Every Sunday and most Wednesday evenings we were there; somewhere in the middle, folded into the masses, tucked between other sets of grown ups and their offspring, singles and the elderly. We all knew the (unspoken) rules for the other sections. The back group of pews were for the “wiggly kid” families: the parents who needed to have one ear in and one ear out, covertly entertaining while attempting to partake. Back there was also where I imagined the uncertain but inquisitive looky-loos sat alongside the shy prodigals. The front section of pews were the opposite. No one ever sat there. Aside from the periodic overachiever or eager beaver, the front two sets of pews were always left ceremoniously empty, reserved solely for the pastoral team.
Some mornings, the pastor’s rhythmic words made my eyelids feel like semi trucks had parked on top of them. Holding the weight of them open seemed to require superpowers and a strength that I didn’t possess. Other times I doodled on bulletins, transforming the hymnal into a makeshift table. I used to draw what I imagined the ultimate R.V. might look like. Each sketch was essentially a mansion on wheels; absurdly impossible to physically construct or use for any sort of road trip!! With numerous levels and an oversized glistening swimming pool, how did I ever imagine that beast would squeeze under over passes??
Instead of drawing, sometimes I’d sit and stare up at the mammoth ‘70’s era lights that dangled ominously from the cathedral ceiling. I’m sure each one weighed as much as a car. Even with their dark wood framing, each hanging cylinder faintly resembled L.A.’s iconic Capitol Records Building. I’d imagine that instead of lights, they were actually futuristic hotels or high rise apartments hovering between Earth and its atmosphere.
On rare occasions, the pastor would speak casually enough for me to tune in. The types of messages that held my attention (for a couple of minutes) were sermons with stories. Personal stories, Biblical stories, any sort of story, it didn’t matter; I just loved hearing stories
Through the years, through a dozen churches, and numerous pastors, I’ve listened to a hefty number of Old Testament stories; Exodus stories in particular. In a nutshell, they usually sounded something like this: God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. He fed them, clothed them, led them through an unfamiliar wilderness and helped them conquer their enemies. Through it all, his presence was VERY obvious, hardly any faith was needed; pillar of fire by night, cloud by day, and he literally spoke to them. But the Israelites were unhappy and began to long for the slavery they’d just been freed from. They “complained and murmured”. Even after experiencing miracle after miracle after miracle, the Israelites decided to honor man-made gods and statues in the shape of animals rather than the one true God who was literally in their midst.
As a kid, teenager and young adult, I struggled to find the take away. One question always plagued me: how could the Israelites be so dense?? Having not yet encountered my own season of personal crisis, I oozed self righteousness and judgement.
For years I wondered why God would choose these people who, because of their lack of faith, were destined to roam the wilderness. I couldn’t grasp why God would want people who he knew would turn away from him. None of it made any sense to me. I thought, if I had been God, I never would have fought so hard for someone I knew would cheat on me and break my heart.
So...about a week ago I opened up my Bible to the Old Testament. This was a completely unnatural choice for me. Reading the Bible usually means making a beeline for ANYTHING in the New Testament. The Old Testament has always been the dustiest part of my Bible. The newer, Jesus and post-Jesus stuff, has always felt more applicable somehow; food for today. But, somehow I found myself in the book of Jeremiah.
The story of the young prophet Jeremiah, was one I’ve always loved. Truthfully I didn’t remember ANYTHING about his prophetic message to Israel, but the part about him being called by God when he was just a child amazed me. The first thing he ever heard God say to him was, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” But Jeremiah, so aware of his age (his youth), told God he couldn’t be his messenger because he was “only a child”. But God said, “Do not say I am only a child…”
God’s answer to Jeremiah could have given me enough strength for multiple days. Even at thirty...something, I still feel like a ridiculous child with a pathetic, shaky voice and weak knees. I’m easily distracted by judging spectators and afraid of being dismissed as “crazy” by people I care for.
I kept reading deep into chapter 2 and started feeling awed by the poetic imagery of the words.
“How can you say, ‘I am not defiled; I have not run after the Baals’? See how you behaved in the valley; consider what you have done. You are a swift she-camel running here and there, a wild donkey accustomed to the desert, sniffing the wind in her craving-in her heat who can restrain her? Any males that pursue her need not tire themselves; at mating time they will find her. Do not run until your feet are bare and your throat is dry. But you said, ‘It’s no use! I love foreign gods, and I must go after them.” Jeremiah 2:23-25
The message was poetic but VERY strong. The Israelites were blind to the nature of the things that allured them. They were literally chasing after physical, emotional and mental bondage, choosing slavery to their desires over love, prosperity and protection. None of the things that bound the Israelites looked dark, ominous or corrosive from a distance. Their temptations didn’t snarl at them or bear bloody teeth. They shimmered and glittered, luring them in as a siren might, only to devour them from the inside out.
Suddenly, for the first time EVER, I could identify with the Israelites.
I started to review in my mind all the things I’ve pursued in my life; the “Baals” I’ve revered and occasionally worshiped, the shiny things I haven’t wanted to uncurl my fingers from, the cravings I’ve indulged even when I’ve felt God saying to me, “Be careful with that...it’s getting its hooks in you. It’s starting to enslave you”. I’ve shrugged off the warnings and sometimes ignored them, because I reasoned that I could have misunderstood the message. His voice isn’t easy to hear and sometimes he isn’t very clear...right??
No longer were the Israelites the daft and deeply rebellious herd of vagabonds I always thought they were...they were me.
But threaded through God’s pain, frustration and sadness was a constant and beautiful theme of LOVE! The story of the relationship between God and his people (the Israelites) is heartbreaking but his love was relentless, pursuing and passionate. In spite of their frailties and missteps, God refused to leave his people. He refused to give up on them...just like God refuses to give up on us, EVEN when our shame tells us we deserve for him to abandon us.
Through the words of Jeremiah, I could hear God declaring over his people, speaking to me (and YOU), “I’ve made you for more. I created you for greater, for bigger, for better. And I know that sometimes it’s hard to see truth through the fog of “Baals”, but through the murk and haze, the truth of my love remains.
Writer and fellow traveler on the road of life.