Monday, September 26, 2016

Land In

"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?”
“Honestly?”
“Honestly.”
“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

"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.

CONCLUSION
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.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

On The Wheel

"On The Wheel"
Jeremiah 18:1-6

“Go down to the potter’s house.”  Where would you expect to hear a word from the Lord?  Where would you expect to learn a lesson in high spirituality and Godly living?  And who would you most likely seek out if you were looking for some spiritual counsel?

Probably not many of us would go to the potter’s house.  Or the insurance office.  Or the mechanic’s garage.  Or the hardware store.  Or the laundromat.  Instead, we would go to some religious center, maybe search out some guru, visit the pastor, or just read in Scripture for ourselves--maybe close our eyes, open the Bible, point with our finger at a place on the page, open our eyes and see what chance has directed us to.

If we were looking for a word from the Lord, most of us think we know where we should be able to find it.  The potter’s house, or any modern version of it, would not be a place we would probably visit for such a word.

But the great masters of poetic and prophetic imagination, such as Jeremiah, do not play by the rules of customary spiritual revelation.  They are unordinary personalities who have a way of making us see the things of God in the ordinary places of our living.  They look at the everyday world and see things we don’t see.  Then they attempt to direct our attention to what is right before our eyes.  As Eugene Peterson writes, in describing these kinds of Jeremiah people:

They connect the visible and the invisible, the this with the that.  They assist us in seeing what is around us all the time but which we regularly overlook.  With their help we see it not as commonplace but as awesome, not as banal but as wondrous... For faith is not a leap out of the everyday but a plunge into its depths.

Prophets like Jeremiah help us see with new eyes.  They help us see God where we assumed we’d never run into God.  They direct our attention to visions of God’s truth where we only thought we’d see a potter’s wheel and a bunch of moist clay.  In order to find a word from the Lord, we are not offered an escape hatch into the pie-in-the-sky.  Instead we are thrust into the hubbub of the marketplace.  That’s where we will find God and God’s truth.

“Go down to the potter’s house.”  At the potter’s house there was a lesson to be learned, a truth to be visualized.  Something only the potter could demonstrate.  Meaning that could only be seen in the process of wheel-thrown pottery.  Because I’ve done some work with wheel-thrown pottery, I know a little bit about the process.

I

The first step is kneading the clay.  It is vitally important to prepare the clay before working with it on the wheel.  Though the clay is dense, it has all kinds of air pockets in it.  The potter must first knead the clay, like bread dough, and get it as compact as possible.  There were even times I had to throw the clay down hard on the work table to get out obstinate air bubbles.  If the potter does not do a good job at this preparatory step, if there are air pockets left in the clay, when it is fired, those air bubbles will get superheated and crack or explode the pot’s wall.

Also, during the kneading of the clay, depending on how coarse the clay is, the potter will find little bits of stone that are too large for the formation of a pot.  Those need to be picked out ahead of time.  If they aren’t, while the pot is spinning in the potter’s hands, the larger pieces of rock will catch on the potter’s fingers and tear a hole in the pot.

In creating a pot out of a lump of clay it is vital to do the first step of preparation as well as possible.  If this step is slighted, it will show up in the spinning action on the wheel.  But then it will be too late.  The only thing the potter can do at that point is collapse the pot down and start all over again, back to the preparation phase.  It’s best to do what’s needed ahead of time rather than finding out it’s too late further along in the process.

What God is telling Jeremiah, as he watches the potter, is that the people’s faith had gotten off to a bad start.  Their religiosity had gotten way out of hand.  They had lost the substance of their faith while they were trying to make and follow rules.  The only way to change the people’s faith was to make a change--to deliberately start all over again.  Their faith was full of a lot of air, as well as chunks and bits that were ultimately destructive.  It was going to be necessary to start over, and give the people something more solid and compact to work with.

II

The second step of making something on the pottery wheel is called “centering the lump.”  A lump of clay that has been prepared by kneading is placed on the center of the wheel.  Getting the wheel spinning very fast, a bit of water is splashed on the lump of clay.  Then the potter must place her hands tightly over and around the lump.  She must exert great pressure on the lump, often not only with her hands and arms, but the weight of her whole body.  This is done until she can feel the lump is not only secured to the plate of the wheel, but also that it’s balanced and smooth in the very center of the plate.  If the lump is not centered, then any pot created from that lump will be off center and unworkable.

With that part of the artistic process in mind, Jeremiah uses it to create a powerful image of how God acts with us.  Jeremiah saw, in this messy potters hut, with water and bits of clay flying everywhere, a portrait of God at work on God’s people.

God is the potter, who exerts a sure and certain pressure on us lump-of-clay people in order to get us centered.  God knows that there can be no work done on us or through us until we have had a proper beginning, a secure foundation, a clear balance and symmetry.  That centering has to be wrought by God on the wheel of our everyday living.  God must put hands upon us, we lumps of clay, in the furious spinning of our days and create, first, a balanced lump.

If we hope to be a pot, we must first be a lump.  Not just a lump, but a lump in God’s hands.  A lump whose lives have been centered under the loving pressure of a loving God.  That takes some humility.  Imagine a wad of clay trying to center itself on the wheel.  And yet, so many people from the time of Jeremiah (and earlier) until our own time, try to put their own lives in balance, put their own houses in order.

The question we must honestly answer is, “Who made me what I am today?”  Who, if you were honest with yourself, would you say has had the greatest hand in who you are?  God’s hands, or your hands?  Honestly.

How often have I seen that happen in the life of a person.  They may allow God to be the potter, to put those hands down upon their life and start the process.  But the pressure may be too great.  Or they think they know what God’s up to and can finish the job themselves.  They stop God from continuing a foundational work in their lives.

It’s not until later that the warble effect takes over.  Anything and everything they try to fashion out of their lives ends up in frustration and failure.  But if their life had been completely centered by God, then they would be ready for the next step.

III

After the blue collar work has been done of kneading and centering the clay, the white smock work of the artist begins.  This is called pulling up the clay.  After putting her thumbs down into the middle of the spinning, centered lump, the potter must, with one finger of one hand on the inside and one finger of the other hand on the outside, begin to pull the sides up and form basic, straight up walls.  With moistened fingers, she can begin to put some shape to the raised and spinning walls of the pot.

The only way to do this well is to apply equal, gentle pressure from the inside AND the outside of the wall of the emerging pot.  What she is doing is actually pulling clay up from the bottom, and as it spins, dispersing it evenly upward as she moves her knuckle or fingertip up the wall.  The pressure she uses must not be too hard or she will go through the wall and ruin what she is creating.  It must be just enough to keep pulling clay from the bottom lump, bringing it up, lengthening the pot walls to the height she wants.

When God works on our lives, God puts gentle pressure on us from the inside and on the outside.  God is working internally on our hearts, our minds, our personality, our thoughts.  And God is working on us with a sure and directed molding pressure from the outside, like through our relationships, our work, our families, our daily activities.  God puts those creative hands in both parts of our lives (inner and outer) to get us ready to be the people we were meant to be.  God is molding us for the work that is meant for us to do.

But this is still not fashioning the pot.  It is the final preparation stage before shape and artistry is given to the pot.  So, three out of the four stages of making a pot are all about preparation.
You are kneaded in God’s hands.  Are you ready to be what God is fashioning you to be?  No.

You are attached and centered to the wheel, given a good foundation, given some balance and symmetry to your life.  Are you ready to be what God is fashioning you to be?  No.

You are pulled up from the lump.  You are standing steady, strong and elastic, with basic form and shape.  Are you ready to be what God is fashioning you to be?  No.

IV

The final step is what everything else has led up to:  artistically fashioning a pot.  It is an interesting process of how a pot is finally shaped and designed.  The artist may have a shape in mind.  Many potters use characteristic shapes or glazes that distinguish their work from others.  Or a feature is added to the design that marks it as the artists own.  Or the shape and design may be a dynamic interchange between potter and clay so that form and feature are decided upon in the process of creation.

In that dynamic interchange between potter and clay, there are times when something is wrong.  The potter can’t get the clay to do what she wants it to do.  Or a design is thought of that just isn’t compatible with the shape of the vessel.  It is at this point that the potter knows what she must do.  She must collapse the pot down upon itself and start over on her centered lump of clay.  It is not an easy act for a potter to do--believe me--after spending time on a pot that didn’t work out.  There is some grieving involved with relumping something you’ve invested your time and self in.

But it is the potters prerogative.  The clay has no say.  It’s only reason for being is the fashioning in the potters hands.  Such is the message of God to Jeremiah at the potter’s house.  Jeremiah comes to understand that the potter-God completely controls the clay.  The potter can reshape it.  The potter is not committed to stay with any particular form or shape.  This is not just Jeremiah’s theme.  It’s also taken up by Isaiah:

Does clay talk back to the potter:
“What are you doing?  What clumsy fingers!”  (45:9)

We are not as self-determining or independent as we think we are.  It is a lesson that is always learned the hard way.  We are so determined to be the writers of our own story, the captain of our own ship.  Self-determination is the American way, but it is not the Christian way.

The idea of being as compliant and yielding as a lump of moist clay is so foreign to us, it seems our whole being revolts at the thought of it.  But God as potter and we as clay is the very nature of that relationship.  That cannot be avoided or denied.  That’s not to say we try--we have come up with all kinds of creative ways to avoid God’s shaping hands.  Mostly to our peril.

What Jeremiah comes to understand from the potter as the potter smashes a pot down and starts over, is that this is both a message of judgement and of hope.  You never know when God will pull you down, collapse you in on top of yourself, thus bringing you back to a position of humility--a lump.

Our worlds can collapse.  What we thought was just fine may be a terrible misperception about our spiritual health and well-being.  We may feel we were a beautiful pot-in-the-making.  But we really didn’t let God have much of a part in the making.  To be pulled down by the potter God is definitely humbling, and possibly humiliating.  But even the humiliation may be part of God’s intentions.  That is the judgement side.

The upside, the word of hope as witnessed by Jeremiah is that the potter never pulled a pot down and left it that way.  It was always re-centered and refashioned.  No one likes to be so humbled as to have their lives collapsed back into a lump--indistinguishable, formless, uncharacteristic, nothing like you were before.  But in the midst of such an event, you learn new meaning under the centering pressure of God’s hands.  The dawning of meaning provides the foundation for a new creation.  God who pulls you down, always makes new out of what got pulled down.  The hands of our artistic God surrounds, re-centers, and reforms the lives we once had.  We will never be quite the same.  But we will be what God wants us to be.

The paradox is that when our lives are being collapsed, we may feel that God is farthest from us.  That God has for some reason left us horribly alone.  The truth is, God is neither out of reach or out of touch, but is amazingly in charge of the whole process.  God’s hands are active in the whole spinning mess.  It is in those times of reforming that God’s hands are around us most intimately and purposefully.  The truth is that God is catching all the falling pieces and bringing them back into the lump of new beginnings, out of which creation and recreation revolves.

And it’s amazing what God can make!

Monday, August 29, 2016

Runaway Bride

"Runaway Bride"
Jeremiah 2:1-3, 13, 31-32

I want to start out this message with a risky venture.  I am going to try and share some of my pain with you.

We’re all pretty private out here on the high plains.  At least we think we are.  We think we get to hold our cards pressed up against our chest and never give a peak.  Then we find out everyone knew what our cards were already.  It’s one of those ironic myths we live by in our small towns.  Nobody knows, and at the same time everybody knows.

There may be times when you feel like you need to talk to someone about your stuff.  You try to figure out who you can talk to, and who you can’t or won’t talk to.  Maybe I will be one of those people on your short list, if you have something you need to work through.  It’s a risky thing, I realize for people to come see me and talk through their struggles about life.  It usually takes a congregation and pastor a few years to build up that level of trust.  Well, I’ve been around for 5 1/2 years now, so I’m going to take a risk and share a little more of my story.  See if we can increase our level of trust with each other.

Back in 2006, when I was living in Bakersfield, I got engaged to a woman.  We had been dating for over 3 years.  We had what I thought was a good relationship.  We were both excited about our life and future together.  We were to be married in the middle of July that year.

Everyone in the church I was serving was so excited for me.  They were so happy that love had come around for us both.  She’s a wonderful Christian woman with a great heart.  Even though she was not a member at the church I served, she had grown up in Bakersfield.  Her father owned several restaurants in town that were really popular, and most people knew her.  The closer we got to our wedding date, the more the excitement was getting ramped up.  All the plans had been made, and all we had to do was anxiously wait for the date to come.

Two and a half weeks before the wedding, she walked away--from the wedding and the relationship.  She said she felt like God was telling her she shouldn’t be married or even thinking about marriage.  That’s all she’d say.  I asked her why the (hell) God didn’t tell her that a year, two years, even three years earlier.  She had no answer.

She cut off all communication and left me to deal with the feelings of personal devastation and rejection.  I was angry at her for using God as an out.  Basically, I was just really angry.  What can you do when someone plays the God card?  It trumps all other cards.  The God card is usually played in order to end all conversation.  “It’s the way it has to be.”  “It’s ordained by the Almighty.”  I was angry at God, because if God was really behind this, I wanted to know why.  I felt I deserved an explanation from either her or God.  I have received none.  Which deepened my sense of emotional and theological trauma.

People in my congregation were literally coming up to me in tears, grasping me and telling me how sorry they were, and how badly they felt for me.  I didn’t know how to handle it.  I didn’t know how to handle all their grief.  I didn’t even know, exactly, how to handle mine.  I certainly didn’t handle it very well.  I stuffed my feelings and told everyone I was fine.  We were getting a new senior pastor the next month, and I felt like I had to put on a strong face to help everyone get ready for that transition.  There was too much going on at church, and I didn’t want my personal stuff to derail any of that, or flatten the mood as we began to launch a new senior pastor as well as our new Fall programs.  So I just pretended I was OK.

And then I crashed and burned.  As I said, I didn’t handle my grief very well.  I didn’t choose a healthy way to cope.  Which is ironic in that I consider myself an expert on grief and grief care.  It is one of my specialities.  It is what I help people do best--get through their traumatic times.  I, who know so much about grief care, didn’t take very good care of myself.  If I would have come to myself and said, “Steve, what should I do? How should I handle this?” I could have given myself some pretty good advice.  I had done it for hundreds of people through out my ministry.  But I didn’t for myself.  I played a role I thought everyone expected me to play as Minister of Pastoral Care--that is, the role of the strong pastor who sucks it up and moves on, continuing to take care of others even if it meant not taking care of myself. 

A year later, the woman who walked away, leaving me at the altar so-to-speak, feeling God didn’t want her to be married, got married to a doctor in town, whom she had just met and whom she hardly knew.  And that made me angrier.

I’ve put a lot of distance, geographically and emotionally and theologically from that chapter of my life.  I’ve spent a lot of hours in therapy trying to finally understand and deal with what happened, both in the rejection and how I cratered personally, in making some really poor choices in the aftermath of it all.  I am past it, for the most part.  And you have all had an embracing hand in helping me get back on my feet and feel good about myself again—unbeknownst to you.  For that I will always be grateful.

I tell you all this not so you can feel sorry for me or whatever it is that you may be feeling as you hear about this piece of my past.  I tell you mainly so you can hopefully, through my experience, see an illustration of, and get a glimpse into the heart of God.  Jeremiah is trying to give us the beginning peek into God’s heart in this second chapter.  Part of what we see there is the pain of being “left at the altar” by his people, not just once, but on a continual basis.

Jeremiah starts out by describing the wedding of God and God’s bride--the people whom God has called his own.  “I remember your youthful loyalty, our love as newlyweds...” God sings.  But by verse 32, that song of wedded love has turned mournful:
“Brides don’t show up without their veils, do they?
But my people forget me,
Day after day after day they never give me a thought.”

How does God do it?  That’s what I wonder.  I know what it feels like because of not one, but two incidences of marital abandonment.  I know what was going on in my heart.  I know how angry and rejected I felt.  I know the hurt of being walked away from with no discussion, no say, no power.  How does God deal with it, “day after day after day?”

My people have walked out on me... (God laments)
Have I let you down, Israel?
Am I nothing but a dead-end street?

Those are very real feelings and emotions that God is displaying.  If you don’t think God should have feelings, you better not read Jeremiah.  You’ll find in these pages the picture of God who feels things deeply.  

I know those feelings.  Some of you may know those feelings.  You begin to wonder, “What did I do?”  “Should I blame myself?” God wonders.  “Could I have done something different, more, or better?”  That’s the triple threat combination when you’re in the midst of a disintegrating relationship, that sends you into a self-destructive spiral.  If only...  If only I did something different.  If only I did something more.  If only I did something better.  If only...then all this nightmare wouldn’t have happened.

But God, like many of us, came to the realization that it wouldn’t have mattered.  It wouldn’t have mattered if God had done more, better or different.  The people would still have abandoned God.  That’s their nature, not Gods.  That’s OUR nature.
Why do my people say, “Good riddance!
From now on we’re on our own”?
...My people forget me...

How does God do it?  God cries out.  But to whom does God cry?  We all cry out to God.  Who does God have to cry out to?  We may be tempted to counsel God, telling God to just forget those people.  Let them go.  They aren’t worth it.  Just get on with life; move on.  But those people are us.  There are other people who won’t abandon you, we tell God.  And we think we are in that company, not the former losers.  There are other fish in the ocean, we say, and we think we are those other fish.  But the hard reality that we all must start with, that Jeremiah starts with, is that we are all runaway brides.  We are all the ones who skip, sulk, run, crawl, or back away from the altar.  God is waiting for us as we, at one point, came down the middle aisle.  God was waiting to proclaim his love for us.  God was waiting to hear us proclaim our love for God.  And then God watched, dumbfounded, as we all turned tail and walked, nay, ran away.

The question that God then keeps coming back to, the question that is the question behind all the “if onlys...”, the question that is behind all of God’s questions to his people is this:  “What am I supposed to do with all this love?”  God is saying, “I have loved you, and I have loved you deeply and well.  What am I supposed to do with all that now that you have walked away?"

I recently rewatched the movie, “Blind Side."  Has anyone seen it?  It’s based on a true story about a white family in Tennessee who takes in and adopts an abandoned, black, high school boy.  The kid is huge.  His grades are all D’s and F’s.  But in going through his records, they discover a psychological evaluation on which he scored in the 98th percentile in “protective instincts.”  He has run away a lot, previously, from the foster homes he was stuck in.  Every time he runs away, he tries to find the mother who abandoned him.  She is a crack head.  A drug addicted piece of work, who doesn’t care for any of her 12 children, and has no idea who the father is of any of them.  She doesn’t care where her kids are or how they’re doing.  To her, her children are out-of-sight-out-of-mind.  Given the chance to meet him, to meet her son, she refuses.

But this boy keeps trying to find her, protect her, if not from the world, at least from herself.  He has this love for his mother that he won’t let go of, no matter how messed up she is, no matter how invisible she tries to make herself from him.  Even though she doesn’t want to be found, and doesn’t want to be a part of his life in any way, he is still driven to keep searching her out.  “Why?” is what I asked myself, as I watched the movie.  And, “Why?” is what I ask God as I read this second chapter of Jeremiah.

That’s the same glimpse into the heart of God that Jeremiah is trying to show us.  We are these wayward, piece of work human beings.  We probably don’t deserve the ways and lengths God goes to to keep searching us out, keep protecting us, keep loving us.  “What am I supposed to do with all this love?” God keeps asking himself.  Even when we people put ourselves out of God’s reach, and don’t want to be found; even when we totally forget about God and treat God as if there were no God, or with uncaring indifference; even when we abandon God at the altar as runaway brides; even when we say, “good riddance,” why does God keep searching?  Why does God keep coming around?

God says that he and his love is like a spring.  God says that our love is like cisterns.  You know the difference between a cistern and a spring, right?  A spring is a gift.  It’s grace in the form of water.  You can’t make a spring happen.  It does it on its own.  It is a constant flow of clear, clean water.

A cistern, on the other hand, is a technique for trapping water.  Especially rain water.  A cistern could be small, to catch rain water off your roof; or like large hand dug, bell-shaped, wells.  If you had your choice, where would you get your water?  Out of a stagnant cistern, or out of a running spring?  You get water each way, but they aren’t quite the same, are they?

And that is exactly God’s point.  Given the choice between the spring:  sacrament, gift, grace, devotion, ever-faithful love; or the cistern:  technique, the search for love in all the wrong places, draining emptiness--what do people choose?  Sadly we choose the cistern rather than the spring.

One of the qualities of Jeremiah’s words that we will constantly have to pay attention to is not just the words or the imaginative images behind the words:  the bride and groom; the cistern and the spring.  What we must pay attention to most is the emotion, the pathos, the feelings that Jeremiah is trying to describe with those words and images.

Imagine, then, the feelings of God behind these images.  The feelings God must have as his bride runs away from the altar; as the bride runs away from his spring water love; as the bride turns to others thinking they have the key to her ultimate happiness; as the bride pledges her love to those who cannot and will not fulfill her love; as the bride tries empty technique after empty technique in some vain attempt to gain the sacramental love she deeply longs for; as the bride continually says to God, “No, you’re not the One”; as the bride turns her back on the spring so close to her in order to dip and drink water from a stagnant cistern.  Imagine.  Imagine how God must feel, Jeremiah is saying, when we simply refuse to be in love with God.  Because that is all it takes.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Heroes Welcome

"Heroes Welcome"
Jeremiah 1:1-10

I ran across a website this week that was really encouraging.  The name of the website is “My Hero”  (www.myhero.com).  It is a website dedicated to the everyday people who do things that serve others in selfless ways.  People can log onto the website and nominate people who have been their hero.  The stories you find there are what we might think of as simple acts, but meant so much to those who received from these heroes.

For example, there is Claudia Martinez, who with bright elastic bands and simple care is smoothing the edges of suffering for earthquake victims.  The 31-year-old Dominican tends to dozens of hospital patients who have made it across the border to her country, tenderly combing and braiding their hair for free.

Carrying a basket filled with colored elastic bands and a comb, Martinez comes every day to Santo Domingo's Dario Contreras hospital where injured people with broken bones and shattered lives come for healing.

Her task may seem trivial, but she believes restoring a bit of beauty and humanity to people who have lost everything and survived deplorable conditions is important.  Martinez says she just wants to make people feel "clean and a little bit better."

Or, there’s the story of Clara Hale, who in 1940 faced the most tragic thing in her life. Her husband died, leaving her with her two children. Desperate to find the resources to take care of her children, she got a job as a babysitter for children with mothers too busy to take care of their own children. She soon learned that she could become a licensed foster mother..

During the next 25 years, she was a foster mother to over 40 children, all with unique and different backgrounds and religions. Many of them were children whose mothers were drug addicts, or children who had contracted AIDs from their mothers.  Clara’s goal was to take in all of these children which no one wanted, and she accomplished that goal very well. Clara was a loving, generous mother to over 800 children in her life. She dedicated her whole life to these unwanted children. Her life ended with a great feeling in her heart that she had changed people's lives.

With so many scandals being reported in the news lately, we could easily be led to believe there are no heroes any more.  There are no great personalities that are being held up for others to emulate.  Only narcissistic, self-indulgent entertainers and politicians whose lives seem constantly out of control.

In a Time magazine article about the Millennials, one section had the heading which read, “Leaders:  Heroes Are Hard To Find.”  Listen to a portion of that section:
Today’s potential leaders seem unable to maintain their stature.  They have a way of either self-destructing or being decimated in the press, which trumpets their faults and foibles.  Says Christina Chinn, a 21 year old from Denver, “Now you get role models like our presidential candidates…--no one with real ideals.”

I have felt for a long time the need that the twenty-something generation is now beginning to articulate on a large scale:  the need for more heroes.  But the more I thought about trying to hone what I mean by a hero, the more I begin to fumble.  Once, the poet Robert Frost was asked, “What is poetry?”  His answer was classic.  “Poetry,” he said, “is something poets write.”  We may have to answer in the same way about the hero.  A hero is someone who does the heroic.  But then we’re right back where we started:  What does it meant to be heroic?

The inability to pin down a clear definition is compounded with the problem that the Time magazine article highlighted.  Many of the people who have been put forward as positive role models, even heroes, have self-destructed, or have not stood the scrutiny of the public eye.

That seems to be a reality that we would have to deal with in trying to figure out a definition of a hero or positive role model.  None will be found who will come out squeaky clean.  The Bible is unashamedly clear on this point.  All of it’s characters are real people with chinks in their heroic armor.  And those chinks aren’t just little spaces here and there, but large openings of vulnerability.  Abraham lied to save his own skin.  Jacob was a first class cheat.  Moses was a murderer and whiner.  David committed adultery, and then lead a cover-up that included murder.  Peter blasphemed and denied he ever had anything to do with Jesus.  Paul was a murderer and torturer of Christians.  And on and on.

Oliver Cromwell, once lord protector of England, Ireland and Scotland, was having a portrait of himself painted.  He never looked at it until it was done.  When he saw the finished work, he was quick to realize that the artist had left off several facial warts.  Cromwell then stormed those now famous words, “I want the portrait redone, warts and all.”

The significant characters in Scripture, we are also quick to realize, are all fashioned from the same clay as the rest of us.  Scripture portrays them “warts and all.’’  So, our definition of hero, if we are honest, can not include flawless character.  Perfection is not a part of what it’s going to mean to be heroic, or on a lesser scale, a good role model.

Another problem I run into when thinking about society’s need for some heroic personalities is in the form of a question:  What kind of living do heroes inspire?  What kind of living should they inspire?  It seems to me what happens most often is, instead of learning heroic behavior, we simply succumb to hero worship.  Rather than trying to forge a similar kind of positive lifestyle using the building blocks of what it means to be heroic, we more often just become worshippers of the positive.  We dress like the heroic, we talk like the heroic, but deep down there has been no significant change.  Instead of becoming people of more depth and character, we become simple coat tail riders.  We miss the fact that maybe we are supposed to assert ourselves toward being positive role models.

The real goal of having a role model, it seems to me, is not to be just like them, but instead to inspire us to find ways in which we can also be exemplary people given our individual characteristics and unique situations.

The role that God asked Jeremiah to model was that of truth speaker.  Jeremiah is someone who speaks the truth with passion.  There is an alarm in his voice.  He will tell us unflinchingly, as we look at his words in the coming Sundays, where we have fallen our faces.  He will warn us, honestly, where the traps are hidden along the way that seek to slow us down or sidetrack our devotion.

As a truth teller, Jeremiah’s words are not easy to listen to.  Not many model for us such utter honesty.  God gave Jeremiah a very difficult role to play.  God touches Jeremiah’s mouth and says,
"Behold, I have put My words in your mouth
See, I have appointed you this day
over nations and over the kingdoms,
To pluck up and to break down,
To destroy and to overthrow,
To build and to plant." (Jeremiah 1:9-10)

God gives Jeremiah the role, through his words, to pull down people’s lives so that God can rebuild them.

In our dedication to God, the truth is, we are either in the process of become less or more.  Certainly God desires that we would constantly become more, not less.  Jeremiah, if we let him play his role in our lives, will give us the truth we need:  tearing down or building up.  It may be a little of both.


Eugene Peterson wrote:
A prophet wakes us up from our sleepy complacency . . . and then pushes us onto the stage playing our parts whether we think we are ready or not.  A prophet angers us by rejecting and ripping off our disguises, then dragging our heartless attitudes and selfish motives out into the open where everyone sees them for what they are.  A prophet makes it difficult to continue with a sloppy or selfish life.

As we shall see, Jeremiah was a reluctant role model.  Time after time he complained to God about the role he felt he’d been forced into.  But yet, Jeremiah pushed on.  Jeremiah had such a heart for the people he spoke truth to, that at times it hurt his feelings more than the feelings of those he had to speak to.  That was the burden of the role he had to play.

Jeremiah becomes the kind of reluctant hero that surfaces in all imaginative literature.  In these kinds of stories the hero is often the person you would least expect.  In the legend of King Arthur, for example, the boy Arthur pulls the sword from the stone after all the champions--the expected heroes--have tried their hardest and failed.

In the imaginative tales of J.R.R. Tolkein, in The Lord Of The Rings, the heroes are characters who have no quality of the heroic about them.  There is nothing that would distinguish them as models of high morality or daring do.  Instead, Tolkein’s main characters are a couple of Hobbits named Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.  They are stick-at-home kind of creatures who would rather just sit in their easy chair, smoke their pipes, read good books, and eat good food.

What makes both Bilbo and Frodo heroic role models, eventually, is that they are called to go on a quest of great and grave importance.  Their success or failure would determine the future of their people forever.  Both, in their turn, accepts the challenge.  In their quiet, simple, yet bumbling ways, they slip unnoticed into and conquer the threatening powers of evil.

As I said before, there is nothing about Bilbo or Frodo that would give you the impression that you were in the presence of greatness.  They were both normal, everyday characters who were called upon to accept a challenge that was larger than anything they had faced before.  It was simply in their willingness to accept the challenge that elevated Bilbo and Frodo into the level of the role model, even the hero.  It is one of the main themes of that set of books.

So, let’s put together what we’ve got so far concerning our definition of a role model and hero.  First, a hero is a real person, imperfect in some ways, and who must definitely be taken warts and all.  We will be disillusioned if we expect otherwise.

Secondly, a hero or role model, is someone we are not to worship or copy in a second-hand way.

And thirdly, heroes are the role models they are because they rise to the occasion when it is presented to them.  They use the talents they have--even their weaknesses--for the cause of God’s good.

That’s the kind of person Jeremiah the prophet was.  Jeremiah is a person we can look up to, someone we would unflinchingly call a positive role model.  Jeremiah is so, because he has a passion more for God than for himself.

It is this prophet and this prophet’s message that we will be focusing our attention upon in the coming weeks.  He is the kind of role model who is universal to time and culture because his message and his personality speak truth loud and clear to the excesses as well as the measly ways people choose to live.  He is the kind of role model who will challenge you to live a God-centered life.  He will make you squirm in his challenges.  He is a true hero in that he refuses to let us live life on his, or anyone’s coattails.  Instead he calls us to honestly live faithfully and creatively in our unique situations.

He is also a person not without some quirks and glitches.  We’ll have to accept those along the way.  As we move through Jeremiah, it is my hope that we will not just be imitators of him, but instead discover for ourselves, what it means to be faithfully heroic.