What’s going on with your feelings these days? In an old comic strip, Shoe, the curmudgeonly newspaper editor, is sitting at his desk. He declares, “There are mood swings and there are mood bungee jumps!” Some days are like that for me.
Who could have imagined where we find ourselves these days, in the middle of a pandemic, again on the rise, with no discernible end in sight? With a president who will not wear a mask, and where scientific and medical information is being subverted for political purposes. More than 2 million Americans have been infected with this runaway virus. More than 120,000 have died — and that’s just the number we have decided to count.
Many of us are experiencing what psychologists call “anticipatory grief” — grief over those who may yet die, grief over all kinds of losses everywhere we look and the threat of more to come, grief over the seismic changes which may lie ahead for us all. The storm has hit, and we have little idea of its duration or the extent of its destruction.
How do we live in the meantime? The prophet Jeremiah has some timely instruction: When times are dark, the way of faith is the path of everyday faithfulness and ordinary love.
Jeremiah was not the most popular preacher on the block. Early on he had prophesied the destruction of the nation and the temple if the nation didn’t change its ways and return to God.
“Many of us are experiencing what psychologists call ‘anticipatory grief.'”
But it happened. The unimaginable happened. Jerusalem and God’s inviolable temple were destroyed and the Hebrew people carried off into exile in Babylon.
Into this crisis false prophets arose, many in high places, to promise swift salvation. Their messages were variations of “Something Good is Going to Happen to You!” Hananiah, one of the false prophets, appeared on the scene and announced that they would be back home from exile in two years.
Jeremiah’s prophecy was more realistic — and harder to hear. It will be more like 70 years, he said, before God brought them back home.
To symbolize the time of captivity, Jeremiah fashioned a wooden yoke, put it over his shoulders and walked through the streets of Jerusalem. Hananiah went to Jeremiah, tore the wooden yoke from his neck and smashed it into pieces on the ground. Jeremiah went back home, made a yoke of iron and started all over again. One determined prophet!
“Sometimes God helps us prepare for an ordeal that lasts much longer than we would wish.”
Sometimes God helps us prepare for an ordeal that lasts much longer than we would wish. With the psalmist we cry, “How long, O Lord?” And God answers, “Longer.” “Longer?!” we reply. “What are we to do?” And God gives us instructions — for the meantime.
How are we to live in the meantime? A helpful place to begin is to listen again to the message from God that Jeremiah sent to the captive Hebrew people in Babylon recorded in Jeremiah 29:5-7:
Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have children. Give them to be married so they may multiply and not decrease. Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you. (We are talking Babylon here!) Pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
Here, then and now, is the path of everyday faithfulness and ordinary love. When the big picture grows cloudy and dark, focus on the little picture. In bad times, pay attention to the little (but really not-so-little) things — the daily tasks you’ve been given to do, the people you’ve been given to love. There’s a husband, a wife, a child, a friend, a parent to love. There are gardens to plant, friendships to nurture, weddings to plan, babies to make, grandchildren to love. Find joy in the simple things. And, as Jesus counseled, make everyone your neighbor — which, you know, we are, neighbors all.
And, yes, work and pray, the monastic creed. Work for the welfare of our neighborhoods, cities and nation. Work for the national healing we desperately need. The great Rabbi Abraham Heschel said, when criticized for abandoning his prayers to march with Martin Luther King Jr., “My legs are praying.”
But pray too, for our unhappy, fractured nation. We are all bound together here. To use Paul’s words, we are “members of one another,” all of us.
It is the path of everyday faithfulness and ordinary love — and prophetic courage too — that will sustain us for the living of this long night.