Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Summer of Scripture: Jeremiah, whores, and addiction

Episcopal priest friends in Madison are leading a group of young adults in a Bible read-through this summer -- the whole Bible in 90 days.  I joined them from a distance, and although my commitment to the project has varied (I made three videos to introduce the first three books of the Bible, then got caught up looking for work and other such endeavors, got back on track, got off track, read almost the entirety of Isaiah in one day to get back on track...) I am currently on schedule to finish reading the Bible the whole way through by August 31st.

[  It's funny, all things considered, to think of having a Master of Divinity degree, and a bachelor's in religion, and having taught Sunday School since I was 14 and being an intern pastor for 21 months ... I still haven't read the whole of the Bible.  Some parts I know so well they're memorized (most of the gospels that are read in the lectionary, for example).  Some parts I know almost as a joke (like Elisha commanding two she-bears to maul 42 taunting boys in 2 Kings 2).  Some parts I am more aware of because I've read about them.  And some parts have come as -- not quite a surprise, but definitely as something new.  ]

Now, almost two-thirds of the way through (and with time on my hands), I wanted to blog about Jeremiah.

Jeremiah the book full of condemnations against the nation of Israel / Judah; they have turned their back on worshipping God and caring for each other.  
  • "I will utter my judgments against them,
    for all their wickedness in forsaking me;
    they have made offerings to other gods,
    and worshipped the work of their own hands."
    -Jer 1:16
  • "Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem;
    look around and take note!
    Search its squares and see
    if you can find one person who acts justly and seeks truth."
    -Jer 5:1
Jeremiah the prophet is preaching in the midst of Israel and Judah's takeover by Babylon, which he (and other prophets) interprets as a consequence for the sins of idolatry and injustice.  
  • "For thus says the LORD of hosts:
    Cut down her trees; cast up a siege ramp against Jerusalem.
     This is the city that must be punished;
    there is nothing but oppression within her."
    -Jer 6:6
  • "Because you have not obeyed my words,
    I am going to send for all the tribes of the north, says the LORD,
    even for King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon, my servant,
    and I will bring them against this land
    and against all these nations around;
    I will utterly destroy them,
    and make them an object of horror of hissing,
    and an everlasting disgrace."
    -Jer 25:8
Things get really, really violent in the book, both against Israel and Judah and against their enemies.  If people generalize that "the Old Testament God is angry and wrathful and hateful," Jeremiah can be the proof-text:
  • "The LORD will roar from on high,
    and from his holy habitation utter his voice;
    he will roar mightily against his fold,
    and shout, like those who tread grapes,
    against all the inhabitants of the earth.
    The clamor will resound to the ends of the earth,
    for the LORD has an indictment against the nations;
    he is entering into judgment with all flesh,
    and the guilty he will put to the sword."
    - Jer 25:30-31
  • "For thus says the LORD:
    Your hurt is incurable, your wound is grievous.
    There is no one to uphold your cause,
    no medicine for your wound, no healing for you."
     - Jer 30:12-13
  • Babylon doesn't escape judgment in the end, either:
    "Do not spare her young men; utterly destroy her entire army.
    They shall fall down slain in the land of the Chaldeans,
    and wounded in her streets."
    - Jer 51:3-4
I've been through a rough year, and I've been awful to some people, and some people have been awful to me.  So in coming to Jeremiah, I tried to read with my feet in two places:  one, standing in the role of a defied and heartbroken God, who was filled with anger at the lies and mistreatment in the people;  two, in the place of an oppressed and heartbroken people who (like Jeremiah) hated the Israelite perversions that corrupted their worship and the Babylonian invaders who destroyed their home.

I was not really able to do this.

I love the calls for justice in Jeremiah, and there are many:
  • "Let those who boast boast in this,
    that they understand and know me, that I am the LORD;
    I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth,
    for in these things I delight."
    - Jer 9:24
  • "Are you a king because you compete in cedar?
    Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness?
    Then it was well with him.
    He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well.
    Is not this to know me? says the LORD."
    - Jer 22:15-16
and I love the promises of restoration, and there are many:
  • "But as for you, have no fear, my servant Jacob, says the LORD,
    and do not be dismayed, O Israel;
    for I am going to save you from far away,
    and your offspring from the land of their captivity.
    Jacob shall return and have quiet and ease,
    and no one shall make him afraid."
    - Jer 30:10
  • "Thus says the LORD:
    The people who survived the sword
    found grace in the wilderness;
    when Israel sought for rest,
    the LORD appeared to him from far away.
    I have loved you with an everlasting love;
    therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you."
    - Jer 31:2-3
  • "This is the covenant that I will make
    with the house of Israel after those days,
    says the LORD:  I will put my law within them,
    and I will write it on their hearts;
    and I will be their God, and they shall be my people."
    - Jer 31:33
But I could not really get past the destructive anger of God ripping life from people.  And I really could not connect to the adultery, whoredom, and rape language that Jeremiah uses to accuse Israel:
  • "You have played the whore with many lovers;
    and would you return to me? says the LORD.
    Look up to the bare heights, and see!
    Where have you not been lain with?
    By the waysides you have sat
    waiting for lovers, like a nomad in the wilderness.
    You have polluted the land with your whoring and wickedness."
    - Jer 3:1-2
  • "How can I pardon you?  Your children have forsaken me,
    and have sworn by those who are no gods.
    When I fed them to the full, they committed adultery
    and trooped to the houses of prostitutes.
    They were well-fed lusty stallions,
    each neighing for his neighbor's wife."
    - Jer 5:7-8
  • "If you say in your heart, 'Why have these things come upon me?',
    it is for the greatness of your iniquity
    that your skirts are lifted up, and you are violated."
    - Jer 13:22
Yeah.  That last one.  That's in Scripture.  That's in Bibles that we give to our children.

I hate that.

So I wrestled.  That is my hermeneutic:  some Scripture comes to me like the angelic messenger to Jacob at Peniel (Gen 32:22-32), and we wrestle.  And I get my hands full of something stronger than me and I say "I will not let you go until you bless me."  And more often than not I walk away with a limp, but I walk away, and with a blessing.

So I wrestled.

My dear friend Eric, who is one of my favorite people because he calls me on all my bullshit, said to me:  What metaphor would you prefer, to whoredom?

And I said:  Addiction.

I have been in Al-Anon for a year and a half.  Al-Anon is an odd 12-step program; it's for friends and lovers and family members of alcoholics.  We end up all in a room together because of someone else's addiction, and then as we talk we realize that we have developed our own addictions to cope.  We're addicted to control, in one form or another.  We obsess over whether the alcoholic is drinking.  We desperately try to manage appearances so no one else will know.  We manipulate to passive-aggressively get our way.

And then we start to realize that this isn't just with the alcoholic.  The patterns we learned in childhood, in parenting, in our romantic relationship, etc start to spill over into the rest of our lives.  The need to control (or to maintain the illusion of control, anyway) shows up at work, in our new homes, in our friendships, in our relationships.  It moves from controlling the alcoholic to controlling non-alcoholics as well, because if you will just let me do it, it will be fine!

For me, my addiction to control looks like:
  • Craving security in friendships and romantic relationships
  • Desperate to please others
  • Giving up important beliefs and dreams in order to not conflict with my romantic partner
  • Fearing, to the point of paralyzing anxiety, others' opinions of me, my relationships, and my life choices
  • Compulsively lying to close friends and family to avoid the loss of their good opinion
  • Failing to ask for help when needed, so as not to appear weak or needy (even though I am)
...and so on.

It ain't pretty.  And the Al-Anon program directly confronts it.  Each meeting, each reading, each prayer reminds me:  I am not in control.  When I try to be in control, my life is unmanageable and I feel insane.  There is Something greater than me that is actually capable of restoring me to sanity, and it is not me, and I need to give up trying to make it me.

I can't help but see the connection between my addiction and the book of Jeremiah.
Your ways and your doings have brought this upon you.
This is your doom; how bitter it is!  It has reached your very heart.
- Jer 4:18
God has led the people through the wilderness, into the promised land, put a king on the throne and promised to keep them forever, and the people say:  Thanks.  But just to make sure, we'll have a backup plan with man-made idols, false prophets, and manipulative worship.

God has laid down rules for righteousness and justice, for care for the orphans and widows, for avoiding oppression and feeding the hungry, and the people say:  Thanks.  But just to make sure, we'll set up systems, and boundaries, and walls, and hierarchies, just to make sure it all gets distributed "fairly", in accordance with individual and community worthiness.

God makes invitations and promises, and the people say:  Thanks.  But we have a better idea.

This is what the addict does.  I have a better idea.  I can control it.  I can handle it.  I'm in charge.

My inability to accept that God -- the Creator of the Universe, the liberator of Israel, the lover of righteousness and justice and mercy; the Son of God, the preacher of love in the face of power, the giver of grace, the one who overcame death; the fiery Spirit who moved on the face of the waters and drags the reluctant disciples from the upper room to send the good news all over the face of the earth -- my inability to accept that this God has a slightly better grip on my life than I do is sort of cute, in a way, except when it reduces me to a ball of stress and tears and manipulation and brokenness.
Thus says the LORD:  Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals
and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the LORD.
Blessed are those who trust in the LORD,
whose trust is the LORD.
- Jer 17:5, 7
It's not pretty.

And when I remember that I have to let go of control, part of me does have to die.  And part of me feels like I've woken up in an alien land.  It's a metaphor for understanding the exile, and a shabby one at that, but it's true enough that I can breathe it in like oxygen:
They shall be my people, and I will be their God. - Jer 32:38

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