Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Jeremiah 12) transports me into the mindset of Joey, a war horse in the WWI British cavalry that led a charge against the German infantry in the Race to the Sea, 1914. It is in the Belgian Battle of Mons that Joey describes the first taste of battle, with his beloved rider Captain Nicholls leading the charge: I felt Captain Nicholls’ knees close right around me and he loosened his reins. His body was taut and for the first time he felt heavy on my back. “Easy Joey,” he said softly. “Don’t get excited. We’ll come out of this all right. . .” Out of the corner of my eye, I was aware of the glint of Captain Nicholls’ heavy sword. I felt the spurs in my side, and I heard his battle cry. I saw the gray soldiers ahead of us raise their rifles and heard the death rattle of a machine gun, and then quite suddenly I found that I had no rider, that I had no weight on my back anymore, and that I was alone out in front of the squadron. With horses behind me I knew there was only one way to gallop, and that was forward. Blind terror drove me on, with my flying stirrups whipping me into a frenzy. With no rider to carry, I reached the kneeling riflemen first, and they scattered as I came upon them.
Michael Morpugo’s riveting book, War Horse, adapted into a stunning play and a compelling Spielberg movie, came to mind as I read the words that emerged from Jeremiah’s trenches in the midst of his generation’s experience with the brutality of war. Eugene Peterson, translator of The Message paraphrase of the Bible, has written a moving devotional book on the life of the weeping prophet, called Run With the Horses, basing the title on verse 6 of our Passage, as God challenges Jeremiah: If you’re worn out in this footrace with men, what makes you think you can race against horses? Peterson uses this challenge, and Jeremiah’s faithful response, to encourage us to a life of excellence in the midst of struggle. He writes of the prophet: His was not a hothouse piety, for he lived through crushing storms of hostility and furies of bitter doubt. There is not a trace of smugness or complacency or naiveté in Jeremiah—every muscle in his body was stretched to the limits by fatigue, every thought in his mind subjected to rejection, every feeling in his heart put through fires of ridicule. The prophet’s and his nation’s crushing storm included the ultimate hostility: rejection by God. He heard God’s voice like a cannonball shaking the ground of no-man’s-land between the trenches: I will forsake my house, abandon my inheritance; I will give the one I love into the hands of her enemies.
While the God-forsaken war to end all wars was raging on the European continent, there was a boy who had lost his beloved horse to that war, and he was trying to come to terms not only with that grief, but with an alcoholic father who was struggling to make the mortgage payments on the farm. War Horse tells me that while the world keeps spinning out of control on the global scale, families in our neighborhoods are struggling to keep it together, and people battle all sorts of personal demons in the privacy of their homes. There is a courage needed for all fronts – the global and the communal and the personal. We need to learn to run with the humans as well as run with the horses. We need not trivialize the daily battles people wage to pay the mortgage, to tend the land, to stay warm, to get a good night’s sleep. These and a thousand other challenges, miniscule in comparison to the global challenges, need their own courageous administration (note that miniscule and administration and ministry all share the same root). And the horses know, as Joey witnessed, sometimes courage is not enough. There are machine guns that can fall the most valient of captains, barbed-wire fences that can catch the strongest and fastest and most courageous of horses, and muddy trenches that can forestall any hope of forward progress. At the end, both Joey and Jeremiah teach me that we need grace and mercy even more than we need strength and courage. Such grace and mercy, and hope, is given voice in one of the beautiful songs from the War Horse play, something worth hearing here in our new year: Cruel winter cuts through like the reaper, The old year lies withered and slain, Like Barleycorn who arose from the grave, The new year will rise up again.
How about you? Where does this Prophetic Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.