My daughter hasn't been sleeping well recently. She's convinced that the shadows in the corners of her room are havens for monsters. We've tried to tell her otherwise. Mice, sure. But no monsters. There are no monsters.
Sometimes she falls asleep when we are still awake and moving about getting ready for the next day - resting in the assurance that the scary things won't come out until after we are all at rest. Sometimes she even sleeps through the night. Other times, though, she drifts off to sleep only to wake up in the dark of night. Scared, she does what all children do and drags herself and her five stuffed animals, comforter, and pillow out of her bed, across our house and places it all at the foot of our bed where we awake in the morning to find her nestled and cozy and sleeping.
Last night Elise awoke around 11 pm frightened and began her journey to our room. I was still awake, lying on the couch in our living room letting my mind run back over the day. I comforted her for a moment, and then sent her own her way to our room. But, as I lay on the couch again, I realized I could hear mumbling coming from Elise's room. Wait, are there monsters? No reason to be too alarmed. To help her fall asleep, we've been turning on the radio at night to help her feel not so alone - classical music usually from WFIU.
I got up from the couch to turn off the radio, but as I entered the room I realized this wasn't classical music. Anna must have put the station on a Christian radio station, and it so happened Chuck Smith was taking his turn as the radio evangelist of the evening.
Chuck Smith, or "Pastor Chuck" as he apparently liked to be called, was famous for serving as the lead pastor for Calvary Chapel out in Southern California. He died recently, but he was still alive while I was out at Fuller in SoCal. I often heard about Calvary Chapel and its influence upon that particular part of American Christianity from people at Fuller, but I had never actually heard him preach. I tend to shy away from radio evangelists, believing it is only a matter of time before the conversation turns to donations, tithing, end of time prophecies, or the soup de jour of moral majority issues that take their turns churning up evangelical passion and fear. So, I was about to turn the radio off on Pastor Chuck, but before I could I realized he was preaching on Jeremiah. For the last week, I had waded back into that ornery and disruptive man's call and witness. And yesterday morning I took you with me as we considered one of the more hopeful moments in Jeremiah's prophetic witness, the time he buys that family property in Anathoth, a ridiculous act of buying some real estate as a "sacrament of hope" as one commentator called it.
Pastor Chuck's message was spot on for me, even if I backed into it by accident. He began to explore the full reality of Jeremiah's experience as a prophet - an experience wildly turbulent. Jeremiah's life was full of the highest highs and the deepest depths. Artfully, Pastor Chuck helped me walk back into that journey of Jeremiah. He made me remember that Jeremiah occasionally found himself feeling deeply encouraged by God and wonderfully optimistic about life. But, he also made me remember that Jeremiah just as frequently found himself plunging deep into despondency, agony ...even depression. The nadir of Jeremiah's despair comes when he says over and over again that he wishes he was never born. They should have just kept me in my mother's womb, he laments.
Such open confession of grief and despair can be very disturbing, so disturbing that we frequently stifle it. We don't want to bother others with our grief. We don't want to worry them, and there is some good cause for this. "You can be addicted to a certain kind of sadness," the singer Gotye reminds us. There are some people who have grown comfortable living in a state of pessimism, and such delight in remaining gloomy needs to be avoided.
Furthermore, it is important, of course, to recognize when the tumult and chaos goes beyond feeling despondent. I am speaking here of clinical depression, of when we find ourselves trapped in despair. This type of depression is a very serious disease that needs and deserves practiced care from a good counselor.
Sometimes, though, we end up getting to a place of deeper despondency because we don't take the time to do what Jeremiah did: express our grief, voice our frustration, speak plainly to God or good friends of our struggles. In fact, often times, finding space in our life to adequately and openly express ourselves is a critical part of remaining a healthy, open, and responsive human being.
We have to express ourselves. Fully. Openly. We don’t do this enough.
We have to find some way to cry out just as much as we have to find deep ways to truly enjoy ourselves and laugh. And, sadly, far too often instead of being places where such free expression of life’s deepest feelings find expression, church communities often try to turn down the emotional volume. Far too often church communities seek to create bland experiences that remain “comfortable.” Although, who can blame them? Prophets like Jeremiah … and even Jesus … tend to push beyond where any of us are comfortable going personally. And it is no coincidence that both Jeremiah and Jesus found themselves pushed out of “religious” communities because the people wanted to remain focused on order and peace and reasonable behavior.
Yet, I can’t let go of Jeremiah’s example … and certainly not Jesus’. Or, for that matter, Paul the Apostle or Mary the mother of Jesus. Shoot, the testimony of Scripture is a long history of open-hearted and mountain-high/valley-low emotion. That, I believe, is one of the main gifts of Scripture. It is a rich resource of full humanity expressed and lived throughout the whole reality of life’s great tragedies and victories. Its stories and characters invite us into the deep agony of loss and frustration. It gives us songs to sing in our greatest moments of liberation and triumph.
Let me go on and give you specifics.
Sarah and Abraham give us space to explore the reality of our barren days and seasons when all of our work comes to nothing. David’s family history allows us to enter into the reality of a family that is constantly near God’s blessing of a full table of thanksgiving and dangerously near utter betrayal and disharmony. We don’t read the Bible nearly enough, but part of the reason is we have been trained to read it as a means to earn God’s blessing. We should be reading it as a way for us to let our hopes and fears through all the years come out and play in our hearts and minds. We should be reading it for pathos, not just to check off one more item on our personal to-do list. Instead, though, we end up hiding our emotions underneath busyness and a smiling veneer we can’t help but present to others. And, we displace our emotions into other areas, often areas that are not just unhelpful but also unhealthy (For some reason, I’m thinking here of the number of hours I’ve spent emoting towards a television screen as the Colts or the Irish fail or triumph!).
Jeremiah will have none of that. In fact, he seems much too serious. The testimony of his life doesn’t tell us about his hobbies (maybe he needed one!). We don’t get to see the things he “likes” on Facebook. He doesn’t seem to spend much time running around going to meetings. He doesn’t even seem to have much of a five-year plan.
What he has, though, is his life … and his voice. And he refuses to let either of these things be easily reduced to cheap slogans. He doesn’t let himself be easily categorized. He is a poet, a preacher, a social activist, a dissident, a performance artist, and a pastor. And he is not a consumer, a demographic, or even a political party member. He is wildly free, so much that he wouldn't even consider himself a Liberterian.
We have been given such wildly free examples of full humanity to remind ourselves such living is possible. It is not easy. It is not without its moments of complete despondency. It is not without its enemies. And let us all pray we don’t get Jeremiah’s call (a whole life of preaching the same message that no one wants to hear!).
But, Jeremiah’s life is a picture of discipleship. It is a reminder that Jesus calls us to such a wildly free life – a life that is asked to forgo earthly ease and safety.
And the only way we can make it down this road of discipleship is if we can return to having the same heart and mind of those children Jesus lifted up as the prime example of faith: freely able to cry out in the night when they are afraid … and just as freely laughing and dancing the next day when the sun is up and they are living underneath the grace and care of God.
Yes, we have to become like little children all over again if we ever hope to enter the Kingdom of heaven. We have to lose all of the good social graces we've acquired over the years. And we must become ... simply ... children ... before our Maker ... fearfully and wonderfully made ... of dust ... but also in the image of the infinite and inexhaustible God.
Express yourselves, friends. That’s why God has given you this one, precious life.