Sometimes It Sucks to Be Right

The ground is cracked
    because there is no rain in the land;
the farmers are dismayed
    and cover their heads.
Jeremiah 14:4 (NIV)

Growing up in Iowa one is learns just how dependent our lives are on weather. I didn’t grow up on a farm and didn’t have a single family member who did. I knew nothing about agriculture. Still, when a boy grows up in a state that produces 15 billion bushels of corn a year and is the nation’s leading producer of soybeans, eggs, and hogs you can’t help but realize how dependent life is on seasons, earth, sun, and rain. When weather doesn’t cooperate for an extended period of time it’s a serious deal.

I remember as a kid one summer the midwest, and Iowa in particular, was experiencing a serious drought. Weather dominated the local news each night and the drought become a daily topic for the daily national newscasts as well. One evening during the usual network sitcom I watched as our local news station actually ran a scrolling bulletin along the bottom of the screen reporting that rain had unexpectedly developed over a small town where the local church was holding an evening prayer vigil. When was the last time your local news broke into programming to report an answered prayer? Yeah, it gets serious when rain doesn’t fall around here.

In the prophet Jeremiah’s day, drought was even more serious. In 21st century Iowa a drought means financial crisis. In Jeremiah’s day drought meant everyone could literally die.

That’s the backdrop on today’s chapter. Keep in mind that the book of Jeremiah is actually an anthology of the ancient prophet’s poetry and messages. Today’s chapter and tomorrow’s chapter are a poetic conversation with Jeremiah pleading with God for mercy amidst a drought and God responding (but not in a “Oh good! Let’s scroll God’s answer along the bottom of Magnum P.I.!” kind of way).

The answer Jeremiah gets from God is not good news and Jeremiah notices that he seems to be the only prophet who isn’t broadcasting optimistic prognostications of showers of blessing and a flood of deliverance. Jeremiah gets to be the lone voice proclaiming, “Tighten your belt, pack your bags, and get ready to move. This drought isn’t ending anytime soon,” and then he has the pleasure of adding, “after the drought the forecast is for famine and war.

Ugh. No wonder Jeremiah takes note that it seems much easier to say the things people want to hear. It sucks to be the lone harbinger of bad news. It sucks even worse to be right.

I’ve noticed along life’s journey that when the whole world is freaking out and broadcasting fear and anxiety 24/7 it is rarely as bad as the groupthink and crowd-speak makes it. The opposite is also true. When the groupthink and crowd-speak is predicting perpetually perfect conditions and a never-ending bull market of bliss, you can be pretty sure that the bubble’s going to burst at some point. I’ve learned to be wary of the din of the crowd. I try to keep my ears open for a lonely voice with a different message, usually found somewhere in the wilderness (or flyover country where I live).

Btw, it’s been rainy the past couple of weeks here in Iowa. I’d say things are looking good for planting season and the crops this year. But please don’t take my word for it. When it comes to farming I don’t have a clue what I’m talking about.

Seed in the Chaff

“I will scatter you like chaff
    driven by the desert wind.
This is your lot,
    the portion I have decreed for you,”
Jeremiah 13:24-25a (NIV)

The community where Wendy and I live, and our local gathering of Jesus’ followers, is experiencing a season of acute grief. This past week a young man, the youngest son of our senior pastor and his wife, passed away unexpectedly. He should have been experiencing the prime of his life. It is unnerving when tragedy strikes like this. There are so many unanswerable questions.

In Sunday morning’s message the teacher gave us a word picture of a man who initiated a controlled burn of his lawn. The teacher watched as the fire spread across the grass turning the lawn into a field of scorched and blackened death. Confused, the teacher stopped and spoke to the man. “I don’t understand,” he said. “You’re killing your lawn.

Oh no,” said the man. “The seed’s already in the ground. Come back in a few months and you will see how lush and green it is with new life.”

I couldn’t help but think of that parable as I read Jeremiah’s prophetic poem this morning. He foresaw that God’s people would experience unspeakable tragedy. They would be conquered. Their city and their Temple would be destroyed. They would be “scattered like chaff driven by the desert wind.” This was their lot in life.

Why me? Why him? Why us? Why now?

So many unanswerable questions.

Then in the quiet this morning I pictured and watched the chaff driven and scattered by the wind. What Jeremiah did not see in his vision is that there is seed mixed in with the chaff. Jeremiah does not see Daniel raised to a position of unbelievable authority and honor within the Babylonian palace. Jeremiah does not see Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego standing with God in the flames of the fiery furnace without getting one hair of their head singed. Jeremiah does not see the repentance of Nebuchadnezzar, doesn’t read the handwriting on Beltshazzar’s wall, does not hear the beautiful lyrics of the psalmists’ lament from exile, and does not see the incredible ministry and visions the prophet Ezekiel will have in that land. Jeremiah does not see the return of the remnant under Nehemiah or the miraculous work of his people rebuilding the Temple and the walls of the city. The prophet’s does not foresee Jesus entering the walls of rebuilt Jerusalem, God’s Son sacrificed for sin once for all, and then resurrected to new and eternal Life.

We all experience tragedy along our our life journeys; We all will have times when we are shaken to the core of our souls. In such times our eyes become intensely focused on our lot in life and we ask unanswerable questions. In the moment, Jeremiah just sees himself, his people, and their lot in life; Their lot in life that cannot be changed any more than a leopard can change his spots. He stands and looks out and all he can see is dry chaff scattered on the scorching desert wind.

Look more closely.

There’s seed in that chaff.

The Sower is not finished with the Story.

 

The Pain of Separation

I have forsaken my house,
    I have abandoned my heritage;
I have given the beloved of my heart
    into the hands of her enemies.
Jeremiah 12:7 (NRSVCE)

I’m assuming that for many living in the melting pot of America, the concept of a heritage and a people may not be as strong as it once was. My father moved our family away from his home when I was young and I grew up removed from the Dutch heritage in which he was raised. As an adult, I doubled-down and returned to my roots, moving to a town that is rabid about its Dutch heritage. I have an appreciation for what it means to embrace and celebrate the people and the culture that are your genetic roots.

In my Dutch heritage there is a word that you’ll still hear old-timers pull out once in a while: afscheiding, It means to “separate.” When an individual or group left the fold they became tagged “afscheiden.” I get the sense that in most circles it was once the Dutch version of a scarlet letter.

In the previous chapter we learned that Jeremiah had so incensed the people of his hometown with his prophecy that a price had been put on his head. There was a plot to kill him. How appropriate then, to read in today’s chapter, that the weeping prophet is feeling like an afscheiden. God has called Jeremiah to declare the destruction of his unrepentant people over and over and over again. Now his own people have turned against him. He feels separated, ostracized, and alienated. Jeremiah loves his people, his culture, and his heritage and yet his prophecy is all about Judah’s fall and destruction. There is a war raging inside him. Following God meant separation from his heritage.

Along this life journey I have walked alongside many people who have had to battle the deep internal struggle of parting ways with the faith and/or culture of their family and heritage. Every culture and heritage has it’s strengths and corollary struggles. A time comes when for the spiritual health of an individual or family there must come separation from a church, a family system, or a community. It is tremendously difficult for some to risk social and relational stigma and fallout. Jeremiah is feeling that. Following God feels like a betrayal of his family, people, and heritage.

This morning in the quiet I’m saying a “thank you” for all the great things that my family system, heritage, and culture have afforded me. I am also making a renewed commitment to follow wherever God calls me, wherever I’m supposed to be, even if I’m branded an afscheiden.

Free Speech (or Not)

 Therefore this is what the Lord says about the people of Anathoth who are threatening to kill you, saying, “Do not prophesy in the name of the Lord or you will die by our hands”
Jeremiah 11:21 (NIV)

I have been intrigued to observe what has transpired in our culture over recent years with regard to our freedom of speech. I’ve watched the proliferation of social media in which every individual has a megaphone with which to broadcast their thoughts, opinions, and little kitty pictures to anyone who will listen. I think most of us have had an experience in which what could and should be a forum for discovery, appreciation, connection, conversation, and discussion quickly erodes into a quagmire of anger, disrespect, slander and anonymous trolls hiding behind usernames spewing hatred. And of course we are all now well aware that there are those with ill motives seeking to stir up dissension and chaos for political reasons.

At the same time, I’ve observed that our educational institutions are increasingly willing to suppress the free expression of thoughts and opinions from faculty and guest lecturers when those thoughts and opinions are unpopular or offend the listener. There are students who seek to be sheltered from any words, thoughts, or ideas that contradict or challenge their own world view. In recent years, those who hold unpopular opinions receive death threats, are physically attacked, or are simply dis-invited from speaking.

One one hand anyone can say anything they want (and do). On the other hand anyone who holds an unpopular opinion is unwelcome and silenced. Fascinating.

Free expression and conflict over words, thoughts, opinions, and ideas have always been part of the human experience. Examples abound, such as the prophet Jeremiah.

In today’s chapter the ancient prophet Jeremiah is made aware of a plot to kill him. The source of the threat comes from the town of Anathoth which was located a few miles north of Jerusalem. What’s fascinating to discover is that Anathoth is Jeremiah’s hometown. It is also a town that was given to the descendants of Aaron who were the priests in the ancient religious system of the Hebrews. Only a descendant of Aaron could be a priest. In other words, those who were seeking to silence Jeremiah and plotting to kill him were his own people from a town dedicated to leaders of the Temple.

I’m reminded this morning of Jesus’ observation that “a prophet is without honor in his own home town.” Jesus said this right after his own neighbors in Nazareth sought to throw Him off a cliff. He could very well have been thinking about Jeremiah when He said it. It was descendants of the crew who sought to kill Jeremiah who would plot Jesus’ death, as well.

I’m also reminded that history gives us many examples in various disciplines of individuals branded heretics in their day who were revealed over time to be right. Only now in retrospect do we regard them as heroes of history. These “heretics” often suffered terribly in their day for saying things that were unpopular, politically incorrect, or by challenging the prevailing world-view. Jeremiah is just one of them.

As I do each morning, I will publish this blog post and share it on Facebook. A few people will read it. Of those who do I hope there are one or two who appreciate the post. There may be some who get pissed off simply by seeing that idiot Tom and his stupid religious posts in their feed. I’m well aware that the vast majority of people will simply ignore it. C’est la vie.

I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to express what I’m thinking about on my daily spiritual journey and to put it out there where, instantly, anyone on the planet with an internet connection can read it. Through all of human history it is only in the past 20 years or so that this was possible.

I pray that I will always be free to do so.

Grab Your Bug-Out Bag!

“Gather up your bundle from the ground,
    O you who live under siege!
For thus says the Lord:
I am going to sling out the inhabitants of the land
    at this time….”
Jeremiah 10:17-18 (NRSVCE)

Among the sub-culture of the “wild-at-heart” man’s man is a thing known as a bug-out bag. There was a lot of buzz about it among some of the guys in my circles a few years back. The bug-out bag is a single duffle or backpack (you have to be able to carry it) that contains what you need to survive should nuclear war, EMP grid blackout, Zombie apocalypse, or other kind of Mad Max or Hunger Games type dystopia become a sudden reality. The bug-out bag contains things you need to survive like water, food, and the means to create shelter. Oh, and a weapon to kill Zombies or hunt down your next meal is always a wise choice. For the record, I don’t have a bug-out bag so I guess Wendy and I are screwed should any of the aforementioned events transpire.

Life in Jeremiah’s day was infinitely more precarious that the one we live in today. As a human being you’d be fortunate to survive infancy, and if you did survive into your teens you could expect the average life-span to be around 30 years. Disease, famine, and local wars were a constant threat. At that time in history local city-states and tribal kingdoms were being swallowed up by rapidly growing regional empires who had begun to perfect their tactics of military aggression, siege warfare, and political assimilation. The Assyrian and Babylonian empires were chief among them.

Jeremiah’s broken-record prophesies were not really that crazy to the people of his day. The Assyrians and Babylonians had a reputation for ruthlessness that was well-known and well deserved. Assyria had already destroyed their cousins in the northern kingdom of Israel (Jerusalem was part of the southern kingdom of Judah). The prevailing tactic of regional Empires was to take over the city, plunder anything valuable, kill the leaders and take the best and brightest hostage (FYI: Daniel was one of these). So, when Jeremiah wrote in today’s chapter that the people of Jerusalem should grab their bug-out bags, they knew what he was talking about (and it wasn’t a Zombie apocalypse).

For those reading along with this chapter-a-day journey, it should also be noted that Jerusalem had been attacked just a generation before by the Assyrians. In that day the Jerusalem was miraculously spared as the enemy army was mysteriously wiped out overnight (2 Kings 19). This, of course, made Jeremiah’s prophetic task more difficult. The people of Jeremiah’s day believed that God would miraculously save them just as He had done before.

This morning I’m thinking about all the doomsday predictions I’ve heard across my lifetime. From Christian teachers and their mesmerizing interpretations of Revelation to economists warning of global monetary collapse to environmentalists warning of a coming ice age (that was the prediction I heard in elementary school) or global warming meltdown. With the proliferation of voices via the internet there is no lack of fear-inducing doomsday predictions to go around. It’s easy to fall down the rabbit-hole of fear.

When confronted with doomsday predictions I find myself trying to be discerning. I can’t do anything about the timing of events in Revelation so I might as well focus each day on loving others as Jesus calls me to do and not worry about that which I can’t control. I believe God calls us to care for the Earth, so Wendy and I try to be good stewards of natural resources, recycle, and make wise choices for the sake of the environment whenever we can. Yet, once again, there is only so much I can do on a personal level and what will be is out of my control. It seems a waste of mental and emotional energy to live in perpetual fear of that which I don’t know and can’t control.

I confess, however, that the notion of having a bug-out bag (with a compass and one of those giant Rambo-like survival knives) does stir my manly spirit. “Arrrggghh!”

“Wanna Get Away?”

“Oh, that I had in the desert
    a lodging place for travelers,
so that I might leave my people
    and go away from them….”
Jeremiah 9:2 (NIV)

I had to laugh this morning when I read Jeremiah’s lament. I imagine the ancient prophet weary of his calling, weary of shouting his messages that no one wanted to hear, and weary of people telling him to shut up. I can hear the politicians and institutional religious leaders threatening him and telling him to “tone it down.” I can imagine his own family members rolling their eyes, embarrassed to claim him as a member of the clan. I can envision the ridicule, verbal abuse, and derision he likely faced on a regular basis.

I hear in my head the tagline of those funny Southwest airlines commercials: “Wanna get away?”

My journey has taught me that dealing with people can be incredibly draining no matter what the capacity or relationship. Even Jesus showed signs of weariness and frustration from time to time. Even Jesus had to regularly get away from the crowds to spend time alone or with His inner circle. We all feel the “I gotta get away” blues from time to time. It’s part of the human experience. It’s part of the journey. The need of regular periods of rest is so important for our well-being that God made it part of the Top Ten rules for life.

This morning as I sit alone in the quiet of my study I’m taking comfort in the fact that even the great prophet Jeremiah felt the exhaustion of dealing with people; Even the Son of God needed to regularly get away. I’m not alone, and why should I think that I would be any different?

This is a long journey. Regular rest stops are required.

Rhetorical Question

Since my people are crushed, I am crushed;
    I mourn, and horror grips me.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
    Is there no physician there?
Why then is there no healing
    for the wound of my people?
Jeremiah 8:21-22 (NIV)

Being an amateur student of family history, I have gained a certain appreciation for how Story plays out across generations. My great-grandfather took a large risk coming to America alone as a young man. There is little or no primary source material available to us, but I would have to believe that he was forced by circumstance simply to focus on making a life for himself. Carpentry was what he knew. His father having died when he was young, he went to work as a wooden dowel maker as a boy to help provide for his family. In the States he eventually opened his own hardware store.

I can only speculate what my great-grandfather hoped for his descendants. He was intent that my grandfather get a college education. My grandfather was the first in our family to do so. And so my father after him, becoming a CPA. And so my siblings and I after my father, having greater opportunities afforded us than my great-grandfather could have dreamed.

So it is with the Story. My grandparents’ generation suffered through two world wars and the Great Depression. I grew up hearing the stories of hard times, making ends meet, and sacrificing much to stave off the threat of tyranny of Germany and Japan. I have been afforded much because they suffered much.

Jeremiah is traditionally known as “the weeping prophet.” He mourned as he prophesied the destruction of his city and the suffering of his people, then he suffered through the unspeakable circumstances as his own prophetic predictions came to pass.

In today’s chapter, the weeping prophet mourns and grieves for his people as he predicts the dark times to come. He then asks a rhetorical question:

Is there no balm in Gilead?
    Is there no physician there?
Why then is there no healing
    for the wound of my people?

Eventually, Jeremiah’s own prophetic vision will see future generations and a “new” and “everlasting covenant” God will make through Jesus. Many generations after Christ, the hymn writers answered Jeremiah’s question with their own verse, which I remember singing as a child:

There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul.
Some times I feel discouraged,
And think my work’s in vain,
But then the Holy Spirit
Revives my soul again.

The rhetorical question of a prophet suffering through his chapter of the Great Story is answered by the echo of verse two thousand years later by poets afforded the opportunity to experience the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s visions.

This morning I am thinking about my own generation. I’m thinking about the things we experience, the things we suffer, and the rhetorical questions we ask ourselves. I’m hearing a lot of big rhetorical questions being asked of late. As with previous generations who paved the road for my journey, I am living out my chapter of the Great Story and paving the way for Milo’s journey and the generations who will come after. I am mindful this morning of the responsibility, and even heart-ache, that comes accompanies each generation’s chapter of the Story.

In the quiet my heart is whispering a few rhetorical questions of my own, and wondering what the echo of future generations will be.