A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Sermon (September 18) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "One Wail of a Prayer!"

     Have you ever given one wail of a prayer? Let me clarify. Have you ever said a prayer like the Prophet, Jeremiah prayed in our Old Testament reading today? That was truly one wail of a prayer and I do mean that literally.
     This is probably not the kind of a prayer that we would hear before the beginning of a typical church meeting. It’s not the kind of prayer that a parent would whisper to their child as they tuck her into bed for the night. And it’s not the kind of prayer that someone might say before a service club meeting.
     No, I’m talking about a wailing kind of prayer, a Jeremiah kind of prayer. This is the kind of prayer that just unloads with heavy tears and deep sobbing. This is the kind of prayer that literally cries out in anguish.
     Jeremiah was a prophet who lived 600 years before the time of Christ. In our scripture reading today from Jeremiah, chapter 8, we find the prophet in deep anguish over the people of Israel.
     He is heartbroken for his people because invading armies are threatening to do them harm. He knows that it is inevitable that their land will be taken over by a foreign power and the people will be displaced.
     Even though Jeremiah knows that his own people have failed to heed his many warnings and turn back toward God, he is heartbroken for them. Jeremiah is forced to watch this train wreck that is about to happen to the people he loves, and it’s just too much for him to take. It’s in this historical context, that Jeremiah gives us one wail of a prayer.
     Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet, because that’s how much he loved his own people on behalf of God. It’s not unlike a loving parent who has done everything he or she can possibly do to prepare their child to go off on their own, only to watch them choose one destructive behavior after another, one bad decision after another.
     What do you do when your emotions are overflowing with incredible anguish, with unbelievable frustration, with deep empathy, but also with an undying and unconditional love? What do you do? You end up offering one wail of a prayer. That’s what you do.
     Sometimes unleashing our thoughts and feelings toward God is the best thing we can ever do when we are overwhelmed with a situation or experience we may be facing. Time and time again, we are shown that it’s OK to vent to God.
     Several years ago, a Bishop in our denomination shared how she was going through a very challenging time during her time as Bishop. She was frustrated with the slowness of the denomination to make policy changes that she believed to be more just and loving from a biblical perspective. She was also becoming more and more upset with various clergy who disagreed with her and who seemed to come across callous and uncaring in the way they spoke against her point of view.
     She hit her breaking point when she got home after presiding over a week long Annual Conference session. Exhausted and frustrated, she went to bed that night and was reading her bible, when all of the sudden, she kind of lost it. She tossed her bible to the side and just started crying out loud. These were deep sobs.
     She was offering one wail of a prayer to God in that moment.
     A pastor shared that he got a call to come to the hospital. A church member’s husband had died. When he arrived, the now widow was crying in inconsolable grief. Deep sobs.
     After a few minutes, he asked if he could pray for her. He began the kind of comforting prayer that ministers often pray in situations like that.
     In a very soft spoken voice, almost a whispering voice, the pastor began the prayer with, “God, thank you for being with us during this difficult time…”
     The pastor was surprised when the woman interrupted and wailed, “God, I feel so alone!”
     The pastor decided to raise the energy of his own prayer a little bit and continued, “God, thank you for the hope you give…”
     The woman cut him off and shouted, “God, I don’t feel any hope right now!”
     The pastor picked up the pace a little more and prayed, “God, thank you that in some ways this good man will always be with us…”
     Again, the woman interjected, this time screaming, “God, I can’t believe you took him!”
     The pastor realized that his prayer was just not angry and to the point enough for that particular moment. The way he was praying was just not going to do.
     And so, he simply gave this woman the space she needed to offer her deep anguish to God in that moment. His soft spoken prayer that was filled with so many clichés and platitudes was just not cutting it.
     In reflecting on that experience, this pastor said that this woman’s prayer was more honest than anything he had to offer in that time of deep pain and brokenness. He said it was like this woman was holding God by the collar in both hands, and was crying in God’s face, “I don’t think you’re listening to me!”
     That was one wail of a prayer she was praying that day.
     A few months ago, I was praying for someone I know who was looking for a full time job. Every morning, I included this person in my prayers.
     He told me that he was called for a job interview. I was so excited to hear this. I can’t tell you how many times I prayed for this person each day leading up to that interview. On the day of the interview, I spent a lot of time praying throughout the morning. I even stopped what I was doing during the actual time he was being interviewed.
     After the interview, he sent me a message that he would know in the next few days if he got the job. And so, I continued to pray each morning that this job opportunity would open up for him. Friends, let me tell you. I think I did a really good job of praying for this person! I really felt positive that he would be offered the position.
     So, imagine my surprise when I got a message from him a few days later. The message simply said, “I didn’t get the job.”
     I remember being so upset. Here, I had prayed so hard for him and he didn’t get the job. Throughout that day, my prayers were more like, “What’s up with that, God?” In frustration, I muttered, “What’s the point in praying, to you, God? How did any of that help? What’s this person going to do now?”
     Let’s just say that I didn’t feel very pastoral for the remainder of that day. God was listening to me wail about this for the next day or two. I think I was channeling Jeremiah.
     Whenever I have moments like these, I feel a little guilty for dumping on God like that. But that’s why Jeremiah’s prayer of frustration and anguish in our scripture reading today is so important. The bible gives you and me permission to vent to God when things just aren’t right with the world, you know what I mean?
     Jeremiah had hit that point. Here, he had done everything that God had called him to do. He had warned the people. He had prayed for a different outcome. He had poured out his heart out on behalf of his own people, on behalf of God’s own people. He was feeling let down. What do you do in moments like this?
     You offer one wail of a prayer, that’s what you do.
     Sometimes, these are the kind of prayers that people who walk by our church place in our outdoor prayer cross box. Sometimes these prayers are very raw and direct. Thank God that our prayer cross allows people to offer their prayers to God, and even vent to God.
     Listen again to Jeremiah’s wail of a prayer:
     “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.” Notice that there is no filter here. The prophet is not trying to be poetic or flowery with his use of words. Just honest. “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.”
     Psychologists and counselors are good at reminding us that being in touch with our feelings and expressing our feelings are an important way for us to have emotional health.
     As psychologist and author, John Bradshaw shares in his book, Homecoming, “Feelings are facts. They’re neither right or wrong. They just are. There is nobody who should tell you how you should or should not feel. It’s important and it’s necessary to talk about feelings.”
     A wail of a prayer gives us permission to tell God how we feel in any given moment or situation. Even Jesus from the cross, had a wail of a prayer when he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
     Jeremiah also prayed, “Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in her?”
     Do you ever feel that God is absent and nowhere to be found? Have you been there? It’s that feeling of emptiness that prompted Jeremiah to pray one wail of a prayer.
     And then Jeremiah prays, “The summer is ended, and we are not saved.” For those of you who don’t want summer to officially end this Thursday, this prayer is especially for you! Even Jeremiah was really down because summer was ending.
     Well, let me qualify that. It wasn’t because summer was his favorite season and it was now ending that led him to offer a wail of a prayer. It was because he had been praying for God’s people to be saved before the end of summer, and here, things had only gotten worse.
     Jeremiah also prayed, “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me?”
     Often times, our deepest prayers are the result of feeling the pain of the people who are closest to us. We offer our prayers for a world that is filled with so much brokenness and injustice. We offer our prayers for a world of so much poverty and violence. We offer our prayers for a world where so many people are hungry and live as refugees. We offer our prayers for a world that is filled with racism and division.
     Sometimes, the church needs to channel Jeremiah and offer a wail of a prayer for our community and world that God came to save and redeem.
     And what a powerful image Jeremiah gives us when he also prays, “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people.” This is why Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet.
     I’ve told you this before but it bears repeating. When I first stepped into this building as your new pastor, I could tell that many prayers had been lifted for God to use our church in a special way in our community. I could feel those prayers in the air. I could tell that there was an expectancy here that God was about to do something new in and through us.
     I want to thank you for being an incredible church of prayer, a church that prays on behalf of our community and world.

     Many of you have heard of what is called, “The Wailing Wall,” which is located in the city of Jerusalem. This wall contains the remaining stones from when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. This wall stands close to where the Temple was located.
     It’s called the “Wailing Wall” because the Jewish people are in constant mourning over the destruction of the Temple. It’s the closest they can stand to where the Temple would have been located.
     People will often go to the wall and are encouraged to write a prayer on a slip of paper, place it in between the cracks of those ancient stones, and then offer a prayer while facing the wall. I had the opportunity to do this during my trip to Israel several years ago and it’s a powerful experience to think about all of these prayers that people offer to God at this holy site. It was breathtaking to see all of those slips of paper tucked between all of those stones.
     The wailing wall reminds us to join Jeremiah in offering our prayers on behalf of the world which is in need of God’s healing love and justice. It reminds us that it’s OK to cry out to God like the prophet Jeremiah from our Old Testament reading.
     Wailing prayers are not easy to pray because they put us in touch with the pain of others, people that we know and love. As one song says about these kinds of prayers, “God knows it’s not easy, taking on the shape of someone else’s pain.”
     While these prayers can take a lot out of us, they also point us to a God who promises to be faithful, even though we may not fully understand how God is at work.
     Which reminds me. I didn’t tell you the end of the story about my prayers for the person who didn’t get the job. Remember how I was so disappointed for him? So, I called him after he told me the news that he didn’t get the job. I was expecting him to be really down and depressed which would have been understandable.
     Instead, he was surprisingly upbeat, and he said, “Well, I obviously wanted that job, but I was told that it was pretty amazing that they wanted me to interview since I am still really new in the company. They told me that I was doing a really great job and they are confident that something will eventually open up for me.”
     After I got off the phone, that’s when I realized that my prayers really did make a difference. He was now in a good place in his life, full time job or no full time job. He had a sense of peace, which I hadn’t seen in him for quite a long time.
      Here I had prayed for him to get that job, but he ended up getting something so much better; a sense of peace, hope, and a new found joy in his life.

     All I can say is, I must have prayed one wail of a prayer. And God answered my prayer.

A Wail of a Prayer!
Small Group Questions
Jeremiah 8:18 to 9:1
September 18, 2016

There are different kinds of prayers like ones we use to tuck a child in bed at night, or say before a church meeting, or prior to a meal. Our scripture reading from the Book of Jeremiah offers another important type of prayer known as a "wailing prayer." This is the kind of prayer that gives us permission to vent to God as we cry out with tears of faith. Jeremiah offered a "wail of a prayer" as he cried out to God to save his people from war and destruction.

Have you ever offered to God a "wail of a prayer" where you vented your frustrations and anguish to God? What was that like to pray that kind of prayer?

Psychologists tell us that it's good and necessary for us to be in touch with our true feelings. Prayers that allow us to wail and cry to God can be emotionally helpful as they lead us to express our true feelings to God who loves us and cares about us.

What helps you to be honest in your prayers even if that means expressing your deepest longings, frustrations, and hopes?

The Wailing Wall is an actual wall in Jerusalem where people go to place slips of paper containing prayer requests between the rocks. Many people who visit the Wailing Wall leave from this place feeling a sense of peace because they were able to give to God what is deepest in their hearts and minds.

Share a time when you felt more at peace as a result of sharing your deepest feelings to God. How did God answer your "wail of a prayer?"

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