6th May 2018
‘It is well with my soul – but…..’
I’ve only got myself to blame, really. I chose the readings! And last week I gave myself a really easy to answer question, with a fabulously easy answer – what’s the most important thing we’ve got to do? Love one another. Dead simple.
Of course it’s not that simple. How do you love your neighbour as yourself when you don’t love yourself? How do you love someone when loving them means letting them go? How do you love when it hurts to go on breathing, and every breath feels like you might shatter and dissolve? It’s not that easy.
So this week I’m going to ask the questions I don’t have answers for. Sorry about that! But if I thought my job was to give you all the answers, I’m in the wrong denomination.
Why pain? Why is trying to give a good life a struggle? Why do we end up in a place like Jeremiah is in in this reading? It’s not easy and there are no simple answers. And there never were simple answers. Frankly I don’t trust anyone who has a glib answer to these questions. You’ve got books like Job. He went through about the worst time he could have been put through. And he got no answers, except: ‘I’m here, I’m God, I know what I’m doing. I’m not telling you what I’m doing, and I’m not telling you how it’s going to work out.’ That’s not really a comforting answer, a lot of the time. But it’s the on;y answer Job got.
Or Ecclesiastes: he spends the whole time saying ‘It’s all futility. And there’s a God and I’m going to serve God anyway. And it’s all horribly pointless. But there’s a God and I’m going to serve God anyway.’ And that’s the whole book! We’ve never had easy answers. We still don’t.
Now Jeremiah was not a happy man. Being a prophet is never easy. Particularly when you know full well that what’s about to happen is really bad news, and no one else wants to hear it. And some of the prophets became bitter, and some of the prophets became full of rage, I mean you look at some of those books, some of those prophets were like anger up to here, and over the top. Some of them were fearful and ran off, like Elijah. Jeremiah is depressed. He really is.
We’re not always depressed for a reason we know about. Sometimes we are. Maybe it’s stress, that just goes on, and on and on. Or it’s living with pain that never goes away. Maybe it’s frustration, like you’ve been banging your head against a brick wall for years and years, Jeremiah felt. Maybe it’s something a bit more temporary, like the effects of anaesthetic. They were depressing. That was horrible. Or after you’ve given birth. Or maybe frankly you don’t know why. It’s just one of those things, and it happens. We’re human beings. We’re complicated. No-one ever said we weren’t. I didn’t always know why I was depressed. And I’ve never really known why I stopped. I just know that it’ll probably roll around again.
Now Jeremiah had a lot of reasons. Because despite his occasional outbursts, he didn’t hate his people. He loved them. He really desperately wanted to give them good news. But he was a realist. He knew good times weren’t coming. He knew that no matter how many other people were in denial and choosing to live in pink-fluffy-cloud-land, Babylon was coming. The huge military juggernaut that had steamrollered over all the other little kingdoms wasn’t going to stop at Judah, just because they had Yahweh. They had once. Once they stopped – because they were trying to fight a war on five fronts and they didn’t have time for Judah. He said ‘it’s not going to keep happening. One miracle was all you got.’ And yes he was furious with them. I mean, who hasn’t at sometime been furious with someone they absolutely love, you’re doing your best for them and they just don’t seem to care or be grateful? Any parents in the room, for a start.
But he loved them. He wanted it to be OK, and he knew it wasn’t going to be. He had to wait ‘til he was an old man before he had any good news to give them. And they didn’t like it, they hated it. It reminds me of a bit in one of Terry Pratchett’s (one of my favourite authors) where he says a bit about this witch, that she was a very bad fortune teller – which is to say, she was accurate. People prefer fortune tellers who are bad at fortune-telling, they tell you what you want to hear. They’re very successful. The ones who actually know what’s going to happen, no-one wants to listen to them.
Now, I know Jesus speaks about being the fountain of living water, but he wasn’t the first because Jeremiah speaks of God as this fountain of living water. And he said to the people that the system they’ve created, all the gods they’ve made for themselves or borrowed from elsewhere, aren’t actually going to help them cope or survive when Babylon turns up. He said: ‘For you abandoned the fount of living water, then you built water cisterns for yourselves, cracked water-cisterns that hold no water’. He said, If you wanted a god so badly, what was wrong with the one you had? Why did you get rid of that one and create a whole load made from wood and iron and things to carry into battle? Frankly, no religion is going to stop Babylon coming down. No system of belief is going to stop bad things happening. No rule-book, or list of things that you can follow and do in a temple or shrine, is going to help that much when things get that bleak. Only the fountain of living water can do that.
But, Jeremiah, he’s got Yahweh. He’s got the fountain of living water, and guess what? He’s still depressed. Because, he says, this same fountain of living water is, for me, a deceptive stream, with uncertain waters. The ASV says ‘waters that fail’. He says: ‘I’ve gone to You for refreshment, and I’ve got a mirage, a mouthful of ash.’
What do we do, when the Rock of Consolation isn’t consoling? What do we do when the fountain of living water feels like it’s run dry when we’re most thirsty? The answer is: I don’t have the answers. No glib, simple answers, anyway. There’s no one-size-fits-all. It’s not a matter of having enough faith, I know that. I’m not necessarily more confident of God’s existence when I’m happy, or less confident when I’m in the black hole. So I reason, God’s existence doesn’t depend on my state of health. I remember that I was sure, and I tell myself that a few stray chemicals in my brain won’t erase God’s existence. I tell myself, all things pass. This won’t last forever, it didn’t before, it won’t again. Even if, at 3 o’clock in the morning it feels like it lasts forever.
That’s not a simple answer. It doesn’t work every time. Sometimes I remember: I love hiking. Real proper, up in the mountains for a week hiking, with my boots and my rucksack. And about day three, I’m up there, and it’s either hot, or it’s pouring with rain, or it’s freezing cold, sleet sometimes. I’ve got blisters. My shoulders hurt, the rucksack’s horrible, I didn’t bring nearly enough chocolate. And I’m sat there, thinking ‘why do I do this? Why did I ever put myself through this?’ But I know that some other time, usually round about September, I’m going to be sitting there at home, and I’m going to be looking at my rucksack and my boots, and that yearning is going to build up, and I’m going to want to be out there again.
And Jeremiah says that’s what it’s like having God in his life. He would go: Why? No, I’m just, just…no. I’m done. And then he said, ‘I just could not win. The effort of not being God’s, of not having God’s name, was worse than all the frustration and the grief and the pain that came with doing it.
I’ve got a friend, a colleague, who’s going through something very like that at the moment, and is really thinking about throwing in the towel, because you know what? God’s people, not always grateful. Not always easy. Herding cats. But at the end of the day, when you’ve been called you’ve been called. When you’re God’s children you’re God’s children. And that doesn’t change with the state of our mental health. Still God’s children. All of us, every last one.
So I’ve got no answers. But I know what’s not the answer. It’s not about having enough faith. Jeremiah was a prophet, and he was depressed. It’s not a punishment. Jeremiah was doing what he was told. He was prophesying just like he was meant to. It’s not proof of sin. It just happens.
What I do know, is that whether it happens or whether it doesn’t, God’s still love. That when ‘sorrows like sea-billows roll’, I’ve still got the living Christ who died for me. Whether I can see, or whether I can’t, he’s still there. I know that it is well with my soul. Not necessarily with my brain. But it is well with my soul.