Sunday, October 16, 2016

A Chair

"A Chair With A Name"
Matthew 6:13

Soon after the Murrah Federal Building Memorial in Oklahoma City was finished, I happened to be traveling from Colby to Austin for a week of study leave.  I decided to stop in Oklahoma City for lunch and go to the Memorial site where the bombing of the Murrah building was.

It was one of those places and experiences that had a profound and sobering effect on me.  The  long reflection pool, the bronze gates of time at each end of the pool.  But what effected my somber mood at that place was the field of chairs.  And the utter quiet of the place, especially as a number of people, almost worshipfully wove in and out of the chairs.

There are 168 chairs—one for each of the victims of the bombing of the building that took place on April 19,1995.  There are tall chairs for the adults who were killed and short chairs for the daycare children who were killed in the building.  On each chair is a name.  A name of a person, who at 9:01 was alive and going about their day.  But one minute later, at 9:02 was dead from a bomb blast created by Timothy McVeigh.

I think the bombing of the Murrah building affected me more than 9/11.  Maybe because it's closer than New York.  It was in our own front yard, so-to-speak.  And it was one of the first of what has become a string of terroristic, sadistically evil acts in our country.  And it wasn't instigated by some radicalized foreigner.  Timothy McVeigh was an American.  Why would a citizen of our great country create a bomb that unleashed such a devastating carnage on innocent people?  Your immediate answer may be something like, "Timothy McVeigh was the embodiment of evil."

Fortunately, a similar explosion was averted this past week in Garden City, where three degenerates were going to blow up an apartment building that housed a large number of Somali immigrants.  The Somali's were all Muslims.  The shock waves and after effects of evil would have spread across our state like a wildfire, had those demented men succeeded.  Which is what they hoped would happen by their evil act.

The concentric circles of grief from The Murray building bombing were almost too much for me to understand at that time:  168 people dead, 168 families impacted involving how many people, and all the friends of those 168 people, all the firefighters and police who were first responders who found the 168 dead, not to mention all of us who watched our televisions with gaping looks of disbelief at scenes of a building with it's whole front blown away, exposing offices like gaping wounds in a human body.  How will all those wounds ever be closed and healed?  Have they ever been since that awful day?

In the picture we are looking at (looked at at the start of this sermon), there is a man embracing the chair of a loved one killed that day.  What struck me is that what that man is attempting to embrace is the family member he lost; but at the same time he is being forced to embrace the great evil that took the life of that family member from him.  It is a weird combination, isn't it?

The memorial site itself is this messy mix of a place of atrocious evil that has now become a sacred place, where people whisper as if they were in a sanctuary.  Imagine the before and after pictures of that place.  The Murrah Federal Building with its whole front facade blown away.  Then a picture of a long reflection pool, the gates of time at each end of the pool, and the field of chairs.  Go back and forth in your mind between those two pictures.  Bombed ground to sacred ground.  The panic-filled busy-ness of a blown up scene, now a still and glassy pool.  A place of killing evil now a place of somber sacredness.

I imagine the difference of those two pictures in my mind, and just maybe that is how we need to deal with the evil that we face in life—how do we transform that evil into sacredness?  This sermon series is about how to find meaning in our lives.  One of the stark realities of life is that evil can take away our meaning in life.  Either leach it away inch by inch, or devastate us with its explosive quickness.  The mystery is that evil can bring us meaning in life, not through its evil, but through forcing our reaction to that evil.

Evil has a plan, I think.  And that plan is to get us to react in a negative, life draining way to whatever evil threw our way.  Evil wins not by the evil in itself, but in any of our defeated reactions to what has happened.

I've been watching the past season of the show, Bones, on Netflix.  (Anyone watch that show?  It's about a team of forensic scientists who solve murders for the FBI.)  One of the characters in the show, Hodgins, was examining the body of a police officer who had been murdered.  Unbeknownst to Hodgins, the person who left the dead body of the murdered police officer, had put a bomb in the ribcage of the corpse.  When it went off, Hodgins survived, but was paralyzed.  The evil act was killing a policeman, then planting a bomb that would injure even more law enforcement people.

Hodgins was understandably bitter.  Pent up anger, that turned into demeaning outbursts.  From his wheelchair, he lashed out at his co-workers, his friends, and especially his wife.  Evil was winning.  Hodgins was giving in to that evil.  He had other choices of how to react, but he chose to let the evil of the murder and the bombing get the better of him.  That one, instantaneous act changed his life—but for him and his reaction, for the worse.  The evil of the bombing became the tragedy of another man losing his meaning in life.  It wasn't the bombing itself.  It was the bitter reaction Hodgins chose that compounded the evil.  Hopefully in future episodes, Hodgins will work through that.  But what if he doesn't?

What if we don't?  What if we allow the evil in the world to also destroy and compromise our sense of meaning in life? Somehow we have to overcome the evil.  That's what we're praying when we say that phrase in The Lord's Prayer:  "…deliver us from evil…"  That phrase is a little misleading.  Most people pray that phrase thinking that they are praying that God would keep them away from evil—that God would put up a spiritual blockade so that evil never touches us.

But the word "deliver" really means to "rescue."  "Rescue us from evil."  That has a whole different meaning.  It means the evil is already upon us.  It is overpowering us.  It is getting the better of us.  By praying the Lord's Prayer, and that phrase in particular, we are praying for rescue from an evil that is already happening to us—right now.

What we need to be rescued from is not only the evil that is beating us down, but also the evil that wants us to react to it, when it is over, with feelings of guilt, anger, bitterness, hollowness, frustration and more.  Once the evil event is over, then comes the wave of emotional reactions that can destroy us just as surely as the event itself.  What we are asking God to rescue us for is so we won't give up our sense of meaning in reaction to evil, that God had given us before the evil attacked.

What we are asking God, through that phrase in The Lord's Prayer, is to remove the toxic impact of evil.  It's those toxic leftovers from evil events that usually get us.  Most of us, remarkably, get through the big, awful experiences that we would also label as some kind of evil.  What we have the harder time doing is dealing with the toxic after-effects that have a way of poisoning our personal meaning.

Last year, on the 20th anniversary of the bombing, a Remembrance service was planned.  One of those who attended was paramedic Darrell McKnight who now looks like an off-duty Santa Claus, and talks in a low rumble. He has struggled with drug addiction and developed post-traumatic stress disorder, which he attributes to the bombing. 

"To say how the bombing has affected my world would simply be that April 19th was a game changer in my life," McKnight said. "I don't think you could have been there without being affected by it deeply…That was a lifetime of trauma."

The ensuing 20 years have have taken their inexorable toll on McKnight, who said he's never been able to remove memories of being handed lifeless babies he could do nothing for, or of seeing corpses displaying the bomb's full brutality.  He remembers talking to a woman he had found trapped under tons of debris. The woman was injured so badly that she would surely die and McKnight said he was unsure whether she was even aware the rescuers were there.

One of the ways McKnight chose to cope was through drugs, most notably, methamphetamine.  "(It's) a great way to self-medicate ... I'm really open about my addiction issues that came after the bombing," McKnight said.  He's been clean now for 4 years, he said, "dealing with life on life's terms rather than Darrell's terms.  It hasn't been real easy."

"Deliver us from evil."  "Rescue us from evil."  The evil is not just the bombing (or whatever other atrocity evil explodes into our lives).  Evil is the continuing toxic effects to such an experience, that on a continuing basis makes us say, "It hasn't been real easy."  But that's what Jesus wants us to pray for—to be rescued from that ongoing toxicity that threatens to take us over.  Jesus wants to restore a sense of deep meaning back into our lives.

Jesus doesn't want us locked into the downward spiral of spirit draining after effects to evil, just as much as we don't want it to happen.  Like Darrell found, the further he got into his toxic reaction to the evil he saw, the harder it was to free himself from it.

Jesus Christ is able to purge the toxic poison of evil's hold on us, take it upon himself, and do away with it.  We can't do that for ourselves, because once we allow those toxins into our spirit, they become entrenched and we are their prisoner.  Only Jesus can deal with that level of the after-effects of evil.  That's what Jesus wants us to go to him in prayer for, so that we might be rescued from evil.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Like Oysters

"Like Oysters Explaining Ballerinas"
Isaiah 55:8-9

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways.
This is the word of the Lord.
But as the heavens are high above the earth,
so are my ways high above your ways
and my thoughts above your thoughts.  (Revised English Bible)

In her essay, "Waltzing with the God of Chaos", the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor wrote:
I am so reluctant to talk about God and what God thinks and how God acts.  I have such a red flag there.  I go there, but when I do, I'm very reminded of Robert Capon saying, (in talking about God) we're like oysters trying to explain ballerinas.

I talked with my son, Ryan, about his faith this weekend and found this is one of the things that bugs him the most—people speaking for God, people who say they know God's mind, what God thinks, how God feels about specific issues and situations in the world.  To Ryan it is the height of arrogance to say you know what God thinks.  And I totally agree.

So, how can I talk about God without falling into that same arrogance?  How can I tell you who God is and who God is not?  I'm in this sermon series about what it is that gives life meaning, and I firmly believe our belief in God infuses life with meaning.  But how do I say that without totally misleading you about God?  It's a fearful thing to stand before you and speak with assurance and confidence about the person of God, and hope I'm not totally messing up.  I feel that way more and more as I have progressed into my 37 years of ministry.  I think when I was younger, I was much more arrogant and willing to tell people exactly what God was like and what God thought.

So this is going to be a tough message, and as I sat writing it at the end of this week, I wasn't sure where I was going with it.  It's a weird mindset to be writing a sermon in which I wanted to tell you God is the best one to give your life meaning, but, at the same time, according to this scripture, realizing how fundamentally different God is from us in terms of thinking and acting.

I was talking with a woman from another church one time.  She was trying to get to California before her grandmother died.  A bunch of crazy events happened that conspired against her and she didn't get to make the trip.  She even ended up missing her grandmother's funeral.  She said, "Well, God had a plan and getting out to California just wasn't his plan.  God must have something else in mind for me."
I replied, "And maybe not getting to California had nothing to do with God at all.  It was just a bunch of sorry events and circumstances that got in your way."

Now before you chastise me for being very unpastoral, and having a terrible bedside manor with this woman, or selling God short and not defending God like I should, let's look at the mindset that informed our responses to her situation.  Because it is the same mindset:  Neither of us know what God is thinking, what God is up to, and so we must try and surmise what it is we think God is thinking.

The woman did not know what God was intending when she was unable to get to California.  Maybe God was intending something.  Maybe not.  But in order for the woman to make sense of her situation, she had to give God the benefit of the doubt—God had some intention for her, she just did not know what that was.  God was up to something.  She was unable to figure out what that something was.  But it was something.  It was not just nothing.  All she had to do was figure out what God was thinking.  Then she would be at peace with what happened.

My response to the woman was different, but from the same mindset.  I am unwilling to blame God for everything that happens.  Whether she realized it or not, this woman was blaming God for not getting her to California.  She wanted God to defend himself, and make his reasons clear.  I was not willing to go that far.  I imagined God "up there" looking down, thinking, "Look, lady, it is not my fault you did not have enough money for the plane fare.  Maybe you should not have bought that new laptop that left you short of money.  Do not ask me what I was thinking; what were you thinking?  Where are your priorities?"

I thought that in my head.  But I did not say it to the woman.  Maybe I should have.  Maybe I should have said something like, "Look, the problem is not with God or what you think God is thinking or not thinking in terms of your situation.  The problem is your screwed up thinking—your screwed up theology—of who you think God is, and how you think God should act.  You have all kinds of messed up expectations about that."  But I didn't say that out loud.  Are you feeling better about my pastoral abilities, now?

A lot of people think they know what God should be thinking.  A lot of people think they know how God should be acting in certain situations.  A lot of people think they know the ways of God, or at least what they should be.

But not according to God's statement here in Isaiah:  "For my thoughts are not your thoughts…"  The word "your" there is plural, which means all of you.  If God was a southerner, it would read something like: "For my thoughts are not like any of all you-all's thoughts."  Get that in your heads.  God does not think like you.  At all.  In any way.  The converse is also true:  You do not think like God.  At all.  In any way.

God's ways are not like any of our ways.  Our ways are not like any of God's ways.  When you look up at the night sky, and see the stars, the distance between you and those stars is representative of how different God's thinking and ways are from ours.  Some of those stars you are looking at are already dead, and their light has gone out.  It's just taken their light that long to travel the huge distance so you could see it.  That great distance is descriptive of how large of a gap there is between how God's ways are from ours, and ours from God's.  Does that blow your mind, or what!?

Let's just stop and think of the ramifications for that biblical truth that God doesn't think like us, act like us, nor are God's ways anything like our ways.  What does that mean for all the issues, large and small that we squabble about in the church?  Think of all the ways people on either side of some issue that is effecting the church try to angle God on their side.

What this statement of God means is that, just probably, both sides are wrong and have nothing to do with God.  What this means is that there just may be a third side to every issue, and that's where God resides, and it has nothing to do with any of the sides we human beings are on.  What if, in all our arguing, and side-taking, and issue bashing, we are ALL wrong?

But beyond all of our arguing and side-taking, how can we know that what we have interpreted as God acting in our life is really God acting in our life?  Maybe God has acted in our lives in ways we have totally missed—because they don't measure up with our mindset about the ways of God.  Maybe things that have happened in our lives have been totally misinterpreted, as to God's activity.  How can you be sure, if God's "ways are not your ways" and God's "thinking is nothing like your thinking"?

Am I or my questions getting bothersome?  I, at least, hope I'm getting you thinking.  Because this is really important in our approach to God and God's approach to us.  How can we know we are making a connection to God if God's ways are so different from our ways, and God's way of thinking is way off from how we think?

I'll share one answer to those questions that was reaffirmed to me in an article I got this week, forwarded from our presbytery office.  I shared a copy of it with Alan Luttrell, because it has to do with our vivid vision and our work in growing the church.  The title to the article is, "Can We Wait for God's Spark?"

One of the main points of the article is that our relationship to God (notice I said "to God" not "with God")—our relationship to God is one of responding, not initiating.  Most of the problems we get into with God come from the times we initiate what we think God is up to, rather than responding to what God is up to.  We like to tell God what God is doing, then get on board with that.  What that means is that it's all about us.  Whatever we think we're doing for God, was really started by us, so we're only doing what we want to do.

But the article made the point that God issues a spark—an idea, a ministry, a work, an inspiration.  God is the initiator.  Then if we respond to that spark, a fire starts, and God's work becomes inflamed in us.  Like the burning bush Moses saw.  The burning bush was a spark from God—a God initiated self-revelation, if you will.  Moses took notice of that bush, and became immediately inflamed with the work of God of freeing the Hebrew slaves, of starting a new people, and taking them to a new place.  The point is, God started it in God's way.

That's how it has to work with God.  God has to be the initiator.  We are only the responders.  That way we know what we're doing, the direction we are moving, the ways we are thinking, the meaning we are finding in life, are God's ways and not our own.  That takes a lot of patience and listening and watching on our part.

The article made the further point that usually God's way, and God's thinking is disruptive.  Certainly God's way of handling the Hebrew slave problem in Egypt became very disruptive not only for Pharaoh, but also for Moses who ended up being the people's leader, as well as for the people who Moses marched out into the wilderness, ending up wandering around for 40 years.

Think of all the ways of Jesus with people he encountered.  If Jesus really is God in the flesh, then Jesus' ways are certainly not going to be our ways, and Jesus' thoughts are not going to be our thoughts.  Jesus' ways and thoughts are going to be disruptive to people's lives.  And that's what happened.  Jesus healed a lame man by the pool of Bethesda.  The man had been lame for 38 years.  Jesus made him stand up and walk, which the man did.  But by doing so, Jesus disrupted his life, making the man now take responsibility for his own life, which he hadn't done for 38 years.

Jesus had several encounters with different Pharisees, and each one was a disruption of their theology and beliefs and religiosity.  Jesus tried to free God from their boxes of theological constriction.  But they couldn't do it.  Only one, Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night, was willing to almost give God God's freedom, as Jesus described God:  Like the wind that blows where it wants.  Or Paul, who was a Pharisee, who the Risen Christ disrupted right off his donkey one day, and who truly understood the disruption of the gospel message of the grace of Jesus Christ, a forgiveness of sins that is not earned by anything you can do, but is freely given to Jew and Gentile alike.  How disruptive is that!?

God can change your life.  God can infuse your life with more meaning than you could find anywhere else.  I believe that is true.  But you have to do two things first.  You have to let go of everything you think you know about God, and what you think God thinks, and the ways you are assuming are God's ways.  In other words, you have to let God be God in the way God wants to be God, not in the way you want God to be God.  That is a hard and scary thing to do—to let God be free, to be God as God wants to be.

And secondly, you have to let God disrupt your life with the thinking and ways of God.  God can fill your life with meaning, but you have to let God disrupt the meaning you think you already have, the meaning you probably built yourself, the meaning that has nothing to do with God.  You have to stop and listen and pay attention for the God who is totally other from what you are, so that God can initiate meaning like a spark into your life.  And then so you can respond to that spark, and meaning can burst forth like a flame in your life.

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Meaning of Dirt

"The Meaning of Dirt"
Genesis 2:5-15

I grew up in a big city.  The big city of Seattle, Washington.  The population of the greater Seattle-Tacoma area is 3.5 million people.  I've lived in other big cities.  Spokane, Washington.  Louisville, Kentucky.  Bakersfield, California.

And I've lived in really small towns.  Spearville, Kansas with about 600 people.  (That's about how many people were in my high school class.)  Hickman, Nebraska with around 1000 people.  Leoti, Kansas with about 1400 people.

Because of my varied living situations and background, I think I have a unique perspective about people and their geography.  What's the difference between living in a huge city like Seattle, and living in a tiny town like Spearville, Kansas?  Here's one.  When I moved to Spearville, one of my city friends at the time sent me a t-shirt.  The front of the t-shirt read, "Small Town:  A place you don't need to use your turn signal—we already know where you're going."

Let me back up here a bit.  I want to answer my question about the difference between living in a large city vs. living in a tiny town.  But I want to answer that question in this sermon, as the first of a series of sermons, titled, "The Life of Meaning."  Not, the meaning of life.  But the life of meaning.  What is it about life that gives a person meaning?  That gives you meaning?  How do you know if your life has meaning?

I'm going to give you three ways to decide the answer to those questions.  Today I'm going to tell you about how a clear understanding of dirt will determine the kind of meaning your life has.  Next week, I will talk about dealing with God—who God is and who God is not—as a way of finding meaning in life.  And two weeks from today I will talk about the reality of evil, and how evil in the world shapes the meaning you find in life.

So, I started out talking about cities and small towns.  How many of you have been to Wichita or Kansas City.  What's one of the first things you notice as you drive into downtown Wichita or Kansas City?  It is so obvious, you probably don't even notice it.  What is the obvious thing you don't notice?  Give up (in case no one answers, or gets it)?  The answer is, how much dirt is covered up by concrete, asphalt, brick and mortar.

Imagine what Wichita, Kansas City, or Seattle looked like before they were cities.  Seattle was an evergreen forest covering seven hills.  Now the trees are cut down and the hills are covered with concrete and asphalt.  Imagine all that dirt, under cities all over the world, covered.  Dirt is a living entity.  But under concrete and asphalted cities it is cut off from the air, the sun, the rain.

According to the scripture story, we were made from the dirt, not from concrete and asphalt.  Or, if you accept the evolutionary story of the beginning of humanity, you start with the primordial soup, the swampy mud from which the first organism crawled.  Whichever, you start with dirt.  With mud.

That's one of the main answers to my first question about the difference between Seattle and Spearville.  In Spearville you are surrounded by a veritable ocean of dirt.  When that dirt is plowed and planted—and even when it isn't—you can smell it.  It's richness as a living thing is unmistakable and undeniable.  In a small, rural town we are surrounded by dirt.  By a living thing full of organisms both microscopic and macroscopic.  In a small town you have to learn how to live with the dirt, how you are a part of it, and how it is bigger than you and controls everything about you—even to the point of embracing you when you die.  Dirt is your beginning and ending.

So what does that mean?  What does that have to do with your life of meaning?  I'm going to get some help here from a woman by the name of Phyllis Tickle.  That name strikes fear and dread in the hearts of our Sunday School class.  We just got done reading a book by Phyllis Tickle in Sunday School titled, The Great Emergence.  The book was, shall we say, "thick."  Not thick in terms of a lot of pages.  But thick in terms of really hard to understand.  And it's all Gordon Stofer's fault.  Jennifer Barten gave it a one out of five star review on Goodreads.

Anyway, Phyllis Tickle is an interesting character.  She and her husband and seven kids used to live in Memphis.  She said her kids understood life in terms of how "…everything was brick and concrete and asphalt in their lives."  So she and her husband uprooted their family to the little town of Lucy, Tennessee, into a backcountry farm they named, "Lucy Goose Farm."  She said, "…all our friends thought we were crazy."

After a few years on the farm, Phyllis Tickle reflected:
Out here, living this way…the first thing you learn is that we're not the measure of anything.  We're never going to win out here.  Do you know what I mean?  Enlightenment and Western civilization in the last three hundred years has been built on the notion that man is the measure of all things.  That's bull!  Man's the measure of absolutely nothing.  But you forget that, when you're in the city and everything is scaled to man.  Everything is human size.

I think part of what Phyllis Tickle is saying is that in a city everything is mostly artificial.  Artificial environments where you can keep the elements out and not have to be bothered by them.  We do that somewhat in smaller, rural areas, but not so much as most of the world around us.  In cities, life and all it contains is squared off, put on a grid, and connected not by options but by one-way streets.  Even with all the tall buildings, people in the city are protected from seeing the sky.  Thus, the only measure of life in that kind of contained and manufactured environment, is people.  People are the be-all and end-all of everything that exists.

But in rural areas, I have found there is an entirely different world, where, as Tickle says, "Man's the measure of absolutely nothing."  Let's take the sky and the land as an example.  After living in cities through my mid-twenties, I moved to Spearville, Kansas for a year.  I took a year off from my three year program at seminary, to get a year of practical experience in the church.  To find out what being a pastor was really like, apart from the rigors of arguing theology.

One of the things I remember feeling was how oppressive the openness was.  Isn't that weird?  There was so much sky!  A 360 degree panoramic view of the sky with nothing in the way.  And a 360 degree panoramic view of dirt, for as far as my eyes could see.  Dirt and sky.

I wrote a poem about it, at the time:

i am currently in Kansas
waiting for a tornado to carry me to Oz
living in solitude
out on the high plains
under the expanse
of so much sky,
within the emptiness
of so much land,
i am becoming
simply me

I'm glad I kept this poem, particularly for the last line.  I started out with the attitude of a lot of my friends who worried about me living so deeply rural.  Those who have dared to come out and find me under this expanse and emptiness interpreted it as I had:  "There's nothing to see here!"  I saw all the land and all the sky as nothing.  It took a long time to switch that meaning from, "There's nothing to see here," to, "There's too much to see here."  Too much sky.  Too much dirt.

I slowly began to see the wisdom and truth in Tickle's statement, "Man's the measure of absolutely nothing."  Out here under "so much sky" and "so much land" I discovered how small I really am in the largeness of that sky and dirt.  Some people come to that revelation when they look up at all the stars at night.  I came to that revelation as I spun in a slow circle one day and took in the enormity of so much in respect to my size as a human.

That revelation, for me, became what I believe must be the starting point for us all:  I am not the measure of anything.  I am simply a small part of a much bigger world than I ever imagined.  I am surrounded by a world that is alive and dynamic and growing.  I am a small piece of a huge world that was created way before humanity came to be.  In fact, again if you believe in the creation story, humanity was the last thing to be created.  Everything was done when we moved in.  Thus we had nothing to do with this big world we have found ourselves in.

The unspoken myth or lie that we come to believe if we live in the cities is that, "This was all created by us.  We are the makers.  The designers.  The builders of our own world."  Everything is designed around human beings.  Tickle was right—in cities we are the measure of all things.

Once I moved to Spearville, and the other various small, rural towns I've lived in, I found out that was a lie.  There's a much bigger world that we are a part of, and that world and it's largeness becomes invisible in cities.  Or at least we try to make it so.

The truth I discovered, just by changing my geography (or as Kathleen Norris calls it in her book, Dakota, "spiritual geography") was that I can't find myself, I can't discover the life of meaning, living a small life, living a cramped life in an artificial environment like cities.  I can only find my place in the largeness of life under so much sky and the emptiness of so much dirt.

There's another aspect of rural that I discovered, that Phyllis Tickle identified so well once they moved from Memphis to Lucy, Tennessee.  She wrote:
Here, everything is alive.  And because it's so alive…and because it really is going to win—it's going to bury us…Some day, they're going to find us under mounds of kudzu.  But the truth of it is that, while all of that's happening, there's also such enormous permanence here, such a consistency of cycles, and a magnificence of all of the growth that's happening here, that you are caught in majesty that doesn't require anything of you except just a sense of, "Yeah, it's here.  And God bless me for the time I'm part of it.  How wonderful to be a part of it."

I think that's what I meant when I wrote that line at the end of my poem, "…I am becoming simply me."  There isn't a whole lot that you feel is growing in the city.  All the concrete, asphalt and bricks keep that from happening.  Where there are no growing things, there are no growing humans.  Once in Spearville, it wasn't just the enormity of the sky and the dirt, but also the enormity of growing things.  Everything is alive.  It caused me to discover I was alive also, and part of a much larger world out here that is alive, and grows and becomes.

Out here, living with so much dirt, the measure of all things is life itself.  Growing, teeming, vibrant life.  Again, that is what I began to discover is what brings life meaning—realizing, as the creation story tells, we are all dirt, that is our beginning point, and we find ourselves best in the midst of so much dirt and so much sky.  Because it's not just the dirt.  It's the growth.  The life.  That the measure of all things, the measure of meaning is life itself.  That is where we all must begin if we are to find the life in meaning.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Land In Jerusalem: Cheap

"Land In Jerusalem: Cheap"
Jeremiah 32:1-15

(That’s what the Bible said happened.  This is what really happened.)

The guard pointed to a small grove of ancient olive trees, and I thanked him.  “Be careful,” one of the uniformed soldiers said, as I walked toward the trees.  “He’s a bit loonier today than usual.”
“I’m used to it by now,” I waved.  “Each day, it’s something new.”
“I’ll bet that’s true,” one of the guards muttered to the other.

I ambled over for my daily visit with my long time friend.  Jeremiah was sitting up against an olive tree.  His eyes were closed, facing the sun.  His long, black, mop hair was as wild as his personality.
“I hate this, Baruch,” Jeremiah said, sensing my approach, not even opening his eyes.  “Day after flavorless day, it’s the same thing.  I walk around; I sit down; I walk around; I sit down.  I’ve memorized every bush and flower in this courtyard.  I’ve even given them names so I can talk to them.”
“Hmmmmm,” I responded, glancing back at the group of guards staring my way.
“I mean, who’s ever heard of being held prisoner in a garden?” Jeremiah continued.  “I can tell all my friends about my experience in the slammer.   They’ll say, ‘Man, that musta been tough!’  I’ll say, ‘Yeah, the smell of the flowers really got to me.’”
We both laughed.  Jeremiah knew better than I what a hell hole the real prison was.  Underground.  No light.  Stagnant pools of air that even made dog’s breath smell good.  Nothing grew down there, especially the human spirit.
“It is a weird blessing from this siege, isn’t it?” I said more than asked.  “Who’d thought that King Zedekiah would turn the prison into food storage and his private garden into a prison.”
“It is ironic,” Jeremiah agreed.  “The only place available to stick us prisoners is his favorite garden courtyard.  HA!  I’ll bet that twists ol’ Zedekiah’s tunic!”
I laughed again.  “I’ll bet it does.  I’ll bet it does.”

“Well,” Jeremiah asked after a long pause, “how tall are the siege ramps now?”
“Only about 10 or 15 cubits from the top, I’d estimate,” I told him.  “I’d guess they’re maybe a week or so from breaching the walls.”
“So I was right,” Jeremiah said softly, “and the Lord’s words were accurate.”
“They usually are,” I replied.
“How large is the Babylonian army?  Has it grown any in the last couple of days?” he asked me.
“When there’s already a few thousand men, what’s another thousand or so,” I said.  “They have totally surrounded Jerusalem and they are as organized and as relentless as ants.”
“And they will keep working until we are all buried,” Jeremiah exhaled.
I couldn’t tell if Jeremiah was speaking prophetically or if he was just talking.  His statement, like many of the things he says, made me stop and think.  And then I started thinking out loud.  “If I am to be killed when the Babylonians finally reach the top of the walls with their ramps, and I’m sure I will be, I only hope it will happen before the temple is polluted and destroyed by these heathens,” I said.
“I’m afraid you won’t get your wish,” my master said wistfully.  “The Babylonians don’t like dealing with corpses.  Slaves are more to their liking.  But they do know how to destroy--and once they get over those walls, neither Zedekiah nor his temple have a prayer.  Maybe,” Jeremiah added after pausing a moment, “it will be better that way.”
I looked at him with a question-mark drawn on my face.  I had no idea what he meant, but I wrote it down anyway.  I tried to write down everything Jeremiah said these days.  I never knew which of the words I wrote down would be his last.
It seemed to me that the whole situation was absolutely hopeless.  Saying that Jerusalem would get out of this mess would be like saying a man could fly to the moon.  It just wasn’t going to happen.  We are doomed.  And all’s we can do is sit and wait for it to happen.  Which will be sooner than later.

“I’m going to have a visitor today, Baruch,” Jeremiah said, shifting the conversation.
“And here I am,” I said with a smile and my arms extended like a ta-da.  I was the only one who visited Jeremiah.  Except the King, who would come into the garden to mock Jeremiah, and mostly scream at him.  It was very entertaining, when it happened.
“No, someone else.  A relative I haven’t seen for years.”
“Who could that be,” I asked.  “None of your relatives have wanted to have anything to do with you for years.”
“Yes, it’s hard being the black sheep of the family,” Jeremiah said with mock sincerity.  “But this relative will want something from me.”
“What?” I asked.
“You’ll see soon enough, Baruch,” he told me cryptically.

I sat down, leaned my back against the same tree Jeremiah was up against.  We just sat there and surveyed what the other handful of prisoners were doing.  The same as us.  Laying in the grass.  A few were talking to each other over by the white limestone wall that surrounded the courtyard.
The whole city was built of white limestone--even the walls that would soon fall.  It was a beautiful city.  Already, I am thinking about it in the past tense.  As if it was and is no more.
“Master, do you see those two birds over at the fountain,” I pointed for Jeremiah.
“Starlings, Baruch.  Each of God’s creatures have a name.”
“Whatever,”  I said.  Then, “Don’t you wish we could be those two birds?”
“I don’t follow you,” Jeremiah replied.
“Well, look at them.  They are splashing and flitting around.  They sit in the same sun as we do and preen and clean themselves, oblivious to the army outside.  They probably don’t even care.  They probably fly over there and sit on their tent lines.  The Babylonians probably don’t even notice them.  It doesn’t bother those two birds--starlings--that Jerusalem is about to be flattened.  They will still be flying around, finding food and water, regardless of what we humans do.  I just think it would be nice to be free like that.  Free and oblivious to the march of historical events.”

“Hey; Captain Moonbeam; You’ve got another visitor,” the guard shouted across the courtyard, interrupting my thoughts.
“Why do they keep calling you that, Master?”
“They think I’m affected by the light of the moon, and since I am evidently crazier than most, they initiated me as the captain of all the crazies.”
I shook my head in disgust.
A short man, the shape of an overly large grapefruit waddled over to where we sat.  “Jeremiah, so good to see you again,” he said shaking my hand and pulling me close.
“I’m Baruch,” I said.  He let go his embrace of me immediately.  “This is my master,  Jeremiah,” I introduced.
“Of course, of course,” he said.  “Just a silly mistake.  It’s been a long time, you know.  Let’s see, just how long has it been?” he asked trying to make anxious conversation.
I didn’t like this guy.  He reminded me of the used cow dealers outside the city.  They had all moved inside the city because of the Babylonian army.
“I don’t believe I’ve ever met you,” Jeremiah said honestly.
“Ah, come on.  You don’t remember your cousin Mel?”
“I can’t say that I do.”
“You know; Hanamel.  Everyone just calls me Mel.  The son of your uncle Shally.”
“You mean, Shallum?” Jeremiah asked.  “The one who threw me out of his house at a family gathering because we got in a fight talking religion and politics?”
“Well, ya can’t talk religion and politics with dad.  He’s just too smart and he knows what’s going on around here.”
“I assure you, son of ‘Shally,’ he has no idea what’s going on around here.”
“Well, not anymore, at least,” Mel said.  “He’s dead.”
“That will make him one of the lucky ones when this is all over,” Jeremiah interjected.
“Well, that’s kind of what I’d like to talk with you about, Jeremiah.  Can I call you Jerry?” Hanamel asked.
“Absolutely not,” Jeremiah said coldly.  “Speak,” Jeremiah finally said not unlocking his glare at Mel, making Hanamel visibly spooked.
“Well, when my father--your uncle--died (God rest his soul), he left me a field out near Anathoth.  It’s just a mile or so south.  I really have no need for that field.  So I’ve been looking for a buyer.  None of my brothers want it, nor do their sons.  So that means you’re next in line.”  He smiled broadly, and full of fakery, batting his fingertips together.
“Oh, come on!” I blurted out.  “You’ve got to be kidding!?”
“What do you mean?” Hanamel shot back.  “It’s a great piece of property.  It’s produced bumper crops of grain ever since it’s been in the family.  It has it’s own spring.”
“That’s not what I mean,” I shouted, making the guards turn their heads in our direction.  “Ten thousand Babylonian soldiers are camped on that field.  We’re all gonna die.  No one would give a basket full of rotten figs for your field?”
“I’ll take it,” Jeremiah said calmly.
“What!?” I now turned on my master.  “Are you really as lunar as the guards say you are?  This is absolute idiocy!”
“How much do you want, Hanamel?” Jeremiah asked.
“I’ll tell you what.  Since you’re family, I’ll cut you a deal.” He gave Jeremiah a coy wink.  “I wouldn’t do this for anyone else.  But far be it from me to take advantage of my favorite cousin.  For you, seventeen pieces of silver.”
“You have got to be out of your mind as well.  Is this whole family mad?” I exploded, standing up to face this overly ripe con man.  “That field isn’t worth the clay it’s made of!  And that’s even a stretch!”
“I’ll pay it,” Jeremiah said, once more as calmly as before.
“Master,” shifting my attention away from, and turning my back on Mel.  “This guy is no more than an old wineskin full of gas.  He’s taking advantage of you, big time.  He knows no one will ever be back here to plow that field ever again.  Not him, nor his brothers, nor his sons.  In a couple of weeks we will all be gone or dead.  And it’s being trampled by Babylonians as we speak.  They probably dug up the topsoil and are using it to build their ramps right now!  You might as well be buying a ray of the sun or a piece of the wind!  What have you got to say to that!?”
“Take out your scroll and start writing.  Write up a deed for the sale.  That’s what I have to say.”
I looked down into his eyes as he spoke.  Matched with his tone of voice I knew he was serious.  And I also knew there was much more going on here than what it appeared to be.  I remembered he had told me another visitor would be coming today.  How did he know?
I had been around Jeremiah much too long to know he didn’t do things on a whim.  Everything was calculated.  Everything was material for a message from God.  I shook my head knowingly, sat back down and began to write.
“You’re a very shrewd man,” Mel started in again.  “This land will be worth...”
“Oh, shut up,” I interrupted, looking up from my work.  Mel made an attempt at a dirty look, then went on babbling about his family to Jeremiah as I wrote out two copies of the deed.  “This will need signatures of witnesses,” I finally said when I was done.
“The guards would be fine with me,” Hanamel said.  He went over to get a couple of them to act as witnesses.  When everyone had signed, my master told me to pay Hanamel the 17 pieces of silver.  I pulled the money bag from the waist of my tunic and counted them out to him in the presence of all.
“Give Hanamel one of the copies of the deed,” Jeremiah said flatly.  I did so, and he skipped away, saying what a pleasure it was doing business with us.
One of the guards looked at me and said, “See what I meant what we said earlier about this guy,” pointing their finger at Jeremiah, then twirling that same finger around their ears while they whistled.
Jeremiah laughed at them.  As the guards walked away, Jeremiah turned to me and said, “Tomorrow when you come, bring a shovel and a clay jar.  We will bury this deed over amongst these olive trees.”
“Master,” I said, “I am totally confused.”
“Would you be confused at God, my friend, Baruch?” he asked me.
“To be honest, master, I am confused at God’s ways sometimes.  Like at this very minute.”
“Tell me, Baruch, how do you interpret what I just did by buying this field?”
“It probably wasn’t the craziest thing you’ve done.  But it certainly was in the top three of the stupidest things I think you’ve done.”
“It wasn’t an act of stupidity, Baruch.  It was a deliberate act of hope.”
“How so, master?”
“You base your evaluation on the facts of what you see around you.  Indeed, anyone with eyes wide open would realize the situation is bleak.  By all visible reality, what I just did was at least impractical; if not, as you say, down right stupid.”
I nodded in agreement.
“But,” Jeremiah continued, getting to his feet and starting to pace a bit, “what if there is another reality?  A reality that is even now being constructed, but not yet visible?  Then you must decide which reality is stronger, surer.  The one that is, or the one that is to come?”
“I don’t know what you’re getting at exactly,” I said.  I always felt like a simpleton when he started talking like this.
“OK; think of it this way, Baruch.  What if that other reality that is now being constructed, but not yet visible, is our future.  And let’s say that future is being constructed by God.  If you got even a glimpse of that future, and the future looked good, which ‘reality’ would you buy in to--the present, devastatingly morbid reality, or the future reality of God?”
“I always bet on God,” I answered.
“And so do I,” Jeremiah slapped me on the back.  “That’s what I just did.  I just bought into God’s future.  Because the future isn’t out there with the Babylonians and death and destruction.  They may come.”
“They will come,” I interjected.
“OK; they will come.  I’ll give you that, my friend.  But the future is not on their side.  It’s on God’s side.  That’s why I said I just performed an act of hope.  Of faith.  Hope is buying into what we truly believe even though it’s not visible.  At least not yet.”
“Given the current circumstances, that’s a very hard thing to do,” I replied.
“Of course it is, dear Baruch.  It’s far easier to wallow in despair than it is to live in hope.  When we live in doom and gloom we don’t have to do anything, or risk anything.  Those seventeen pieces of silver symbolize my risk-taking in the name of God’s future.”
“But Mel is the one who’s laughing all the way to the bank,” I said, shaking my head.  “In fact, he and all his relatives are laughing at you now.”
“Let him laugh all the way to the bank.  Can’t you see, Baruch?  What’s the use of putting his money in the bank when even the bank isn’t going to last?  I want to invest in something that seems like smoke now; but in the end will be more substantial than any bank.  Let them laugh, Baruch.  Hope says we get the last laugh.  God always gets the last laugh, and we with him if we dare put our hope in the LORD.  If we live in hope, we always go against the grain.  But never against God’s grain.  Hope is the only action that survives the decay of the present moment,” he said looking down at me with the surest smile I’ve ever seen on him.
I looked up at him for a long time.  He seemed bigger than life.  The sun shined behind him as if it were the radiance of God filling him and inspiring him.  For all I knew, that’s exactly what it was.
I stood and embraced him.  “I’ll go find us a jar and a shovel,” I said.
“Borrow one from the Babylonians,” he laughed.
As I walked back through the entrance of the courtyard, past the guards, I laughed to myself as I realized Jeremiah truly was as free as a bird.

Monday, September 19, 2016

How To Complain To God

"How To Complain To God"
Jeremiah 20:7-12

As the saying goes, “Nobody likes a complainer.”  It is hard being around people who are constantly criticizing and belly aching about one thing or another.  It just wears you out being around those kinds of people.  Often it's hard to get the complainer's voice out of your head.

Our pat answer to these kinds of complainers is, “Look on the bright side.”  Like the army mess officer who was serving a meal, and the soldiers were complaining about the lack of freshness of the bread being served.  The cook said, “Look on the bright side; if Napoleon had had that bread when he was crossing the Alps, he’d have eaten it with delight.”
“Yes sir,” said a corporal, “but it was fresh then.”

Maybe it feels like there are times, events, situations with no bright side.  Complaining seems like our only alternative.  But like I said, we certainly don’t want to fall into a complainers lifestyle.  Beyond allowing it to become a part of who we are, the question needs asking:  Is it OK to complain?  But then there’s a bigger question:  Is it OK to complain to God?

It seems to me that somewhere along the way we inflicted this taboo upon ourselves that it’s not right to complain to God.  We feel almost instantly guilty for complaining about the management to the management.  I was talking with one of the guys at the Tribune church, when I served out there, and he was rattling off story after story about how he’s taken one complaint or another right to the top of the management ladder.  In fact that’s where he starts complaining.  The first person he'd call was the President of the company.  But I think when it comes to God, we're afraid to even step up to God’s front porch.  We don’t feel quite as comfortable dialing up God and letting him have it about his faulty products.

When you read the Bible, though, especially the Old Testament, taking complaints right into the face of God is part of how life was.  Going toe-to-toe with God was fairly common.  You even get the idea that God kind of liked that kind of conversation with people.  It was a way that God allowed closeness to develop in the divine-human relationship.  God gave people the freedom to walk right up and start complaining.  And people allowed God the freedom to complain right back.  What happened to that sense of freedom and lively interchange between people and God?

There was a man who went to Weight Watchers meeting and thought he was the only male there.  It was a big group, but finally he spotted another guy.  During the break he made his way over and asked, “Do you feel as uncomfortable as I do, being one of the only two men here?”
“Oh, no,” the other guy replied.  “This is the only place where I can ask a woman about her weight and not worry about getting slapped in the face!”

Jeremiah is a great example of one of those Old Testament characters who feels no taboo about getting right up in God’s grill with a complaint.  Jeremiah seems free and confident to take his complaints right to God without any fear that God is going to respond with a back-handed slap.  He is confident in his relationship with God -- a confidence that allows him to use certain tones with God without feeling threatened by the fact that he is talking to, you know, God.

Though there is some heat and frustration in Jeremiah’s words and tone, you get a clear sense that there is a deep friendship--genuine relationship--between God and Jeremiah.  The complaining is done between the two who are friends.  But it also feels like they have become friends because they have heard each other’s complaints, and established their friendship on that freedom.

So this is the first point in how to complain to God.  Jeremiah felt he had permission by God to complain.  It is possible that Jeremiah didn’t care if he had permission or not.  He was going to complain no matter what.  But I don’t think so.  I think, by allowing Jeremiah to come at him, God is being approachable, even when we’re angry, frustrated, and in a complaining mood.

Notice that God never came back at Jeremiah, slapping him down for complaining.  God never took on a Mr. T personae, shouting back at Jeremiah, “What you doin’ fool, back-talking God like that!?”  God listened silently; but God listened.

Let’s take a look at Jeremiah’s complaint, both it’s content and tone.  The first thing Jeremiah does is blame God for his frustration:  “You pushed me into this, God...” Jeremiah says.  Other versions have Jeremiah saying to God, “You deceived me...”  That word for “deceived,” is a powerful word that can be translated as “harassed,” “taken advantage of,” “enticed,” or “duped.”  In the extreme, depending on the context, this word can even mean, “raped.”  Imagine saying that to God, “You raped me, God; you took total advantage of me, over-powered me, and abused me.”

To understand what’s going on here in Jeremiah’s complaint, we have to go back to the first chapter of Jeremiah.  There we hear the promises God made to Jeremiah about what Jeremiah’s mission was going to be all about.

God starts out by telling Jeremiah things like, “I knew all about you ... I had holy plans for you ... I’ll be right there, looking after you, as I always have.”  In Jeremiah’s mind, now in this chapter 20 complaint, God seems to Jeremiah to be more like a used car salesman.  Making big promises.  Pretending to be Jeremiah’s new best buddy.  Throw out assurances about the product that were totally untrue.

I think it’s important to remember that Jeremiah is a teenager at this point.  You know how teenagers are.  What they choose to hear.  What they choose to not hear.  Or how they hear things at all, putting their own teenaged spin on things.

God told Jeremiah in chapter one, “Don’t be afraid of a soul.”  Maybe Jeremiah heard, “You will have total power over everyone.”  God said, “I’ll be right there...”  Maybe Jeremiah heard, “You won’t ever be lonely.”  God said, “I put my words in your mouth...”  Maybe Jeremiah heard, “You are God’s right-hand man.”  God said, “Your job is to pull up and tear down...”  Maybe Jeremiah heard, “You will have extreme power, just like a superhero.”

By chapter 20, the reality of what God was really saying is starting to sink into Jeremiah’s teenaged head.  Now, as I said before, Jeremiah is feeling like God is this used car salesman.  God showed Jeremiah this shiny mission as if it was a shiny vehicle.  It seemed to Jeremiah that God was filling his head with all kinds of come-ons about what this shiny new thing would provide Jeremiah:  power, mobility, influence, prestige.  “It’s got it all!”  Whatever Jeremiah thought God was selling back there in chapter one, Jeremiah bought it.

It isn’t the purchase price that Jeremiah seems like he’s complaining about.  It’s the continual, week-after-week expense of trying to keep that shiny mission running.  To Jeremiah, it was like God had sold him a lemon and Jeremiah has had enough.  So Jeremiah complains about it.

Jeremiah realizes, to his credit, that there’s another person he needs to blame.  Himself.  “You pushed me into this, God,” says Jeremiah.  That’s the finger he points at God.  But then Jeremiah continues, “...and I let you do it.”  What’s important to remember about complaining is that you make sure you direct your complaint at the right person.  Don’t complain to your spouse about someone else being an idiot.  Your spouse can’t do anything about what happened between you and the idiot.  That’s your task -- take it to the person who needs to hear it.

And often, that person is yourself.  There are times when the proper complaining statement is not, “Why are you doing this to me?”  Instead it is, “Why am I allowing you to do this to me?”  Can you see the difference?  It’s one thing for someone to kick at your personal boundaries.  It’s another to allow that person to keep kicking.  When will you finally say, “Enough!”?

That’s what Jeremiah is struggling with as he complains to God.  Jeremiah is complaining to God, for sure.  But Jeremiah is also complaining to himself for allowing himself to get sucked into God’s mission.  Jeremiah isn’t too sure about it all now, and he feels he is partly to blame.  Jeremiah recognizes his predicament in his complaint:  How do you say “no” to God in the first place?  God is too persuasive.  We, like Jeremiah, are too ready to say “yes” without thinking about the consequences of that yes.  We assume since it’s God, everything will be great.  Then, when it isn’t as great as we thought, who should our complaint actually be aimed at.  Jeremiah aims his complaint at both God and himself.

Isn’t that what’s behind Jeremiah’s complaining to God?  A lot didn’t turn out as expected.  The mission from God didn’t turn out to be this great power trip for Jeremiah.  The messages that God gave Jeremiah didn’t elicit the expected response from the people.  Instead it opened up Jeremiah to a pile of personal and public ridicule.  Insults.  Contempt.  Jeremiah, instead of feeling like a superhero, is feeling like a public joke.  Instead of people being in awe of Jeremiah, they are poking fun and telling others to “shut him up!”  Instead of overhearing people say, “There goes Jeremiah; he’s cool,” Jeremiah instead overhears people saying, “There goes old, ‘Danger Everywhere!’”

In the Peanuts comic strip, Lucy comes up to her brother Linus and says, “Look what I’ve done for you.  I’ve made up a list of reforms that I feel you need to make to help you become a better person.”
Linus replies, “Well, how nice.  I’ll make good use of this list.”  In the next frame, still looking at Lucy’s list, he continues, saying, “I’ll try very hard to improve.”  In the next frame, he’s artificially glowing when he says to his sister, “In fact, I think I’m getting better already!”  Then Linus crumples the paper with Lucy’s list and starts laughing, louder and louder.  Eventually he walks away, throwing the paper over his shoulder.
In the final frame, Lucy is dejectedly looking down at the crumpled list and says, “Reformers have a hard life.”

That’s what Jeremiah is feeling.  The list of improvements Jeremiah has written up for the people has made him hugely unpopular.  At some point, Jeremiah and the negative message of the mission have to confront each other.  Jeremiah is not a negative, gloom-and-doom kind of person.  But the message was.  So the confrontation of the person of Jeremiah, and the unpopular negative message happens here in chapter 20 in front of God.  It won’t be the first time it happens.

At some point the messenger, the message, and the audience have to interact.  The audience chose denial and insults:  “Shut Jeremiah up!”  The message Jeremiah was given to preach was the theme of the people abusing God using the images of murder and rape.  And then there is the messenger, Jeremiah, who doesn’t like either of the above: the message and the denial and insults it brings.  “I’m done,” complains Jeremiah.  “This isn’t what I expected.  This isn’t what I signed up for.”

In my favorite comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin turns off the TV with the remote control.  Calvin stares at the remote and a bright idea beams on his face.  He walks over to where his father is sitting reading the paper, aims the remote at his father, and pushes the OFF button on the remote.  His father is still there.  Calvin turns away muttering to himself, “Rats.”  His father has a “What was that all about?” look on his face.

I get the feeling, in Jeremiah’s tone and words, that for him, God has turned out to be a bit of a disappointment.  In his complaining, Jeremiah is aiming the remote at God and pushing the OFF button, hoping this whole nightmare of a mission will go away.  Maybe like Jonah, Jeremiah felt like God should have just wiped human evil off the face of the earth.  But God didn’t.  And God doesn’t.  Jeremiah’s not sure why.

We might be right there with Jeremiah in that place.  Why doesn’t God just take care of stuff?  Isn’t God all-powerful or not?  What’s the use of speaking and underscoring all the awful ways we treat God, in its many forms, thinks Jeremiah.  But then nothing happens.  God hesitates.  God goes inactive.

In the face of that hesitation, the people launch back at Jeremiah with “insults and contempt.”  Jeremiah wants to know why.  Thus his complaints at God.  Jeremiah isn’t complaining about the insults as much as what’s behind them and prompting them:  God’s hesitation to fulfill the words and mission of Jeremiah's prophecy.  God doesn’t answer, nor gives Jeremiah any inside information about what God is actually up to.  By being silent, God, I think, is letting Jeremiah know that this isn’t about getting answers.  It’s about continuing the conversation.  It’s about submitting to the journey even when there are no good answers.  It’s about listening to Jeremiah’s complaining, allowing it, even honoring it, because that’s what true friends allow for each other.

Pivotal to understanding this whole complaint process with God is that, as with Jeremiah, God is not going to say, “Yes,” or “No” to it all.  The art of complaining to God is found in the acceptance of the ongoing conversation, rather than waiting for some single, lightening bolt answer.

As I mentioned earlier, it is in the ongoing relationship a person establishes with God, so that complaining is simply a part of the larger, ongoing conversation with God.  It is that ongoing relationship and conversation that people never seriously take the time to develop with God.  Jeremiah could complain because he had taken the time to establish himself with God in faithful, ongoing conversation, of which complaining was only a small part.

So if you’re going to complain to God, or at God, or about God to God, then you better first have a good relationship with God.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Live, NOW!

"Live, NOW!"
Jeremiah 29:1-9

Jose Ortega y Gassett once said, “Tell me the landscape in which you live, and I will tell you who you are.”  There is much truth in that statement.  Our sense of who we are is very much determined by the place we are in and the people we are with.  It is what one of my favorite Christian authors, Kathleen Norris, calls “spiritual geography.”  Spiritual geography is how the soil, the sky, the terrain, the demographics that surround you, and make up your place, plays a huge part in your spiritual development.

But what happens when that spiritual geography gets shifted, maybe traumatically?  What happens when we are jerked out of the place we were in?  What happens when that sense of place changes, violently and abruptly?  We might start asking ourselves questions like, “Who am I now?”  Or, if it is a family or group of people, they may ask, “Who are we, as a people?”

This kind of traumatic change, and this kind of spiritual questioning is called exile. In exile from a place or circumstance we were in, we feel like we don’t fit in anywhere anymore.  There is no one in that new place who seems to need us.  There is nothing in the landscape that helps us get our bearings about where we are.  We may feel like extra baggage.  We may feel unnecessary.  We may feel like our spirit has been leeched from our body when exiled to a different place or status.

A lot of you may not get this.  You have grown up and lived here in Pratt, or the Pratt area, all your lives.  You haven’t had to uproot yourselves, nor have you been forced to change your geography in any drastic way.  You will have to put on your imagination caps, and try to get a vision for what your lives would be like if you, this day, were forced, or had to move to, say, Los Angeles or Chicago.  But you should be able to understand on an emotional level when some shift happens in the demographics of your family and relationships.

Many of the people of Israel were taken into exile by the Babylonian army in 587 B.C.  The people were uprooted from the place in which they were born and had lived their whole lives.  They were forced to march across 700 miles of barren, unrecognizable land.  They were moved into the heart of the Babylonian Empire, into bizarre and outlandish cities.  In their place of exile, in their new geography (Babylon) customs were strange.  The language was unintelligible.  The landscape a mystery.  All the familiar landmarks were gone.  None of the old stories were told.  The faces of the people were unrecognized and unrecognizing.

Israel’s exile was a violent and extreme form of what many people experience in their own lives.  Inner experiences of exile take place in all kinds of basic, human circumstances and experiences:
--Birth is a form of exile from the womb, that thrusts us out into a life that seems strange and harsh;
—Birth for the new mother and father can feel like an exile into a new and very unfamiliar land of parenthood;
--As young children, we are exiled from our homes into the terrifying and demanding world of school;
--We may, because of work, become exiled from our hometowns, finding ourselves displaced or transferred in new cities or new states;
--As we grow older, changes in our bodies exile us from the health we once enjoyed, especially if you face anything like cancer or heart disease;
--And, we experience different forms of exile as shifts, sometimes traumatic, that happen in our families, marriages, and other relationships.
The exile experience by the Israelites is a dramatic image of what we all experience simply by being alive in this world.

The essential meaning of exile is that we are where we don’t want to be.  It is an experience of dislocation--everything is out of joint.  Nothing fits together anymore like we think it should.  All the little bits of everyday details that we counted on, took for granted, that gave us a sense of being at-home, are all gone.  Life is ripped out of the familiar soil of language, habit, and story.  We find ourselves rudely dropped into some unfamiliar spot on earth, or some disorienting experience.  An accident, a tragedy, a disaster of any kind can force the realization that life is not safe or predictable.  We don’t get to stay the same, or in the same place our whole lives.

Interestingly, the place of exile may be a better place.  It may be more pleasant.  More loving.  More hospitable.  More intriguing.  More challenging.  More wondrous.  But that doesn’t matter.  It isn’t “home.”  It isn’t where we were.

How did the Israelites in exile feel?  How did they respond to their circumstances?  Imagine how you might respond if you were forced to spend any amount of time with people you don’t like, in a place you'd rather not be.  You’d probably not be too far from the truth of what the Israelites were feeling.

Mostly, the people complained bitterly to God about their terrible circumstances.   They longed, achingly, for life as it was.  They daydreamed about their home town.  They wallowed in self-pity.  And their religious leaders nurtured that self-pity.  The false prophets stirred the pots of discontent.  They merchandised nostalgia.  They gave the people false hope.  They instilled the imagery of false dreams.

The trouble is, false dreams interfere with honest living.  As long as the people held on to the hope of going home, of going backwards, it made no sense to engage in any kind of committed, faithful, and forward living in Babylon.  If they kept looking back, then they would be oblivious to what God wanted them to deal with in the now.  If there was a shred of hope that they could soon get back all they had lost, there was no need to develop a life of richness, texture, and depth where they were in that present moment.  When you’re in exile, you don’t get to look back to find out how you’re supposed to be.

The false prophets exiled with the people, manipulated the self-pity of the people into unstable and anxious fantasies.  The people, glad for religious reasons to nurture small lives, lived hand-to-mouth.  They became parasites on the people in their new place.  They became irresponsible in their relationships.  They became indifferent to the reality of what could be happening if they actually chose to make some changes.

Into this nostalgia, Jeremiah sent his letter.  To Jeremiah, the people have become like Lot’s wife.  They have turned themselves into pillars-of-salt as they look back at that which God doesn’t want them looking back at.  Into the false prophet manipulation of empty dreams, Jeremiah sent his letter.  To an exiled people, living small, irresponsible lives, Jeremiah sent his letter.  To us, who may be fellow exiles through some life-disrupting experience, Jeremiah sent his letter.

In this letter from Jeremiah, there is some very surprising and specific advice.

First, “Build houses and make yourselves at home.”  Jeremiah tells the exiles, they aren’t living in temporary tent cities.  They aren’t refugees, someday to go back to where they came from.  This place is now their place.  Jeremiah tells them to make themselves at home.  It may not be their favorite place.  It may not be their place of choice.  But it is a place.  It is, now, their place.

What God is telling the exiles through Jeremiah’s letter is,
“If all you do is sit around and sigh for the time you might get back to your home town in Israel, your present lives will be squalid and empty.  Your life, right now, is every bit as valuable as it was when you were back in your home towns.  Babylonian exile is not your choice, but it is what you are given.  Make a home with that.

It’s hard, I know, when you aren’t in a place emotionally, spiritually, physically, or geographically that you want to be.  We find ourselves thinking things like, “My life will be much better when...”  Or, “My life will really start when...”  Or, “I’m looking forward to the day when...”  It’s not only a matter of impatience with us.  It’s also a picture in our minds that we attempt to forcefully share with God, of what we think our lives should look like.  We tell God, specifically, what we know will make our lives happy and fulfilled.  And right when we think that picture we’ve been painting in our minds is going to become reality, life comes along and spray paints some hurtful graffiti all over it.  It’s even more painful when it seems like that someone is God.

Then we start painting, all over again, some picture of our desired future.  But if we’re always looking into the future for our happiness, then we’re missing what happiness can be ours right now.  We’re missing the happiness we can make happen in this present moment.  Like it or not, we may not be where we want to be, in some circumstance or another.  But we are where we are.  (That sounds deep doesn’t it.)  It’s that simple.  So we need to build a house where we are and start living in it.  We need to paint that house, rather than continue working on the portrait of our fantasies.

Next, Jeremiah writes to the people, “Plant gardens and eat the produce.”  Every culture has their own kind of cuisine.  You can cook Italian one night, Chinese the next, and then French food.  When I lived in Bakersfield, one of the popular cuisines was Basque food: hearty soups, crusty bread, and lamb.  When you eat these different kinds of food, you are actually eating another culture.  You are, by enjoying a culture’s food, becoming aware of the people in that culture.  You learn not only about the food, how to prepare it, but also how to eat it, how to enjoy it most, and who to enjoy it with.

Also, gardens take time.  It takes time for things to grow.  Planting seeds, tending them, watching them grow, and waiting for the produce to be ripe for picking and eating takes weeks, sometimes months.  Especially, if, for instance a grapevine is being planted.  You have to wait at least three years to begin taking useful grapes from the vine.  Three years!  If you’re going to plant a garden you have to do all the daily stuff that comes with it:  weeding, hoeing, watering.  It means making an investment of time and energy in the soil of the place where you are at.  It means getting your hands dirty with the soil of your place.

Have you noticed how people who are depressed often don’t eat very well?  They eat too much, or too little.  They aren’t tending a garden.  There is no delayed gratification.  There is no investment in the future of the culture or condition of their place.  There is an unwillingness to get their hands dirty with the everyday tasks that life in the now demands.  Jeremiah’s letter is a reminder to those who aren’t at a place they want to be.  It is a kick in the backside to immerse themselves in the daily aspects of the culture they find themselves in, and begin replanting in the now.

Then Jeremiah, in his letter, writes, “Marry and have children.  Encourage your children to marry and have children so that you’ll thrive in that country and not waste away.”  When I was in high school and dating, I remember my mother telling me never to date or marry a Catholic.  Maybe you got similar advice about the kind of people you were supposed to marry.

When I was a pastor in Hickman, Nebraska, the people in that little town of 1000 were mostly of German descent.  Down the road about three miles was the little town of Holland.  Guess what kind of folks populated that little town.  Dutch.  The kids in Hickman were not allowed, a few years before I got there, to date kids from Holland.  Nor were there any kinds of friendships developed between the adults of those towns.  They were, as I said, only three miles apart. 

By telling the people in exile to intermarry, God was essentially telling these uppity and exiled people:
These Babylonians are not beneath you, nor are they above you.  They are your equals, with whom you can engage in the most intimate and responsible relationships.  You cannot be the person God wants you to be if you keep yourselves from others.  That which you have in common is more significant than what separates you.  They are God’s people as well.  Your task, as a person of faith, is to develop trust and conversation, love and understanding with these Babylonians.

The last thing Jeremiah tells the exiles in his letter is, “Make yourselves at home there and work for that country’s welfare.  Pray for Babylon’s well-being.  If things go well for Babylon, things will go well for you.”  All of this advice in Jeremiah’s God-letter must have been met with bitter outrage.  But none of it more than this statement to pray for their conquerors and captors.  What God was asking the exiles to pray for was the “shalom” of Babylonia.  Shalom is the Hebrew word for a person’s welfare and wholeness, their health and peace.  To pray for such a thing by the exiles must have sounded abominable.  Just like praying for the well-being of ISIS, or for your cancer, or for someone who has been abusive to you.

Jesus said something just as shocking in the Sermon on the Mount:
You’re familiar with the old written law, “Love your friend,” and its unwritten companion, “Hate your enemy.”  I’m challenging that.  I’m telling you to love your enemies.  Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst.  When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves.  This is what God does.  He gives his best--the sun to warm and the rain to nourish--to everyone, regardless:  the good and the bad, the nice and nasty.  (Matthew 5:43-45)

What the Lord is asking the exiles--all of us--to do is pray.  To pray to find ourselves in the very heart of God, where God’s will is being worked out, and then to work outwards from his heart.  Everything looks different from the place of God’s heart, rather than from the place of our anger, resentment and bitterness.

Daily we face decisions on how we will respond to our exile conditions.  We can say:
I don’t like it.  I want to be where I was a month, or years ago.  How can you expect me to take one more step?  To start all over again in this wretched place, this awful condition?  How can you expect me to throw myself into what I don’t like?  Into, in fact, what I abhor?  What sense is there in taking risks and tiring myself out in circumstances I don’t like?  How can I start building something all over again if I feel like I have no future, no past, and no hope?  I can’t.  I won’t.  I just won’t.

Or, we can say:
I will do my best with what is here and now.  Far more important than the geography and climate of my exile is the God of my exile.  God is here with me, even when I don’t feel that presence.  What I am experiencing right now is on soil that was created by God, and with people God also loves.  It’s just as possible to live out the will of God in this place, and in this circumstance, as any place or circumstance.  I am fearful.  I admit it.  I don’t like constantly checking whether my foundation is solid.  Change, especially change that is thrust upon me by someone else or some other circumstance, is so hard.  Developing relationships with the new seems risky and difficult.  BUT if that’s what it means to be alive and human under God right now, I will do it.

It’s clear that Jeremiah’s letter is quite a challenge.  The aim of the person of faith is not to be as comfortable as possible in your grief and misery.  Instead, it is to live as deeply and thoroughly as possible.  It means to deal with the reality of life, to discover truth, to create beauty, and act out of love in whatever present condition you find yourself in.  Even when you feel like you’ve been exiled.  The only place you have to be human under God is right here.  The only time you have to be human under God is right now.  The only opportunity you will ever have to live by faith, to live prayerfully in God’s heart, is in the circumstances you have been put into this very day.