Archive for Jeremiah

2015 Lent 30

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

srambler_V7special_destro_2C3B4953

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.

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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

williams

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 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

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 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!)