Wednesday, December 17, 2008

jeremiah and christmas

Christmas, it seems to me, is the best and worst time for anyone who cares about prophetic literature and thinks it matters (which, I suppose, are two ways of saying the same thing).

Lately I have been greedily devouring Walter Brueggemann’s collection of essays “Like Fire in the Bones: Listening for the Prophetic Word in Jeremiah.”

Brueggemann’s writing has always impacted me deeply, ever since that first reading of “The Prophetic Imagination” many years ago while sitting in a green double-cab Toyota pickup truck at 6:00am, slowly inching around the block waiting in line to buy gas in Cochabamba, Bolivia. (Lots of time for reading!)

His articulation of the vocation of an “alternative community” - as depicted throughout the biblical text and engaged with characteristic clarity, nuance, and unflinching honesty in Brueggemann’s own writing - has been formative for me in so many ways.

And lately, as I have been growing into (and wrestling with the implications of) my own vocation as a songwriter of and for the church, I find myself deeply moved by Brueggemann’s obvious love and respect for - and keen insight into - the function of poetry in the life of the “alternative community” throughout scripture and in our present age.

Somehow this Christmas I find myself responding differently to so many of the texts and songs that speak of good news, and peace on earth, and the God who comes to set things right. In other years I have found these texts and songs to be inspiring, to be hope-giving, to be reaffirming of a sense of vocation for the church as an “alternative community” in the world.

Somehow this year, in the face of so many cascading crises of economy/ecology and in the expectation of escalating crises to come, I find myself in a “darker” place. I’m finding some of the songs I’m writing have a darker “edge” to them (as will be obvious to the members of my CSM who received my latest “delivery of songs”). I’m struggling to find the words. I’m realizing that I (and, I suspect, we) need to learn to lament.

Not a coincidence, perhaps, that I have of late been drawn to Jeremiah, who is best known to many of us for his words of lament embedded in “the Christmas story” in Matthew 2. Jeremiah, “known as the most troubled of prophets,” and “competent beyond reason in bringing grief to speech” (Brueggemann, pp. 184-185). Jeremiah, thrown into prison and vilified as a traitor because he saw catastrophe coming, and said so, and refused to share the cheery prognostications of official-dom that wanted to reassure the populace that their plans and management techniques would resolve the issues.

And yet...

The same Jeremiah who, after the collapse and in the midst of the chaos, did the most astonishing thing, and bought property. Chose to incarnate hope, in concrete form, “For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” (Jer. 32:15)

An action that prefigures in a vivid and dramatic way what we celebrate at Christmas - Word becoming flesh, God “pitching a tent and dwelling among us,” incarnate in the midst of crisis and chaos and confusion.

... the “body of Christ” that continues to be “incarnate” in an “alternative community”...

I once heard a wise man (OK, it was my dad) musing that in the midst of crisis and catastrophe, the most urgent and strategic thing to do would be to plant churches. Local manifestations of “the body of Christ,” called, equipped and sent to live out their vocation and “incarnate” good news in the midst of whatever circumstances arise.

An “alternative community” that is capable of giving voice to (and not papering over) lament and grief. An “alternative community” that is committed to “pitching its tent and dwelling” in the midst of the very place where it seems there is no hope.

As I read in Brueggemann’s essay this morning:

“... What is at issue is how a griever can be a hoper.

“I submit that holding these two texts together (Jer. 8:18-9:3 and Jer. 32:1-15) may be our most important agenda in our societal context. The vision of the promise cannot be abandoned because we are charged with a vision and cannot renege. But the poet of grief cannot be silent, for the word burns to be spoken. Our problem is how to hope so convincedly and yet to discern so deeply at the same time.

“...It is the embrace of and engagement with the hurt and forsakeness of 8:18-9:3 that permits Jeremiah to move on past despair to buoyancy. Indeed it is in the specific, concrete expression of despair that there come the seeds and possibilities of hope.

“I conclude that tamed cynics and chastened radicals, if they are to continue their vision of an alternative world, must find concrete ways of giving voice to their despair that is likely also the despair of God. It is the utterance of the hopeless poem of 8:18-9:3 that creates the rhetorical, psychological, theological possibility of hope in 32:1-15.

“...If Jeremiah had not spoken the despair of 8:18-9:3, it would not have been verbalized anguish but would have become immobilizing, unexpressed rage... Thus the despair of 8:18-9:3 is not the anithesis or denial of hope. It is an essential “door to hope” (see Hos. 2:15).

“... Out of this I submit a liberating juxtaposition for radicals who can move in and through and beyond despair to a new buoyancy. On the one hand, there is need for concrete, public acts of hope, public risks for newness, and public assault on conventional hopelessness.That is the meaning of the land-buying in 32:1-15...

“... On the other hand, and prerequisite to the concrete public act of hope, is the pathos-filled expression of despair.

“... So I argue it is the grief of Jeremiah that is the ground of hope. It is the pained word that precedes the anticipatory word. It is liturgy that grounds public action.

“... Speechless radicals are bound to be hopeless radicals, left only with their wishes, stridency, and coercion. Grief-filled speech permits hope-filled action.”

(Walter Brueggemann, “Like Fire in the Bones: Listening for the Prophetic Word in Jeremiah,” pp. 186-188).

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At 10:33 AM, Blogger Luke & Rachael said...

I really think this is timely for our situation. It seems to me the Church (at least, nowadays) does a lousy job of exemplifying biblical responses to suffering and injustice. I've thought about "the problem of evil" in philosophical contexts for more hours than I'd like to admit. At the end, the reply that does the most good, I think, is an existential one (rather than *merely* cognitive), firmly rooted in the lament and protest traditions of the OT. There's a whole tradition of protest and lament in the OT that we need to do a much better job of tapping into. So I say: Preach (and write, and sing) on, brother!

At 9:22 AM, Anonymous Eugene Reesor said...

I too have been in a 'lament season' of my life. I hope it is not tied to the economy, although my plans of 'doing something different' in a few years is partly tied to having crossed some financial milestones that suddenly seem less achievable.

But, with the arrival of our own children for Christmas, I am once again reminded of the many blessing that church, family and community bring. The season of lament is passing - time to celebrate!


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