I love the prophet Jeremiah. I love how open he is in sharing his feelings with God. In the two short sentences above, Jeremiah manages to ask God to be present and to punish his enemies, all while blaming God for putting him in this desperate situation! Reading the book of Jeremiah is almost like reading someone’s diary; you get to know the deepest parts of the person’s soul-- but here, it happens to be the soul of one who lived thousands of years ago.
So who was this Jeremiah dude, and why did he feel as if he could complain to God? Jeremiah, son of a priest, grew up in a village just north of Jerusalem. He lived and prophesied just before, during, and after the siege of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar, ruler of Babylon--about six centuries before the birth of Christ. Unlike other so-called prophets of the time, Jeremiah was a true prophet of God, in that he warned the people of Israel that if they did not repent of their ways (such as Baal worship, sexual immorality, and child sacrifice), God would smite them. Naturally, those in power tried to stop Jeremiah from prophesying doom and gloom by beating him, imprisoning him, and casting him into a cistern: “So they took Jeremiah and threw him into the cistern of Malchiah, the king’s son, which was in the court of the guard, letting Jeremiah down by ropes. Now there was no water in the cistern, but only mud, and Jeremiah sank in the mud.” (38:6) Poor guy! Nothing though, could stop Jeremiah’s call to be a prophet. After the fall of Jerusalem, Jeremiah was forcibly exiled to Egypt, along with other residents of Jerusalem. He continued to preach to the exiled in Egypt, and most likely died there (Lundbom, Jack R. The Hebrew Prophets: An Introduction, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010) , p.88).
As in any healthy and loving relationship between two people that allows safe space for the sharing of life’s deepest hurts and highest joys, Jeremiah obviously held a high level of trust in his relationship with God. Reading such ‘diary entries’ of this ancient Hebrew prophet helps to remind me that there is nothing I need to keep from God. There have been times in my life in which I have defended my complaining to God in this way: “Well, if the Bible--which is sacred scripture-- contains words of complaint to God, and God always forgives the complainer, then I trust that God will still love me unconditionally, even when when I complain--and like Jeremiah-- blame God for my predicament.” If you have never lifted in prayer a complaint to God, try it sometime. It’s like taking a load off your shoulders. Although I believe that God knows our prayers even before we offer them, God delights in our need to share our deepest pain. Even when they are prayers of complaint!
May the God who loves you unconditionally, be listening for your prayers this week!
Psalm 138: 7-8
Though I walk in the midst of trouble,
you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies;
you stretch out your hand,
and your right hand delivers me.
The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me;
your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.
Do not forsake the work of your hands.
Do you miss singing during worship? I know that I do. It’s difficult for this lifelong church-goer to get through a hymn during the pandemic without bursting out into a full-throated song of thanksgiving or lament. I sometimes imagine what would happen if the birds who wake me up in the morning were suddenly required to hum their hymn of morning praise behind tiny little bird masks; pandemonium would break out in our backyard, with a litany of squawking and cawing filling the morning air amidst a flurry of feathers. It would be pure avian chaos!
I happen to love reading and meditating on the 150 Psalms of the Old Testament, partly because the Psalms were written as hymns to be sung, and I happen to love to sing. As a nerdy lover of ‘high church’ liturgy (think of an Episcopal worship service or Roman Catholic mass), hearing a cantor during worship heightens my sense of the Divine that is present within the dance between melody and words. Especially cantors singing in the original Hebrew during worship at a synagogue. Gives me shivers of joy! Although I have never received training in canting, as part of my time meditating on a particular Psalm I will sometimes locate the Psalm in one of the four volumes of the Psalms I own set to music for Catholic mass, and sing it while accompanying myself on the piano. As I sing and play, I can imagine a cantor or a congregation, thousands of years ago, singing the very same Psalm; it may have occurred at a different time and place, but the same God of steadfast and everlasting love of this ancient Israelite congregation is listening to me, reveling in the joy of creating me as a singer of Psalms, in spite of my rusty, wobbly voice!
The Psalm I am studying this week--Psalm 138-- is a hymn sometimes attributed to King David, but was most likely written centuries after he lived. Like other Psalms placed at the end of the Book, Psalm 138 is considered a hymn of praise and thanksgiving. Here are a few of my observations gleaned from studying the hymn:
And this leads me to a small announcement: starting next week (gulp!), Catie and I are going to offer daily Facebook offerings based on the different parts of a worship service. After all, church doesn’t happen only on Sundays! Wednesdays I will be reading a Psalm, and then offer a couple minutes’ worth of reflections. Don’t worry--I won’t be canting the Psalm! Watch for our Facebook posts.
Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, "Send everyone away from me."
So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.
And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. (Genesis 45: 1-2)
Recall sometime in your life when you wailed. I’m not talking about weeping, or sobbing, or even crying; I’m referring to full-throttle, who-cares-if anyone-hears-me, wailing. Perhaps it was as a teenager, after breaking up with your boyfriend/girlfriend. Or as an adult, after receiving a middle-of-the-night phone call from the sheriff’s office that your child was in a terrible car accident, but will be okay.
I imagine Joseph wailing--that vocal expression defying control--as he comes face-to-face with his brothers, who years before, had sold him into slavery. Is Joseph’s wailing due to anger and resentment that may have fomented in his heart over the years due to his brother’s horrific decision? Or is it a result of the joy he feels at seeing his family once again?
Let’s review Joseph’s life, so far, to see if we can discern the source of his wailing. Joseph grows up as the youngest of Jacob’s clan. Like his father, he has a propensity of getting into trouble with members of his family. Joseph dreams of being a great leader, and mistakenly shares this with his brothers, who already are jealous of their little brother, for he is their father’s favorite son. At first the brothers plot to kill Joseph, but end up selling him to some nomads, who in turn sell him into slavery in Egypt. But Joseph is a smart, wiley character, and grows into adulthood as a right-hand man to Pharaoh and leader of the Egyptian people! Meanwhile, a great famine is unfolding in the world. But Joseph the visionary (thanks to God!) orders the Egyptians to store up their grain in order to survive the famine. Meanwhile, back in Canaan, Jacob (Joseph’s daddy) hears there is grain for sale and sends ten of his sons to Egypt to make a purchase. Joseph recognizes his brothers, but does not reveal who he is. Joseph orders that the eleventh son of Jacob (Benjamin) be brought to Pharaoh’s palace. Flash forward to today’s scripture, where Joseph finally breaks down in front of his brothers, wailing so hard that everyone in the palace can hear him.
So, is Joseph’s wailing a result of anger or joy? Perhaps it is both. Maybe even more than both. If I were in Joseph’s sandals, my source of wailing would have been both anger and joy. Like losing your child at the mall, and upon your reunion, feeling both the anger that you allowed them to wander off (and anger that they wandered off!) and joy that they are now safely in your arms. I think though, that there is more going on in his response than the human emotions of anger and joy.
Like I’ve said before, it is important when reading scripture to take a bird’s eye view of the broader story in order to glean the meaning of the text. Unlike other major Old Testament characters, such as Abraham and Moses, God and Joseph don’t do much talking. But we can see God at work within Joseph’s story; within the pain and brokenness of family, and within the suffering of human communities due to drastic changes in weather and climate. From a bird’s eye view of Joseph’s story, I see a pivot in Joseph’s character within his heart-wrenching wailing; a transformation from wiley, self-serving, man of power to one of forgiveness and generosity toward his brothers. Even Joseph attributes this change to God: “And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. . . God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 45: 5-8)
The saga of Joseph and his brothers and his rise to power in Egypt is colorful and entertaining. Even Broadway saw the potential of this story in drawing audiences to experience the highly entertaining musical, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”! For people of faith searching for God’s presence in their lives though, this story offers much more than entertainment: God is at work even in the lives of people who seem to be power-hungry and self-serving, or, as my mother would say, people who deserve their ‘comeuppance.’ If you read Joseph’s story, which ends with the book of Genesis, you will see that due to God’s transforming grace in Joseph’s life, the family of Jacob settles in the land Egypt, and prepares us for the opening of the next great saga--that of God’s deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt and the wilderness journey to the Promised Land in the book of Exodus!
May your feel God’s presence every day of your life!