The 8am service on the Sunday before Labor Day was not well attended, and the rain didn’t help. Honestly, I was only there because I am paid to be. Then came the first reading, from the prophet Jeremiah:

“I did not sit in the company of merrymakers, nor did I rejoice; under the weight of your hand I sat alone, for you had filled me with indignation.Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.”

Great. Thanks Jerry. That’s super-helpful. Just what I need for a little pick-me-up this morning. And who chose this reading anyway? Why couldn’t we go with something snappy from the New Testament? People come to church to be inspired, lifted up, not suffer through this whiner’s rant. No wonder attendance is down.

And yet, as I listened, I found myself… strangely… comforted, understood, befriended – and realized that my initial resistance to the prophet’s words revealed my subscription to one of America’s most pernicious myths: the power of positive thinking.

Much has been written on this site about the oppressive imperative to happiness that exists in our culture (see here and here), but my recent Sunday morning experience, coupled with my hospital visitations of those struggling with the illness or condition of a loved one, have led me to a new (at least for me) insight: many Americans (even people who believe in God) actually think that they can affect not only their own condition, but the condition of other people, through the power of their thoughts and feelings.

use-the-force-luke_gp_320659In other words, while many modern-day prophets have espoused the notion that one can receive what one wants purely by envisioning it with adequate intensity, this meme has expanded to include not only ourselves, but others as well. If you don’t believe me, think of all the times you’ve heard someone say, “we’re thinking good thoughts!” or “we’re sending positive energy your way!”, as if they were Jedis or something.

Of course, this conceit is the same as it’s ever been – humans putting themselves in the place of God, misguidedly imbuing themselves with powers only He has – and the tragedy is that, just at the moment when someone has come to the end of themselves and could really use a Higher Power on whom to rely, in whom to hope, at whom to rant, they instead have to “stay positive” (aka denial) in the mistaken belief that their attitude is a factor in the well-being of those they love.

Jeremiah complained because he knew Who was in charge, and this knowledge gave him the freedom to tell the truth. Would that all sufferers would let themselves off the hook and bring their concerns to the only One who can alter reality with the power of His thoughts.