Suddenly the mint julep is all over the ground, and there’s broken glass everywhere we look, and Jeremiah’s hair is on fire and he’s running around cursing his friends and screaming about terror all around.
What just happened?
I suspect I’m not alone in experiencing hair-raising moments like this not only in unexpectedly scorching texts on sunny Sunday mornings, but at other times in life too. In fact, more often than not, these moments don’t come to us when they are convenient or even expected. In fact, they come when we least want them and perhaps when we are most uncertain that we can handle them. They come to us whenever injustice raises its head.
Of course, for Jeremiah, the so-called “weeping prophet” they seem to be normative experience, a haunting almost, a compulsion:
8 For whenever I speak, I must cry out,
I must shout, “Violence and destruction!”
For the word of the Lord has become for me
a reproach and derision all day long.
9 If I say, “I will not mention him,
or speak any more in his name,”
then within me there is something like a burning fire
shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot.
I suspect we all know something of this—something that holds onto us so powerfully that as much as we might like, we can’t get away from it. As much as we would like to stay under the radar we can’t, or when we do, when we remain silent, then the internal agony eats away at us.
Jesus gets at the same dynamic in Matthew as well. This faith of ours has a substance that calls us. It has deep claims that compel us. Why else would we be here this morning? To be Christian is to be engaged in the world for the sake of others, for the sake of wholeness, for the sake of peace, for the sake of mending the world. But as we know all too well, the way to peace is not always peaceful. Any movement that has endured change knows this all too well.
One writer puts this kind of lament into perspective, I think: “One of the reasons for learning the Scriptures is to have available such prayers when the pain is so great and a voice is needed to express it. It is difficult to recommend such a prayer. It is important that it be available for the grasping when there is nothing else to hold onto.”[i]
And its complicated too. Because sometimes what haunts us isn’t God at all, but something else. How are we to know that Jeremiah wasn’t mentally ill or maybe just plain wrong. How are we to know when we are so certain of something that we aren’t deceived or mistaken?
The truth is, that’s much of our work, isn’t it? We have to work our stuff out so that we don’t take it out on others. We have to open ourselves to one another, to allow our perceptions to be measured and challenged and examined by others for us to arrive at what’s true, what’s good, what’s of God and what isn’t.
Romans asks, “How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” Because we certainly do go on imperfectly.
And yet, we also go on mending the world, and caring for others, and putting our lives on the line, even when we’d rather be sipping a mint julep and soaking up some sun. And sometimes we get to do that too. Sometimes we need to simply make the space for rest. We need sabbath.
And these texts—all of these texts—affirm that as we do all of these things, and as we find ourselves in the midst of all of these kinds of times, God is ever-present. In the lack of peace or the presence of peace God is always present. In our agonized longing and in our joyful thanksgiving God is ever-present. Along the way and on the cross and at the empty tomb and in the wind the sparrow rides, and the swirling stars and the expanding universe, God’s life-giving, peacemaking, loving Spirit is ever-present. Do you believe this?
I don’t pretend to understand what that looks like all the time, but I have some ideas. I suspect you do too.
I was introduced this week to a model of therapy called The Internal Family Systems Model.[ii] It’s a model that evolved from the Family Systems Theory you’ve heard me refer to many times. But rather than taking an external view—attending to our interdependence, our relationships with others, and keys to healthy forms of behavior, Internal Family Systems conceives of the mind as an inner family. It views a person—you and me—as an ecology of relatively discrete minds, each of which has valuable qualities and wants to play a valuable role within. But life experiences can reorganize our internal system in unhealthy ways so that it sometimes feels, like Jeremiah, as if our inner self is at war.
The theory identifies three parts of our inner selves—the first try to keep us functional and safe. These so-called internal managers try to get us to act better, to focus on taking care of others, to control our inner and outer environments.
Yet when we are hurt, humiliated, frightened, or shamed, we carry emotions, memories, and sensations from these experiences. The managing parts of ourselves want to lock them away—these exiles—away from our consciousness, yet they cannot always be controlled, and they serve an important role.
And when these exiled emotions can’t be controlled, a third group—the firefighters—jump into action, trying to douse our inner flames of feeling as quickly as possible—perhaps by finding other stimulation like drugs, alcohol, food, sex, or work, to distract or numb us.
But here’s the kicker. The theory also recognizes that there’s more—that these parts are not ultimately us. Each of us, at our core, has a Self containing crucial leadership qualities such as perspective, confidence, compassion, and acceptance. We might call it our conscience, our Spirit, our soul. This “Self” is the conductor that has the ability to direct the inner cacophony of these managers, firefighters, and exiles, drawing on their strengths, but moderating their impulses so that we can be who we really are. And we know it when we see it, don’t we? When we see it, we are calm, curious, clear, compassionate, confident, creative, courageous, and connected.
When I am these things, I am my true self. I am at rest. I am in-tuned with the holy and with creation—alive to God and Christ Jesus. And I know, I know, that God is not only present, but ever-present—in justice, in passion, in peace.
And I can clean up the glass, pour another mint-julep and sing with Jeremiah what we both know in our bones to be true:
Sing to the Lord;
praise the Lord!
For he has delivered the life of the needy
from the hands of evildoers.
[i] New International Bible, 728.
[ii] This summary is drawn from the online resource: http://www.selfleadership.org/about-internal-family-systems.html.