by Michael Usey
VENMO. VENMO. I now know it is VENMO. None of you needs to text, write, call or email me again with the correct pronunciation. Thank you so much for the OK Boomer heads up. Yes, I’ll be 63 next month but I am raging against the dying of the light.
I saw someone’s list of new year resolutions on the interwebs. They included: travel to the other side of the room; wear a different shirt; cut screen time from 12 hours a day to 11; eat a vegetable; bathe. Realistic list, actually.
I’m not a fan of the “new year, new you” approach to the new year. Neither was my father, a career Navy man, who spent his time aboard ships and in airplanes. He did, however, favor what he called course corrections. This was part of his job in the Navy, manning the radar on ships and planes. He was part of the The DEW (Distance Early Warning) line, built during the Cold War to give early warning of a Soviet nuclear strike, to allow time for US bombers to get off the ground and land-based ICBMs to be launched, to reduce the chances that a preemptive strike could destroy US strategic nuclear forces. Sober times too. I think he preferred the term course correction because it implied that he didn’t need to change his course radically; he merely needed to check and make sure he was going the right way, and if necessary, make subtle corrections. I believe course correction is a better, gentler way to think about ourselves and our walk (or run or stumble) with God in Jesus’ path. So say it after me: THIS IS THE WAY.
I was never in the military as many of you were, and I didn’t learn to sail until Baylor. But as a scout in my teens I knew well the idea of course correction. Early on in scouts you learn how to use a map and compass, and you participate in orienteering, which means to navigate over terrain to distinct points to reach a desired goal. But if your compass work is off by even a few degrees, you’d end up lost instead in a campsite with a fire waiting and hot food.
I know it makes me Captain Obvious to say so, but 2020 was a tough year for our country, a rowdy hooligan thug to us all. Tragedy has touched everyone (except maybe Jeff Bezos). I think most of us would like to forget 350 of the last 366 days. The year did, however, refocus our attention on a few essential truths that are indeed course corrections (as my friend Andrew Chamberlin pointed out):
- the value and import of family who are friends, and friends who are family, cannot be overstated;
- good health is more precious than any amount of money;
- we really are our siblings’ keepers; and
- expressing divine love, showing kindness, and demonstrating patience can do more to change the world than ever imagined.
As you probably get from my sermons, I crave poetry. Probably this is the result of a mother who loved poetry and an older brother and sister who were always reading it to me as well. Like many of you, I can hardly stand to part with poems that profoundly touch me. Billy Collins’s “On Turning Ten,” [I thought of it this week as Atticus’ turns 10 today!], Anne Stevenson’s “The Minister,” Wendell Berry’s “The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front,” and “Prayer for the Man Who Mugged My Father, 72” by Charles Harper Webb reach down into places where mere prose cannot reach: places of exile, places that mark the path toward home. Poems are distilled emotions, packed with all the explosive power of years of experience, loss, and love. I have tried to make it my course correction to read a poem a day, and perhaps you might do so too.
Like a compass for a scout or a radar for a navy navigator, poems can advise of a change—be it a minor course correction or an atmospheric shift. I agree with Bill Moyers, who says that poetry is the most honest language he hears today. Poetry is the instrument of the prophet. If you want to discover the real news of the day, turn off the cable news networks and take a trip to your bookshelf, the web, or the local library and read some poetry. Poetry exposes truth and stays anchored to it.
The poetic imagery of this passage in Jeremiah invites us to sit with this text’s recurring dance of reversal and triumph. In it we rediscover one of scripture’s principal themes: the story of God’s grace and compassion triumphing over God’s judgment. Embedded in the songs, hymns and laments of God’s people is the origin of blessing. Through the prophet Jeremiah, we discover our own place and time in this dance with God.
But trouble starts when we forget we have a dance partner and begin to make up our own steps. Before we know it, we are dancing solo. Today’s reading from Jeremiah begins not with celebration but with the warning to turn back to the Lord.
That is what Walter Brueggemann calls “the power to remember—the freedom to forget.” So desperate is poor Jeremiah (in chapter five) that he’s forced to run through the streets of the town searching for one person, one person who acts justly and seeks truth so that God will call this whole judgment thing off. “No evil will come upon us” is the people’s response, not believing that God will allow them to be defeated and exiled.. “The prophets are nothing but wind.” “The Lord will do nothing.”
That was, of course, before the exile. The Babylonian exile was a 70 year period (586-516 BCE) in which the tribes of Judah were in captivity in Babylon. My friend and seminary pastor Steve Shoemaker wrote, “Exile was (and is) a time of captivity and chastening, of figuring out what went wrong and why, a time of gestations, of waiting, of singing the Lord’s song in a strange land, a time of hoping in what we cannot see.” Exile is a time for the language of honesty, for the sentiments of the prophet-poet.
Yahweh ultimately calls the children of Israel out of exile and back into the fullness of love. God reverses God’s own ways, but always with God’s timing and not before those returning from exile remember what it was that they have forgotten. All is made new in a story that has revealed itself through the ages.
The exiles to whom the words of Jeremiah 31 were addressed were scattered, weary and vulnerable–any of this sound familiar? But the specifics of God’s faithfulness are spelled out in images of bountiful food, flourishing gardens, safety, dancing and gladness; these provide a picture of overwhelming, over-the-top grace coming at the end of exile. Straight paths, deep consolation and special care for the most vulnerable suggest a road home shaped by generous welcome and tender care.
Jeremiah’s words of warning and comfort are not addressed directly to us. They were to a specific group of Jews in exile 2500 years ago, saying the good news is that the hold of the enemy will be broken–there will be release from captivity and recovery of a normal life in their homeland. There is even better news: the people will be restored into right relatedness with God. The images of God in this chapter are of father, mother, shepherd, and covenant-maker. Much later, the totality of this message will be seen clearly in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus–which is for all people.
Thomas Merton wrote that “no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not.” We cannot, even through our own foolishness, stain this joy.
We remind ourselves of our own holy dance with God when we ministers say to all of us on baptismal renewal Sundays, “Remember your baptism and be thankful.” Or when we dedicate a child and their parents to God; a minister with a child in her arms, presented with all the hope of promise and joy of blessing, reminds us of the grace promised to us in our own birth, dedication, and baptism.
This week some douche-canoe hacked my online accounts, and wrote many of my contacts begging for money. He began his fakey message with the churchy word, Blessings!, something I would never say casually. (I’d be more likely to write, “Get in losers! We’re off to cause some good, necessary trouble!” Wait for that message.) Because a blessing is a sacred thing. “A blessing,” writes Rachel Remen, “is not something that one person gives another. A blessing is a moment of meeting, a certain kind of relationship in which both people involved remember and acknowledge their true nature and worth, and strengthen what is whole in one another.”
In Jeremiah 31:2, the people of God are described as having found “grace in the wilderness.” God’s sufficient provision along the way provides a taste of the fuller bounty yet in store for them and us. Wilderness and exile are never the final word; in fact, the final word in Jesus is grace upon grace–not just in the next life, but now. The shepherd continues to gather the flock; the host continues to offer a banquet of restoration, love and abundance.
This week Ann and I watched the Pixar movie Soul; maybe you did too, and if not, we recommend it. Soul explores existential ideas close to its surface, taking in mortality, the meaning of life, and what life without purpose truly means. Those questions have been a major part of Pixar’s pantheon all the way back to Toy Story, but Soul takes it all in specifically. There is such poetry in films like this one.
Soul’s spirit world has immaculately designed conceptual architecture: a Great Beyond (plus conveyor belt) for dead people’s souls; a Great Before, with seminars and mentors for its nursery of unformed consciousnesses; and interesting subworlds, such as “the zone” for ecstatic fulfillment (“in the zone”) and a desert of “lost” souls. On hand are soul “counters” and “counsellors” that look like Picasso line drawings.
As one of the movie’s reviewers said, some of the jokes are a tad DreamWorksy, like the bit where a lost soul returns to earth and realizes that he’s completely wasted his life by working in hedge funds. A ruthless international mega-corporation like Disney—which stuck most of its 20th Century Fox repertory holdings in a “vault” last year to push people to rent or purchase new Disney product, and that once sued day care centers for putting its characters on murals without permission—has no business lecturing anybody else about the moral emptiness of materialism.
But the movie’s central message would reverberate with Jeremiah’s: lives don’t boil down to some binary success or failure, but rather it’s in the way each moment is lived, no matter how small, that gives all time on Earth meaning. And we might add, it’s life within God’s limitless love that gives our time here meaning and purpose. This is the message of Jeremiah 31: previously you have been in pain; now God’s goodness comes to us to enrich every moment.
Jeremiah initiates a course correction. He is calling those who remember their relationship of blessing with Yahweh back into the living of it. I am bringing you home, God says. In contrast to their departure, a journey filled with brute force and destruction, those returning now are part of the procession of the restored. The weeping refugees shall return home with prayers in their hearts; the blind and the lame shall know their place in the kingdom. Mothers carrying their babies will walk alongside mothers in labor. It is a time pregnant with promise, and a time for noisy tambourines and merry dancing. All will participate in the spirited homecoming parade. God will lead everyone to new beginnings filled with new life.
When the celebration ends and life returns to the holy rhythm of the ordinary, we are tempted to store our tambourines on the top shelf of the closet and place our dancing shoes beneath the bed. Jeremiah cautions us not to misplace those dancing shoes. For at a moment’s notice, the band can strike up and God, our Holy Partner, will beckon us to dance. Life’s greatest gift is to dance with God and remember what it is to live life as blessing. As the Avett Brothers sing in their song, High Steppin’:
I do know this:
The best beggars are choosers,
The best winners are losers,
The best lovers ain’t never been loved.
And first place ain’t easy,
The hardest part is believing
The very last word is love.