In the Old Testament, the prophet Jeremiah agonizes over the fact that others, including friends, have rejected him and even make fun of him because he continued to speak out against the evils prevalent in that culture as he believed God was calling him to do. The people did not want to hear it.
Jeremiah was not stupid, so why didn’t he just shut up and blend in a bit more and find some peace? He said, in Jeremiah 20:9, “If I say I will not mention God, or speak any more in his name, there is in my heart as if it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”
Can those of us who are people of faith imagine ourselves feeling that way about the Word of God? Is God’s voice within us so powerful and overwhelming that we cannot contain it no matter how hard we try? How soon might we say, “OK, I’ll be quiet, I’ll blend in. I’ll look the other way. Please don’t exclude me anymore.”
This brings to mind an experience I am ashamed of. A close friend of mine whom I really like and respect surprised me when he told me a joke about two gay men. The truth is that I have never liked racial, or ethnic, or sexual orientation jokes. They make me uncomfortable. It goes against everything I believe as a Christian.
Yet, did I say anything about that to my friend? Sadly, no, I did not. I mumbled something about an appointment I had and escaped. Would I have done better had I known what was coming? I don’t know, maybe.
I found myself wondering about the difference between Jeremiah and me. How had God’s truth become more important to him than even his friends? Then I thought of all of the martyrs over the centuries who sacrificed their lives for their faith. Were they different human beings from you and me? I don’t think so.
Maybe it is because we have it so easy, there is no sense of urgency about our faith. At least in our country we are not likely to have to choose between our faith and our lives. The central question, then, is, “what role does my faith play in my life?”
Going back to my silence about the joke, maybe there is more to it than first appears. Before I became a Christian in my early 30s, the joke might have bothered me because it was at the expense of other people. But now it was different. It was not that I was angry at my friend or judged him in any way. It was not that the joke would hurt people who would never even hear it. It was not that I was afraid that God would punish me, or that I was a “bad person.”
As I thought about it, I realized that the problem was that I was not being true to who I was as a disciple of Jesus. For that moment I was living a lie. I was not living out of my true identity as a child of God, but rather allowing worldly pressure to cause me to deny that truth.
I suppose the good news in all of this was that it did bother me and caused me to take a hard look at my own faith. I believe that every person of faith needs to do that just about every day. Are we being ourselves or letting the world tell us who we are?
The Rt. Rev. David C. Bane Jr. is the retired bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia and a member of Christ Episcopal Church in Elizabeth City.