Tuesday, July 26, 2011

I will be found by you, declares the Lord

Jeremiah 29: 4-14

While traveling up the highway today with my friend Betsy after a morning gathering in the garden, the impossible happened. Not the improbable. The impossible. A vehicle ran through the flashing red light directly in front of us and in spite of Betsy's impressive channeling of Mario Andretti, an accident was unavoidable. I braced myself and focused on the point of impact to come. There were two options. If the hit was solid, we could crumble into a heap. If we clipped the rear end, we would be spinning. There was nothing I could do in either case, but for some reason I was intent to know which was coming; which is why I was staring so fixedly through the windshield; which is how I know the impossible thing that happened next. With my eyes glued to the other vehicle, it suddenly became transparent and we passed through the back bumper and part of the quarter panel with no damage to either vehicle. Impossible, right? Definitely.

When Betsy dropped me off, we tried to make some sense of whatever had just happened. Betsy kept saying, "How did we miss her?" and I kept saying, "We didn't. We passed right through." We even walked around to touch the hood of the truck in case the accident had actually happened and we somehow didn't comprehend the blow or the noise. Does that make sense? Of course not. But it's no less strange than any of it was. I had clenched my muscles so tightly that my calf muscle involuntarily cramped causing my foot to strike the console. The result was a minuscule scrape and one drop of blood. It was a relief to see authentic blood as proof that we hadn't imagined the whole thing.

Enough for one day, right? No.

I tutor young ladies at Coosa Valley Youth Services on Tuesday mornings. When I arrived this morning, still shaken, all the girls were away at a special program and a psychologist, a social worker, and a maintenance man were in the office. They apologized that no one had called me about the schedule change, then out of the blue, Nilda (the psychologist) said, "Teach me something today." There is often friendly banter among the staff and myself, so I answered, "Well, I know everything, so just ask me anything." She said, "Life. Teach me something about life." I waited for the rest of the joke, but instead all three of them were silently looking at me like they expected an actual answer. I had no intention of talking about my morning adventure, because they like me and I didn't want them to think that I was mentally unbalanced. But they just kept waiting. So I took a deep breath and told them the story. What followed was a wonderful conversation of how unbelievably easy it is to be unaware of the ever-presence and power of God. They apologized again as I left, but I think what happened went exactly as planned.

I debated whether to write about this or not as I began my post as usual by opening an online dictionary and thesaurus. I found the word and quote of the day....

Mantic - one touched by divine madness

"It is these mantic responses that alert the intelligence to the presence of something that calls for interpretation."
-- M. R. Wright, Andrew Barker, Reason and Necessity: Essays On Plato's Timaeus

How crazy is that?

In our lesson Sunday from Jeremiah 29, the defeated and exiled people of God are told to ignore the false prophets who tell them that good times are just around the corner. Instead, their children and grandchildren will all know hard times in a foreign land. But they are not to wallow in their misery. They are told to plant gardens, eat the food of Babylon, be good neighbors and pray for the welfare of  their country of residence. The hope and plans that God has for them are beyond possessions and land. It's far better than that.

"You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 
I will be found by you,” declares the LORD.

And, at least today, not just found, but found in the most unexpected places. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Called by God

Jeremiah 20: 7 - 13

This might be one of the most depressing passages in the entire Bible. Jeremiah has been flogged and put in stocks overnight in front of the temple by the orders of his own priest. His friends have nicknamed him ol' "Danger Everywhere" for his words of doom and destruction. They're reluctantly standing by, but are watching closely for the first opportunity that allows them to justify deserting him. He is overwhelmed by anguish and humiliation. He describes the feeling as being seduced and then raped by God. Jeremiah decides that he's had enough and that he'll just be silent, but his calling is like a "burning fire shut up in his bones." He can't keep going, and he can't quit. What's a prophet to do?

Being called by God is an interesting thing. Jeremiah had the lineage to be a priest, but God gave him another task, and a very unpleasant one at that. He spent 40 years telling his people of the devastation that was to come. It's not so much that they doubted the words; they just didn't want to hear it. Their eventual response was to kill the messenger.

One of my favorite heroes of the Christian faith is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. When other Christian churches and leaders either ignored the Nazis or actively associated with them, Rev. Bonhoeffer had the courage to speak the truth. Like Jeremiah, he paid with his life. Looking back, his was one of the only voices of reason, yet it wasn't what the churches wanted to hear so they were able to ignore the message and consequently bear some of the responsibility for the horrors that unfolded. How tragic.

Bonhoeffer described Christianity as a call to come and die. Judging by Jeremiah's experience, it worked that way in the Old Testament too. It's not something to take lightly.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Potter and the Clay

Jeremiah 18:1-12

In today's passage, God tells Jeremiah to go and watch an artist. There are no other instructions; just the implication that if Jeremiah pays attention he'll learn something. As the potter forms and reforms the clay, Jeremiah sees an image of God shaping our lives. The potter puts a part of himself into the art just as on a grander scale our creator God breathes his life-giving spirit into us. Isaiah 29:16 also uses this picture and adds an observation that when we question God it's more or less like a pot telling the potter that he doesn't know what he's doing. Isaiah doesn't necessarily tell us not to question God (Jeremiah sure does plenty of it in his book) but we probably shouldn't hold onto any illusions that we'll tell God something that he didn't already know. Which brings us to the question of whether we are just pawns in a big clockwork life or if we have free will to set our own destiny. All the commentaries label the potter and the clay as "the classical illustration of the divine sovereignty in relation to human freedom".  Paul jumped into the fray in Romans 9 when he was asked how anyone could be responsible for his own sin if God the Potter's shaping was beyond our control. Like Jeremiah, Paul stated that God would do what he wanted to do whenever he wanted to do it. He'll show mercy, provide salvation, and allow tragic consequences and destruction to whomever he wants in total disregard to how we pots feel about who deserves reward or punishment. However, both Jeremiah (Chapter 31) and Paul (all over the place) insist that the law of God is written clearly on our hearts and we ignore it at great peril. We're not responsible for anything except obedience. But life is not intended to be a chore. It's tragic if  "existence is a idle game and life a festival held for profit" (Wisdom of Solomon 15:7-17) and we're satisfied as clay shells not knowing the One who breathed a living spirit into us.

Irenaeus, a church father of the 2nd century explained it much better than I can. My paraphrase of his take on the potter and the clay:

If you are the work of God, await the hand of the Master, the Artist who fashions everything in due course. Keep your heart soft for Him, lest becoming hard, you lose the marks of His fingers. But should you be hardened and reject His artistic work, with your ingratitude you'll lose both His art and your life. For to make is the property of God, but to be made is that of man.