Edwin Friedman

from false life into true

Some people see the epilogue of Revelation, the final words of the Bible itself, as a grab bag of stuff that gets tossed in as an afterthought.  But there is a method to the author John’s madness.  He brings together images that he used earlier in the book, such as “Alpha and Omega” (v. 13, 1:8), the washing of robes (v. 14, 7:14), the morning star (v. 16, 2:28), among many others.

Something about our passage that I find interesting is what the lectionary compilers left out.  This often happens with the “problematic” verses.  When I see stuff that gets deleted, I just have to include it.  Verses 18 and 19, in which John cautions about messing around with the words in his book, are skipped over.

But before that, there’s verse 15, which is the flip side to the blessing which has just been pronounced on “those who wash their robes” (v. 14).  These are the ones granted access to the tree of life and entry to the city.  That is God’s new city, the new Jerusalem.

Here’s the sentence that gets the ax: “Outside [that is, outside the city gates] are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.”  Saving the rest of the verse for later, it’s that last part—everyone who loves and practices falsehood—that jumps out at me.  The New Jerusalem Bible reads “everyone of false speech and false life.”  False speech and false life.

image from jayfnelson.files.wordpress.com

Let me tell a story I think might go along with that.

In November 1987, I was a student at Southeastern College in Lakeland, Florida.  (It’s an Assemblies of God school; it’s now Southeastern University.)  Anyway, on most Friday nights, a group of us would go to Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa—at the time, it wasn’t exactly the most upscale part of town.  What we students did was street evangelism.

The night after Thanksgiving was my very first time going with the group to Tampa.  I doubt that I’d been on the street for more than five minutes when I encountered a man, maybe in his fifties, dressed in shabby clothes.  I walked right up to him and said, “Jesus loves you.”  Just like that.

I’m not sure what I was expecting.  We were Pentecostal students; I suppose we expected to see some dramatic changes every time we went there.  But with my very first person on my very first night, I did see something.

Upon hearing the name “Jesus,” the man started crying.  And as he sobbed, he poured out his heart.  He said that he’d once been a rich man; he’d had a job as a manager in some corporation.  Due to various things, in particular a drinking problem, he just frittered it all away.  But worse than losing his career, worse than losing all his money, was the fact that he had lost his family.  He told me that he wasn’t even sure where they were.  And he wondered if he could ever be forgiven—if he could ever be pardoned for living a false life, so to speak.

With an almost knee-jerk reaction, I said, “Jesus does forgive you.”  There, that ought to do it!  That ought to take care of him!  But for some reason, it didn’t.  My magic words failed to produce the intended effect!  I expected him to say, “Thank you” or “Get lost” or something like that.  But he said something very different.

“Do you forgive me?”  He was directing the question to me!  Somewhat taken aback, I was determined to provide what I considered to be a theologically correct response.  “Jesus forgives you.”

“No, no, no,” he groaned through his tears.  “Do you forgive me?”  To my anonymous friend, in that deserted parking lot on the evening after millions of Americans had gobbled turkey in the comfort of their homes, my talk of Jesus was an abstraction.  He needed a flesh-and-blood word.  So I said, “I forgive you.”  And with that, he turned and shuffled away into the night.

When we hear the words a “false life,” the poor fellow I met in Tampa may come to mind.  Or we may imagine those who haven’t wound up on the street:  say, employers who abuse their employees and the environment.  Perhaps “false speech and false life” conjures up images of slick-talking salesmen, corrupt politicians, or that romantic interest of your youth who gave you hope—and then said, “I just want to be friends”!

Our friend John gives us examples of what he’s talking about.  In verse 15, he starts off with “dogs.”  Jews sometimes described Gentiles that way.  That may or may not be the way John is using it.  In any event, calling someone a dog is hardly a compliment.

The next word on the list, “sorcerers,” would seem to be a concern to those who don’t like Harry Potter!  The word in the Greek, φαρμακοι (pharmakoi), sheds a little more light.  Pharmakoi is the origin of our word “pharmacy” or “pharmaceutical.”  So John’s reference to “sorcerers” is also a reference to “drugs.”  There’s always been a link between drugs and sorcery.

Obviously, there are legitimate reasons for taking drugs, but I think I’m safe in saying that Americans are probably the most overmedicated people in the world.  Still, that kind of dependency contributes to the “falsity” that our scripture points to.

And then next on the list is “fornicators,” coming from the Greek word πορνοι (pornoi), which is the source of our word “pornography.”  We dehumanize each other in plenty of ways, and this is definitely one way it happens.

And then, with “murderers and idolaters,” we can think of the folks who physically do that.  Or, going a bit deeper, we can examine the presence of murder and idolatry within ourselves.  In John’s first letter, these are his final words:  “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (5:21).  Hint:  he isn’t talking about images of stone!  Idolatry is very much a part of the human condition.

In reality, we’re in danger of holding on to some, or all, of the qualities in verse 15.  There’s the intolerance and bigotry shown by the use of the word “dogs.”  Like sorcerers, we often try to manipulate God and others, with or without drugs.  We can be controlled by lusts of the body, motivated by grudges, and love the creation more than the Creator.

We all have the qualities that I’ve mentioned within us.  We might try to hide them or pretend that they don’t exist.  We begin to live a false life; a life which may seem healthy on the outside, but is sick on the inside.  We all need forgiveness, and we need to forgive each other.

In what’s sometimes called a “preview” of Pentecost, or the “first” Pentecost, Jesus gives power to his disciples.  In John 20, he breathes on them, and then says to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained (vv. 22-23).”  Maybe that’s what I was doing that night in Tampa!

By forgiving each other, we welcome the power of Christ.  We act on the words of that familiar prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”  (Or substitute words to fit other versions.)  Some might say, “I’m not in debt to anybody here.”  To which, I would say:  sorry, but yes you are!  In Romans 13, the apostle Paul says that we owe each other love (vv. 8-10).

We’ve taken a look at what a false life could mean for us as individual persons.  How could a false life apply to a congregation?

There are a number of ways to approach this, but here’s an example.  My wife Banu and I attended a week-long retreat on interim pastor training.  We watched a video of the late Edwin Friedman.  He was talking about overcoming barriers to effective leadership, both clergy and lay leadership.

One of his comments was on the fallacy of expertise, which is an overemphasis on information and technique.  We can become paralyzed by incessantly gathering information before we take any meaningful action.

Friedman spoke of another barrier to effective leadership:  what he calls the fallacy of empathy, the ability to feel what others do.  Clearly, empathy itself is a good quality.  The problem comes when there’s an overemphasis on how people feel.  The hard truth is that not everyone is going to be happy with you, even if you’re doing your very best.  (Often it turns out, especially if you’re doing your very best!)

One way this is seen is when the most dependent members, the ones who have the least amount of self-regulation—the least amount of self-control—are the ones who are setting the agenda.  He made an interesting comment: organisms that lack self-regulation don’t learn from experience.  They don’t learn from their mistakes, their patterns of behavior, if they are constantly being enabled.

image from angermentor.com

Friedman had an observation about American society.  A key thing that is lacking, he said, is maturity.  And sadly, maturity is a quality often lacking in the church.  When we violate proper boundaries, we display a lack of maturity.  When we intrude on someone’s personal space, we display a lack of maturity.

Developing maturity is what we allow God to do in us through spiritual formation.

Prayer is a vital component of spiritual formation.  But guess what?  We are being spiritually formed all of the time.  It doesn’t just happen through what are often thought of as “spiritual” practices: like prayer, scripture reading, peacefully meditating.

We are also spiritually formed in the very “real world” activities in how we treat each other and how we work through issues.  Board meetings, committee meetings, are perfect places for spiritual formation.  We are spiritually formed in how we deal with conflict, which inevitably arises.

Conflict, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad.  We can deal with it in good and healthy ways—or in bad and destructive ways.

Hear verse 17: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’  And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’  And let everyone who is thirsty come.  Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”

God gives us the gift of love that helps us deal with false speech and false life.  Of course, by its very nature, love cannot be compelled.  It must be both freely offered and freely received.

So here’s a question: what do we do with that love?  Do we let it remain abstract, the way I was with the man on the street in Tampa?  Do we find ways to make it flesh-and-blood, praying for strength and courage, even in those board meetings, and beyond that, even when it seems like everything is lost?

That is what motivates John and his sisters and brothers with their faithful, hopeful, and joyful cry, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

Come, lead us from false life into true.

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]