Archive for the Lent 2015 Category

2015 Lent 30

Posted in Lent 2015, Motorcycle with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 24, 2015 by timtrue


Jeremiah 25:8-17

Okay, I’m out.  I’m packing my motorcycle and heading to the mountains of Mexico for a camping trip of indefinite length.

That’s what I’d do if I were in Jeremiah’s shoes anyway.  Enough already!  He’s been proclaiming judgment, judgment, judgment for so long it hardly seems true anymore, or at least ineffective.  The people hate him.  They’ve conspired to kill him.  And still God presses him on.

Me?  I’d be whining to God from 9 to 5; and in the evenings I’d be outfitting my Moto Guzzi.

Yeah, my Moto Guzzi v7 Special, a simple, lightweight, bullet-proof machine with Italian sexiness.  I found a deal on it recently, like $2000 off for a new one, only it’s a 2013 model and thus the discount.  It’s a fairly common bike, so aftermarket parts are readily available.  The real clincher for me was the ease of outfitting this bike into a scrambler, you know, a bike that can handle rough fire roads–post-apocalyptic roads–as easily as it can handle the interstate.  The 5.8 gallon gas tank helps too: who knows how easy it is to find gas stations in the Sierra Madre–or how readily gas will be available after the apocalypse?

So, in my evenings, after another day of wearying and unproductive work, I’d eat a quick dinner usually involving a fried egg, over easy, and some vegetables–meat too whenever one of my roosters would get too feisty–and head out into my garage to tinker.  My excuse at first was creativity.  “I just need a creative outlet, honey,” I’d tell my wife.  And I’d tell myself that too.  But I think it really was always a plan to escape south of the border into early retirement, albeit a tacit one–plan, that is, not retirement (although, come to think of it, a tacit retirement does sound nice).

Anyway, now it’s fully outfitted for the wilderness.  And–Lord help me!–if I have to spend one more day proclaiming judgment to these stiff-necked people; if I have to tell them one more time that God’s dark servant Nebuchadnezzar will soon bring an army and wreak havoc and desolation; and–unlucky for Babylon!–that God nevertheless still loves his stiff-necked people and therefore Babylon, his dark servants, will in fact become a barren land not even fit for jackals–so help me I will just ride off to the south!

The Guzzi’s ready after all, loaded up in the garage with a full tank of gas.

But it’s late.  So I’ll just sleep on it.  Just one last time.

2015 Lent 29

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , on March 23, 2015 by timtrue

bad dates

Jeremiah 24:1-10

“Bad dates!”

Do you remember this line from Raiders of the Lost Ark?  Indiana Jones was visiting his friend Sallah in Cairo, Egypt—if I recall correctly.  He tosses a date into the air, intending to catch it in his mouth.  (Dr. Jones is talented like that.)  The camera slows.  We watchers know what he doesn’t: that this date has been poisoned by a would-be assassin.

End over end the date spins.  It reaches the top of its arc.  And it begins to descend.  We watchers fear that our beloved hero will die (he’s too talented to miss, after all!).

But then, just before the date enters the gaping, anticipating, watering maw that is Dr. Jones’s mouth—ah, yes, kind providence!—Sallah snatches the fruit out of its trajectory.  And the assassin’s plot is foiled.

A befuddled Indie turns to look at Sallah, in real-motion time now, who points to a dead pet monkey on the floor—a monkey who had just recently eaten a date from the same stock—and says, “Bad dates!”

According to today’s passage, God views corrupt political systems and the people who run them like bad dates; like dates so bad they’ll kill you if you’re not watchful.  Except with Jeremiah it’s figs.

The common people are good figs, every one.  But the leaders—those priests and prophets Jeremiah’s been mentioning—are bad figs, every one, not fit for consumption.  They’re toxic.  And their toxicity will spread to the good figs.

This metaphor seems to apply to any organized structure, not just national leadership; not just politicians and pundits.  Authority is necessary in our world.  An orchestra needs a conductor.  But when the one in charge is corrupt, that person’s like a bad fig or date, good for nothing except the compost pile.

So, if you’re a person of authority, don’t be corrupt, greedy, or self-absorbed.  And if you work for such a bad date, remember Indie and Sallah.  Touch the toxic fruit if you must, but don’t ingest the poison.

2015 Lent 28

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 21, 2015 by timtrue


Jeremiah 23:9-15

With today’s passage, let’s return to the question of redaction: was the book of Jeremiah edited years or even generations later in order to convey an agenda?

After all, we have witnessed individual politicians and pundits in our own day crash and burn morally.  Brian Williams comes to mind, poor guy.  And Monica Lewinsky is in the news again these days.  Need I say more?

Yet, arguably, we are not being judged as a nation.  America is not falling into the hands of enemies.  We seem (fingers crossed) to be pulling out of a lengthy recession.  Life continues much as it has for more than two centuries in our democratic, materialistic, science-smitten country.

In fact, looking at our history, there have been times—like during the so-called Civil War; like that fateful day in Memphis, Tennessee, April 4, 1968; and like 9/11—when several cries of divine judgment were heard across the land.  Yet American life continues today much as it always has.  Today, as I cup my hand to my ear and listen, the judgment cries have largely fallen silent.

This idea—that there is not a cause-and-effect relationship between immorality and divine judgment—is captured in a scene from a dark movie starring Jason Bateman called, appropriately enough, Bad Words.  The story is of an angry but highly intelligent middle school dropout now grown up (Bateman).  To prove a point, he cleverly navigates his way into the national spelling bee: the bee policy states, “Contestants must not have graduated the eighth grade,” without listing an age limit.  Anyway, Bateman befriends a twelve year-old fellow contestant and persuades him, successfully, to shout out the f-word to express his anger.  After he does so Bateman says, “Well, see there?  You haven’t been struck by lightning.”

Moral failures happen all around us.  But judgment doesn’t.  God is merciful.  And mercy triumphs over judgment.

This doesn’t mean we should live by any less integrity, as if we are able to live as recklessly as we like because mercy rocks.  God is about love.  And real love puts others first.  The greater good, summum bonum, demands integrity of us!

But to rewrite history in order to scare people into walking with integrity doesn’t sit well with us either.  Fear sucks.  And to manipulate others through fear sucks worse.  Yet this just might be happening with Jeremiah.

The enemies of Israel had conquered them.  They had dispersed Israel and Judah into exile.  It would have been really easy in this context for a judgment-minded remnant to reflect:

In the good old days we had it so good—don’t you remember?  The people obeyed God and he blessed us.  Even the Queen of Sheba travelled from afar to see Solomon’s palace and temple and to learn at his feet.  Yeah, those were the good old days!  But then the people disobeyed and God judged.  How can we communicate this cause-and-effect relationship to our people?

And so books of prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah (and arguably Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, etc.) were revised and added to in order to convey the importance of living lives of integrity, by giving the prophets powers to look into the future; and then by saying things like, “Repent now from your disintegrating ways, or God will bring enemies into our land and judge us!” because those rewriting them already knew the details, that the people had not in fact lived lives of integrity; and that the surrounding nations had already in fact conquered them.

Hindsight is always 20/20.

The future, however, is more like 1/20.

So this question of redaction is sensible.

But, of course, it poses a serious challenge to those of us who call the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments authoritative.  For even by granting the idea of redaction admittance, we’ve brought a stranger into our party.  And strangers change the mood.  And party-goers don’t want the mood to change.

Nevertheless, that someone probably redacted the prophets makes sense.  None of our politicians and pundits today—America’s priests and prophets—sees into the future.  They can speculate about the future—they should speculate about the future—and make present plans accordingly.  (See yesterday’s post for more about that.)  But as to specific details, no one can say how, when, or where America will come to an end.

Yet that’s just the credit many of the American Christian party-goers want to give to the pundits of old.

Well, what makes more sense to you?

2015 Lent 27

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 20, 2015 by timtrue


Jeremiah 23:1-8

In seminary I was required to do a lot of self-assessment.

For the record, self-assessment is not to be confused with self-absorption.  Both self-absorption and self-assessment are focused inwardly, on oneself.  But self-absorption focuses on self to the exclusion of all others.  A self-absorbed person is unaware of much of the surrounding world.  One focuses on oneself without regard to others.  The goal of self-assessment, on the other hand, is to broaden one’s understanding of the world starting with the person one knows best: oneself.

Maybe a simpler way to state it is: a self-absorbed person focuses only on his or her strengths; whereas a self-assessing person deeply understands his or her own weaknesses as well as strengths, and thereby increasingly understands the surrounding world.

Anyway, one of the batteries my classmates and I took to assess ourselves is called StrengthsFinder.  I’m sure you can look it up on Google if you’re interested.

The idea with StrengthsFinder is to find one’s top five strengths from a list of something like thirty-five.  Some of the words on this list are Achiever, Ideation, Thinker, and Woo.  They’re more or less self-explanatory.

With the top five strengths of each person listed, with only thirty-five to choose from, and with a class size of twenty-five students, you would be right if you guessed there was considerable overlap.  One of my top five was Thinker, for instance; which also showed up in several others’ top five.

All this is to point out how unusual I thought it, then, when Futuristic made my top five but no one else’s.  I thought it unusual because thinking into the future and making plans thereby is a part of my natural make-up, a part of who I am, something that comes second-nature to me, something I don’t have to think about because it just happens.  But it also struck me as unusual because this thinking that comes so naturally to me was apparently not something so natural for other people.

Of course, there’s a flipside to being naturally futuristic: I can escape–or plan my next escape at least, and then derive a good deal of joy from my future plan while enduring present trials.  In other words, there is potentially a great weakness in this strength too.

So–confession here–learning this about myself has led me to question whether some of my past moves have been related to this potential weakness.  Did I ever leave one teaching job for another, for instance, because I was experiencing interpersonal struggles with a principal and hoping to find a better boss-employee relationship?  But this is real self-assessment; knowing this about myself will help me guard from making such a mistake down the road, in the future.

Enough about me.  Now onto Jeremiah.

Today he turns his attention to the future.  Israel’s present situation is bad.  He’s been telling us this for twenty-two chapters while also telling us, now and again, here and there, that Israel’s situation had been better at one time or another in the past.  Still, the present seems pretty hopeless.

The one way out of this hopelessness is to repent, he’s been saying.

But, really, I’m sympathetic to Israel’s plight.  How easy is it to change tack when you’re browbeaten day after day?

If you’re at all like me (dang!  I’ve slipped back into self-assessment again!), in a situation like this I start planning my escape.  I’m not going to change my personality because someone’s browbeating me.  I’m not going to change my habits very easily either–especially the older I get!  But I can change the situation, get out from under the browbeater’s stick!  And the more seemingly hopeless the situation the more I plan my escape until it becomes my new reality.  Making future plans gives me hope.

Well, that’s where Jeremiah turns today–finally! now, at last, I can take a deep breath!–to hope in the future.

“The days are coming,” Jeremiah tells his people, “when . . . Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety.”

God will do a bunch of great things for Israel, the Prophet says.  God will bring people back into community and give them wise, competent, just and righteous leaders to shepherd them.

That’s enough to give me hope.

But I realize I’m not like everyone else.  I was the only person to see Futuristic in my top five.  Which leads me to wonder, is it enough to give Israel hope?  Is it enough to give you hope?

If you’re not futuristic, I guess you’ll just have to wait and see.

2015 Lent 26

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , on March 19, 2015 by timtrue

Jeremiah 22:13-23

A Letter from the Adolescent Jeremiah

Narcissism, self-absorption, deception, greed;

Another Aston-Martin, another steed.

“I must acquire more,” you say to yourself;

“Another margarita!  Make it top shelf.”

You’ve earned it all, you know, your disciplined ethic.

Or is it too much?  Are you a workaholic?

“Well, you enjoy this life, don’t you, my son?”

My only response is to shrug, then run

When you turn your back, so that you won’t see

The tears rolling down, first one then three.

I’m too timid to tell you what I feel, what you do;

How you won’t spend more than a minute or two

With me each day.  You’re consumed.  You don’t care.

It’s back to your work, to your selfish world where

You shut everyone out, including me,

Your only family now since Mom let you be.

You’ve climbed a ladder of your own making,

Lying, deceiving, earning, cheating,

Thinking only of yourself all the way to the top.

Your life is so ugly.  Guess there’s always Photoshop.

You’re so unlike Grandpa.  He served others.

Never had much, but those were his druthers.

If you ask me, I prefer his way.

Please, Dad, can’t you look away

From your own avarice, just for a day?

2015 Lent 25

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


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


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.