confessions of Jeremiah

zero the hero

When I young, I was very interested in comic books, especially Marvel Comics.  I tended to like their superheroes better than those of the other main publisher, DC Comics.  Marvel placed (and still places) its characters in the real world.  It’s New York City, not Gotham City or Metropolis. 1 jr

Among my favorite comic books were Dr. Strange (the Sorcerer Supreme!) and the Incredible Hulk.  I admired him for his eloquence, his articulate way with words.  His favorite line was “Hulk smash!”

2 jrProbably my favorite character wasn’t a superhero at all.  He was kind of an anti-hero.  He lived in Cleveland, having become trapped on our Earth.  He was simply a duck, Howard the Duck, and he would continually be amazed at how we “hairless apes,” as he put it, ran things on this planet.  You see, on his Earth, ducks are the dominant species.

I really don’t know how deliberate this was, but is it possible that Marvel was making a statement about superheroes?  Is it necessary to be muscle-bound, or otherwise skill-laden?  Is it possible to be merely a duck?  Hold that thought!

3 jrIn the book of Jeremiah, we see something that we rarely do with the other Hebrew prophets.  We get a quite vivid view of the emotions of the man.  We see much of his psychological makeup.  That’s largely due to what’s called the confessions of Jeremiah.  There are five of them, located between chapters 11 and 20.[1]  These are the poems of the prophet in which he expresses his feelings of pain, of anger, and even his sense of betrayal by God.  These laments are borne of the abuses he’s been forced to endure.

We see yet another example of that unfair treatment in chapter 38.  If there is anyone in need of some heroic intervention, it’s definitely the prophet Jeremiah.

At this point in the book, the Babylonians are outside the walls of Jerusalem.  Jeremiah, who’s been warning about this for years, is seeing his words coming true.  Things are getting very grim.  Having taken position outside the city, the Babylonians have set up a blockade.  They’re cutting off supply lines, stopping shipments of food.  The situation will get so dire that some will resort to cannibalism.  They will eat their own young (19:9, Lm 2:20, 4:10).

Zedekiah, the final king of Judah, has sought Jeremiah for words of wisdom, but he doesn’t like what he hears.  Zedekiah’s biggest problem is that he’s afraid.  He does nothing to prevent his officials from arresting Jeremiah, who claim the prophet “ought to be put to death, because he is discouraging the soldiers who are left in this city.”  They say he isn’t “seeking the welfare of this people, but their harm” (v. 4).

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Just how does Zedekiah respond?  How does this sound?  “Here he is; he is in your hands; for the king is powerless against you” (v. 5).  He thinks he’s saving his own skin, but he’s doing the exact opposite.  Jeremiah has tried to tell him, and everyone else, that this war is a lost cause.  Zedekiah can still come to terms with the Babylonians.

But fear can easily overwhelm reason.  The most dangerous people in the world are the fearful.  When people are afraid—when we are afraid—we become capable of stuff we otherwise would never do.  People who are afraid are easier to manipulate, because they aren’t thinking clearly.  They aren’t asking the right questions.  As we sometimes say, they check their brains at the door—or before entering the arena.

As for Jeremiah, he gets lowered into a cistern.  It would be bad enough if the bottom were dry, but listen to the way the Bible describes it: “Now there was no water in the cistern, but only mire, and Jeremiah sank in the mire” (v. 6).

Jeremiah is being buried alive.  He can’t find any solid foothold, which need it be said, has levels of meaning.

Fortunately for the prophet, there is someone willing to intervene on his behalf.  This one goes to Zedekiah and says, “My lord king, these men have acted wickedly in all they did to the prophet Jeremiah by throwing him into the cistern to die there of hunger, for there is no bread left in the city” (v. 9).  Some manuscripts even have him saying “you have acted wickedly”!

Who is this bold advocate?  Who dares to step forward this way?  Perhaps someone from the king’s family?  Not exactly.  He’s a fellow known to us as Ebed-melech.  But that really isn’t his name.  “Ebed-melech” (עֶבֶד־מֶלֶךְ) simply means “servant of the king.”  And what’s more, he’s a foreigner, an Ethiopian.  He’s a nobody, a zero—although truth be told, I might be overstating this “zero” bit.  He would have needed some influence to get an audience with Zedekiah.

What reaction does he provoke from the king?  Punishment?  Rebuke?  No, Zedekiah tells Ebed-melech to find some help…and get Jeremiah out of that well!  Sometimes we need to be asked—we need to be reminded—to do the right thing, to be the person we claim to be, to be the person we want to be.

Christine Pohl has written: “a friend of mine asked if there was anyone who consistently spoke truth into my life.”  She reminds us how important it is that “[e]ach of us [have] someone, or a small community, who will name what is going on and speak a word of truth to us when it is needed.”[2]

But more than being the one who reminds Zedekiah of his moral, and indeed his legal, duty, Ebed-melech is something else.  As I’ve indicated, he is the voice of Jeremiah when Jeremiah has no voice.  It’s hard to plead your case when you’re at the bottom of a muck-filled cistern.

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If for no other reason (and surely there is more than one), but if for no other reason than his showing compassion for Jeremiah, Ebed-melech’s actions should be considered heroic.  In my humble opinion, this zero is a hero.  And I’m far from alone in making that judgment.  Jewish legend even goes so far as to say that he’s among those who ascended to heaven.  That seems to be a pretty firm vote of confidence!

Actually, calling Ebed-melech a hero isn’t a tough call, given the message to him in chapter 39.  The prophet is told to go to Ebed-melech and reassure him of something.  The city is still going to be invaded and conquered.  Destruction is on the way.  But it won’t touch him.  And the people he’s angered by helping Jeremiah won’t touch him, either.

So what will happen?  “I will surely save you, and you shall not fall by the sword; but you shall have your life as a prize of war, because you have trusted in me, says the Lord” (v. 18).  Ebed-melech will survive the fighting with his own plunder, that plunder being his life.

He might not be a superhero, but he does a pretty good job as a duck!

Here’s a question.  “Who is the biggest zero of all time?”  (That is, if a zero can be called “big”!)  Who is it?  I would suggest Jesus.  Let me elaborate.  We have a peasant among a people under military occupation.  There are legitimate questions regarding his parentage.  He is an obscure man from an obscure town.  In fact, it was asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46).

The powers-that-be grow weary of his wandering around, spreading his dangerous teachings.  He is executed, though not in a way befitting a political prisoner, but as a common thug on a cross, along with two other thugs.  His followers disperse (with the exception of some of the women!)  The dream, just like Jesus, is dead—dead as a doornail.  A couple of his disciples, reflecting on this utter failure, said “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Lk 24:21).  We had hoped.

Of course, we know that’s not the end of the story.

Bringing this business of zero into our time, we should note that Jesus was a Middle Eastern Palestinian.  I wonder, between the two of us, who would be more likely to be “randomly” stopped and checked at the airport?

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That is the beauty of Jesus as zero.  He takes the lowest possible position.  (Mind you, I’m not suggesting that being a Middle Eastern Palestinian qualifies as being zero.)  Jesus takes utter defeat and transforms it, and perhaps you’ll agree that there’s no greater defeat than being dead!

I imagine some of us have felt like zero.  Some of us, if not all of us, have had the sense that we’re nothing, at least once in our lives.  I would daresay it’s happened many more times than that.   (I would call it part of the human condition.)

Maybe we’ve even felt like Jeremiah in that deep, dark hole.  Earlier I mentioned the anguish revealed by the prophet: he’s been the object of mockery, hatred, unjust imprisonment, torture, just to name some of his mistreatment.  Still, this is the perfect summation of his agony.  He’s been tossed into what must look like a bottomless pit.  There seems to be no way out.

As noted before, it would be bad enough if solid ground were at the bottom.  However, here he is (here we are) sinking in sludge, maybe even to the point of it closing overhead.  The walls are moving in.  One need not be claustrophobic for a sense of panic to take hold.  The light is beginning to fade.

Some might say this is well-deserved.  After all, why does he find himself in this predicament to begin with?  It was no accident.  Many say by spreading his message, he really didn’t want the best for his people.

How often have we seen this take place?  Have we been with Jeremiah in that deep, dark hole and been told, “That’s where you belong.”

Shelley Rambo, who’s written quite a bit on trauma, says “for many people who experience trauma, Christianity has offered judgment, not good news…  The sense that a person is at fault for what has happened to them is often threaded into Christian responses, sometimes unconsciously.”[3]

Have we ever been on the other side of that deep, dark hole and acted like a zero (though not in a good sense!)?  Have we ever shown impatience with someone in the midst of pain and suffering and said, “Okay, this has gone on long enough.  It’s time to move on!  That is, unless you enjoy this.”

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{Shelley Rambo}

Still, despite whatever suffering we endure—or whatever suffering we inflict—when hope has almost died, a servant of the king is there.  An ebed-melech shows up.  When we do speak the words of truth and get thrown into the mud, our ebed-melech stands next to us and defends us.

May the Lord raise in each of our lives an ebed-melech, a servant of the King Jesus, the One who became obedient to death and who brings us through the battle, giving us the power to rise from the dead.

 

[1] 11:18-12:6, 15:10-21, 17:14-18, 18:18-23, 20:7-18

[2] Christine Pohl, “Sin insulation,” Christian Century 118:24 (29 Aug-5 Sep 2001): 12.

[3] www.christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/how-christian-theology-and-practice-are-being-shaped-trauma-studies


the fox and the hen

When I was in seminary, one of my professors was talking about sermons.  (I confess, I don’t remember who it was!)  He was commenting on how the usual approach many people have is to make three points.  (There’s a saying some people quote on occasion: “three points and a poem.”)  He said he doesn’t bother with three points; he has enough to do with one point!  He figured if he could deliver a sermon with at least one thing to take away from it, then he did his job.

Our gospel reading in Luke has neither one nor three points; it has two points!  They involve a fox and a hen.  There’s another saying along the lines of a fox guarding the hen house.  (My inspiration for the sermon title.)  That would be an unfortunate scenario for those living in the house!

1 lk 13

{Foxy, our dog from long ago--not the "fox"}

As we begin with verse 31, we hear, “At that very hour some Pharisees” show up and give Jesus a warning.  What’s going on right before this?  According to Luke, Jesus is going “through one town and village after another, teaching as he [makes] his way to Jerusalem” (v. 22).  His theme is, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able” (v. 24).

The stage is set.  The Pharisees accost him after he enters the city.  They tell him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”

Herod has been hearing things about him.  We’re told “he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the ancient prophets had arisen.  Herod said, ‘John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?’  And he tried to see him” (9:7-9).  I’m sure he has nothing but good intentions!

This Herod, Herod Antipas, is the son of Herod the Great.  This is the Herod who ordered the massacre of the Holy Innocents, the slain little boys of Bethlehem, in his mad attempt to stamp out the young Jesus.

Herod Antipas first had John the Baptist arrested because he denounced his marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias (3:19-20).  That was a big no-no.  Later at his birthday party, when the daughter of Herodias was dancing, he drunkenly asked what she wanted.  After consulting with her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist on a platter” (Mt 14:6-8).

It appears that bloodlust runs in the family!

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We don’t know if the Pharisees are giving Jesus a good faith warning.  Are they sincerely concerned about his safety?  Or do they want him to get the heck out of Dodge because, to put it lightly, they just don’t like him?  Herod having put Jesus on his hit list would be a convenient excuse.  Either way, that should be enough for Jesus to heed their warning, “Hit the road, Jack.”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work.  Jesus is undaunted.  He wants the Pharisees to give “that fox” a message.  Herod is a fox.  He is cunning and sly.  He’s one slippery devil.  He’s a sneaky one.  But calling someone a fox can also mean that they’re unimportant, not worth getting all hot and bothered.  It is not a compliment!

Jesus wants them to tell him he’s going to be “casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work” (v. 32).  I’m going to keep doing what I do.  Jesus refuses to be diverted, even though he probably knows this won’t end well.

The late Bruce Prewer said, “This is no pretty-boy Jesus, no sentimental dreamer.  Jesus knew the score.  He mourned the bloody death of cousin John.  But he was not going to be intimidated.  He was a man in charge of his own destiny.  A tough Jesus.  ‘Go tell that fox I will move on when I am ready.  Not before.’”[1]

I’m reminded of the apostle Paul in Philippi when he was unjustly arrested, beaten, and thrown in jail (Ac 16:35-40).  When the officials found out he was a Roman citizen, they were scared because they didn’t give him his due process.  As a citizen, he had rights they violated.  They sent word to have him released, but Paul demanded they come and tell him to his face.

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Maybe that’s enough about the fox.  Let’s move on to the hen!

In this section, Jesus begins by lamenting the history of Jerusalem—how it has seen the murder of so many prophets.  Here’s a little sample: Uriah (Jr 26:23), Zechariah (2 Ch 24:20-22), those killed by King Manasseh (2 Kg 21:16), and we could go on.  As Eugene Peterson puts it, “it’s not proper for a prophet to come to a bad end outside Jerusalem” (v. 33).

The heart of Jesus is broken.  He pours out his soul in sorrow.  He has longed to gather the people of Jerusalem; he has ached.  He has wanted to protect them under his wing.  Applying feminine imagery to himself, Jesus has wanted to be their mother hen.  To continue the metaphor, the people have been wayward chicks, refusing the care of mother.  This is a true picture of anguish.

A moment ago, I mentioned how I was reminded of the apostle Paul.  Now the prophet Jeremiah comes to mind.  He has been called “the weeping prophet.”

He cries out, “Is there no balm in Gilead?  Is there no physician there?  Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?  O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!” (8:22-9:1).

Jesus finishes by telling the disobedient people “your house is left to you” (v. 35).  There’s the suggestion that it’s been left desolate, in a state of disorder.  Some say he’s referring to the Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans.

It’s a picture of abandonment.  That’s what happens to us when we choose, so to speak, to reject the protection of the mother hen.  We are left at the mercy of the fox.

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{"Jeremiah" by Michelangelo}

I don’t know about you, but to me this scripture passage sounds rather grim.  We have threats, a city with a dark side, warnings of destruction, and oh yes, murder.  It might not be the best bedtime reading!

Luke has one more nugget of misfortune.  He ends the chapter with a dire prediction by Jesus.  He says they won’t see him “until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”  This is the line from Psalm 118 which the crowds cry out as Jesus makes his entry into Jerusalem.  That verse chanted on the first Palm Sunday is part of our liturgy.  Luke is giving us a little preview of things to come.

Palm Sunday is a strange holiday.  It has so much praising, and if you didn’t know what would unfold in the coming days, it would be a time of genuine celebration.

Still, Jesus’ pronouncement is about more than Palm Sunday.  It’s about a more fundamental reality.  It goes back to the rejection of the Lord in general.  I trust I’m not overstating this, but there is a very real sense of not being able to see the Lord until and unless our lives say, “Blessed is the one.”

Regarding this scripture reading, as you see, this is one that is used during Lent.  I described it as grim.  Many folks think of Lent as grim.

Benedictine sister Joan Chittister has a different take on it.  “Lent is the time for trimming the soul,” she says, “and scraping the sludge off a life turned slipshod…  Lent is about exercising the control that enables us to say no to ourselves so that when life turns hard of its own accord, we have the spiritual stamina to say yes to its twists and turns with faith and with hope…  Lent is the time to make new efforts to be what we say we want to be.”[2]

More than any one single theme, the Lenten journey is about repentance.  We all need to repent.  The need for repentance doesn’t mean we’re bad.  The word “repentance” in Greek (μετανοια, metanoia) means “a change of mind” or “a turning around.”  It’s a turning from death to life.

5 lk 13How does the image of the fox and the hen figure into that?  Earlier I said a fox guarding the hen house would be unfortunate—at least for the chickens!

Between the fox and the hen, the fox is clearly the strong one.  The hen is the weak one.  The hen is no match for the fox.  And yet, despite the determination (and the hunger) of the fox, the mother hen still defends her young as best she can.  The odds are seriously stacked against her.

The mother hen is the picture of weakness and sorrow.  It’s kind of like Jesus surveying Jerusalem.  He is helpless in the face of intransigence.

If he wanted to, Jesus could have chosen a different image to represent himself.  Instead of a mother hen, he could have been a dread warrior, wielding a battle axe—I dare you to defy me!  But that isn’t the way of Jesus.  Like Jesus, Lent calls us to lay down our arms, to be unguarded, vulnerable, to indeed, repent.  I’m not saying to forswear certain physical things during these forty days, but allowing ourselves to be unguarded, to be vulnerable, to lower our defenses—that really is a challenge.

Still, remember who our Lord is.  He reigns in weakness.  He is the lamb upon the throne.  (Sure, that’s the image we all have of a king: a helpless lamb on a throne!)  He upends our usual expectations.  He is the very picture of vulnerability.  He ignores the fox, be it Herod or anyone else.  He is the mother hen, willing to sacrifice himself (or herself?) to protect the baby chicks.

That is the challenge of Lent.  That is the reward of Lent.  If you haven’t already fully entered into the Lenten season, it isn’t too late.  Remember, it “is the time to make new efforts to be what we say we want to be.”

 

[1] www.bruceprewer.com/DocC/C21lent2.htm

[2] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 136.


the art of Joban Friday

Who can doubt that the literature of Good Friday contains some of the most delicate and yet most disturbing images in all of sacred art? It is rivaled by the Psalms of lament, the confessions of Jeremiah, and of course, the book of Job. Our Tenebrae service, which we had on Maundy Thursday last night, included some texts which properly belong to Good Friday. The readings were from the gospel of Luke. Here is the scene in which Pontius Pilate yields to the cry of the mob, which was read with a touch of pathos by the liturgist:

“Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people, and said to them, ‘You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. I will therefore have him flogged and release him.’

“Then they all shouted out together, ‘Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!’ (This was a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.) Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; but they kept shouting, ‘Crucify, crucify him!’ A third time he said to them, ‘Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.’ But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed. So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted. He released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder, and he handed Jesus over as they wished.”

Job, William Blake
In 1900, Robert Watson had a similar feeling of the delicate and disturbing literature of the holy when he produced his text on the figure of Job. He begins with the opening lines:

“The Book of Job is the first great poem of the soul in its mundane conflict, facing the inexorable of sorrow, change, pain, and death, and feeling within itself at one and the same time weakness and energy, the hero and the serf, brilliant hopes, terrible fears. With entire veracity and amazing force this book represents the never-ending drama renewed in every generation and every genuine life.”

The cross can be seen as posing the question that upends our expectations of what is blessed and good in life. In an almost Zen-like fashion, it speaks volumes without uttering a word. Perhaps three or four centuries earlier, an author compiled a work verbally profuse with haunting beauty.

Watson’s book isn’t light reading. But if you’re interested in delving deeply into the world of Job (with not a small bit of Watson’s commentary and viewpoint!), then this book is for you. Over and over, you find a celebration of creativity and imagination.

It is worthy of a Joban Friday.

[The image is by William Blake. A caption below it reads, “And when they lifted up their eyes afar off & knew him not they lifted up their voice & wept. & they rent every Man his mantle & sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven”]


transitioning terror to tranquility

Nicknames can be tricky things. Sometimes a nickname can be a compliment, a reference to something positive. On the other hand, nicknames are often unfortunate; they can be demeaning or embarrassing. This has been my own observation: I’ve noticed that if someone answers to an embarrassing nickname, then that thing is locked in place. It might as well be tattooed on their forehead.

An example of a nickname gone wrong was featured on an episode of Seinfeld. George Costanza, played by Jason Alexander, is telling his best friend, Jerry Seinfeld, while eating at their favorite diner, that he wants a nickname. He wants to be known as “T-Bone.”

The next day at the office, as people are ordering lunch, George says that he wants a T-Bone steak, because he’s a T-Bone kind of guy. His co-worker sitting next to him says that he also wants a T-Bone. Their boss, whose name is Kruger, says, “Well then, we should call you ‘T-Bone.’”

George is upset, and the next day, he’s chewing out his co-worker for stealing his nickname. Kruger and a couple of the other employees are watching George through a window. They can’t hear what he’s saying, but they can see him flailing his arms around, and in one hand, he’s holding a banana.

Kruger says that he’s jumping around like a monkey, and he asks the others, “What was the name of that monkey that could read sign language?” (It was actually a gorilla, but we’ll let it slide.) So when George enters the room he says, “I have an announcement to make. From now on, I will be known as…” Kruger cuts him off, “…Koko the monkey.”

Just in case you were wondering, that’s an example of an unfortunate nickname!

In Jeremiah 20:1-13, we have another example of an unfortunate nickname, one that the prophet relays from God to “the priest Pashhur son of Immer…chief officer in the house of the Lord” (v. 1). It’s his job to keep order, to make sure things are running smoothly at the temple.

He is not at all happy with the things that Jeremiah has said. We see this in chapter 19. Jeremiah engages in some performance art. He purchases and then breaks an earthenware jug, proclaiming that the country itself will be broken. But he’s gone much farther than that. He has said that, because of the corruption and idolatry, Jerusalem is ritually unclean. It is as unclean as a burial ground. And he’s saying all of this in the temple precincts!

If you’re the guy in charge of running the place, that might make you upset.

As a result, in chapter 20, Pashhur has Jeremiah beaten; he has him flogged. After that, he has him locked in stocks, a device that holds the hands and feet in an agonizing position. So, following his flogging, the prophet is forced to remain in painful position all night long.

The next morning Pashhur has Jeremiah released, and here’s where we get to the unfortunate nickname! The Hebrew phrase that’s used (magor missabib) has nuances of meaning, but it’s usually translated as “Terror-all-around,” or “Terror on every side.” It appears five times in the book. William Holladay tells us that it not only refers to space, “on every side,” but also to perception, “from every point of view.” (544) So Jeremiah is telling Pashhur that, no matter which way you look at it, he is terror—and terror is what awaits him. According to Jeremiah, terror is what defines Pashhur.

Sadly for the prophet, that nickname takes on a life of its own. In verse 10, he laments how it’s been thrown back in his face. This is in one of the poems known as the Confessions of Jeremiah. In these poems, he complains to God about his fate. He says, “I hear many whispering: ‘Terror is all around! Denounce him! Let us denounce him!’ All my close friends are watching for me to stumble.”

What has happened is that some people have started associating that phrase with Jeremiah. “Hey, here comes old ‘Terror on every side’! Let’s mess with him!” In a sense, it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. His world becomes populated with terrorists. And to his way of thinking, that sometimes includes God!

image from scripturalstudies.files.wordpress.com

This might seem difficult to believe, but sometimes the church becomes populated with terrorists. (Imagine such a thing!) Sometimes, we terrorize ourselves.

The late Edwin Friedman wrote a book entitled, A Failure of Nerve. When I read it, there was something that especially caught my attention. He’s talking about how terrorism affects emotional systems, the church being a type of emotional system. He says a terrorist could be “a bomber, a client, an employee, or a child.” (Kindle edition, Introduction, section 2, paragraph 14.)

After thinking about it, I can see how a child could be a terrorist! If we ourselves are childish (please note that I say “childish,” not “childlike”—there is a difference), we also can be terrorists or bullies!

I have a question. What is it that inspires this terror? I’m speaking first of all about the terror that Jeremiah encounters. Why is Pashhur so terrified? Why are the powers-that-be so terrified? Certainly, we can point to their idolatrous disobedience of God. That’s something the human race constantly struggles with. But I suspect there’s something more.

By insisting that the Babylonians will invade and that there’s no point in fighting them, Jeremiah is presenting a future that Pashhur and his friends strongly reject. To be honest, it is hard to blame them. If we were in their shoes, I wonder how we would behave.

But this isn’t just about them. Often, when we envision the future, we ourselves are inspired with terror—or at least, a wee bit of anxiety! And it’s not always helpful when people ask, “Well, where’s your faith in God?” or “Why aren’t you just focusing on Jesus?”

Sometimes it might feel like we’re standing on the edge of a precipice, looking down at the canyon below. It might especially feel that way if someone else is there, someone who’s about to give a not-so-friendly shove!

No one likes being shoved; no one likes being pressured. I know that I don’t. One time in the office, I got a phone call from someone selling Bible studies on some particular topic. I was told it comes with workbooks and DVDs and a free gift just for giving it a twenty-five day trial and “can I verify your address so we can get that in the mail today”? Nowhere in that monologue was the question “Is this something you think you could use?”

As interim pastors, we do bear in mind that no one likes being pressured. As intentional transitional ministers, we work on certain things during the interim period. That way, the next called pastor won’t need to fool with it. He, she, or in the case of co-pastors, they, will have a better starting point. And you will have a better starting point.

We don’t want to go in the direction of insisting on our way. That doesn’t do honor to the process—or to anyone. This intentional interim period is a gift from God—a gift of grace and mercy. The goal for this time of transition is to move along with the process, suggesting any necessary changes slowly, clearly, thoughtfully, and prayerfully.

That last one, prayerfully, is especially important. Sisters and brothers, we have to pray for each other. That is not an option. We have to learn to trust and love each other, at least, to remain on the path. (Which is a serious challenge!) But if we stay true to that, we are much less likely to heighten the level of anxiety. I, for one, am not interested in getting the nickname “Terror-all-around”!

After all of the terror and horror in our scripture text, verse 13 strikes a very different tone. “Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers.” I wonder if that verse provides a way out. I wonder if it provides a way to transition terror to tranquility.

It’s difficult to have a heart that sings and is filled with praise, while at the same time is filled with anxiety and fear. It isn’t magic, but when we can find ways to praise the Lord, we regain our perspective. Our imagination is opened to see new possibilities, where before, we couldn’t see any.

In his book, Friedman talks about the effect of anxiety, the toll of terror. “What also contributes to this loss of perspective,” he says, “is the disappearance of playfulness, an attribute that originally evolved with mammals… You can, after all, play with your pet cat, horse, or dog, but it is absolutely impossible to develop a playful relationship with a reptile, whether it is your pet salamander, no matter how cute, or your pet turtle, snake, or alligator. They are deadly serious (that is, purposive) creatures.” (2.4.8.)

Our friend Pashhur, “Terror-all-around,” needs to work on his sense of humor. He needs to learn how to be playful.

Friedman continues, saying that chronically anxious people “tend to mimic the reptilian response: Lacking the capacity to be playful, their perspective is narrow. Lacking perspective, their repertoire of responses is thin. Neither apology nor forgiveness is within their ken. When they try to work things out, their meetings wind up as brain-stem storming sessions.” (2.4.9.)

He says, “In an atmosphere where everything is dire, a vicious cycle develops as a loss of playfulness destroys perspective.” (2.4.10)

Jeremiah’s world is literally falling apart, but verse 13 shows us that he doesn’t forget who he is. He is the prophet of God, the one at the center of a singularity and the one who pervades the cosmos. The God of peace, the God of shalom, lifts the heaviest of hearts.

We can face the future, not with terror, but with tranquility when we make time to play and laugh with each other. Bonds in the Spirit of Christ are strengthened, and trust is engendered. We recognize the church as not just a place to go, but as a people to be.

Again, it isn’t magic, but that singing and praising and playful nicknaming delivers us from a lot of terrible stuff!

[originally posted on 22 Sep 2013]


it's a dark night


The Confessions of Jeremiah represent a unique contribution to the book whose namesake has been called “the weeping prophet.” In these passages, we read of plots on his life, his anguish at rejection, the taunts of enemies, more plots on his life, and his feelings of betrayal by God and his regrets that he was ever born.

In his book, The Prophets: The Babylonian and Persian Periods, Klaus Koch calls the Confessions “poems of extraordinary lyrical beauty.” They are, he says, “The night of despair.” (38)

Probably more than any other prophet, Jeremiah reveals his inner self. We get a better shot at armchair psychology! In today’s terminology, we might say that he struggles with depression. Like so many other spiritual figures, he experiences a dark night of the soul.