We live in a time of fearful hearts, encountering tension and disagreement seemingly at every turn, and we seem to need more than ever what Anne Lamott, who is a writer and theologian in California, calls “the beggy prayers.” Help. I got nothing. Do something. Fix this.
It is for such a time as this that lament serves.
The prophet Jeremiah could fairly be called the Avis Car Rental of prophets – as in, “When you’re #2, you try harder.” Always in the shadow of Isaiah, Jeremiah is also known as the angry prophet. Understandably so. Isaiah is replete with familiar passages of hope and promise, uplift and beauty. Although, to be fair, we do tend to skip over a lot of the more uncomfortable parts. But in reading the Book of Jeremiah, or its sequel, the Book of Lamentations, it can be hard to find anything but lament.
Lament is more than just weeping and wailing. Lament is anger of the most righteous variety. Lament is the result of a person or community of deep and abiding faith feeling God’s absence. Lament is making the beggy prayers with increasing volume and urgency.
As a nursing-home resident recently put it, “I know that God is present, but sometimes I feel as though I don’t yell loud enough.”
Today’s Old Testament reading gives us a person of deep and abiding faith who has no problem with “yelling loud enough.” Over and over again, the Bible shows you and me that people whom God chooses will, at some point, express their frustration to God. I told you I wasn’t the right person for the job – see? They don’t even listen. In fact, they mock me! They laugh at me!
We can’t even have a civil discussion – they have to tear me down and tell me that I’m wrong.
Does this sound at all familiar? At a time in which respectful discourse seems hard to find, a man of God from hundreds of years before Christ shows us what it feels like to be God’s anointed. That being a person of deep and abiding faith, and trying to hear and follow the will of God, can sometimes mean that God has gotten on your last nerve.
And this is good news. As surprising as that might sound, it shows you and me that our God is large enough for our frustration, our tears, our fury. That, in fact, God not only invites it but deeply desires it, that such honesty and transparency strengthens the relationship and leads to healing. And that holds true for every relationship. Every relationship.
Dr. Terence Fretheim is retired from the faculty of Luther Seminary in St. Paul. He writes that Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry lasted about forty years, from 625 to 585 in the years before Jesus. “At the mid-point of his ministry, the Babylonian empire under Nebuchadnezzar [has begun] expanding in the Middle East,” threatening Israel’s very existence. But most of the people living in Israel simply don’t feel threatened. The economy is good; their lives are prosperous; they are at home in the Promised Land and all is well.
Jeremiah, though, believes he has received a word from the Lord, which leaves him between a rock and a hard place. How can it be the will of God that he preach this dire warning to God’s chosen people when all that it brings him is derision and scorn? And so Jeremiah laments. At some length. With increasing frustration.
“How can these biblical characters speak to God like that?” Dr. Fretheim asks. “But they do, easily and often. Do they not model an openness [for you and me] to speak to God in comparable ways? Can we not easily voice to God our deepest questions and complaints, no holds barred? … These prayers are a genuine gift.”
As we sit with these hard words from Jeremiah, as each of us reflects on this lament by the author of the Book of Lament, a great deal will depend on how we see God at work in the world. Sometimes when we pray, Dr. Fretheim says, “we think of God as a superman … who hears our prayers and, faster than a speeding bullet is able to accomplish anything and everything. With such a God, no constraints or restraints are in view, and the only issue falls back on whether the one who prays has enough faith.
“But we often forget that more is at work in these situations than our prayers and God’s will. And it may be that some factors are so resistant to the will of God that God’s will does not get done. And God’s heart is the first heart to break, and God’s tears are the first tears to flow.”
What Jeremiah remembers – after he has had the cleansing opportunity to lament, to vent, to provide a detailed list of his grievances – is that God has established a genuine relationship with him, and that is the good news for you and for me amid this strong language, amid these harsh words.
Jeremiah shows us across the centuries that the strongest and most durable relationships are the ones founded on the fruits of communication, of open and honest dialogue, on recognition that it’s a shared effort. With God and with the people in our household and with the people in our church and with the people in the grocery store and with the people with whom we disagree.
It’s not a zero-sum game. It’s not a contest with a winner and a loser. Communication begins not with the lips but with the heart. The reason that we seem to have the fiercest arguments with people we love is, in part, that we have established over the years the absolute trust that no matter what horrible thing one of us says, there are other things we can say as well, such as I’m sorry and I didn’t mean that and Help me understand.
Years ago, when George and Sammy were toddlers, we were having a family gathering. My younger sister’s baby was taking a nap in the farthest corner of the house. My children were behaving – well, like toddlers – and making too much noise. Of course, they woke the baby, and my sister went to tend to her.
In a moment of frustration, when she came back, she snapped at me, “Your children are terrible!” and stormed out.
I’m ashamed to say that I clung to my resentment of that statement for several months. But one of her husband’s relatives died, and of course I went to the visitation. There, my sister and I embraced each other, and wept, and forgave. It would have been all too easy to let weeks and months become years – until we’d built between us a wall of estrangement so high and so sturdy that no love could get through.
It can be challenging to have a conversation these days. Social media, television, friends and relatives – all of us are seeing and hearing the tensions on every side. We’re all on our own last nerve. So what do we do, what do we say, in such a time as this?
Jeremiah, the angry prophet, shows us.
We communicate. We listen. We build relationship. We remember, as my sister and I remembered that evening at the funeral home, that we love one another. And we notice that after Jeremiah has expressed his anger … he praises God. “Sing to the Lord,” he says. “Praise the Lord, for he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers.” The Israelites have not yet heeded God’s warning – but Jeremiah trusts that God will deliver the Israelites in God’s own way and God’s own time.
In such a time as this, we must not let anger lead us to despair. Like Jeremiah, we can communicate what is on our hearts. We can listen to God. And we can rejoice when we remember that God is in charge.
 “Commentary on Jeremiah 20:7-13,” Terence E. Fretheim, © 2014, Working Preacher.