A Wandering Aramean was My Ancestor

Change is difficult, especially when it means leaving behind close relationships, financial security, and cherished plans.

Last week I spoke with a “new church start” pastor, Reverend David Shirey, who hails from the Midwest.  He had followed God’s leading to Arizona, where his startup church, after 8 years of devotion, has 150 members.  “God has a way of putting me just outside of my comfort zone,” he reflected.   “That’s where all the growth happens.”

In that same gathering, the words from Deuteronomy were read:  A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…. (26: 5).  These words, part of the law literature, are given by Moses to the people to say when they bring the first fruit of their harvest to the temple priest.

Here is what follows:  he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.  When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors, the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.  The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

It is a ritual of remembering a journey began by Abraham of Haram, the one who went when God said “go.”  When their ancestors were enslaved and cried out, God battled so that they could leave–so that they could journey to a new land.  It is believed Deuteronomy is written down just before Jerusalem falls and the people are again driven out.   Now, with the Assyrians at their doorstep, the people who are soon to be displaced from their homes remember that they are, at their core, a journeying people.

Part of our heritage is a story of those who journeyed with God.  That means, at times, that we find ourselves leaving behind what feels secure and comfortable.   It is never easy.  Sometimes it feels more like a terrible mistake than a courageous choice.  We have to remember that we are not alone.   Remember all the complaints of those who had been brought out of Egypt, how they wanted to go back to the slavery they knew rather than face the unknown freedom.   But also remember, each time they sought their old ways, they’d run into the hurt of a disappointed God.  When they instead looked forward, the Red Sea could part before them.

Look forward, but also know that sometimes the promised land seems lacking in milk and honey.  I think of this pastor, as gifted in speaking as anyone.  His great success is not a megachurch in a temperate paradise, but a small church in the middle of the desert.  Perhaps he is tempted, every now and then, to look at what could have been had he stayed where he knew everyone.   And, I suspect, even the young among us onder what could have happened if not for this or that.   God knows how we get bound up in the “If only” game.  So in scripture, we are given this creed–not a set of beliefs, but a story of a journey we are asked to claim as our own.

Give thanks, but don’t get too comfortable.  God may have other plans for you in other lands.  Growth happens when we allow God to move us out of our comfort zone.


The Prime Directive

I was once a great fan of Star Trek, the Next Generation.  Although it still entertains, I find this third time through the series I’m irritated by all the judgment.  I’ve heard often heard that we hate the judgmental God.  We don’t like to hear about sin.  And, yet, one of the most common themes in Star Trek is a superior alien race like Q judges humanity.  The Star Trek crew is also judgmental of the humanity of the people of the “late 20th century–us.  In an episode where the crew finds people cryogenically frozen, the doctor comments, “They were afraid to die,” as if they had moved beyond that fear.  It seems that the writers have to prove that humanity has become more than we are, a precondition for being able to build star ships, and not interfere with life on other planets.  So, it is suggested, the
problems of poverty and possessions, of hunger and disease, have all been solved on earth.

I wonder by what criteria we would like to be judged.   It seems to me if solving all the troubles of our world is a precondition to being an evolved humanity, we may never reach
the stars.  And if death doesn’t make us afraid, at some level, perhaps we’ve become out of touch with ourselves.

God’s way, as seen through Jeremiah, is simple by comparison.  There are two criteria by which God judges:  how we relate to God and how we relate to people in need.

So God cries out when forgotten, “They have spoken falsely of the Lord, and have said, “He will do nothing (Jeremiah 5:12).”  And, “You know no bounds of wickedness—you do not defend the rights of the needy (Jeremiah 5:1).”

The scripture’s plain sense is of people ignoring God and others because they are, to use an expression from Jeremiah, “well fed lusty stallions each neighing for his neighbor’s wife.”  Imagine, Jeremiah screams from the page, how this must hurt God.  Do you not care?

Do you not care that your actions can hurt God just as they can hurt another?  How long?  When will you stop?

This is not judgment.  This is more like the cry of my daughter to pay attention to her despite all I need to get done that day.

Unlike Star Trek, there’s no suggestion that all the problems of the world can be solved by acts of faith and goodwill.  Indeed, Jeremiah is frustrated when the people seem to repent, to come back to God, and the evil nation from the north continues their march southward.  The goal of scripture is not an “evolved” humanity but one in a continuing
relationship with God.  The sign that we are with God is not an easy life but how much we care for others.  Being with God helps us to love.

There will be those who say they can do it without God.  Sadly, Star Trek seems to take this
position.  And, for awhile, youthful aspirations and dreams can carry you through.
But I’ll never forget a woman pastor who entered the ministry after years of being a social worker.  She passionately explained, “After years of helping people, I finally learned I
cannot do it on my own.”    I wonder how many lives she saw go the wrong way even though she gave it her all to help.  She faced a continuing stream of people that could not be “fixed” and found the only way she could continue to care was to be in relationship with God.

In my own experience, when I meet with people, I have, in the past, given lots of advice and am still prone to do so.  I am a fixer.  But if someone really seeks change I’ve learned that I do better to pray with him or her, to connect them to the Holy One using their own imagination.  Together we seek God’s help, an image, a word, an insight.  And, because it comes from God, and not from a mere human, the light that shines is bright, and
lasting change happens.

So let me suggest a Prime Directive.  If you want to love well, if you want to care deeply, if you want to change the world:  Involve God.


Karma Fulfilled

“My Name is Earl” is a good-natured television series that uses a Westernized concept of Karma as its theme.  This often makes it a satisfying show to watch, as Earl’s “continuing mission” is to right the wrongs that have resulted from his actions in the past.  While there is always more to be done, watching the show unfold it is easy to believe Karma is indeed at work.

In contrast, it can be unsatisfying to read chapter 4 of Jeremiah, since what God is doing to the people of Judah seems wrong.  This is the God no one wants to believe in.  In the first 3 chapters God speak through Jeremiah saying how unfaithful the people have been and if they’d only return, God would deliver them.  Chapter three ends with just such a confession.
The people say…

“Here we
come to you;

For you are
the LORD our God.

Truly the
hills are a delusion,

The orgies
on the mountains.

Truly in the
LORD our God

Is the
salvation of Israel (Jeremiah 3: 22 – 23)

“Let us lie down in our shame, and let our dishonor cover us; for we have sinned against the LORD our God, we and our ancestors, from our youth even to this day; and we have not obeyed the voice of the LORD our God (Jeremiah 3: 25).”

Despite the change of heart in the people, there is no change of heart in God.  God continues to talk about the destruction that God is bringing to them.

“Raise a
standard toward Zion,

Flee for
safety, do not delay,

For I am
bringing evil from the north,

And a great
destruction (Jeremiah 4: 6).”

“Your ways
and your doings

Have brought this upon you.

This is your
doom; how bitter it is!

It has reached your very heart (Jeremiah 4:

What do we do with this unlikeable God?  Some would say simply that Jesus brings a new way, but Jesus combines calling God “abba” (daddy) with vivid images of God’s retribution against those who choose not to follow.  But this is a story for another day.

During the time of Jeremiah, the Assyrians came down from the North to expand their territory.  Of course, they had the chariots, the horses, and the armies to succeed.  The people of God in the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah knew they were coming and that they could not stand against them.  Their fear is palpable as Jeremiah gives the Israelites voice:  “My anguish, my anguish!  I writhe in pain…Disaster over takes disaster, the whole of land is laid wasted.  Suddenly my tents are destroyed, my curtains in a moment (Jeremiah 4: 19-20).”

Listen!  Before you decide God is unfair, and this prophetic scripture meaningless to us today, answer this:  Has there not been a time in your life or in the life of someone you know where disaster followed disaster despite their faithfulness?    Are there times when wrong rolls over right, when, as the TV show would put it, Karma seems dormant?

In the midst of the storm, we hear, in one line, the prophet’s own voice: “Ah, Lord GOD, how utterly you have deceived this people and Jerusalem, saying, ‘It shall be well with you,’ even while the sword is at the throat (Jeremiah 4: 10).”  Far from giving up on God, the prophet deems to question–to wrestle with God.  While the relentlessness of God’s words spoken through the prophet matches the single minded marching of the armies from the North, it is not the only voice that speaks.

And so…when disaster strikes and you are wondering what you’ve done to deserve it (as we all do), scripture reveals that, while that judge is a powerful voice, there is more we need to listen to.  Perhaps it is more than you deserve, and you need to allow your soul to cry out how long?  And perhaps you need to wrestle with God like Jacob, question like Jeremiah, and not give up until you have some understanding, a way forward with God.

Scripture does not make God into only a kind and gentle, easily quotable, source of inspiration.  Sometimes we have to fight to hang on to God, just as God fights to hang
on to us.  In that choice to not let go of the other, we find our way.


Van Gogh’s Brush

Van Gogh’s Brush

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you (Jeremiah 1:5).”  These, the first words God speaks in the book of Jeremiah, begin God’s call to us.  “Stop chasing after those lesser gods and return to me,” God says throughout the first 3 chapters of the book, because “I formed you; I know you.”

Vincent Van Gogh’s father was a preacher.  When Vincent grew up, he wanted to be a
preacher too.  He would give people the clothes off his back, write sermons in his free time, and live on practically nothing because he didn’t want to have more than those he served.  But, after a 6 month stint as an evangelist among the miners of Borinage, the leaders of the church replaced him with another because he refused to dress the part and lacked the ability for public speaking.  How hard that change must have been for someone whose soul sought to bring God’s light to the world!

Still, during his tenure he painted the people and the land, paintings which you can still look upon today.


And, when he was asked about color and paint, he had no trouble speaking, lifting others up, and helping them to find the right line.

From Anton Kerssemakers De Amsterdammer, 14 and 21 April 1912…

For days and weeks, with the utmost patience, [Van Gogh] helped me to make some progress, all the while continuing to work hard himself, making countless drawings and sketches in water color and oil paint both indoors and outdoors.  … Once when we sat together in my studio painting the same still life, just a pair of wooden shoes and several pots, and I sat brushing away in my own style, laying on the color and scraping it off
again, without being able to achieve volume, suddenly he walked over to me:  “Look, put a firm, dark transparent stroke there and there; no, don’t be afraid, I will not destroy your drawing,” and immediately he sat before it with his large, wide brush assaulting my small canvas.  “You see, like this; look, now the other part comes forward; you must not keep brushing away in the same place for so long, you must just put it down and let it sit; you must not be afraid and not concern yourself with making it pretty.”

Free from the burden of believing he was meant to be a minister, in his last 10 years of life, the man who couldn’t speak well to a crowd poured out God’s light onto people, buildings, and rooms we can still peer into today.   He may not have sold paintings but, as you can see above, he knew his ability.  Van Gogh could draw out the spirit-filled eyes of a woman sitting at a table with her family eating potatoes because his faith compelled him to see people through God’s eyes and he fearlessly put his vision on canvas.  His paintings preached.

There is the other story too, the story of his ear, his inner turmoil, and his feelings of failure.  These are the ideas that were lifted up in the reading comprehension
homework for my 5th grade daughter who, after reading the short passage, wished more people had bought his work so he would have felt better.  How flat was the description of Van Gogh in the reading compared to the images he himself created; how devoid of the divine!  It was only when I began reading a larger work on his life that I understood how the short passage cheated us of seeing his fuller humanity and, in the same flatness, the ways of God.

The stories we choose to tell not only give form to the people of this world and form to our own lives, but the stories also give form in another’s imagination to the one we call our Father.   Did God let Van Gogh down by not making him feel better?  Or was God the one who gave his imagination life?

The stories we tell matter.  I confess my mood darkened early this week when I allowed frustration to form itself into a story of complaint. When I read these words in Jeremiah, I stopped, and felt a peace and holy love wash over me.  In this place of understanding
I realized I didn’t like the story I wanted to tell because it doesn’t fit God, the one who knows and loves me.   God has always made a way for me to practice my art–to preach, teach, pray, and pastor.  God always will.  That’s the story I’m meant to tell.

“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.”

Hear these words, sit with them awhile.  I suspect there’s a story you are meant to tell today, this week, through one of your creations—a lesson plan, an agenda, an accounting, a decision.  Paint boldly with Van Gogh’s brush, allowing God, who we often push into the background, to come forward…that all might see the divine light.

In Christ,