As a Minister I occasionally get calls from people with really happy news. I receive calls from new parents, from couples who are engaged, from new faces in the church who are finding a home at Bethany, from someone who had a test result that came back negative, from someone who received a surprise birthday present.
But more often than not the call is not good news. “My son is not doing well in school.” “I found a lump.” “I got laid off at work.” “My spouse left me.” “I don’t think I can live alone anymore.” “I can’t stop thinking about my loved one, s/he died two years ago. Isn’t it supposed to be getting better by now?”
And that’s the personal stuff. When our news was filled with stories about the refugees living in over-crowded camps I got calls. When the weather is particularly strange and unpredictable and climate change has us worried about the world our children will inherit, I get calls. When it seemed like murdered and missing aboriginal women were being reported every week with no end in sight for our First Nations communities, I got calls.
And the question I get asked in those phone calls, more than any other, is this. “Kevin, how do I find hope in all of this?” Where is the hope when all seems dark, when the bad is getting worse, when all we can imagine is despair? I’ve heard lots answers over the years, many given by faith leaders like me. I know you’ve heard them too. “God never gives you more than you can handle.” “It’s all part of God’s plan.” “It’s not for me to question God’s ways.”
Our secular world has a relatively new mantra of its own. I am sure you’ve heard this too, “You’ve got to stay positive. A positive attitude can make all the difference.” If the old Christian answer to bad news was focused on God’s plans that we can never fully understand then our secular response to despair tends to go directly to positive words, positive energy, and positive people. Heaven forbid that you should ever allow yourself to have a negative word or thought.
Jeremiah was not a positive person. The book Jeremiah wrote, Lamentations, is not positive writing. And when I read and listen to Lamentations I do not feel positive energy. Moreover I don’t think Jeremiah would affirm the statements, “God never gives you more than you can handle.” “It’s all part of God’s plan.” “It’s not for me to question God’s ways.” Quite the contrary, it appears Jeremiah feels a great deal of agency in his poetry, in his speeches, in his laments. Jeremiah never assumes it is all in God’s hands and there is nothing for him to do but sit back and offer pious devotion. Instead, despite all odds, Jeremiah is raging against a people, a King, and a way of life that has become corrupt, lost and empty.
The people scorned Jeremiah as a religious nut. Things seems to be settled with his community, there was certainty, and everyone seemed to know what they wanted. But Jeremiah could feel the rot that was deep within his culture and he spoke of a needed rebirth and transformation. For this Jeremiah had his freedom curtailed, his rights infringed. He did suffer. But no dire harm came to him. He exchanged hard words with the head priest of the Temple and for his faithfulness found himself first beaten up, and then clamped into stocks near the gate of the temple. There all who passed by could mock him and throw rubbish at him.
In the reading we have today, from Lamentations 3: 19-26, hope and faith breaks through like the dawn sunshine after a long, starless, stormy night. Then comes the mighty upsurge of hope and faith: But this I call to mind and therefore have hope: The steadfast love of God never ceases, God’s mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning: Great is your faithfulness! The words that rang so true to me were God’s steadfast love never ceases…they are new every morning!
What if in our despair and loss and sadness God is not a holy puppeteer or a motivational speaker but rather a presence, a force, a holy story that leads us to who we truly are. I believe in God because I feel deeply we are called to be human, a specific kind of human, a human as Jesus describes her, full of joy, love, and compassion and led in that direction through beauty and suffering, through wonder and conviction.
Lamentations is a book that reveals such a presence, a force and a holy story. Each of the five chapters is a hymn about the fall of Jerusalem at the hand of the Babylonians and the exile that followed. Interestingly the experience of devastation was mitigated by the growing adjustment of the exiles to life in foreign lands, by the prosperity they experienced there, and by the fact that many found ways to maintain not only their culture in foreign places but their faith as well. The decision of the new Persian regime, fifty years later, to allow exiles to return home, a journey of more than 1000kms to an unknown future, also had a backlash effect of making life in exile more attractive.
God’s presence and force and story can be found in the comfort and familiarity of our homes, of our families, of our communities. However, like the fall of Jerusalem we often find what we hold to as anchor can become undone, we are set adrift and as those who are lost we cast about looking for something, anything, to keep us grounded and lead us to hope. Listen to Jeremiah, “I remember my affliction and my wandering…and my soul is downcast within me” (v. 3:19). Consider how he opens: “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people” (Lam. 1:1). Jerusalem has been ransacked by the Babylonians and left for dead.
The Hebrew word used here, hesed, is a constant theme throughout the Old Testament. It is sometimes translated “steadfast love”. Or another way to put that might be a presence, a force, a story that takes us to hope. In the end Jeremiah’s people found a grounding and a hope outside of Jerusalem, and often we find our footing and our new day in a place we never thought to look.
As I get older I find myself getting up earlier and earlier to meet the challenges of the day. I confess I was not always eager to meet the morning. My family always went to bed late and endured the mornings when the day started early. Now that my life is more complex, as I pray over all the pains and hurts I know from this church, from friends and family, from others I meet on my travels, I meet the morning differently. I irritate Kim because I open all the curtains even before the morning light emerges. She doesn’t like the effect this creates, as people with their dogs walk by they can stare right into our living room and see us in our pajamas! But that doesn’t matter to me, my focus is on the light, the morning light that is signaling a new day, a possibility of blessing, a reminder to me that God who called all of Creation good is vibrating in that sky, in my seeing and feeling, and calling me like Jeremiah to meet my challenges with confidence and faithfulness.
I don’t know how the day will turn out, life is fragile, our world is fragile, I am fragile. Everything I love is fragile. But I have hope because my God is with me, my God is working through me, and my God is leading me to an emerging story of healing, love and grace. I am not always positive but I strive to be faithful, faith-filled.
“I cling to joy, I cleave to the reasons (God) has given me to live, and that is a highly privileged rapture.” (This is paraphrased from Andrew Solomon) Amen.