Surprising InvestmentPosted: September 29, 2013
Poor Jeremiah! God called upon him to prophesy to the people of Judah, that because they had been unfaithful to God, the Babylonians were going to conquer them and carry them away into slavery and exile. Jeremiah’s message was not popular, and when the Babylonians swept down on Judah destroying town after town and besieging Jerusalem, proving Jeremiah correct, it just made him even more unpopular. Poor Jeremiah! People hated him. Remember all the epithets hurled at Martin Luther King by the White Citizen’s Councils? Well this was even worse. One of the false prophets who was popular with the King aroused a crowd who beat up Jeremiah and put him in the stocks.
When Jeremiah got out of the stocks, he told everybody that resistance to the Babylonians was futile. So they beat him up again and this time threw him into an unused cistern, where he sank up to his neck in stinky muck. He was left down there to starve to death so the King could claim to be innocent of the prophet’s “blood,” but fortunately a Cushite an African servant pulled him out of the cistern. So Jeremiah was brought before the King who asked him, “Why are you always the bringer of bad news? Why can’t you prophecy good news for a change?”
And Jeremiah answered, “I only repeat what God tells me!”
So the King ordered him to be locked in the court of the guard. And while he was a prisoner of the King, Jeremiah’s cousin Hanamel came to him and asked him to buy a piece of the family property in Anathoth. Now the town of Anathoth, about 2 and half miles north of Jerusalem, had been destroyed and occupied by the Babylonians already. This was like asking Jeremiah to buy a piece of underwater real estate in the Everglades. But Jeremiah agreed. Why? Was he stupid? Was he like so many “spiritual” people dumb when it came to money and real estate?
Jeremiah wasn’t dumb. He was making a prophetically symbolic act offering hope to the people of Israel. Yes, Judah was going to be conquered. Yes, Jerusalem would be destroyed. Yes, most of the people would be led away into exile and slavery. But, someday in the future vineyards would be bought and sold in the land. Someday their descendants would return and rebuild Jerusalem. And the faith of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would continue and thrive, because faith does not depend on what the eye sees or the ear hears. Faith is intangible and can be renewed and made stronger in adversity. In buying a worthless piece of property Jeremiah was purchasing hope for the future of the people of Israel.
A PERIOD OF UNMAKING
Three weeks ago we were reading about the word that came to Jeremiah as he was watching a potter unmake a flawed lump of clay and then reform the container to make a new and more perfect vessel that would withstand the test of firing in the kiln. Maybe some of us are in one of those difficult times in life when we are in the process of being unmade. It’s no fun. And maybe some of us are in need of a word of hope that someday vineyards will be bought and sold again in our land. Someday good times will return. We have certainly seen hard times recently in our land. And if there are further budget cuts or a government shut-down Huntsville is likely to see even harder times to come.
PROMISES OF HOPE
God never promises us that we will be happy, happy all the time. God does promise to be with us always, and “vineyards will be bought and sold again in our land.” God promises us hope. But how do we maintain hope, in the face of common realities of life like unemployment, illness, poverty, grief, death?
HOPE IN CANCER TREATMENT
Doctors who treat children with cancer have documented the importance of the element of hope in children who achieve remission or cure of the disease. They have noted five important pathways that appear to help children maintain hope.
The first pathway is maintaining identity. The more children are able to participate in activities and relationships that maintain a sense of self beyond their disease the greater their sense of hope. Of course one of the great challenges for unemployed adults is the extent that our identity is often tied to our work. Another challenge for adults, when a spouse or partner dies, or a long term relationship ends is the way part of our identity is tied to the relationship. So, maintaining or sometimes rediscovering identity is important for hope.
A second important pathway in feeding hope in children is realizing community, the web of relationships that help the child know they are not alone in facing their disease. Often traveling a distance for treatment, or long hospitalization creates a sense of isolation. Feeling loved and supported is essential to the care and feeding of hope. And again when we think about how unemployment, death of loved ones, or divorce can all take away parts of an individual’s support community, staying in touch with community is vital to the survival of hope, and that is why I believe participating in a faith community can be so important. When we covenant with a community of people to pray with and for one another we form bonds that do not break or dissolve easily. And when we engage in communal prayer we can experience sacred empowerment that leads to our third pathway.
CLAIMING OUR POWER
A third pathway for maintaining hope in children with cancer is claiming power by taking some active role in their own treatment. Certainly children have limited options in choosing treatment, but every opportunity for them to feel empowered increases their feeling of hope in treating the disease. Helping adults to feel empowered is an important part of hope. There is a profound difference between hoping and wishing. Wishing encourages passivity, while hope is an active participation in meeting challenges head on. Wishing is the fantasy that everything is going to turn out OK. Hoping is actually showing up for the hard work. Chronic long term unemployment or under employment contributes to feelings of worthlessness and powerlessness that can also lead to hopelessness. Similarly the depression that can result from grief can spiral into a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness. Self-empowerment in small things like setting up an exercise routine, a schedule for interviews, or a small volunteer commitment can be the beginning of finding hope.
OCCUPY MOVEMENT: IDENTITY, COMMUNITY, POWER
I think part of the popularity of the Occupy Movement was the way it made use of these first three pathways to hope: maintaining identity, realizing community and claiming power. I don’t know where the Occupy Movement will go, but I think it was a cry for help and an aspiration for hope.
ATTENDING TO SPIRITUALITY
A fourth pathway to hope for children with cancer was attending to spirituality activated by religious, spiritual or other contemplative practices. Faith is intangible, but when we consistently engage in spiritual practices over time, we change our brains and one of the results of those brain changes is the enhancement of hope. In one study twelve minutes a day of meditation for eight weeks was enough to increase memory and cognition in older patients. Regular spiritual practices and belief in a loving, joyful and optimistic divine presence enhances the centers of our brain that are most closely associated with hope.
The fifth pathway to hope for children undergoing cancer treatment was developing wisdom as defined by gaining pragmatic medical knowledge about their disease from their own experience and finding ways “to give back,” by sharing from the own experience. Finding some way we can give to others is also an empowering experience that is affirming of our self-worth. Giving back to help others sometimes even paying it forward engenders hope. Giving back to others is another important reason for participating in a faith community. For when we learn to join with and support others in mission and ministry we give back in ways that empower us and help us connect with a source of energy and hope that is beyond ourselves.
COURAGE IN GIVING BACK
Part of giving back is courage — the courage to give up something of ourselves for others.
I am struck by the story of a little girl who was dying of cancer and her younger brother had a match for the bone marrow she needed. The doctors told the boy it was a matter of life and death. After the procedure to remove his bone marrow to transplant into his sister the little boy asked the doctors how long he had to live. He thought if he gave his bone marrow for his sister to live he would die — and he did it anyway.
GENEROSITY IN GIVING BACK
And sometimes the poorest of the poor are the most generous in giving back. My daughter Jennifer used to have to walk through a fairly destitute neighborhood to get to work in Chicago, where she often encountered panhandlers. She didn’t want to give them money, so she started carrying an extra sandwich and an apple, so if anyone said they were hungry and asked her for money, she could give them the sandwich and the apple instead.
One day she was approached by a homeless person who asked her if she had any change. She had forgotten to bring the extra sandwich and apple. So since the man had asked for change, she dug down into her pocket and found two dimes. So, she gave the two dimes to him and watched him walk away. The homeless man only walked about ten feet when he put the two dimes in the expired parking meter of a stranger’s car.
Hope appears in the most unlikely places. Hope is fragile, but it’s hard to kill. Hope keeps us alive, and makes the future possible. Hope makes surprising investments, like giving to a stewardship drive, or investing our time in intangible relationships, teaching Sunday School, or serving others through a Care Giving Committee, teaching a NAMI class, or becoming a faith mentor for people who don’t even quite know what they are seeking. Making a surprising investment like giving up a piece of land to say, healing might happen here. Like Jeremiah who bought a worthless piece of property to offer the people of Israel the hope that vineyards might thrive again in the land one day.