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).”


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.