Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage (Lamentations 3) transports me back to my pre-school era of the mid-sixties and one of the first movies I remember seeing on television. The Three Faces of Eve garnered Joanne Woodward the Academy Award for best actress, and it fairly well freaked me out. The very idea that a person’s brain could play such tricks on them and leave them with more than one identity is a lot for a four or five year old to grasp. For South Carolina’s Chris Costner Sizemore, the real life Eve, there were a total of 22 distinct personalities, though only three existed at any one time. Being freaked out by this didn’t stop me from being somewhat fascinated by the strange syndrome, which is probably why I was captivated when Victoria Lord’s alter ego Niki Smith emerged on One Life to Live in the late 60s to start the evil twin syndrome in soaps. It’s also why I was mesmerized by Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on Saturday afternoon’s Shock Theater and later sat through Sally Field’s portrayal of the multiple personality Sybil in the mid-70s.
And now I read chapter 3 of Jeremiah’s Lamentations and wonder if he wasn’t history’s first victim of what the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV) now calls Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly Multiple Personality Disorder). There are three faces of Jeremiah in today’s passage, three very distinct moods or personalities in his alphabetical lament. The chapter is organized as an acrostic, like Psalm 119, according to the letters in the Hebrew alphabet, with three verses per letter. Verses 1-18 (aleph-vav) speak of the horror of a God who has not only abandoned the prophet, but is actively terrorizing and torturing him, breaking all his bones, besieging him with bitterness, shutting out his prayers, blocking his path, haunting and hunting him like a lion or bear, using him for target practice, making him the brunt of jokes and taunts and mockery from all his neighbors, breaking his teeth with gravel and driving him into the dust.
But in the blink of an eye, Jeremiah’s personality shifts for verses 19-41 (zayin-nun). Here the prophet takes a radical mood swing and professes high hopes in the unfailing mercy of a loving God. He segues from despair to delight, from my hope is perished to therefore I have hope. After this non-sequitur he pens the lines we have immortalized in the hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” Thy compassions they fail not. . .morning by morning new mercies we see. (I’d love to see what Thomas Chisholm or Charles Wesley or Isaac Watts or Fanny Crosby would have done in making a hymn out of the first 18 verses). Here in this middle section, God displays compassion according to a multitude of mercies. This face of Jeremiah ends in the middle of the nun letter with the call to worship, “let us lift up our hearts and our hands to God.”
And wham, another dissociation: in verses 42-66 (nun-tau) Jeremiah takes another shift, and mixes the picture of a cloud-covered God who lets no prayers get through with a series of prayers and pleas for God to come and exact vengeance on those enemies who mock him with songs and insults, treating him like the scum of the earth. Jeremiah would indeed be a fascinating case study for the DSM IV; the experts could debate whether this chapter in his diary reveals a true case of dissociative disorder, or perhaps he is merely suffering from bipolar, or schizophrenia, or maybe, given that he is writing in the aftermath of his nation’s defeat in war, he is suffering from your garden variety PTSD.
While the psychiatrists ponder these possibilities, we are left with a troubling picture of God painted by the prophet. For me, the passage rings truer when I read it as a portrait of Jeremiah, rather than a portrait of God. Jeremiah tells me that, while we all may not shift gears as radically as he does in this chapter, and we all may not be diagnosable with any of the DSM’s disorders, most of us knows what it is like to experience days when it feels like the world and God is square against us at every turn, and other days when we feel like lifting our hearts and hands in praise of the wondrous love of God. Such is the nature of life, full of the mixtures of defeat and delight, tragedy and triumph. The prophet gives us permission to wail and moan and scream at God when life goes amok and darkness covers the face of our lives, and turn right around and worship and magnify and shout praise when we can see the light again. Sometimes we might even wail and worship in the same breath.
As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.