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!
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]