The Sadness Beneath

mattsadSadness is so easily pathologized.  When it pops up unexpectedly or has no obvious reason, it can be quickly explained away as lurking depression or rejected as misplaced emotion.  Sadness, however, may also be spiritual.  Sadness is a regular, even healthy, part of life and companion of grief.  Grief can be all around us in hurt relationships, lost values, declining communities, stress, elusive success, or deep-seated heartache from the past, which haunts our everyday life.

For me, the hard part of deep sadness is not the idea of embracing or exploring it.  It’s finding the right environment – meaning the right relationships – to let the grief or sadness unfold with dignity.  There’s also the simple challenge of the time it takes.

Sadness and grief are not efficient.  They demand their own way and their own time.  The path grief takes is not always predictable.   Therefore, it often seems easier to repress sadness and push it away.  It’s certainly more efficient and rational in the short term.  In the long run, however, suppressed sadness can haunt one’s sleep, daily interactions, and consume one’s creativity.  This is when the spiritual aspect of sadness and grief makes itself known.  Sadness, when it lives inside of us, has a nagging, even irruptive, quality; it seeks not only its way and expression, but the connection it needs to see light of day.  Sadness and grief integrate us, and make us human.  They remind us of our essential relationality, and seeks the blessings of community.   It’s a reminder of our inescapable humanity, and humility.

Lamentations is a book of the Hebrew bible that we usually spend little time with.  It’s a five chapter poem of grieving before God over the fate of Israel.  Interestingly, in Lamentations, the prophet makes clear that both God and Israel are to blame.

What’s also remarkable about the text is that its writer – attributed as Jeremiah – doesn’t give up on Israel or God in the face of absolute ruin.  Rather, God remains his  interlocuter, i.e. his audience, in his grief.  It is a long song of sadness, laced with dark visions of death and desolation, that instigate complaining and pleading over the absolute loss.  Following the covenantal theme of Israel as bride and God as bridegroom, Lamentations laments the broken relationship of God and Israel – and its effects – in personal terms.  Here are the last four verses:

19 You, Lord, reign forever;
your throne endures from generation to generation.
20 Why do you always forget us?
Why do you forsake us so long?
21 Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return;
renew our days as of old
22 unless you have utterly rejected us
and are angry with us beyond measure.

Lamentations doesn’t end with, “And they lived happily ever after.”  Because of that, I find solace and company in the prophet’s words.  Sadness is its own spiritual place.  It exists to have its way…and show the way.

While we modern folk look for a way out of grief and ways to mitigate the trouble and heartache of sadness, I find comfort in knowing that profound sadness and grief lie at the heart our relationship with God.  Sadness and grief reveal our humility and helplessness, and this ultimately is what makes us human.  Moreover, they draw us into a spiritual journey of surrender that is best lived in relationship to others.  This restores a sense of our common humanity.  For the prophets, it was precisely out of such sadness and grief that hope sprang forth for the Kingdom of God.  It was out of ruin that they imagined God’s return to human affairs.

A Walk with Jeremiah 6.1

Jeremiah 6I’ve not posted for some time.  But, Jeremiah called me back again.  I needed some time for meditation.

Once I start reading Jeremiah again, I was reminded how scripture continually calls us back.  This morning, I needed to connect to human experiences much older than my own.  I’m picking up my walk with Jeremiah with chapter six (6).

Who hasn’t felt madness listening to American politics?  It doesn’t matter which party or ideology you ascribe to.  The partisan nature of our political scene and the circus that money and media have made of public opinion and national feeling can leave anyone with this sense of grief.  Jeremiah apparently felt that way, too.

To whom shall I speak and give warning, that they may hear?  See, their ears are closed, they cannot listen.  The word of the Lord is to them an object of scorn; they take no pleasure in it.  But, I am full of the wrath of the Lord; I am weary holding it in.  (vs 10-11a)

Most of us hold to our political perspectives with the same fervency Jeremiah did to God’s word and its clarity.  There is a reason why religion and politics equally offend in today’s dominant norms of decency.  Jeremiah’s religious language gives some of us a false sense of difference.  Forget that this is the bible.  Remember that Jesus hadn’t been born yet.  Remember, prophets were mouthpieces for the covenant of God’s people with God.  That is the contract that birthed their nation.  Jeremiah is explicitly talking about his political point of view, which he sees in relief of God’s vision for reality.

For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely.  They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace…[H]ear, o nation, and know O congregation, what will happen…(vs 13-14)

It struck me that the angst and helplessness we feel for the direction and politics of our nation, even communities, is ancient.  It doesn’t matter if you see our foundation as the word of God, the Constitution, universal human rights, or Locke and Rousseau’s social contract.  Who hasn’t grieved over the injustices and corruption they see?  Who hasn’t felt the fear from signs of instability, irrational decisions, and the plight of those powerless to rise up and correct inequities?  I hear this grief from both liberal and conservative.  Each has their definition of injustice.  Each has their definition of rationality.  Each has their definition of inequity.  Each has their scapegoat and theory of inequities.

As a Christian socialist and/or social democrat, I, too, fall on this spectrum.  And, I see the folly of our partisan blame-games.

They are all stubbornly rebellious, going about with slanders…(vs 28a)

In response, Jeremiah offers a strangely prophetic counsel:

Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it an find rest for your souls.

What are those ancient ways?  What, exactly, is this crossroads?  My soul seems to know without argument or passion.  Perhaps, a still small voice might say it this way:

It’s the humble way.  Neither self-righteous nor divided, the good way is neither silent nor partisan.  It is where justice entwines you and I in a common welfare.  It is where peace is waged for the sake of the most vulnerable, among which are each others’ elderly parents and youngest children.  It is where our trust merges in the form of a covenant, in which our wealth and welfare is not in competition, but where the only win is win-win.

I’m reminded of Community of Christ’s Doctrine and Covenants 163:4a-c:

God, the Eternal Creator, weeps for the poor, displaced, mistreated, and diseased of the world because of their unnecessary suffering. Such conditions are not God’s will. Open your ears to hear the pleading of mothers and fathers in all nations who desperately seek a future of hope for their children. Do not turn away from them. For in their welfare resides your welfare.

The earth, lovingly created as an environment for life to flourish, shudders in distress because creation’s natural and living systems are becoming exhausted from carrying the burden of human greed and conflict. Humankind must awaken from its illusion of independence and unrestrained consumption without lasting consequences.

Let the educational and community development endeavors of the church equip people of all ages to carry the ethics of Christ’s peace into all arenas of life. Prepare new generations of disciples to bring fresh vision to bear on the perplexing problems of poverty, disease, war, and environmental deterioration. Their contributions will be multiplied if their hearts are focused on God’s will for creation.

A Walk with Jeremiah 5.1

IMG_444149099In Chapter 5 of Jeremiah, the central theme moves from grief to judgment.  There is a sense Israel and Judah are on trial.  The emotions of anguish and anger that seem to drive chapters 1-4 begin to distill to negotiation and reason.  There’s a reason to be angry.  Again, theology – or making sense of God – accompanies makes sense of circumstance.  The Book of Jeremiah was likely compiled while God’s people were already in Babylonian exile, as a witness and memory for the nation.  In other words, it was compiled not in real time but after the fact.  This means, the compilers have to make a sense of the people’s fate.  Jeremiah’s prophecies, in this context, make perfect sense.  He was right. It makes sense that Israel and Judah fell and were plundered because the nation had become corrupt.  Verse 1 comes right out and says it:

“Search its squares and see if you can find one person who acts justly and seeks truth—so that I may pardon Jerusalem….How can I pardon you?  (Vs 1, 7)

The theological thinking of Jeremiah’s time doesn’t differ too much from the logic driving public opinion today.  Who would worship a god that allowed the corrupt, unjust, and willfully arrogant to prosper at the expense of the poor, the disadvantaged, and basic human fairness?  Who would vote for a politician who would do the same? Should those with willful disregard for the law, others, and basic consequences reign unchallenged?  This seems the issue.

“When I fed [your children] to the full, they committed adultery and trooped to the houses of prostitutes.  They were well-fed lusty stallions, each neighing for his neighbor’s wife.”  (vs 7-8)

“They have spoken falsely of the Lord and have said, “He will do nothing.  No evil will come upon us, and we shall not see sword of famine”  (vs 12)

For scoundrels are found among my people; they take over the goods of others.  Like fowlers they set a trap; they catch human beings.  Like a cage full of birds, their houses are full of treachery; therefore they have become great and rich, they have grown fat and sleek. They know no limits in deeds of wickedness; they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy.  Shall I not punish them for these things?”  (vs 26-29a)

Apparently God is neither abusive nor vengeful at this point, at least not in the prophet’s mind.  Israel and Judah can lay their fate at the feet of God.  God has done what was justifiable.  The nation, or at least a critical mass of its people, had become deeply corrupt.  Of course, the tragedy of corruption is that it makes victims at the moment of its inception, regardless of later actions.  This is where God becomes grieved and, as a God of Salvation, must make sense of it all. This is the prophet’s job. Jeremiah testifies of a God that is Holy, even beyond reproach.  But, Israel’s God is not the kind of God to act flagrantly or take advantage of the fact.  At least politically, God’s actions are metered and reasonable.  The prophet opens us up to the logic of it all.

“Shall I not bring retribution on a nation such as this?” (vs 29b)

on trial (2)We don’t have to let the question sit there, as if it’s rhetorical.  We can answer it with good theology and our personal perspective.  But, if we judge God harshly, let us also judge ourselves.  Let us judge our nation, its own sense of justice, our own sense of retribution, our own limits of tolerance and intolerance, and do so with the same judgment we judge the God of Jeremiah.  Consider your position on war, the role and use of violence, and the death penalty.  Perhaps, you believe an eye-for-an-eye.  Perhaps, you believe in justice and mercy, basic fairness and compassion.  If so, do not forget its cost.  Otherwise, we risk being just romantics.

A Walk with Jeremiah, 4.1

IMG_443980114I grew up hearing all the concern about the Old Testament’s angry and vengeful God.  This is certainly an important theological question.  Theology should be questioning the nature of God.  With all the emphasis on power and authority among many Christian preachers and believers, the nature of that power and authority is also important to consider.  Who wants to worship a God who threatens you whenever He doesn’t get what he wants?  (This kind of of God is almost always, certainly, a “He.”)

But, if one actually spends time with Old Testament scriptures, one can read the prophet’s encounter with God a different way.  This is the reading I’ve been searching for, and am finding.  Chapter 4 of Jeremiah is a good example of what I mean.

Sometimes, our wrestling with God’s anger is not about wrath or punishment.  It’s about natural or reasonable consequences.  As human beings, no one is so free, so entitled, or so endowed that they are exempt from life’s consequences – earned and unearned.  We reap what we sow.  And, often, we aren’t aware of all that we sow because we are not mindful of how deep our actions shape our world.  Verses 18-19 paint such a picture.  God says,

“Your ways and your doings have brought this upon you, this is your doom; how bitter it is!  It has reached your very heart.”

And, God speaks of himself.

“My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain!  Oh, the walls of my heart!  My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent; for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war.”

Israel and Judah are recounting their conquer and invasion.  They are remembering the events that lead up to their exile from the promised land.

griefThis is the question:  After release from Pharaoh, generations in the desert, God’s covenant with us and Solomon’s Temple, how does a nation – a people! – make sense of their own disaster and ruin?  This seems like an everpresent, relevant, and legitimate question.

There is an answer.  In the time of the prophets, the people believed what happened on earth reflected the realities of heaven.  If there was famine, God withheld the rain for a reason.  There was some divine cause.  A relationship was broken.  If there was war, those who occupied the heavens were also at war.  Faithful and more powerful God’s prevail.

What’s going on in heaven when Israel and Judah are conquered?  Prophetic theology provides an explanation.

“For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding.  They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good… Because of this the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black; for I have spoken, I have purposed; I have not relented nor will I turn back.”  (vs 22, 28)

If we read flatly, God is just punishing Israel and Judah.  This is natural to believe because the ancients believed God was the protagonist of history.  God propelled time’s events.  However, if we appreciate that theology makes sense of circumstance, we can appreciate a richer, more relevant and provocative interpretation for us today.  As human beings, no one ever grows so free, so entitled, so powerful, or so endowed that they are exempt from life’s consequences.  Would that be just?   Are some more entitled to grace and fortune that others?  Should we not reap what we sow?  Perhaps, something in Israel and Judah had gone off the rails.  Perhaps, there was injustice, growing inequities, and many people’s hearts were turning away from the Law which taught truth, justice, equity, and peace.

Perhaps talk about an angry God is talk that tries to make sense of all this.  Perhaps it’s an attempt to put reason to what has come to seem unreasonable.  Perhaps the role of the prophet is to find God midst God-forsakenness, social brokenness, and pain.

A Walk with Jeremiah 3.1

IMG_443463605If I continue to look through the lens of grief between estranged lovers, Jeremiah chapter 3 reads like a grief process.  There’s anger over betrayal, as well as the bargaining associated with coming to terms with a loss.  The bitterness comes through naming Israel’s and Judah’s whoredom.  Whoredom is the main theme of the chapter.  Jeremiah begins there:

“If a man divorces his wife and she goes from him and becomes another man’s wife, will he return to her?  Would not such a land be greatly polluted?  You have played the whore with many lovers; and would you return to me?” (vs 1)

Interestingly, the Tanakh adds the nuances of the Masoretic text, the authoritative text Rabbinic Judaism, “Saying, If a man divorces his wife” or “I have to say, if a man divorces his wife.”   This nuance helps remind us that the prophet, speaking for God, is thinking in metaphor.

The metaphor is riddled with patriarchal assumptions, however, and that is disturbing.  It’s not that God isn’t Holy, nor that God should be wholly understandable.  Our relationship with God is not.  The problem is that the patriarchy of the metaphor is so understandable.  Is God really ranting like a schmuck who lost his lover to another man?  Should I hold God to a patriarchal male standard, as if God’s a man’s man who always gets what he wants?  Is God the head of household who should be able to control his woman, his personal possession?  Or, is God lost in grief for the conditions of the people, with little means to express it?  Is the text grasping at ineffable, unspeakable mourning.

The reader has to critically think, listen to the text by dwelling with it, and decide.

God obviously wants reconciliation.

“I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.” (vs 15)

Maybe its a matter of God bearing more of God’s heart.  Maybe Israel’s and Judah’s infidelity to God is a matter of nurturing and ignorance, or lack of understanding.

What’s going on with us when we lose our hearts to lesser things?

No matter the reason or explanation (as if true love often has any), the grief process moves to deeper understanding.  Both God and Israel (along with Judah) are suffering in shame.  The prophet speaks the voices of both God and Israel in chapter 3.

“I thought you would call me, My Father, and would not turn from following me.  Instead, as a faithless wife leaves her husband, so you have been faithless to me.” (vs 19b, 20)

gratitudeThe reality of the situation is also becoming apparent to Israel.

“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 your youth even to this day; and we have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God.”  (vs 25)

Perhaps the parent-child metaphor is better.  Both father-child relationships and bride-bridegroom relationships are haunted by patriarchal assumptions.  But, the parent-child relationship can be more inclusive, and it explains the relentless presence of grief much better.

Having a child is like having your heart run around outside yourself.

A Walk with Jeremiah 2.1

IMG_443110490God obviously needs us.  And, apparently, we need God.

Chapter 2 of Jeremiah reads like a letter from a bitter lover – a lover who’s been taken advantage of, cheated on, then abandoned.  Many of us have been there.  Lost in love and mutual happiness, then something happens and it all falls apart.  The memories of rapturous fulfillment are still palpable, but something’s changed.  The relationship’s broken.  Your lover doesn’t need you anymore…of they don’t think they do…or they never did.

Consider God’s words to Israel through the prophet:

I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride…Israel was holy to the Lord, the first fruits of his harvest…What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they want far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?  (vs 2b, 3a, 5)

But, somehow, this abandonment God feels is more than just losing love.  Love between God and Israel isn’t limited to the metaphor of matrimony.  At least from the prophet’s perspective, there’s something wholly illogical and unjust in Israel’s infidelity.  It’s political, and goes to the heart of what it means to be in communion with one another and with God.

“[My] people have changed their glory for something that does not profit…Also on your skirts is found the lifeblood of the innocent poor, though you did not catch them breaking in.”  (vs 11b, 34a)

In pursuit their own lusts and their own wants, they turn on each each other, including the poor.  Their lifeblood has stained their garments, though the poor are innocent.  This is also their turning from God, and it is self-defeating.

“[Where] are your gods that you made for yourself?  Let them come, if they can save you, in your time of trouble; for you have as many gods as you have towns, O Judah.”  (vs 28)

Jeremiah writes when Jerusalem was under threat of being ceased.  Judah and Israel were to be conquered.  There is no greater failure of you or your gods than when someone outside comes in and takes over.  Freedom, but more specifically sovereignty, is the greatest political prize.  But, by the time the book of Jeremiah was compiled, Israel and Judah had already lost both.  This is the story Jeremiah tells.

“Why do you complain against me?  You have all rebelled against me?”  (vs 29)

Still, there’s more than a cold sense of punishment about this loss and betrayal of God by God’s people.  If Jeremiah, the prophet, speaks for God, his voice mourns.

“Can a girl forget her ornaments, or a bride her attire?  Yet my people have forgotten me, days without number.”  (vs 32)

o-RUNAWAY-BRIDE-facebookMidst the scorn, there is also sorrow.  Beneath the deepest anger, there is almost always grief.  Grief is pain and loss.  Perhaps God’s needs us more than we realize, and we need God.  We just don’t really grasp that until we’re in trouble.

A Walk with Jeremiah, 1.1

IMG_443023954For the next little while, I plan to be reading Jeremiah.  I’m doing it for my own study.  My plan with this blog is simply to post simple reflections based on my reading.  At this point, I don’t plan this to be an in depth academic study, but more impressions and reflections.  At times, I may input commentary information or wonder off in a long thought about something.  But, overall I simply hope to jot down the passages, themes, metaphors, and impressions that come to the surface.  I hope, for someone, the reading is worthwhile.

Chapter 1

The first chapter covers Jeremiah’s call and commission as prophet.  Thinking about it from an experiential point of view, verses 4-5 and 17 stick out.

vs 4-5:  Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

vs 17:  But you, gird up your loins; stand up and tell them everything that I command you. Do not break down before them, or I will break you before them.

Feel the contrast.  At first, we read of God’s providence and Jeremiah’s call.  There is a sense of fate in Jeremiah’s calling.  “I’ve consecrated you”; “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.”  These sentences parallel lines of Psalm 139.  Read the comforting verses of Psalm 139:13-14

13For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 14I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.

These passages early in Jeremiah easily leave me with a feeling that Jeremiah was destined to be God’s prophet and mouthpiece.  He will successfully speak for God to the nations.  God’s intentions give a sense of security and assurance.  But, by the way:  “Don’t break down before them, or I will break you before them.”

Like a gut punch.

Most of us, today, probably want to run to the gentle Santa Claus God we often don’t intend, but inadvertently create with our expectations.  We don’t want to feel uncomfortable when we think of God, or fear God’s presence.  We don’t know what to do with a God who threatens.

This mix of promise and warning, of assurance and terror, seems to characterize all of the prophets.  It’s, as if, a life with God is a life at stake.  Things matter with God, especially when involving the lives of people.  Maybe there’s good reason for God to feel a bit a pressure.  Maybe God’s hearing cries of anguish and suffering, the way Exodus describes.  Maybe God sees injustices that would anger anyone.  Maybe God needs Jeremiah for a reason.

Worlds problemsAll awhile, we take the line out of context – “Don’t break down before them, or I will break you before them.”  Like relentless movie critics, we turn our attention on God’s personal character and judge with our middle-class social expectations.

Instead, I remember my own reactions to what I think are injustice. I remember what I think when I feel indignation, and feel the pressure to make a difference.  Perhaps, circumstances dictate that God needs Jeremiah.  Or, the writer of Jeremiah needs God to make a difference, so s/he invests God with power.  I’m not sure we can know.

But, the mix of warning and promise is familiar.  It’s reminds me of taking life seriously.  When I watch the news today, my own thoughts move from anger to hope.  Maybe, that’s what Jeremiah is dealing with.