Archive for March, 2015

2015 Lent 25

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 18, 2015 by timtrue

potter

Jeremiah 18:1-11

I can understand why people might have a philosophical problem with today’s passage.

Have you ever had a person in your life who made seemingly everything difficult for you?  Maybe it was only your imagination, you tell yourself.  But no matter how great an effort you put forth, it never seemed enough.

Maybe you had a teacher who always seemed to give you an 85 on tests, no matter how much or how little you studied.

Schools are like that: they grade (i. e., judge) you by what you do wrong, not by what you get right.

You know how it is.  You pour yourself into research and study—you’re actually really interested in this topic— for once!—only to receive an 88 on your graded essay.  So you ask your teacher why; and the response is something like, “Well, you don’t deserve an A because you didn’t expand this idea enough”; or “your thesis wasn’t clearly stated in your opening paragraph”; or some such similar, pessimistic reason.

This attitude snowballs, of course: you soon find yourself critiquing the stuffing out of your trained-to-be-critical teacher.  “She splits infinitives all the time!” you complain to a likeminded grammar geek, for instance; “and she walks like a hippo!”

But I’ve digressed.  Point is, it’s all negative.  Your grade is based on what you didn’t do, not on what you did do.  And who needs that?

Or maybe it was a coach.  Ever have a coach stand there on the sidelines shouting at you only and always what you’re doing wrong?  It’s “choke the bat,” “keep your eye on the ball,” and “you’re not standing at the ready”; and never “good hit!” “great base running!” or “wicked throw!  What’s your mom feeding you for breakfast anyway?”  Always blah and never bling.

Or how about a boss?  Have you ever felt like you’re under the omnipresent eye of a controlling supervisor?  Have you ever been in a work situation that feels oppressive, like you’re trapped?  It might be just your imagination, granted, but seemingly every word, gesture, and other form of communication feels negative, designed to tear you down rather than build you up.

That trapped feeling, by the way, comes from a feeling of complete powerlessness to change your situation.  And what is utter powerlessness but a form of slavery?

I imagine Jeremiah felt this way: trapped; always criticized; never built up; perhaps even enslaved by the ideologies captivating his culture.

But I imagine, too, (with the exception—maybe the sole exception—of Jeremiah) the people of Israel felt this way toward God.

As I read today’s passage, I can imagine the Israelites’ response so vividly I can almost hear it:

“What?  We’re supposed to view God as a potter and ourselves as the clay?  But that means God can do anything he wants to with us.  That means God can beat us down so continuously that we end up not knowing which way is up.  That means that God will only and always ever criticize and judge us.  That means God will be watching over my every move, at the ready to say harsh words against me or, worse, to swat me down like a fly any and every time I step out of line.  That means God is like a calloused, crusty old teacher; or a coach with a vendetta carried over from his own abused childhood; or a horrible boss, pathetic because he is not sympathetic to those beneath his social status.”

Let me tell you, such a god is no god I’d want to worship either!

But that’s just it, isn’t it?  The people of Israel had been looking around at the gods of all the other nations for so long that they now saw God, their God, more as a dysfunctional human than as good, benevolent, sovereign, and perfect.

It’s one thing to be a lump of clay in the hands of a perfect potter, who wants to mold, form, and shape the best work possible out of that lump: it’s one thing to trust that God wants the best for you.

But it’s quite another thing to view the potter as imperfect, as we humans are: prone to become frustrated at the physical limitations of our human bodies; prone to turn to mind-numbing substances in order to escape, even if for but a moment, from life’s stressors; prone to temper tantrums and other losses of self-control, often at the slightest provocation.  In other words, it’s another thing to make God in our image.

No wonder the Israelites didn’t want to listen to Jeremiah!  They’d fashioned their god to be just like them—just as judgmental, critical, harsh, duplicitous, adulterous, and blind to the truly needy—only more!

And who’d want to trust a god like that?

Nevertheless, God molds, forms, and shapes.

2015 Lent 24

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , on March 17, 2015 by timtrue

vw

Jeremiah 16:10-21; Jeremiah 17:19-27

I’ve never been brand-loyal.

I suppose the closest thing I’ve come to brand loyalty is owning three Volkswagens in my life.

Twenty years ago I purchased a used Golf.  It was good enough in its own way.

Some years later, the price was right and the timing was better so I leased a new Jetta.  This car was smart.  It drove like a top, was occasionally mistaken for a Mercedes, and suited my growing family.

And I guess my present car, a minivan, a Routan, came to me similarly: the timing and the deal were right.  0% interest over six years and I’ll own it outright.  (And that six years is nearly up.)  Better than cash!

But I’ve also owned others cars.  Quite a few too!

Let’s see, a 1968 Dodge Sportsman van was in there, as well as a 1972 Ford Pinto.  But, technically, my dad owned these so I’m not sure they count.

Then there were mine: starting with a 1973 Datsun 510; then a 1970 Triumph TR6; followed by my first real dependable beast, a 1980 Mazda 626; and a very un-dependable monster, a 1968 GMC 1500 pick-up.  Next came the Golf and the Jetta.  Then, with four kids (and the help of my father in-law), I landed an eight-passenger 2000 GMC Safari; followed by a 2006 Mini Cooper S, after selling the Jetta.

I loved that Cooper!  But the GMC Safari gave up the ghost and two car payments were not in the seminary family’s budget and it was too small for seven (we now had five kids) and so, alas, goodbye Cooper and hello Routan, our only vehicle for the time being.  Since then I have acquired a cheap and dependable, albeit occasionally smoking, 2006 Nissan Sentra S.

Oh, and I can’t forget the two basket cases I owned long enough to fix and then sell: a 1980 BMW 320i and a 1998 Volvo V90 wagon.  A few motorcycles have insinuated themselves in the mix too.

But my point is, as I hope you can see, I’m not really that brand-loyal.

It’s the same with sports.

I’m a huge fan of the game of baseball.  It’s a game of strategy and subtlety, complex enough to keep me interested and entertained for a lifetime.

And all my life I’ve had people try to convince me why one major league team is better than another; why that team deserves my loyalty; why all other teams are second-rate in comparison (at best!), and so on.

But I just can’t do it.  I can’t bring myself to the point where I am a die-hard fan of the Giants, Padres, Dodgers, Astros, Rangers, Braves, Yankees, or any other team which “deserves” my fanhood.

And my tempters say, “Why not?”

And I say, “Can’t I just enjoy the game for what it is?”

Anyway, no brand loyalty here.  It goes against some sort of innate grain.

Now, looking at these passages (I mistakenly commented on Sunday’s passage yesterday; so today we have two–yesterday’s and today’s), on the surface it looks like brand loyalty is exactly what God wants us to have.  You are not to worship any other gods but me, God says.  No Astros, no Dodgers, no Rangers, and no other team except mine!  The Angels!

But below the surface is that what’s really going on?

The ancient people of Israel were confronted daily by the gods of other nations.  Idols is a word we hear often.  But these gods, or idols, merely represented the systems and philosophical ideals in place within daily culture.  The people of Israel couldn’t avoid the hierarchies, sacrificial foods, currencies, and ideologies–the gods–of Egypt, for instance; but they could navigate their way through them.  They had to!

In the same way we have our own idols today, all around us, confronting us seemingly everywhere in our culture–whether ideologies, like “might makes right”; or realities, like an economy dependent on credit.  We can’t avoid these; so we should navigate through them the best we can, with integrity, not allowing ourselves to succumb to the shallow allure by which we end up hurting ourselves worst in the long run.

So, it’s really not about brand loyalty at all.  God is not telling the people of Israel to be fans of his team and his only.  God is telling them–and us–not to be fans of any team.

Enjoy the game for what it is but don’t become so infatuated with any one team that it consumes your being–don’t let how you feel on any given day during baseball season depend on whether your team wins or loses.  Or, to bring it full circle, use your car because you must; but don’t sacrifice your family to it.

Brand loyalty has its limits.

2015 Lent 23

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2015 by timtrue

drought

Jeremiah 14:1-9, 17-22

Well, I don’t know if it was calling them tighty-whities or what, but today, finally, the people of Israel begin to turn back to God.

Actually, according to this chapter, it was a drought; parched, dry, cracked land was the catalyst.  And this wasn’t just any drought.  This one was so severe that does (a deer, a female deer) were abandoning their own fawns; donkeys were sniffing the wind in an effort to draw some kind of moisture from the air, like jackals do, it says.

(And I think, do jackals do this?)

Point is, disaster came on the people of Israel and they turned to God in prayer.

That was Jeremiah’s point anyway.  But it brings up other questions.

Like: when bad things happen to us–things beyond our control–does this mean that God is judging us for our immorality?

Job maintained an upright heart throughout his time of trial, even when his wife told him, “Curse God and die!”  Bad things happened to Job.  He lost his property–including his home and numerous animals–to bandits; and all his children to some kind of natural disaster–they all died–every one of them!–all in the same day.

So he wept, fasted, and prayed.  Then his wife said what she did.  And some of his best friends came for a visit, assessed, and judged him.  And they said, “You, Job, obviously, have done some great wrong.  This is why you’re suffering, of course!  Just repent already and God will lighten up.”

But he hadn’t done anything wrong.  We readers learn this at the end of the book–like some macabre punch line.  Forces beyond human vision and understanding had been at work.  Evil was present in the world.  And there was nothing Job could do to prevent it.

So, no, bad things happening to us does not mean God is judging us.

And questions like: so why is there evil in the world at all?  If God created the world–which we Christians believe–and if God is good–which we also believe–and if God is sovereign over all–which some Christians believe (including this author)–then why isn’t the world entirely good?

Theologians call this conundrum theodicy.  I like to call it dicey theology.

But there are answers to this question.  Genesis, the first book of the Bible, offers one answer.

The world was created upright, including Adam and Eve who were created in God’s own image, perfect and upright.  But evil entered the world.  Adam and Eve ate this evil, the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, that forbidden fruit, about which they were told not to.  And then Adam and Eve, who had been created in God’s own image but were now marred, had a son named Seth.  Curiously, the writer of Genesis addresses this: Seth is said to be born in Adam’s image, not God’s (cf. Genesis 5:3); Seth, and all humanity after him (without going into Cain’s line), no longer bears God’s perfect image but Adam’s imperfect one.

To carry this string of logic a little farther, Christ is called the perfect image of God in the New Testament.  We Christians are said to be becoming more and more like Christ throughout our lives.  With this understanding of creation and fall, we could say that we are becoming less like Adam’s imperfect image and more like Christ’s perfect one.  Neat picture, eh?  (Although I must admit I know many people, including many Christians, who fall a lot closer to the imperfect side of the spectrum than to the perfect–or even than to the middle!)

But it still doesn’t answer all the questions.  Why did a perfect God allow evil into the good world in the first place?  Adam and Eve sinned.  But where did the conniving serpent come in?  And why would God have placed a tree with a forbidden fruit in the world in the first place?  Was God just trying to tantalize and tempt his creation to fall?  Was evil inevitable?  And, if so, is this something a truly good God would do?  And, if God is indeed sovereign, did Adam and Eve really have a choice at all?  (The same question has been asked about Judas Iscariot too, by the way: did Judas even have a choice, in the big, cosmic scheme of things, when he betrayed Jesus?)

There are answers to these questions too, if you’re interested.  But, predictably, these answers lead to yet more questions.  A whole lot more!

But enough already!  Now we’re confused, anxious, and maybe even a little stressed over our faith.  Now there’s tension.  (And, like Runt from Chicken Little, tension makes me bloat!)

And we’ve strayed from the point.

The book of Jeremiah is simply pointing out that the people turn to God in prayer during times of hardship.

Isn’t this a natural response?  Perhaps even an innate response, something we’re all born with?

We face challenges beyond our comfort zone.  We need to focus, to face these challenges courageously.  So what do we do?

We pray.  Oh, some may call it focusing, centering, meditating, whatever.  But it’s all just different forms of prayer.  It might not be addressed to the God of the Christians.  And it’s certainly not concerned–in the heat of the moment–with questions about why evil exists, is God sovereign, is God even real, or some other challenge to the Christian faith.  But it’s prayer nonetheless.

And for me it’s a compelling proof of divinity.

2015 Lent 22

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 14, 2015 by timtrue

hanes

Jeremiah 13:1-11

All right, so today God likens Israel to tighty-whities.

I don’t even know where to begin.

The word is actually loincloth.  But when you read the passage, you realize that these aren’t loose fitting boxers here.  This cloth “clings to one’s loins” (v. 11).  These are tighty-whities.

So graphic is the imagery here, and to some extent so comical, I actually double-checked, just to make sure I hadn’t been mistaken and read the wrong passage.  Lectionary passages are intended to be read aloud before a congregation of hearers gathered for the purpose of prayer.  This passage is supposed to be just one part of an extended prayer.

But, really, I’m distracted when I hear this story.  My thoughts aren’t on prayer when I hear these words, for example: “For as the loincloth clings to one’s loins, so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, says the Lord” (v. 11).  Instead I start to wonder things like, “Wait a minute!  Did Jeremiah just suggest that God has private parts?”  Whatever prayerful state I’d been in–now it’s gone!

To make matters worse, these are dirty tighty-whities, no longer fit for wearing, “ruined,” “good for nothing” (v. 7).

And now I’m remembering a hilarious book I just read to my son, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul.  It’s book nine of a series, and so far as I know the last of the series, telling the story of Greg Heffley’s middle school experience.  This book, the long haul, focuses on a family road trip.

The family is towing a boat.  At one point someone realizes that the boat cover has come untied and luggage and other belongings are flying out of the boat onto the highway.  So they pull over and spend the next two hours gathering what flotsam and jetsam they can before dark.  They manage to retrieve most of their stuff.  But they also manage to find some extra things; including a pair of board-stiff, dirty underwear found by Rodrick, Greg’s older brother.

Anyway, this is the picture that comes to mind while I’m supposed to be praying!

So, where do I even start?

Thus far during my Lenten practice I’ve been able to fit myself into Jeremiah’s shoes fairly well.  A little snug, maybe; and not quite enough arch support.  But they’ll do in a pinch, I’ve said.

But today?  Ha!  Imagine if I were to stand before a congregation and proclaim to them that they’re just like a pair of dirty, useless tighty-whities.  I couldn’t do it.  I wouldn’t do it!  No, today Jeremiah’s shoes hurt.  In fact, I’m sure I have a few blisters.  Today I’m just going to take them off.

I mean, how am I supposed to deal with a passage like this?  I wouldn’t want my kids calling each other names like, “You dirty panty!”  Such name calling strikes me as immature, at best; or maybe just as some kind of joke.  Not to be taken seriously, at any rate!  And yet here is a prophet saying it to God’s people.  Seriously!  And he was told to do so (so the story goes) by God himself!

It’s a tough passage.

. . .

But, ah, that’s just it, isn’t it?  Two kids arguing and one calls the other a puerile name.  It happens all the time.  It’s commonplace, in all cultures and at all times in history.  Doesn’t the book of Jeremiah feel a lot like a common family squabble?

And then I recall yesterday.  The people of Israel–some of Jeremiah’s family members–were conspiring to kill their own brother, the Prophet Jeremiah.  Some family squabble!  Perhaps, then, in likening this conspiracy to good-for-nothing, dirty tighty-whities, God is really encouraging Jeremiah to take his opponents a little less seriously, not to stress so much.

I’ve got opponents too.  Do you?  And sometimes these opponents, those with whom I struggle most deeply on an interpersonal level, I have no choice but to be close with–whether I want to be or not (because they’re family or coworkers or colleagues or whatever).  And at times they can seem overwhelming: they’ve even induced nerve-, digestion-, and sleep-affecting stress!

Opponents is a nice way to say it too.  Many worse, uglier, more descriptive words come to mind when thinking about such asinine people.

But what if I view these difficult persons as worthless tighty-whities?

Okay, then: these are shoes I can fit my feet into!  (Or, to switch the metaphor, this is a loincloth I can wrap around myself!)

2015 Lent 21

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 13, 2015 by timtrue

plato-300x254

Jeremiah 11:1-8, 14-20

Prophets face a certain tension.  That is, they love the people they are called to serve on God’s behalf; and yet the people are often stiff-necked, hard-hearted, stubborn, and so on.

These aren’t my words, by the way.  These come right out of the Old Testament.  And as the OT puts it, these come right out of God’s own mouth.  The Israelites, God’s chosen people, the people whom God saved from Egypt through the parted waters of the Red Sea–these people God called stiff-necked etc.

Anyway, Jeremiah knows this tension.  God tells Jeremiah today, “As for you, do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer on their behalf” (v. 14).  Yet, still, Jeremiah loves these stiff-necked people.

He proclaims God’s message of repentance to them, hoping they will listen.  He prays for them, despite God’s word, because he loves them and cannot help himself.  He comes alongside them and helps them whenever and wherever he can.

Nevertheless, they want to kill him!

“But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter,” Jeremiah prays–no longer for the Israelites but for himself.  “And I did not know it was against me that they devised schemes, saying, ‘Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, let us cut him off from the land of the living, so that his name will no longer be remembered!'” (v. 19).

The gig is up.  Jeremiah, at last, realizes that this people he loves has been betraying him all along.

Some recompense, eh?

So, is it time to pack up the motorcycle and head to the mountains of Mexico?  We shall see–we’ll be continuing in Jeremiah throughout the remainder of Lent (I just peeked ahead in the lectionary)–till Good Friday anyway.

But before I sign off today, there are a couple of pictures that come to mind.

One is of Socrates.  Socrates, as Plato relates, came to his people with a message of hope.  It wasn’t the same message that Jeremiah brought; but it was hopeful nonetheless.  If Jeremiah’s message was salvation through repentance, Socrates’ was salvation through education.  He taught the youth of his day radical ideas, ideas that if put into practice would transform society into a better place.

One of his ideas, by the way, was that there was no pantheon of gods, but only one god.  And for this he was labeled an atheist!

On a bigger level, for bringing transformative ideas to the younger set; for offering a message of salvation through education, he was killed.  Some have called his death second only in terms of tragedy to Jesus Christ’s.

Which, of course, is my second picture.

Jeremiah loved, worked with, served, and prayed for his people.  Yet he was utterly despised, to the point that the people conspired against him to kill him.

Isn’t this the same thing that happened to Jesus Christ?

2015 Lent 20

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , on March 12, 2015 by timtrue
Family trip to Yuma in 2002.

Family trip to Yuma in 2002.

Jeremiah 10:11-24

All this stuff recently about human nature’s complexities and arguing with God–today we see it come to a head.  Today, Jeremiah argues with God through a prayer:

I know, O Lord, that the way of human beings is not in their control,
that mortals as they walk cannot direct their steps.
Correct me, O Lord, but in just measure;
not in your anger, or you will bring me to nothing (vv. 23-24).

Human beings are a piece of work, Jeremiah acknowledges.  But, guess what, God: that includes me.  I, your precious prophet, am a piece of work too.  For I’m a human being.  I make stupid mistakes just like everyone else.  So, yes, correct me.  Show me the correct path to follow.  But don’t do it out of anger.  Just give me what I can handle, enough but not too much.

Have you ever felt this way?  Have you ever prayed a prayer like Jeremiah’s?

It’s not just in morality though.  We mortals also have trouble directing our steps in other ways.

Take that question posed seemingly to all children: what do you want to be when you grow up?  I wanted to be a veterinarian, a concert pianist, a fighter pilot, a motorcycle journalist, an orchestral conductor, a composer, a writer, and a teacher–among other things–along the way.  In other words, I had no idea as a kid what I wanted to be when I grew up.  Yet I ended up here, somehow, a priest of the Episcopal Church.  So I closely empathize with Jeremiah’s words: “the way of human beings is not in their control”; and mortals “cannot direct their steps.”

Can you empathize too?

Now that I am a priest, I am feeling this lack of control again.  Keenly.

Earlier this week I announced to my congregation that I will be moving on from my present position as curate.  I’ve accepted a call to be the next rector of a church in Yuma, Arizona.

On the one hand, this move has been coming for more than twenty years.  That’s how long I’ve aspired to just such a position.  That’s how long I’ve been putting myself in the shoes of others I’ve known in this role.

But on the other hand, if you’d have told me twenty years ago that I’d end up in Yuma–or Texas, or Sewanee, or the Episcopal Church–I’d have said pshaw!  Yuma is hot!  The record temperature is 124 degrees.  The one-hundred-teens are typical in July and August.  Why would I ever want to go there?

To answer, I could say it’s close to my aging parents, a lot closer than where I live now at any rate.  I could say it’s the old west, just a little newer.  I could say it’s at the confluence of California, Arizona, and Mexico, an interesting place, which it is.  I could say how its economy of agriculture and military is strong, and has remained so through our country’s recent recession, which it has.  Or I could say how promising a place it feels to raise a family, which it does.

But above all this, it’s really more that I cannot very effectively direct my own steps; the path I follow is not fully under my control.

So, like Jeremiah, I have a prayer for today too.  Make it yours if you like:

Give me what I can handle, God; enough, but not too much.

2015 Lent 19

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2015 by timtrue

This shot pretty much sums up everything.

Jeremiah 8:18–9:6

If nothing else, I’m learning that the Prophet Jeremiah’s heart was much like what I understand a pastor’s heart to be.  For he saw all the complexities that make up human nature–or, if you prefer, the human condition.

He was able to say, on the one hand, “Beware of your neighbors, and put no trust in any of your kin.”  For he knew, like Shakespeare, that man–the human person–is a piece of work.  Each of us is capable of the most treacherous of acts.

At the same time, on the other hand, he knew genuine joy and health.  There were poor people in the land who remained faithful, trustworthy, and honest despite the looming darkness of war and threat of death.  Some people–if only but a few–valued and practiced integrity regardless.

The human person is capable of both: honor and treachery.

Our culture has a certain fixation on the dark side of a hero.  Did you see Big Hero 6?  It was touted as a kid’s movie.  But the protagonist, a boy of twelve or thirteen, witnessed the death of his older brother near the movie’s beginning and ends up haunted by his own related demons throughout the rest of the story.  Mature themes for a kid’s movie if you ask me!

Our culture recognizes that real life is full of just these sorts of demons.  We’ve come to understand that dysfunctional is the norm and functional is more of an ideal.  The human person is complicated.  It’s not just that a person can be capable of either honor or treachery, good or bad; but, we say, the human person is both honorable and treacherous, good and bad.

Jeremiah shows me that it’s not just our modern-day, psychology-loving culture that understands people.  Jeremiah understood people back in the day (something like 2600 years ago!).  Even earlier, when someone wrote the book of Genesis (maybe more than 3000 years ago), the message of a complicated humanity calls out loudly and clearly.

Anyway, my prayer is that I, too, living in my modern-day, psychology-loving culture, will understand the rich complexities of the people I’ve been called to serve; and, like Jeremiah, will love them and lead them, even arguing with God for them when need be.