Chapter 19 in the Series

Jeremiah-Lamentations

Jeremiah, also known as the Weeping Prophet, had the longest ministry of all the prophets with his forty-five years.  He is the God-appointed author of the book bearing his name and the book of Lamentations.  He had an eyewitness account and preached through and after the Babylonian conquest of the Jews and Jerusalem’s immediate aftermath of that event.

A young Jeremiah began his ministry when he was in his twenties during the downfall of the Jewish nation and the destruction of their temple.  Many believe he dictated his prophecies found in this book to his secretary, Baruch who recorded it for this book. For the most part, Jeremiah based his ministry out of Jerusalem.

Jeremiah was sensitive and inclined to melancholy, to say the least.  This book’s indictment is about the treachery in forsaking God and departing from the covenant.

God tells Jeremiah to forewarn the people of Judah on the Lord’s behalf.  He forewarns him that the people will not listen but to talk to them anyhow.  For those possessing of sensitive temperaments, it’s easy to recognize Jeremiah was deeply pained and distressed by the disobedience around him and the evil he saw.

Fast forward six hundred years into the future and read the same lament of Jesus from those ignoring His words found in Matthew 23:37-39 who would not listen.

This poor guy Jeremiah was attacked by his brothers, beaten by priests, put into stocks, imprisoned by five different kings, subjected to death threats, thrown into a cistern by Judah’s officials, and opposed by a false prophet. His was a thankless job.  He preached for forty years, and not once did he see or realize any real success in changing or the softening of hearts and minds of a stubborn, idolatrous people. I know few people who have done one calling, and only one calling all their life with so much commitment.   Jeremiah has the fortitude of a marathon runner with his tenacity at such a hard calling, particularly in not seeing the fruit of his labors. In my mind’s eye, I don’t envision a woe as me kind of a guy, but I do see perhaps him physically stooped over from carrying the burden of his unheard message.  I may be personifying him too much after all he had a specific calling from God as a prophet.  Jeremiah was steadfast to the mission. Eventually, when Nebuchadnezzar seized Jerusalem, he ordered that Jeremiah be freed from prison and treated well.

Taking on change means movement and movement means there is going to be friction.  German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer says otherwise not to speak is to speak and not to act is to act.  Change comes at every stage of life.  It is usually a catalyst that often pushes an action.  It’s easy to just put your head down and work, confusing activity with productivity that can be an excuse to escape from things not wanting to confront. A living thing is distinguished from a dead thing by the changes taking place within them.  Poet and spiritual philosopher Mark Nepo says, “To journey without being changed is to be a nomad. To change without journeying is to be a chameleon. To journey and to be transformed by the journey is to be a pilgrim.”

It was one of my heartaches watching Mom as she grew older to give up on living and wait to die. Her wait lasted for about fifteen to twenty years.  She would get angry that she lived so long.  I know depression played its part in her mind-set, the fear of her declining body and mental faculties.  Plus,  she outlived people in her world (husband, son, parents, brother). Still what appeared to me as her giving up as she aged was hard to watch and live through.   I tried to ensure she wasn’t over medicated later in life yet utilized medicine for some quality of life for her. She was adamant that her end of life wishes were for no drugs or medical instruments were to keep her alive.  It was a complicated balancing act for me.

Significantly, the book of Jeremiah also points to a glimpse of the new promise, or covenant a paradigm shift God intended to make with His people.  This new plan to help in the future the restoration of God’s people meant putting His law within them, writing it on hearts rather than on tablets of stone.  It foretold of Jesus.  I think the physical aspect of the law written on the tablets at the temple might have been misconstrued as where to find God by the amount of reference to the Temple other than just pride of its beauty or construction.  Rather than pursuing a relationship with God through a fixed location which can be destroyed, He promised His people would know Him directly, through the person of His Son, Jesus, in a new covenant. (Jer. 31:31–34).

Two transitional prophecies of the truth understood in Jeremiah’s time were him seeing the upcoming overthrow of their national and formal religion; through Divine inspiration, he saw and shared that for their faith to survive it must not be a national thing but instead an individual.  This personal task of spiritual conditioning lends itself to a doctrine of individual responsibility as the next spiritual step.  It speaks more toward a spirituality versus religion.

There is much discussion today about being spiritual versus being religious. It seems ambiguity is “in”; dogmatism (religion) is out.  Pithy sayings about spirituality abound. Some say spirituality emanates from the soul whereas religion speaks from the mind.  Spirituals confess religion is someone else’s experience, but they have your own experience. They compare spirituality as more abstract in a bigger box with religion being in a small box.

I don’t have denominational pride nor do I pick a current worship flavor of the month.  I do relate closely with one denomination but not at the risk of throwing the baby (the other denominations) out with the bathwater.

The Bible isn’t a wishing well of promises or a smorgasbord where you pick out a verse here and a verse there that is liked.  Biblical truths presented aren’t fairy dust. In reading the Bible, we assume we are so familiar with the text after reading it once then hearing worship services on them; we stop meditating on them.  Familiarity can breed laziness, and so many of our misunderstandings about the scriptures happen because we think we are familiar enough with the passage not to read it through fresh eyes. If we come to the Word of God without preconceived notions, wanting the holy script to be fresh and new, we would realize our most common interpretations of Scripture don’t make much sense when viewed without the context of the passage.

Jeremiah 29:11 is such a verse. It reads, “For I know the plans I have for you declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” We write it on congratulatory cards or say it to motivate and inspire people.  We can take that verse out of context to see it as God wants us only to prosper, no harm will come our way, etc.  Read the mentioned verse in its context (which should be the first intent when reading scripture), and see God is getting specific about a future promise to be fulfilled after the seventy years in exile. He did have a hope and a future for them, but it looked different than what the Israelites expect.  It can lead to some complacency that if prophesied that this prosperity or that success is going to happen.  There is no hard soul work to be done within-no changing outside of our comfort level.  There’s the rub; we can’t allow our own personal bent or bias to breathe our human voice into Scriptures.

It is a fine edged sword when meditating over scripture to see and understand what God is saying to us individually.  Recalling verses are of tremendous comfort and help for me. It is wise, though, to know what the context of the verse is and whether it applies to the current situation.

The phrase “What would Jesus do?”  or better known as “WWJD”, is commercially plastered on pretty much anything you can imagine as a reminder to think and do what Jesus would do in any given situation.  Well, we can’t do what Jesus would do because quite frankly we aren’t the Son of God regarding doing the same miracles or to live as He did in the context of His community.  The better interpretation would be “What would Jesus have me (with my dowry of spiritual gifts and personality) do in this situation?”  Often people get caught up in doing “godly” things but not in the “godly,” or Christ-like way.

I keep in mind what French philosopher Voltaire says that “Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position.  But Certainty is an absurd one.”

I memorize scripture verses not for some mantra but for the refinement that this truth will win its way into my life. Mantras, chants and songs, and prayers are fine depending on the motive. Scripture is not to be used to induce a trance or to gain man’s approval by appearing more righteous (Matt. 6:5).  On the other hand, a chant or song and prayers can be given in worship, to express thanks and dependence on Him and to petition Him.  A good example of repeating a verse is when Jesus gave us the Lord’s prayer telling us how to pray.

“How lonely sits the city that was full of people!” sets the scene for the book of Lamentations. The city is Jerusalem after its destruction. Lamentations is like the book of Job. Both books deal with suffering. Job deals with his problem on the personal level. Lamentations deals with suffering at a national level.

Not only does this book’s writer, Jeremiah, witnesses the results of disobedience in the previous book bearing his name; now he sees the culminating effect of its destruction.   Lamentations in Greek means “to cry out.”  Jeremiah parallels a future Jesus who weeps for Jerusalem (Jn. 11:35).

Picture Jeremiah walking through the streets and alleys of the holy city and seeing nothing but pain, suffering, and destruction in the wake of the Babylonian invasion.  In this crucial period of Judah’s existence as a kingdom, he sees the destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, despite his incessant warnings to the people to mend their ways before it was too late.  And when the catastrophe finally happens, he bitterly laments the Israelites terrible fate in the book of Lamentations.  A portion of what he experiences could be survivor’s guilt.

The destruction of Jerusalem is one of the most tragic stories in the Bible. No other book of the Bible is more of an orphan, more overlooked by Christians or more neglected than Lamentations which teaches us through the cries of grief.   Few want to read about this pain or for that matter re-live grief.

I have never been to war as my sons have. I have seen how it changed them mentally and emotionally when they thankfully returned home.  I have not witnessed utter devastation and appalling suffering, done by human hand. In Lamentations, there was starvation, disease, slaughter, rape, scavenging, looting, and the desecration of holy things. I have, however, witnessed the fallout or outcomes for people who have lived through life’s mayhem only to not rebound to the old self.   Life-wrenching disappointment can sear the soul.  A grief process can shake the soul,  leaving manacled scars that can smother the spirit.

I agree with St. Augustine’s  just war theory.  So when the reason to go to war is convoluted by trying to recruit or inspire the soldier by propagating it as spreading Christian faith or in God’s name then it is not a just war. A just war is to put a wrong right and, as history shows, has been to take dominion of land. But man being man (fallible) history shows war espoused for reasons that aren’t biblical (cf.  Matt. 5:43-48, Rom. 13:1-2).  Charlemagne, known as the father of Europe, was notorious for this.  Jesus never advocated making disciples of men (Matt. 28:18-20) through force.

You don’t get over grief (like depression); you just get through it.  You don’t get past it because you can’t get around it. It doesn’t get better just different.  Each day it is there under the mask we wear with it taking on many faces.  During one episode of personal sorrow, one of my kids recommended I schedule a weekly appointment with myself just to grieve.  She called the appointment good grief.  Part of the way I ended up setting up the appointment with my self is exhuming my old diaries, filling in the context for the emotions expressed.  Now, I have learned to look at the context of things simultaneously when trying to figure out why I am glum and gloomy.  I came across the book with the same title Good Grief by Granger E. Westberg.  He identifies ten threads in the fabric of grief.  Throughout his book, the author is emphatic about grief  being complex and deeply personal and that there is no one right way to grieve.

The closest, physically, I have come to seeing the destruction of a city was from environmental causes.  It was while living in Colorado Springs during an extreme drought.  A fire started west of Highway 25 which ran north and south through the city. My barricade from the fire was that same highway as I lived on the east side of it.  I had this beautiful view of the Rocky Mountains from my condominium.  Then the fire, the dark smoke, the burning smell enveloped the community and home.  I would stand on my rooftop balcony, watching it with heartache, sensitive of the pain of others in the fire’s path.  I was driving on this same highway the following day when there was a culminating fire explosion from the heat of multiple fires. It was difficult and scary to see.    And then to observe the blackened tree line on the mountains north face where homes no longer stood continued the lingering reminder. I remember a conversation between myself and a total stranger whose home and possessions were destroyed by the fires.  Her story came spilling out of her.  I remember the look in her eyes, her sorrow, the dark circles underneath them. Coincidentally, another fire happened a year later the same day, June 21, to the north of Colorado Springs (this time on the west side of the highway).   I lived in the south, so I was never under threat of evacuation as was my daughter’s family during the second fire.  The fire never reached her home.  I can only imagine the depths of despair from what Jeremiah saw in Jerusalem’s desolate condition following Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of the city and the Holy Temple.

Truth: “There but for the grace of God, go I,” says reformer and martyr John Bradford about the humility and reliance on God’s grace rather than basing it on current morality. When disaster strikes, aren’t we all vulnerable to its destruction, some wondering “Why them and not me?”   Rick Warren  is forthtelling when he says, “A lie doesn’t become truth, a wrong doesn’t become right and evil doesn’t become good just because the majority say so.”

Most can tell you where they were and what they were doing on Sept. 11, 2001, between 8:45 and 10:00 a.m. when the two airplanes crashed into New York City’s Twin Towers. Then another plane crashed into the Pentagon building in Washington D.C. followed by another crash near Shanksville, PA., where forty passengers and crew members aboard the later flight died.   The plane over Pennsylvania, assumed to be targeting the White House, was diverted when the passengers became privy to the other flights.  These passengers commandeered the terrorists who took over the plane’s controls with hopes of regaining control of it.  The passengers’ effort instead forced the plane to crash in a field.

For brevity (and as a historical reference to that day), the date is normally referred to by saying the numbers separately: 9, then 11.  In America, there is a long-standing national emergency procedure in place before this attack.  The instructions were (and still are) to dial 911 (said the same way) when we need emergency, medical, or police help.

This tragedy that took over three thousand lives and wounded six thousand was my first experience with a disaster at a national level.  Then it was to live through the resulting engagement of long wars fought in far off lands.  It created heightened security in our homeland that created an opposite effect that to me, feels like a violation of our freedom to come and go as we freely want without being searched or detained unfairly.  Up until then, since the Vietnam conflict, America had experienced thirty years of relative peace without war.  For the US, our military engagement in Vietnam ended in 1973.

It was shockingly horrible to watch the news coverage that day as the television replayed over and over the real-time coverage.  At the time, my supervisor was in the area visiting her mother.  Her brother, a firefighter from the Bronx, was one of the first units to reach the Twin Towers, in lower Manhattan.  He gave his life in a hero’s death trying to rescue people out of the buildings when the towers came crumbling down around him and others.  My boss extended her stay in the area to be with her mother and sister in law, checking in telephonically with our office in Kansas day to day during her ordeal.

Americans cocooned at home with family weeks after the disaster.  School and flight institutions shut down for a week as security measures were put in place. I lived near a military base, that had a contingent of Allied officers from ninety countries attending an advanced training course on military strategy.  Security measures were very heightened.   I had two children out of my four away in out of state colleges at the time who opted to come home for Thanksgiving, rather than Christmas that year.  The sooner they could come to the sanctuary of their home, the better.

In the daily office calls from my supervisor, I would hear the firsthand experience of what was happening in New York City:  the search for any survivors, then the search to identify remains.  She told me of hearing the bagpipes play Amazing Grace echoing throughout the city from the many memorials of the fallen first responders and innocent people.

A handwritten note in my Bible at Psalms 9:18-19 noted words of comfort (a foreshadowing) from that verse for the next day’s tragedy.  It was at the monthly meeting of governing church body, this chapter was used in a Bible study the Monday night before the terrorist attacks of 9/11.  It foreshadows how God must have comforted those people trapped in the buildings and planes during the catastrophic next day.  The Psalm verse is about God being our refuge and strength during the attack.

The book of Lamentations (3:22-23) cites a beautiful mercy from God: “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”  I have a reminder of that in the last line my nightly prayer for protection (my adult version of the “Now I lay me down to sleep” children’s prayer) that ends with the words: “At first light, restore me to a renewed life.”

What happened in this event is not the result of God’s discipline as it was in Lamentations.  There is no mistaking, however, God as the central figure in lament in this book.  His character comes through the book from beginning to end showing His sorrow.  Sin and apostasy not only result in inevitable discipline for people (mostly done by their own hand), but it also causes God great pain.

My faith has a major role when working through grief.  Many think faith advocates a religious stoicism.  They may partially quote 1Thessalonians 4:13, “Grieve not” in attempts to console, leaving out the most important part that follows: “As those who have no hope.”

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