Waiting for God

When we spend so much of our lives battling, striving, and working as hard as we can, the image of waiting outside in the dark, hoping for the door to open, is one of the most challenging passages of scripture (Matthew 25, a traditional reading for Advent).  Matthew’s ten virgins standing outside, waiting for the bridegroom to let them in, is enough to send many of us right back to the real world–where many doors open when we feel like it. Virgins?  Clearly this was the pre-Katy Perry (much less Madonna) era.

In Jeremiah one of the refrains of God’s word is this:  “I will banish from them the sound of mirth and the sound of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride” (Jer. 16: 9, 25:10).  Jeremiah plays strongly on the image of a bride who has gone astray: one who has gone after other husbands, idols and images of other gods.  Those who heard Jeremiah’s message understood that the unfaithful bride was all of them, all of Israel. The prophecy is written in a way that is sympathetic to God.  God’s lavish love has been pushed aside for others.  God has a right to move on from those who have polluted themselves with loyalty to other gods.  The covenant has been broken.

When Jesus begins his ministry, he says God also has the right–and has chosen–to invite us back into the covenant.  The wedding feast becomes a symbol of the restored relationship between God and God’s people.  The kingdom of heaven is marked by such a feast.

The virgins (sometimes referred to as bridesmaids, acknowledging Jeremiah’s construction) that populate Matthew’s “kingdom of heaven” story are not intended to suggest that these women are incomplete, but rather that they are able to give to God their all.  They haven’t claimed or been claimed by another.  No one has taken God’s rightful place.  Encumbered only by the lamp and oil, they enter into the night, believing God will meet them.

Those who choose the heavier load, who carry extra oil, are prepared to wait longer than the others.

I was reminded recently that our neural pathways are shaped by our habits.  The more we do something, the larger the pathway, and the more apt we are to fall onto it.  I like to have my hands free, so I’m always more apt to take less than more, believing I can get what I need on the way.  But that comes from a life based on movement, going here and there, in my mind, in my work, and in my play.  I can always go and get what I need.

This scripture suggests a different way.  The kingdom of heaven will be experienced as a wedding feast when we do what is necessary to be still and wait on God.  It requires a commitment; our hands are not free. It requires faith, a belief that the door will open.  It requires that we are available, unattached to that which seeks to take the place of God.

Fittingly, forming these connections takes a conscious effort.  When the familiar smaller gods shout out their command for our loyalty, we recognize them for what they are, and let them be.  The corresponding pathway shrinks.  When we stand in front of the closed door, growing angry by the unfairness or fearful that we have been left behind, we can deliberately choose to speak different words: words of expectation of what is to come, words that know God to be good.  The better pathway grows.  When we get ready to meet God, we realize that to change our connections takes time, and we allow ourselves enough fuel to keep our lamp lit.

“At midnight, there was a shout, ‘Look!  Here is the bridegroom!  Come out to meet him.’”  (Mt. 25: 6).

Come out…from behind those lesser gods, from the underside of fear, from your own self…come out and meet your God.  There is a party going on, and you are invited.

Prophecy for Today

The messages of the Old Testament prophets frequently fail to inspire us to love God more. Instead, they can lead us to question the God we came to know as “Love” in Sunday School. God does not seem very loving when God compares the people of Jerusalem to whores who deserve to lose everything. In fact, for a 21st century reader the God of the prophets can seem difficult–intolerant–even downright embarrassing.

Most often when I write about the prophets, people respond by defending God. For many, the feeling is that “God doesn’t punish people for doing wrong”. Others quietly turn away. Still others remain silent, hoping this God will go away when we get to Jesus. If these ideas resonate with you, you are in good company! Still, I’m going to ask you to further consider these challenging scriptures.

When I read Jeremiah, I hear a people who understand that they have done wrong. In the religious imagination of the time, they heard God’s mournful cry, recorded it, and took the words with them into exile. And, I believe they heard God right at the time. I believe God wants us to know, in this time, that our actions can hurt God–and God’s people; that when we lose sight of the Holy One, we are scattered, broken, and lost. It is God’s cry for us to return which allows us to find our way again.

Often when I listen to people wanting prayer, they will speak about how they feel God is disciplining them, teaching them. It is uncomfortable watching someone take on blame.  And sometimes they must be challenged.  But, at other times, it is unholy to get in the way.

This week, a pastor friend in New England was wondering why her church wasn’t attracting as many to worship in recent weeks: “we might have to go to 3 services rather than 4,” she said, so ”we are spending more time in prayer, wondering where we haven’t given enough to God.” I tried to dissuade her, to tell her it wasn’t God’s work that attendance was down, it wasn’t something she did. From her descriptions the causes seemed more worldly than that. But as soon as I started down that road, the Holy Spirit left the conversation. It was a feeling of tiredness that overcame me and a flatness of speech that followed. Today, I ask myself, who am I to say that God isn’t trying to get her and the church staff’s attention?

If you come to me for prayer in a time of trial, I’m not going to talk to you about how God is disciplining you. But it is likely you will. It is likely that you, like the voice that is Jeremiah, are wondering what it is that has left you feeling so distant from God, as well as so far from the life you thought was yours. As it was for Jeremiah, as it is for my pastor friend, as it is for me now, we have a choice. We can believe God isn’t in it at all–or we can believe that exile and similar experiences are what God intends to help us cling to the one that matters most, sending us to our knees, and allowing God to send us out to do what we would not have before imagined.

Heather

Make No Mistakes

Breaking through the din of judgment, prophecies of doom, and cries of lament that mark chapter 9 of the book of Jeremiah are these words:

Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practice steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth; for in these things I delight, says the LORD.” (RSV, emphasis added)

Jeremiah is a prophet who lived in a time of great geopolitical turmoil. Assyria controlled much of the fertile crescent in which Jerusalem is a part. Egypt had aspirations to move northward with the help of Assyria, while the Babylonians enjoyed great military success in conquering kingdoms as they moved southward. Jerusalem is caught between these military powers.

Much of Jeremiah’s prophecy puts these geopolitical movements into the hands of God. The impending doom which will destroy the temple and send many of the leaders of Jerusalem away is seen as God’s way of punishing the unfaithfulness of God’s own people who turned to idols and mistreated the poor. In the first chapters it is suggested that if the inhabitants of Jerusalem would just repent, then all the trouble would go away.

They do, at the end of chapter 3: “let us lie down in our shame, and let our dishonor cover us; for we have sinned against the LORD our God… (3:25).”

Despite their confession, the trouble remains–the foreign armies continue their plans for battle.

A few weeks ago, I complained about the judgmental stories that mark the first season of Star Trek, the Next Generation. As the series continues on there is more to like. I share a quote spoken by Captain Picard: “You can make no mistakes and still lose. That is life.”

You can repent, you can turn back to God, and still the powers of this world continue to rise. You can turn to God, you can trust God, and still not have the life you seek. You will not find a prosperity gospel in Jeremiah, the idea if you do good things, good things will happen to you. But you may find a soul who understands Picard’s words all too well.

For what did God do wrong that the people stopped listening? What did God do wrong that made people travel their own paths? What did God do that allowed people to treat the aliens and widows among them without concern?

What did God do wrong that made you stop listening? How long do you expect to punish God?

The genius of Jeremiah is that even as Jeremiah allows the voice of God’s judgment to speak, so too does the voice of God’s sorrow. As Patrick D. Miller, commentator for the New Interpreter’s Bible, writes, “The anguish of the prophet over the heedlessness of the people overlaps with the anguish of God (563).”

“Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of the
daughter of my people
not been restored?

O that my head were waters,
and my eyes a fountain of tears,
that I might weep day and night
for the slain of the daughter of
my people! (Jeremiah 8: 22 – 9: 1)

While Jeremiah refuses to let go of the idea that God is punishing the people–moving nations against them, because of their idolatry–so too Jeremiah refuses to let go of the idea that God loves enough; no–feels powerless enough, to cry out: Why?

Why? It is a question we share with God. Why do you turn away from me?

The question has many answers and no answers at all. What is most clear from the heartfelt plea we share with our God is we long for one another.

Is there no balm in Gilead? How can we “understand and know” this God? Is there no physician there who would fix the broken relationship of God’s people to God? Is there a way to move forward again together?

For us, Jesus leads the way.

We, like Jesus did long ago, can choose to travel with the Holy One despite the powers that operate against that alliance. There will always be those things that distract and cause us to fear. But, if we choose to hear our scripture, there will always be another choice…to walk with God believing that our journey to enter into the unknown together will create new possibilities, even new life.

“the LORD is the true God;
he is the living God and the
everlasting King (Jeremiah 10: 10).”

Heather

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.

Heather

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:
18).”

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.

Heather