possible that it’s been 10 years already. Tragedy has a way of warping time. The events of those days seem both very distant and very present. It seemed fitting, even necessary, on this tenth anniversary of Jeremiah’s death to commemorate it with a post. I was thinking back on his various email addresses. His most recent one, the one he had when he died, was jerekurdi, which showed where his heart was. I hope if any of his students read this that you will know and remember from his final email address how much he loved each of you. You were his pride and joy and privilege.

The first email he ever had ended with “mntn.” He loved the mountains, and that email revealed how Alaska had won his heart. I think it was, of all the places he lived, his favorite. In the summers he loved hiking in the mountains, and in the winter he loved to snowboard on them. I remember standing by his grave and thinking how fitting it was for him to be buried there: on top of a hill that overlooked Suli, the city he had come to love. It was sprinkled with snow that day—another thing he loved. Someone in Iraq told us that it had snowed for two days there after he died, and it had snowed in Washington state where we lived that day as well. Such unusual weather for both locations, especially as late in the season as March 1st. I had written an email to the family from Iraq on March 5th that if he had still been alive he'd be snowboarding on those mountains around Suli.

But when he first went to Iraq, his email was “jer3121,” a Bible verse from the book that bore his name and the name of the prophet he was named after. I often wondered what his thoughts were. Why did he choose that verse? I never got to ask him. Over the years I’ve pondered that verse, seeking to discover the answer to my question.

The first half of the verse says this:

Set up signposts,

Make landmarks,

Set your heart toward the highway.

The verse indicates that life is a journey. We are all on a road, going somewhere. God is giving us three wise imperatives that require meditation and thought.

“Set up signposts.” Signposts are directional. Whenever we are journeying in unfamiliar territory—and life ahead of us is always unfamiliar; we never know what unexpected twists and turns are up ahead—we look for signposts to guide us, to assure us that we’re on the right track, and to tell us which way to go next. Signposts are true and reliable. They keep us moving in the right direction and prevent us from going off in a wrong direction.

I think of signposts as the truth of God’s Word. They hold us steady in the uncertainties of life and keep us journeying on the right path, walking toward God in the way of truth. In the midst of the darkest times in my life, I can think of “signposts” that have guided my life and held me fast, truths such are these:

“For a consider that the sufferings of these present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (as adopted children of God through faith in Jesus Christ). Romans 8:18

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Hebrews 13:8

“All things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” Romans 8:28

“I am God, and there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, ’My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure.’” Isaiah 46:9-10

“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name and you are Mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned.” Isaiah 43:1-2 (Through the words of a hymn, my husband was reminded of these verses in particular the night we learned of Jeremiah’s death.)

“Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they were all written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them.” Psalm 139:16 (This was the verse that came clearly to my mind that night of March 1, 2012. Though his death was a shock and surprise to us, it had not come as a surprise to God. God knew the day of his death before he was even born.)

“Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, yes, I will help you. I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. For I, the Lord your God, will hold your right hand, saying to you, ‘Fear not, I will help you.’” (Isaiah 41:10, 13)

These truths have anchored my soul and have acted as signposts to keep me on the right path and headed in the right direction.

Then the verse says to “make landmarks.” I got to thinking about landmarks. Before the days of internet and mapquest, we used to give directions to each other using landmarks: i.e., “you’ll see a big red barn on your left; turn left on the next road just past the big red barn,” etc. These landmark directions were far more interesting than Siri’s often-annoying directions. Landmark directions are sort of like a treasure hunt: we keep our eyes peeled, watching for them. And when we see them as we go by, we are assured that we’re headed in the right direction.

Landmarks are different from signposts. Landmarks are often buildings of some sort, something someone else has built in the past. They are like the lives of those well lived that inspire us, give us hope, and keep us pressing on even when the going is hard and we’re tempted to take an easier road. Jeremiah’s life was like that. He lived well, with purpose and clear direction, and he wasn’t afraid to die for what he believed. His life acts as a landmark to us and beckons us to follow in the same path.

Each of us is building a landmark with our lives for those who follow after us to see. What landmark will we leave behind? Will it inspire and give hope? Will it strengthen others to persevere, to press on in the right path, to live and die for the truth?

There’s a determined focus in the third imperative of Jeremiah 31:21: “Set your heart on the highway.” It’s always our hearts that God is after. He wants the very core of us, the whole of our affections and desires, set on following Him. I think we all saw that in Jeremiah. He had set his heart on the highway—not a highway as in our modern-day freeways, but the high road instead of the low road. As Isaiah 55:9 says, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.” The ways of God that are so much higher than ours, so much better, so much wiser—this is what God wants us to set our hearts on. It requires trust, as another “signpost” verse says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding.” (Proverbs 3:5)

Accepting Jeremiah’s death has required trust in the sovereign God who sees the end from the beginning, who knows the measure of our days, and who is in control of all things—even the hard things. As we continue on from here, let us make our own the verse he had taken for his own. Let us take our directions from the truth of God’s Word, setting them up as signposts that continually point us in the right direction and keep us moving onward. Let us look for the landmarks of men and women of the faith who can inspire and challenge us and hold us steady, and let us leave behind our own landmark that will encourage others on their journey. And let us set our whole heart on walking the high-way of God.

On this tenth anniversary, may we recommit to these things. As the second half of the verse says, “The way in which you went, turn back…turn back.” If we’ve gotten off the right path—the high road—it’s an open invitation from God Himself calling to return. It’s a call of mercy, a yearning of love for us from the heart of God.

Thank you, Jeremiah, for following the signposts of God’s Word. Thank you for leaving behind the landmark of your life for us to follow. Thank you for setting your heart on the high-way.


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