Jeremiah 3:1-5 – Spiritual Adultery

“If a man divorces a woman
    and she goes and marries someone else,
he will not take her back again,
    for that would surely corrupt the land.
But you have prostituted yourself with many lovers,
    so why are you trying to come back to me?”
    says the Lord.
“Look at the shrines on every hilltop.
    Is there any place you have not been defiled
    by your adultery with other gods?
You sit like a prostitute beside the road waiting for a customer.
    You sit alone like a nomad in the desert.
You have polluted the land with your prostitution
    and your wickedness.
That’s why even the spring rains have failed.
    For you are a brazen prostitute and completely shameless.
Yet you say to me,
    ‘Father, you have been my guide since my youth.
Surely you won’t be angry forever!
    Surely you can forget about it!’
So you talk,
    but you keep on doing all the evil you can.” (New Living Translation)

We all have needs. 

As humans, each one of us has a deep hunger for love, intimacy, attention, affirmation, and encouragement. When these needs are met within gracious and loving relationships, especially in the marital bond, then there is genuine happiness and flourishing. 

But when our deep wants go unmet over a stretch of time, smiles are replaced with furrowed brows and confident strides give way to slumped shoulders.

We feel deeply and are moved at a visceral level because we are made in the image and likeness of G-d – a G-d who feels and has great emotion. 

Perhaps we too often think of G-d as some disembodied ethereal brain without any feelings. I hope today’s Old Testament lesson puts a collar on such notions. G-d entered into a loving covenant relationship with Israel. Yet, over time, the people looked for their relational, emotional, and spiritual needs to be met in other gods rather than the One true G-d. 

And it pained G-d’s heart.

G-d felt deeply about the people turning away to pursue other gods. The Lord responded to the people like a jilted lover, agonized by their acting like a prostitute – looking for their intimate needs to be satisfied elsewhere. 

It seems to me G-d was so profoundly hurt because the Lord knows that our deepest and greatest needs can only really be met through the divine covenant relationship. People need G-d.

To put it in the stark terms of Jeremiah’s prophecy: 

  • Are we playing the part of a harlot, running after all kinds of other relationships and things that we wrongheadedly believe will meet the needs of our lives? 
  • Do we sell ourselves to others in the misguided belief that we will find true happiness? 
  • Have we sought other lovers and forsaken our first love of the Divine? 

Everyone has a legitimate need for attention, love, and relational connection. The problem arises whenever we seek to meet those needs in illegitimate ways. That’s what we call “sin.”

The most important thing in life is not our job position, our social status, or even whether we are married with family. What matters most is the kind of person you are – it’s all about who you become. Because that’s what you will take into eternity. You and I are unceasing spiritual beings with an eternal destiny in G-d’s great universe.

Spiritual prostitution – and faith communities acting like spiritual brothels – are far beneath who we are and how we were designed by our Creator.

The pathos of G-d calls us to better than hanging out in a dark emotional shame lounge of sordid characters drinking cheap dandelion wine and smoking nasty cut-rate cigars in smelly old leisure suits.

We belong to G-d.

Our place is in the wide-open sunlit rooms of G-d’s kingdom. We have been adopted into G-d’s family and there is no longer any need for walking the streets and going into dive bars, looking for a quick fix of some damning elixir which promises life.

It behooves us all to become aware and connect with our longings and needs, and thereby allowing the G-d who delights to meet those needs into the core of our being.

Know who you really are. Because in that knowing, there is eternal life.

Jealous God, you are zealous for your presence to be known in the lives of all your creatures. Help me to be aware of the deepest needs of my life. May I find in you the desire of my heart and let you fill me with your infinite grace, love, mercy, and attention so that I will know true peace and joy. Amen.

The Suffering of Christmas

Christmas:  a time for joy and a time for cheer…  But, unfortunately, it is also a time of profound loneliness and a yearning of days gone by for many people.  A few years back, I received a call on Christmas Day.  One of my parishioners was stretching out to put the angel on top of the family Christmas tree, and fell over dead from a heart attack.  The family’s Christmas will never be the same again, a weird mix, a strange amalgam of both happiness and heartache.  Tragedy that occurs around the holidays makes all future holidays awkward and different.

I also know folks who were expecting a juicy Christmas bonus, instead finding a pink slip and a surprise lay-off from their job.  Children of divorce probably know the strangeness of the holiday the most, being shuttled here and there obtaining more gifts than they need but more bitterness than they want.  For every one of us who look forward to Christmas Day, there is another who dreads facing another season with unpleasant memories of what happened and what could have been….

Whether Christmas is chiefly joyous for one or sorrowful for another, the bald fact of the matter is that we all suffer in some way.  Let me offer a definition/description of suffering for you to ponder: 

Suffering occurs when someone or some circumstance acts against your will and damages either your body, mind, soul, spirit, or all/part of them, creating the great need for healing.

Suffering creates a portal, an opening to either love or hate.  It brings us to the point of decision:  We did not choose suffering; it chose us.  But the choice for healing is very much in our control.  Suffering is an event, maybe even extended over time, which will make us either bitter, or better – it’s your choice.

There are numerous people who will offer you a cup of bitterness, the sour wine vinegar which will dull the pain.  Jesus had such an offer while he hung on the cross, and he refused it.  Nothing was going to stand in the way of his full faculties experiencing the vicarious suffering for our sins.  Dulling the pain doesn’t bring healing; it only makes us forget for a time and just prolongs the actual healing.

Instead, the wise choice is to take charge of your life and choose the hard path of healing.  There is a world of difference between the pain that is forced upon us, and the pain which we choose so that we become better and healthy.  The pain of violation must be followed with the pain of healing. 

“It takes courage to love, but pain through love is the purifying fire which those who love generously know. We all know people who are so much afraid of pain that they shut themselves up like clams in a shell and, giving out nothing, receive nothing and therefore shrink until life is a mere living death.”

Eleanor Roosevelt

A major way you know your choice of healing is happening is when your heart and life open-up to love, when the shape of grace begins to mold your soul and brings a reception to people who benevolently wait to help with kind words and ways.  Your sight becomes different.  The world becomes brighter.  Decisions are motivated more by love than by protection.  There is the willingness to persevere and patiently complete the process of healing and see it through to a new maturity.  You cease trying to manipulate others and focus more on your own responses to people and situations.  Every day becomes a fresh opportunity to love God by serving others.

Because God is love, and we are created in the image of God, this means we were designed to receive and to give love.  We are love, as well.  To not love is to buck our inherent design from the beginning of time.  We are not just to grit our teeth and force loving words and actions; we are to tap into the originality of our souls and be love.  The great task of the Christian life is to awaken to who we really are, to become a whole person, complete and mature.  The means for this to happen is through the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Jesus, our great professor in the faith, knows that suffering is a teacher.

Far too many persons are perplexed as to why they still struggle and hurt.  They have prayed.  They have read the Bible.  They have tried, time and time again.  Hurt and pain might and is very personal; but healing is communal – it demands more than our own efforts.  Unless we open ourselves to the love of others, and risk putting our souls on the line, we will not realize the peace we long for and the mending of our spirits. 

The first step is speaking to someone who is safe, someone for whom you trust, and telling them where you are in your soul – not making yourself look better than you are, and providing a real picture of the state of your life – and, not diminishing the very real abuse which occurred against you by saying others have it harder than you.  In other words, be real.  Humility and honesty will always serve you well.

Yes, it’s Christmas.  How will you choose to deal with it?

Hebrews 10:26-31 – On Rejecting Divine Love

 If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.”It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (New International Version)

Love isn’t all rainbows and unicorns. Sometimes it’s downright tough, unabashedly truthful, and concerned for appropriate justice.

Love is compassionate, kind, and full of good deeds. Love is also subversive. Love takes a breach in relations seriously. Love announces that the hurt which has happened is not to be accepted as normal. Love is a refusal to settle for what is.

So, whenever God’s people drift away and slide into unhealthy or damaging ways of living, God’s love is not okay with it.

There’s a reason why we feel emotional pain. That’s because God feels pain. We don’t have to go very far into that thick book, the Bible, to find the hurt:

The Lord saw that the human beings on the earth were very wicked and that everything they thought about was evil. He was sorry he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. (Genesis 6:5-6, NCV)

There is perhaps no more awful pain than being brokenhearted. A thousand kidney stones are not as painful as becoming heartsick over a relationship gone awry. Love can be an affliction – a deep ache which longs for wholeness, integrity, connection, and unity.

Perhaps we have neglected how much God hurts and longs for prodigal people to return in love to a divine relationship of grace. Just because God is always content, happy, and celebrating within perfect Trinitarian Love does not mean that God isn’t also profoundly sad, full of grief, and gazing from heaven, watching and waiting for sinful humanity to come to their senses.

God’s wrath exists because of God’s love.

God doesn’t paper over humanity’s guilt and shame and pretend it isn’t there. Instead, God has gone to the ultimate length to realize a restored relationship with fallen people. God got down in the trenches with us, in the person of Jesus, and dwelt among us – willing to suffer and die for us. Grace is most certainly free; however, it is anything but cheap.

Therefore, to know this great Love, then spurn it, is much more than agonizingly painful – it isn’t right. The preacher in the New Testament book of Hebrews captures the pathos of God against all that separates people from such perfect Love.

To renege on a commitment to Jesus is tantamount to crucifying him all over again.

This is an emotional and spiritual pain which transcends any human disappointment or failed friendship. Because God’s heart is so large, so God’s agony over defiant persons who turn from Love is immense beyond what we can even imagine.

Yes, it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God. Those who hate ought to beware. The ones trampling God’s moral law and ethical will into the ground, like some animal dung, ought not to think they are outside the reach of Divine Love, complete with Divine Wrath purging the resentment and rancor from Earth.

The warning of the preacher is of rejecting the spirit of Love and replacing it with the ancient evil spirt of hubris, animosity, and fear. Perfect Love drives out fear, restores comity, and embraces humility.

We are responsible for our own transgressions against others; our own failures to love as we ought; and our own neglect of God. Therefore, we must forsake willful and deliberate treatment of God and others by denigrating the work of the Spirit and attributing evil intentions to them.

If we focus on loving God and neighbor, then there is no room for apostasy, for lashing out and being an evangelist of wickedness. By clarifying and focusing on what matters most; being non-retaliatory; and reminding oneself of divine Love, we can cultivate a spirit of grace and forsake the hateful spirit.

Whenever we are wounded by another, or even by God, holding onto the hurt only causes gangrene of the soul. Yet, through forsaking all forms of violent and destructive language and behavior, and embracing the wounds of Christ, we can experience healing – even if our present adverse circumstance does not change.

So, be kind to yourself and others. Allow God’s kindness to penetrate the deep portions of your heart. Live a life of grace. Why be punished for acting like a foolish person? If you must suffer, suffer for doing good, not evil.

O Lord God, I confess and acknowledge your infinite mercy and goodness to me, and my ingratitude for such grace shown. You have saved me and made me your own child, and an heir of heaven. And I end up ignoring your gracious blessings, giving into temptation, and treating faith like a paper plate to be trashed when I’m done with it. I am truly sorry for my offenses toward you and admit my failure to observe your goodness. Accept my imperfect repentance, forgive my wickedness, purify my uncleanness, strengthen my weakness, heal my unstable spirit, and let your divine Love rule in my heart, through the love of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Job 7:1-21 – Why God?

Why is life so hard?
    Why do we suffer?
We are slaves in search of shade;
we are laborers longing
    for our wages.
God has made my days drag on
    and my nights miserable.
I pray for night to end,
but it stretches out
    while I toss and turn.
My parched skin is covered
    with worms, dirt, and sores,
and my days are running out
quicker than the thread
    of a fast-moving needle.

I beg you, God, don’t forget!
My life is just a breath,
    and trouble lies ahead.
I will vanish from sight,
and no one, including you,
    will ever see me again.
I will disappear in the grave
or vanish from sight
    like a passing cloud.
Never will I return home;
    soon I will be forgotten.

And so, I cry out to you
    in agony and distress.
Am I the sea or a sea monster?
    Is that why you imprison me?
I go to bed, hoping for rest,
but you torture me
    with terrible dreams.
I’d rather choke to death
    than live in this body.
Leave me alone and let me die;
    my life has no meaning.
What makes you so concerned
    about us humans?
Why do you test us
    from sunrise to sunset?
Won’t you look away
just long enough
    for me to swallow?
Why do you watch us so closely?
    What’s it to you, if I sin?
Why am I your target
    and such a heavy burden?
Why do you refuse to forgive?
Soon you won’t find me,
    because I’ll be dead. (Contemporary English Version)

Few people have ever suffered such agonizing loss as the Old Testament character of Job. He literally lost everything but his life. All his children were killed in one horrific event. He was so racked with physical pain and ill health that even his closest friends barely recognized him. 

Yet the most severe suffering of all came from the grinding silence of God about the whole affair. Job acutely experienced the spiritual pain of a seemingly distant God. He felt like God’s target, being pierced with sharp arrows, one after the other. It seemed to Job as if God was burdened with his very presence on the earth.

Indeed, when one is in the throes of grief, and there is no response from God, the suffering seems pathetically senseless. 

We are currently living in a world of pandemic. There is social and political unrest everywhere. Hurricanes and natural disasters wreak havoc. Religious persecution is on the rise. It may cause one to wonder where God is, in all this human suffering.

As families grieve the loss of home and property, as mothers lament the loss of sons and daughters, and as communities reel in shock over neighborhood violence, how can the loss of life and safety square with a God who is supposed to be sovereign over all creation?

And then there is the very real psychological suffering of mental illness, brain disorders, and unfeeling friends and family who fail to understand the biology and pathology around it – not to mention the extreme trauma of complicated grief.

“Does God understand? Is God even seeing any of this? Why doesn’t God seem to give a @#$!? Am I so odious to God that he’s left the room?” we might say, either out loud or in the deep hurt of our hearts.

It’s the silence that can hurt so badly. Groans, laments, and anguish seem to fly up and away with no easy answers and no immediate relief. 

Yet, God hears. God sees. And God knows. 

We, as readers, have a big picture perspective of Job’s life. We know the end of the story. We even know why Job suffered, even when he himself never knew. However, even with the understanding we have, there is still a large mystery to the ways and the silence of God.

It is a great temptation for many people to give neatly wrapped answers to life’s most difficult realities. But the book of Job does not allow for it. What we have is a man who never understood all that happened in his life yet held onto his integrity and his faith in the God he never fully understood. 

After all, if we understood all there is to understand about God, God would not be God at all.

Invisible God, you are not only unseen physically, but many times spiritually and emotionally unseen, as well.  Open the eyes of my heart so that I might catch but a glimpse of your working. Even though I am but a child and know so little, yet I trust in your steadfast love even in the most difficult experiences of life. Amen.