Now the word of the LORD came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.” Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” (Jeremiah 1:4-10)
by David Morstad
God calls an unlikely prophet – a young boy, Jeremiah. He is, by his own admission, ill-equipped to do what is needed. “I do not know how to speak”, he said. Perhaps he was not learned or eloquent. Maybe he was simply not an intellectually gifted lad. Whatever it was, he didn’t feel he was the stuff of which wise leadership was made.
This was probably not a moment of false modesty. The prophet Jeremiah had a very honest and frank relationship with God and I’m confident that he had serious doubts about his abilities based on his own perception and that of others. Besides, God has a habit of calling people just like that to be important voices among us. We heard the same ‘slow-of-speech’, ‘there-must-be-somebody-better’ business from Moses.
As a person with an interest in disability ministry, this has a special resonance for me and I’m struck by the similarity to our own understanding when it comes to issues of personal capability and God’s call. It seems that when we see rich abilities in a person we are quick to label those things gifts – rightly so – and we easily see how those gifts are called into service. But what about the Jeremiahs among us?
Our culture places a high value on intellect and achievement. We base entire sets of education standards and business cultures on how people can think, and what people can do. We should not be surprised to discover tension when it comes to education and employment of people among us who would boast of neither one of those things.
There are exceptions, of course. We make cultural allowances for people at the extremes of the age spectrum – the infant at one end and the frail elderly at the other. In both cases, they may be capable of little more than merely being loved and cared for. We honor both the very old and the very young, of course, but we extend that honor either because of a life well lived, or because of the promise of things to come. How odd that we accept as natural the fragility of the very young and the frailty of the very old, yet the natural weakness and disability of body or mind anywhere in between continues to puzzle or even terrify us.
The words from Jeremiah’s early life more than suggest that we consider our own capabilities for what they are — an illusion. They are not my own at all. I know you, God tells us. I made you. I will send you. I will give you the words. God could not be any clearer here: It’s not about our ability, because it’s not about us.