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Creative prayer with Jeremiah

Lynne Baab • Friday May 31 2019

Creative prayer with Jeremiah

I fell in love with the book of Jeremiah in my early twenties. Ever since I hit puberty, I had felt that my emotions were unruly, confusing and sometimes overwhelming. I found a soul mate in Jeremiah, who (in God’s presence) cursed the day he was born and even cursed the man who brought the news of his birth to Jeremiah’s father. Jeremiah shouts at God, “Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?” (Jer 20:14-18).

Talk about unruly emotions!

Jeremiah obeys his call to be God’s prophet, but he is not at all happy about it, and he pours out his frustration to God in three passionate prayers (Jeremiah 12:1-4, 15:15-18 and 20:7-18).

The prayers are noteworthy because mixed into the complaints and anger are statements of trust and faith. “My heart is with you,” Jeremiah affirms (Jer 12:3). In chapter 15 he says, “O Lord, you know; remember me and visit me,and bring down retribution for me on my persecutors” (verse 15). And in the middle of his long complaint in chapter 20 are these words: “Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers” (verse 13).

Jeremiah’s complaint at the beginning of chapter 12 is followed by a long response from God. I wonder if dialog with God, described in so many places in the book of Jeremiah, is part of why Jeremiah can affirm trust and faith in the midst of the deep pain he expresses.

In addition, the prophecy that God gave to Jeremiah contains numerous mentions of God’s compassion, mixed in with the vivid and powerful statements of judgment that Jeremiah is famous for. The reminders of God’s compassion must have influenced the prophet personally. Here’s an example. God describes “plucking up” the people of Israel from their land, a form of judgment for sin. Then God says, “And after I have plucked them up, I will again have compassion on them, and I will bring them again to their heritage and to their land” (Jer 12:15).

I wrote last week that in our prayers we must balance direct requests with submission to God’s purposes. I said that we are called to both entreaty AND submission. We must pray with sincerity AND assent to the purposes of God, candor AND surrender.

God also invites us in our prayers to balance honest expression of emotion – even what we consider to be negative emotions – with statements of praise, thankfulness and submission.  

Like Jeremiah’s, our honest expressions of emotion might include complaining and pain. They might involve deep lament at something going on in our lives or in the lives of people we love. They might include passionate expressions of sadness about world events or people in need on the other side of the world.

But, that pain we’re expressing is not the whole story. Sometimes we are so sad we have to wait for God to give us encouragement, but even in those cases we can expect that God will bring eventual comfort. Sometimes we can find the energy to shift our thoughts to the blessings we have, all of which come from the hand of God.

“Lord, you know” (Jer 15:15) may be one of the most helpful ways to balance pain and faith. Whatever we are feeling, God knows about it and enters into it with us. My husband’s sister died last week, and we have just returned from her funeral in Ohio. I’m grieving with her husband, daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, as well as with my husband. Lord, you know.

Almost every day I see homeless people on the streets of Seattle, and I grieve. Lord, you know. I’m thinking of children starving to death in Yemen and in other countries, crop failures in Central America that send refugees north, and a piece of plastic found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. All of this hurts. Lord, you know. My heart is still with you.

Next week: creative prayer as pressing pause. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to sign up to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” below (for cellphones) or in the right hand column of the webpage (for laptops).

I’ve posted a new article on my website, “Local Ministry: A Cord of Three Strands.” In it I’m arguing that in this increasingly secular time, local mission must be woven together with pastoral care and spiritual practices in new ways. The article was originally published in the Christ and Cascadia online journal.

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