Tag Archives: Poet

The Depressed Prophet

Cursed be the day I was born!
    May the day my mother bore me not be blessed!
Cursed be the man who brought my father the news,
    who made him very glad, saying,
    “A child is born to you—a son!”
May that man be like the towns
    the Lord overthrew without pity.
May he hear wailing in the morning,
    a battle cry at noon.
For he did not kill me in the womb,
    with my mother as my grave,
    her womb enlarged forever.
Why did I ever come out of the womb
    to see trouble and sorrow
    and to end my days in shame?
Jeremiah 20:13-18 (NIV)

Across the ages, the ancient prophet Jeremiah has been labeled with  the moniker “The Weeping Prophet.” In our bedroom at the lake Wendy and I have a copy of Rembrandt’s portrait of Jeremiah looking depressed and sullen as he sits amidst the ruins of Jerusalem. It reminds me that the lake is a thin place where any who are burdened can find rest for their souls. Alas, it would seem that Jeremiah had no such place.

In today’s chapter we read of a confrontation between Jeremiah and a priest named Pashur, who was “the official in charge of the Temple of the Lord.” The fact that the one “in charge” was out to get Jeremiah is a good indication of just how corrupt the system had become in Jeremiah’s day. The priest in charge of the Temple was overseeing all of the pagan rituals and cults operating out of the Temple. The Temple had become a religious corporation, a powerful money-maker for those in charge (not unlike the way Jesus’ found the Temple in His day).

While Jeremiah had been protected from the death-threats that had already been made against him, Pashur decided to at least punish the prophet for his inflammatory prophesies of doom and destruction. I’m quite sure they were bad for business. In fact, I can almost hear Pashur saying, “This isn’t personal, Jer. It’s strictly business.” Once again, this is not unlike Jesus who, after His repeated rants against their corruption and His stirring up of the people, pressured the Temple leaders to plot His death .

After his time in the stocks, Jeremiah immediately confronts Pashur with a stubborn and willful repeating of his prophetic message: Jerusalem will be destroyed and its people led into captivity at the hands of Babylon. Obviously the prophet wanted Pashur to know his punishment did not have the desired effect. In fact, it simply appears to have pissed Jeremiah off.

What comes next is fascinating. The weeping prophet goes into a depression and pens a dark poem that graphically expresses his wish that he’d never been born. Obviously, the burden of his role, his prophecies, and the steady threats and persecution were getting to him. Of course they were. It would get to me too.

This morning I’m thinking about how common it is for humans to go through periods of depression. If you were privy to my medical records you’d find that I’ve had a few bouts with the blues along my life journey, and I never faced anything like what Jeremiah was dealing with. I’m also thinking about how common it is for individuals in history (artists, musicians, writers, thinkers) who saw and expressed things no one else could see were given to depression, madness, mental illness, and even suicide. I’d certainly put Jeremiah alongside the likes of Van Gogh, Hemingway, and Parker.

I’m struck by the contrast this morning between the spit-shined image I believe we often have of a “godly” person or a “servant of God.” We demand so much, expect so much, and are so quick to scapegoat individuals for their weaknesses and shortcomings. Jeremiah reminds me this morning that God’s servants were fully human, carried human flaws and weaknesses, were susceptible to all the shortcomings known to humanity, and were even given to deep depression and suicidal thoughts. Jeremiah reminds me to cut others a break. He even reminds me to be a bit more gracious with myself.

Wendy and I were at the lake late last week opening it up for the coming summer season. Once again, I saw and pondered Jeremiah’s portrait as I lay in bed.

I’m looking forward to getting back there.

(FWIW: My latest message was added to the Messages page.)

How Little I Can Possibly Fathom

They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal….”
Jeremiah 19:5 (NIV)

Let’s be real. There’s a smorgasbord of negativity out there. Media and a 24/7/365 news cycle continually bombards us with sensational cries of things for us to fear or be anxious about. The right cries for us to fear the left. The left cries for us to fear the right. Beyond politics there is a steady stream of anxiety stirring doom we’re told to perpetually fear from nuclear war, global warming, gun violence, terror attacks, product safety, GMOs, cancer, Zika virus, flu, vaccinations, poverty, earthquakes, floods, oil spills, pollution, asteroid hits, and etc, and etc, and etc.

A month or two ago Wendy and I read a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal by a Harvard professor. He attempted to provide some much needed perspective on our current life and times.

A few excerpts:

Globally, the 30-year scorecard also favors the present. In 1988, 23 wars raged, killing people at a rate of 3.4 per 100,000; today it’s 12 wars killing 1.2 per 100,000. The number of nuclear weapons has fallen from 60,780 to 10,325. In 1988, the world had just 45 democracies, embracing two billion people; today it has 103, embracing 4.1 billion. That year saw 46 oil spills; 2016, just five. And 37% of the population lived in extreme poverty, barely able to feed themselves, compared with 9.6% today. True, 2016 was a bad year for terrorism in Western Europe, with 238 deaths. But 1988 was even worse, with 440.

The world is about a hundred times wealthier today than it was two centuries ago, and the prosperity is becoming more evenly distributed across countries and people. Within the lifetimes of most readers, the rate of extreme poverty could approach zero. Catastrophic famine, never far away in the past, has vanished from all but the most remote and war-ravaged regions, and undernourishment is in steady decline.
A century ago, the richest countries devoted 1% of their wealth to children, the poor, the sick and the aged; today they spend almost a quarter of it. Most of their poor today are fed, clothed and sheltered and have luxuries like smartphones and air conditioning that used to be unavailable to anyone, rich or poor. Poverty among racial minorities has fallen, and poverty among the elderly has plunged.
During most of the history of nations and empires, war was the natural state of affairs, and peace a mere interlude between wars. Today war between countries is obsolescent, and war within countries is absent from five-sixths of the world. The proportion of people killed annually in wars is about a quarter of what it was in the mid-1980s, a sixth of what it was in the early 1970s, and a 16th of what it was in the early 1950s.

Please don’t read what I’m not writing. There is still no lack of very real and hard work to be done to make this world a better, more peaceful, and just place. What I increasingly have come to understand, however, is that it has become harder and harder for a person like me, living in the first-world of the 21st century, to understand how absolutely brutal life was in the days of the ancient prophets like Jeremiah. Reading through the writing of the ancient prophets can feel like a long slog. It’s whole lot of doom and gloom from a time and place that is very, very different than my reality.

I struggle with the harsh images and the violence in Jeremiah’s messages. But I also have to remember that I have no clue how harsh and violent daily life was in the middle east in 500 B.C.

Amidst today’s chapter, Jeremiah hints at what was happening, even within the walls of Solomon’s Temple, in his day. The God of Abraham, Moses, and David had been almost completely forgotten. Solomon’s Temple had become an open, free-market for the worship of local gods. In the case of Baal, people would sacrifice their own children and burn them alive as a form of worship. Just let the image of that sink in for a moment.

There’s a reason that God was angry. He commanded his people to love their children, to raise them up well. God commanded his people to teach their children and grandchildren His word, and to teach them to keep His commands about being honest, pure, just, content, and faithful. Now God’s people are worshiping local fertility gods with religious prostitution and drunken sex orgies. They are burning their own children alive as a sacrifice to Baal. And, when God raises up a prophet like Jeremiah to speak out against what is happening they tell him to shut-up and threaten to kill him.

This morning in the quiet I’m mulling these things over in my head. I’m not foolish enough to believe that things are perfect in this day and age, but I also don’t want to be equally foolish by denying the fact that I live in a world that is far better off than when my parents and grandparents were my age. I live in a world in which daily life is infinitely better off than it was for humans who lived centuries and millennia before. I can’t really imagine a day in the life of Jeremiah.

These thoughts lead me to look at Jeremiah’s writing differently. Rather than trying to layer Jeremiah’s poetic prophecies with my 21st century first-world understanding I want to let go of my preconceived notions. I want to cut Jeremiah some slack and try to see his world from his perspective. As a parent I addressed my daughters differently when they were five than I do when they are twenty-five, so it seems reasonable for me to conclude that God addressed humanity differently in the days of the Jeremiah than He does today.

I feel myself increasingly led to embrace the reality of just how little I can possibly fathom. Yet that doesn’t absolve me from responsibility. My job on this spiritual journey is to keep asking, seeking, and knocking on the door of understanding what God has been saying to humanity throughout the Great Story.  Perhaps that sounds hard to do given how different my life is compared to Jeremiah, but I also happen to live in a time and place where I have almost all of the research and resources in the entire world literally at my fingertips.

And that’s a daily reality I daresay Jeremiah couldn’t possibly fathom.

Tom’s Miscellaneous Messages on Audio and YouTube

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.

Prophets, Poets and a Touch of Madness

“Cut off your hair and throw it away; take up a lament on the barren heights, for the Lord has rejected and abandoned this generation that is under his wrath.”
Jeremiah 7:29 (NIV)

There was a fascinating story on CBS Sunday Morning yesterday talking about the connection between creativity and mental illness. There is no doubt that there is a disproportionate number of genius artists, writers, and musicians who struggled with some form of mental condition. Observations of the connection between genius and madness date back to Aristotle, though it’s only been in recent years that the connection has been seriously studied.

As we watched the story Wendy wondered aloud if there isn’t also a disproportionate number of creatives who would be considered Type Four on the enneagram. I would bet that she is right. Creativity often springs from the inherent individuality and expression  natural to Fours.

These thoughts were swimming in my head as I read this morning’s chapter. It begins the transcription of a message God gave to Jeremiah in order that he stand at the gate of the Temple in Jerusalem and proclaim the message. The ancient prophets were often standing in the crowds shouting messages from God.

Amidst the message Jeremiah reports God telling him to shave off his hair and take up the wailing songs and prayers of lament on the “barren heights.” This was another mark of the ancient prophets: acts that today we would call “performance art” (some simple and others quite complex) that God regularly prescribed the prophets to act out in public.

I find that most modern believers approach the prophets with a certain amount of reverence that translates into a white-washed perception of them. Just as Van Gogh sold just one painting in his lifetime, so the prophets were not particularly well received in their day. Only in 20/20 hindsight have their words and reputations been scrubbed clean by institutional religion. As I said before, they were an odd lot. They were often despised and marginalized. They were the sketchy characters from whom parents likely shielded their children:

Mommy? Who’s that strange man over there walking naked and tied to an ox yoke?

Pay no attention, sweetie. Stay away from him. He’s just a crazy old man.”

The prophets were hated, especially by the political-religious class who were commonly the targets of their public, prophetic tirades. The prophets were targeted for assassination and killed by the power brokers of their day. Even Jesus testified to this truth when He confronted the political-religious leaders of His day:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!

“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you….”

This morning I’m thinking about creativity and its connection to oddity. I’m thinking about God’s use of those odd, strange, mad individuals among us who see what the mainstream doesn’t and express what the mainstream can’t, won’t, and/or doesn’t desire to hear. Prophets, artists, and poets stand as reminders what God said through the prophet Isaiah: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways.”

Poetic Device

source: jimmiehomeschoolmom via Flickr
source: jimmiehomeschoolmom via Flickr

“I spoke once, but I have no answer—
    twice, but I will say no more.”
Job 40:5 (NIV)

Okay, so no great spiritual inspiration from the chapter this morning, but I find myself musing on a textual issue that may be of interest to someone. For many years I ran across an odd pattern of phrasing, especially in the book of Proverbs, that left me scratching my head:

There are three things that are never satisfied,
    four that never say, ‘Enough!’’
Proverbs 30:15

My left brain would get its undies in a bunch and scream “Well, is it three or four? Why do you put it like that? Say what you mean!” But over time my right brain has been creatively open to understanding, and has patiently tutored his twin hemisphere about this odd way of turning a phrase.

The books of the Old Testament (Genesis through Malachi) were written in Hebrew, and a lot of it, including Job, were written in poetic in form. Unless you are a student or live in a hip city where poetry slams are common you probably don’t read a lot of poetry. That’s not a criticism, just an observation. Poetry as a cultural art form isn’t any where near as prevalent in our culture as it once was. Pitiful, but true.

In poetry, there are these things called poetic devices:

Poetic devices are tools that a poet can use to create rhythm, enhance a poem’s meaning, or intensify a mood or feeling. These devices help piece the poem together, much like a hammer and nails join planks of wood together. (education-portal.com)

One example of a poetic device in the english language is repetition. When writing, we typically don’t repeat, repeat, repeat, a word because it would sound silly and would confuse the reader, but you do use repetition in poetry. Edgar Allen Poe used this device when he wrote:

To the swinging and the ringing
of the bells, bells, bells–

The repetition of the word “bells” illustrates the “swinging and the ringing” and gives the reader a sense of the repetitive clanging that happens when a bell is swung and rung.

So the Hebrew poetry of books like Job, translated into English, uses this poetic device when communicating many things or a number of things. You mention one number, then immediately mention a greater number to give the reader a sense of a growing number, of things being added, and of the important of of the many:

Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight;
    you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.
Ecclesiastes 11:2

For three sins of Gaza,
    even for four, I will not relent.
Because she took captive whole communities
    and sold them to Edom…
Amos 1:6

We will raise against them seven shepherds,
    even eight commanders
Micah 5:5

This is one of the things that I find fascinating and love about my on-going sojourn through God’s Message. I’m never done learning. I’m always finding new layers of depth, not only in the subject, but in the text itself. It makes me a better reader, it broadens my understanding, expands my appreciation, and I hope it makes me a better communicator.

Oh, and for the record, my left brain is much calmer now whenever I come across one of these poetic devices in the text. Thanks, right brain.

The Art of Manliness

David and Saul
David and Saul (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

…while David was playing the lyre, as he usually did.
1 Samuel 18:10 (NLT)

Manliness is most often associated in our culture with strength, grit, and accomplishment on the field of battle, athletics, or business. King David was, no doubt, a man’s man for his military prowess and leadership. When an entire nation is singing the praises of the tens of thousands of enemy you’ve slain, you’ve got to feel the testosterone surge. I’m just saying. When it comes to masculinity, David was a stud.

But the thing I personally love about David is that there was a balance to his masculinity. Not only could the guy wield sling and sword, fight lions and bears, kill giants and lead successful military campaigns, but he was also a poet, songwriter, and musician. Most of the lyrics we read in the book of Psalms were penned by David. He could express himself and his emotions in beautiful and creative ways. He could play harp and lyre with such beauty that it drove away the darkness and lifted the spirits of those who listened.

Masculinity is much more than the stereotypical muscles, mechanics, and athletic ability. Being a man is equally about walking in the ways of the Creator who expresses His person and character metaphorically in all manner of beautiful acts of creation. There is a balance which we see embodied in David who was both warrior and poet, creator and defender, and man after God’s own heart.