Jeremiah, The Inner Landscape

Do not decrease

These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.
Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.
But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, NRSV)

I preached last Sunday about how coming to Maine to live felt like going into exile, so far away from my accustomed flora and seasons that it might as well have been Antarctica or Timbuktu or Caprica. 23 years later, the way the seasons change here is simply the way they change. I've given up grieving for the lovely early springs of my Virginia childhood and reconciled myself to mud season. I don't think there's any question I managed to bloom where God transplanted me. 

That's not to say everything has gone smoothly. At the moment, my personal life is rough and unsettled, at the same time I am experiencing the natural bumps and joggles of learning a new church family, its ways and its history and its needs and its expectations. It's not the first time in my life I've had a lot to handle, and I look back on those times and I am trying to remember what helped and what I lacked to remain upright, to keep breathing, to hold onto hope.  I remember how after the end of my first marriage I could not seem to organize myself to fix dinner, and how hard that made life with three children. Right now every meal I prepare, even one reheated and originally cooked by someone else, feels like an accomplishment.

7wonders-hanging_gardens_of_babylon Babylon, the city whose welfare God asked the exiled Israelites to seek, contained one of the seven wonders of the world, the Hanging Gardens. And it occurs to me that wonder matters because it reminds us that not everything is easily achieved or explained, and that's okay. Why are we here? What is our purpose? Maybe some days it's okay that our purpose simply be to gaze in awe at a beautiful sight in nature, or to ponder the effort put in by a master gardener. The act of wonder makes us right-sized, gives us perspective on our own place in the world and perhaps inspires us to create beauty at our own level.

I'm not that successful at planting gardens. A few years ago I put a lot of effort, with help from stronger arms and backs, into a bulb garden and a few perennials and shrubs in front of my house. I waited eagerly for spring and was rewarded, but the next two years, instead of naturalizing, the daffodils grew thinner and sadder. Earlier in the year, when I thought I might relocate, I put those flower beds on my mental list of failures. No point trying to fix it now, I thought. I'm just a failure at gardening.

But I'm staying, and when spring comes next year, I want to see more flowers. So today I asked a certified Master Gardener in my new congregation what he would suggest to a person who had a major Daffodil Fail in a place where yews and rhododendrons used to thrive?

Lime, he said. You need lots of lime. 

The soil retained too much acid. I suppose it burned the bulbs.

A Google search tells me that fall is the appropriate time to lime the soil. I can find instructions about what sort of lime to use and how to apply it. I'm sure the Israelites figured out the way to plant their gardens in the foreign land, to feed themselves and the families they not only brought with them but continued to make anew. I'll be doing the same, in a sense, seeking the way back to center, to balance, despite the burn I feel today, seeking the increase and not the decrease of love and faith and hope.

Jeremiah, Preaching, Writing

Back to It

This morning I meet with my preacher group again after a break of a few weeks. Although I preached only once a month at Y1P, we kept the group together. But now I need it! I'm way off a weekly preaching rhythm. I'm off a daily writing rhythm, too, which was the whole purpose of this blog. It's earliest posts are "365" posts, little writing exercises that go back to early 2007. Now I'm doing the online equivalent of Morning Pages at 750 Words. I've been at it for two weeks, and I have a streak going. It's a different sort of writing practice, not the the formulation of well-crafted thoughts and images but a dump of what's first in my mind. I know I'm better in touch with God and myself when I'm writing. I also know I've fallen into the world of Facebook and Twitter over the past year, writing tiny thoughts and not building them into bigger, fuller or deeper expression. 

When I looked ahead to this week's passages in the Revised Common Lectionary, I must admit I was not excited. It's mostly pretty tough stuff. But I'm going to try writing about it. In the old days, I wrote about the passages I wasn't preaching, one at a time, then wrote the sermon. Or something like that. I'll be trying to get into a practice again here. But when I read Jeremiah this morning, I knew it wouldn't be easy. 

It starts well enough:

The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: "Come, go down to the potter's house, and there I will let you hear my words."

So I went down to the potter's house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

Then the word of the LORD came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the LORD. Just like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. (Jeremiah 18:1-6, NRSV)

Nice. I like it. Even when we're messed up, God can still fix us. Full of preaching goodness, right?

But wait. God's just getting started.

At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. (Jeremiah 18:7-8)

That part sounds good, sort of. I mean, even though our badness may make God angry, we still stand a chance, right? God can change God's mind.

But hang on:

And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. (Jeremiah 18:9-10)

Oh. So it cuts both ways.

Qumram pottery  
Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the LORD: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.
(Jeremiah 18:11)

I have to tell you, I am not going to stand up in my new pulpit on the first Sunday and say, people of North Yarmouth and inhabitants of the general neighborhood, God is a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. 

There's been enough of people telling other people they are going to smash. We're so quick to condemn each other and use scripture to support it. We see it in the way people attack Islam, and particularly in the outcry about a Muslim congregation already worshiping in the neighborhood of Ground Zero and wanting to be in a space that feels more permanent than a shuttered Burlington Coat Factory.  We see it in the way people attack other Americans when they disagree politically, using charged words such as "honor" to suggest that those who disagree have none.

This dear church has been challenged by people with a different theological stance who think that the UCC's openness is really a signal of the departure of the Spirit from the people's lives. I disagree, heartily. 

And I despise the way such texts are taken out of context. Take verse 11 and preach it to upset people. Go on ahead. Maybe you think you serve a church full of evil, crafty sinners. 

(Be sure you include yourself in the indictment, if so.)

But remember that people are using the same text to condemn you because you think differently, twisting the words of the prophet intended for a particular people in a particular time and place, putting the decline of the mainline down to the ordination of women or gay marriage or the feminization of church or the wrong interpretation of scripture, ignoring that it's happening everywhere and probably has as much to do with soccer on Sunday mornings as anything else.

Remember that people will believe what you say if you describe a God acting so directly, people who will take the words personally and maybe even literally, who will hear them and remember the things in their lives that have seemed misshapen and wonder why God wouldn't take the time to work with them and help them find their shape again. 

It's a beautiful metaphor, but it is incomplete. We are not simply clay. And God is more than a potter. We can't stop there. God creates us and we have freedom and agency and vibrancy and yes, we make the most awful choices sometimes, don't we?

All of us? 

Well, I do. Sometimes. 

But I don't believe that God is taking the time to destroy us, one by one, for failing. The Good News is a more complete picture than just the potter.

And so, I move on! More tomorrow.


You can find the image here; many thanks to Vanderbilt's Lectionary site for art resources!

I also want to commend to you Carmen Andres' post about God's wrath, at In the Open Space.


Jeremiah, or Why Did I Miss That Lecture?

Jeremiah Jeremiah, who was not a bullfrog, is also not a good friend of mine. In Greg Mobley's wonderful survey of the Latter Prophets at Andover Newton, Jeremiah was the week I missed. The reason for missing the Jeremiah lecture is outside my memory now. With three children at home, it's amazing I got to as many classes as I did in seminary. 

It's still true, even though I have only one, not-so-young child at home, that my life revolves around other people. Though on a day-to-day basis it may not feel that way to them. 

As I try to get back into writing about the lectionary in this New Year, after a break for vacation and the usual difficulty re-establishing a routine, I find myself confronted with the unknown Bullfrog himself.

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."

Then I said, "Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy."

But the LORD said to me, "Do not say, 'I am only a boy'; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD."

Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, "Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant." (Jeremiah 1:4-10, NRSV)

I just moved all the files from the collective household desktop to my laptop, because the day is coming, and soon, when we need to replace said desktop, the centerpoint of our network, the computer actually plugged into the printer, which sometimes acknowledges our wireless and sometimes does not. I opened the folder for that class on the Latter Prophets. Surely someone in the class loaned me the notes for that day; I remember someone did. But a thorough search reminds me that they were photocopied, not electronic, and they are long gone, I'm sure. 

That's how much my life has changed, our lives have changed, since my last semester at Andover Newton, 8 years ago. 

So I don't know what Greg Mobley said about Jeremiah. I have to get to know him again all by myself. He's on my mind because the planning group for our Conference Annual Meeting chose a theme passage from Jeremiah, the one about God knowing the plans God has for Israel, and of course that is the same theme as the one here. God has things in mind; God has a sense of what lies ahead.

I, for one, wish there were a way to be surer just what those plans and things are.