It was 1996. I listened intently to everything he said. He recalled what it had been like marching in Memphis with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I could visualize every step. His descriptions were graphic. His sentences were breathlessly short as the cauldron of his passion ignited. I wondered if his story would become the next best-seller on the New York Times list or if I was listening to the development of the movie script for next summer's block buster.
I became his friend. I chose him to be the clergy person who placed my red stole onto my shoulders following the bishop’s prayer at my ordination. I broke all protocol and bear-hugged him in front of the bishop, cabinet and the entire crowd. Everyone clapped and cheered. He was old school and I embarrassed him for sure. But, there was a glimmer in his corrective gaze. He faded from my adventures for several years until I saw him walk to the podium and give that same speech I heard in his office at his retirement service. He continued to be a district superintendent, fulfilled his term and his words still pierce my heart, “I am outa here.”
Retirement did not suit him. Health concerns piled onto his husky frame. The last time I saw him was a few months before his death during an Annual Conference meeting. He was seated alone, a large oversized man whom I hardly recognized. I approached and asked if I could join him. Awkwardly, he looked up over his eye glasses. He didn’t recognize me. He mentioned he was about to leave. I apologized and excused myself. This time I was the one who was embarrassed. I wonder now, as I write this to you, if I was the one that had changed so much a friend would not recognize me or if he had. Or maybe he had not changed at all. At least not since those days in Memphis.
That’s my concern—we can be lured into believing we are a ‘one-hit wonder.’ Sometimes our experiences in life are transformational. It could be scoring the last second touchdown that won the game, landing the dream job you always wanted, acquiring the relationship that changed your life or closing the deal of the century. Sometimes I hear people speak so intensely about the past I feel like they’re stuck there unable to move forward or maybe they’re paralyzed by the fear that life could never deliver the same incredible experience.
Maybe that was Jeremiah’s concern too. The People of God had not honestly kept their passion for God alive. He faded from their spotlight and had not been the God of their heart. Some might even say a smugness seeped into the Jerusalem culture as God’s chosen people were gently, methodically, intentionally lured away from their passionate love of God into pursuing the heartless rules and rituals of a religion. For God, it was like the marriage bed had been violated and that somehow going through the motions and saying all the right words no longer the same effect. God was looking for his bride and she was with another.
Complacency is dangerous. It is a feeling of smug or uncritical satisfaction with oneself or one's achievements. It’s a defining moment or the ultimate feeling of “I’ve arrived.” There’s an air of entitlement or covert sophistication that can cloud our judgment when we approach the zenith of a journey that has cost us great sacrifice, plunged us into deep peril or transformed us from obscurity. Complacency isn’t always overt. Celebrities, athletes, politicians and business leaders have scaled that lofty mountain only to reach the loneliness of the summit. I feel like my clergy friend may have experienced something like this, too. My prayer isthis shall not be so with you. (Matthew 20:26)
Jeremiah was called by God to deliver an important message to his people. It was God’s word of correction to change. I hear Jeremiah’s corrective words as from One who was hurt, heartbroken but hopeful the love of his life would listen to his message and change. Repentance means to change direction. I find the first step is always the doozy because it’s always to my knees.
If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. Jeremiah 7:5-7 NIV