Wrestling With God

Near the beginning of June, I started reading through the Psalms. One psalm every morning, along with the corresponding commentary from the New International Commentary on the psalms by Craig C. Broyles.

So:

Psalm 1: the Lord watches over the righteous. Good stuff, Lord!

Psalm 2: You are my child, today I have begotten you! Yes, Lord!

Psalm 3: You, O Lord are a shield around me. Thank you, God!

Psalm 4: The Lord hears when I call. Thanks again, God.

Psalm 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12: Thank you. Help me. Be gracious to me. I’m here, God, and I’m doing my best to follow in Your way. In you I take refuge. Protect me.

Psalm 13, my translation:

Where are you, God? Have you forgotten all about me?
You’re not answering my phone calls.
You’re ignoring my texts and emails.
I’ve even knocked on your door, and you’re not answering.
Are we through, God? Have you given up?
Everyone’s laughing at me, calling me a fool for believing in you!

Call me back RIGHT AWAY, God.
Show me you’re there, or my life won’t be worth living any more.
The scoffers will say, “Ha, ha! Your so dumb, believing in a God who isn’t there!”

Woah!

Did the psalmist really say that to God?

Broyles says, “Were we to hear someone praying in this fashion today, most of us would take offense at such irreverence against the holy and faultless God.”

And yet…

How many of us have prayed like that in the silence of our hearts? How many of us have wanted to pray like that, but we’re too nice? We’ve been taught not to rebel against authority, especially not against God’s authority! If we do, we’re sure to be struck by lightning!

I’d guess that we’ve all lived through times that have tested us and our faith to the utmost. We’ve all wanted to scream, “I’ve had enough, God!”

I’ve spent years building those churches, and now that horrible giant comes along and rips out all the church bells!

Those snakes and elves were my friends, and that wicked St. Patrick chased them all away!

God, I can’t take it anymore! All my friends have gone away, all my enemies are laughing at me. Make it stop!

What kind of a prayer is that?

We’re good people. Obedient to God. We’re not supposed to get angry at God.

Even when our son is diagnosed with a disability that is lifelong. Even when our sister kills herself. Even when our father lives out his last years unable to speak, the victim of dementia which has shut down a once highly intelligent mind. Even when our mother is told that the pain in her jaw is angina, and that even after losing seventy pounds and exercising and eating right, she’s going to have to undergo open heart surgery. Even when our friend, who never smoked a day in his life nor lived with anyone who did, is diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer that will kill him within a year.

We’re not supposed to get angry at God when forest fires consume our cities, or floods and earthquakes devastate whole countries, or when droughts or poverty cause parents to choose which of their children will eat today, and which ones don’t.

We’re not supposed to get angry at God.

But anger is an appropriate response to the scenarios above, and to many others in life.

But who are we supposed to get angry at?

Should we get angry at ourselves?

Anger directed at ourselves is extremely harmful. Alcoholism and other forms of substance abuse, suicide, eating disorders, broken relationships—all of these are the result of internalized anger. All of these do nothing to solve the problem. They don’t even make us feel better.

Should we get angry at others?

We can blame others, or humanity in general, for a lot of the world’s ills, but again, it doesn’t solve any problems. Getting angry at my sister for killing herself won’t bring my sister back, and it won’t help me live my life in such a way that no one else in my family feels so cut off that they want to die.

Getting angry at the weather or natural events is even more useless. And getting angry at those who visit violence on others, while it may seem justified, only perpetuates the violence, which is maybe why Jesus told us not to do that.

So that leaves God.

And as we read through scripture, we discover a curious thing.

When people get angry with God, or question the fairness of God’s actions, or wrestle with God instead of other people or themselves, God answers.

We read only a part of Jacob’s story this morning. Here’s some of the rest of it:

With his mother’s help, Jacob has managed to trick his father into giving him the blessing and birthright meant for his elder brother.

Esau gets angry, and plots to kill Jacob. Jacob runs away. Jacob marries, and works for his father-in-law Laban for many years, and choses as his wages the black sheep and the spotted and speckled goats. He then selectively breeds the flocks so that that stronger animals produce coloured offspring, and the weaker ones produce white offspring. He grew rich, and his brothers-in-law got angry.

So Jacob gathers up what is his and runs away again.

Laban catches up to him, and after a heated discussion, Jacob makes peace with his father-in-law and makes a covenant with him.

He travels on, and desiring to make peace with Esau, he sends his servants ahead to speak with him. The servants return telling him that Esau is coming to meet him—with a force of four hundred men.

Jacob is terrified. His flocks, his wives, his children—all are at risk. He divides them into two groups, thinking that if they’re attacked, at least one group will get away. He picks out from among his flocks and herds a huge number of goats and sheep and camels and cows and donkeys, and sends them with his servants as a gift to Esau, and sends them ahead of him, hoping that Esau will accept the gift and become reconciled with him. He sends his wives and maids and all his children across the ford, and he’s left alone in the camp.

Where he wrestles all night with a man who won’t name himself.

Jacob won’t give in, won’t give up, even when he’s struck on the hip and it’s put out of joint.

The man says, “Let me go! It’s getting light now,” and Jacob says, “No, not until you bless me.”

I think at this point, Jacob understands that he’s not really wrestling with another human being, but with God.

And God does not strike Jacob down, punishing him for his insolence. Instead, God blesses him. Gives him a new name, and a new destiny. He has become Israel, the father of both a new nation and a new faith.

That’s some blessing!

Our Gospel reading is no less curious. A Canaanite woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter and Jesus replies to her plea by calling her a dog!

Does she slink away in embarrassment? Does she try to correct Jesus?

No, she gets angry. “Even the dogs get scraps! Don’t I deserve at least a scrap?”

And Jesus blesses her, calls her faithful, and heals her daughter. Whenever I read this story, I can’t help but wonder if Jesus said what he said deliberately, trying to get a response from the woman beyond resignation at her fate.

Time after time in scripture, it’s not the quiet, obedient, “good” people who are blessed, but very often the angry, the questioning.

Even Jesus prays to God to have the cup of suffering taken away. Even he cries out, “Why have you forsaken me?”

Even Jesus feels the need to rail against God at his fate, even at a fate freely chosen. Life is hard, and sometimes, the only thing you can do is scream out to God in pain.

In my own life I’ve found this to be true. When I’ve reached my limit, when I can take no more, I find it helpful to yell at God.

“I can’t take any more, God! This is it! Make things better now!”

And oddly enough, without fail, I find that one of two things will happen. Either the situation will resolve itself, or I will find new strength, often in the form of angels disguised as friends.

I’ve found that it’s okay to scream out to God. To pound my fists against the divine. To say, “If you care about me, show it!” To challenge God. To wrestle with God.

And when I’m exhausted from the struggle, I am finally empty enough to hear the whisper that was there all along.

“I love you. I’m with you. I bless you.”

Our psalmist discovers this, too. Psalm 13 ends with this: “I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”

At the end of our struggle with God is not blame, but blessing.

Amen.

Reflecting on the Message

 Has there ever been a time in your life when you have hurt so badly that you wanted to lash out at everyone and everything?

What did you do? Did your actions and thoughts make the situation go away, or make it worse?

Have your trials helped you to understand how blessed you are? How?

Read Jacob’s story in full. (Genesis 25:19-32:32)

It’s obvious that Jacob’s problems were in a large part due to his own actions. Has there ever been a time in your life when you’ve done something of which you aren’t proud?

Did getting angry at yourself help the situation at all, or did it make things worse?

When Jacob wrestled with God, was he also perhaps wrestling with his own conscience? Have you ever done likewise?

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Finding the Unknown God

(Preached at Ripley-Bervie/Kinloss Pastoral Charge, May 21, 2017)

The 17th chapter of Acts starts with Paul in the city of Thessalonica. For three sabbath days in a row, he goes to the synagogue to argue with the Jews and explain the scriptures in light of Jesus the Messiah.

Some of those who heard were receptive, and became believers.

Some of them became incensed. They went to the house where Paul and Silas were staying. When they didn’t find the two men, they dragged their host Jason and some other believers before the city officials, accusing them of “turning the world upside down” and of proclaiming a king other than the Emperor.

Paul went on to Beroea, where more Jews and devout Greeks listened and receive the Word, but the jealous Jews followed them and incited the crowds against them.

Paul fled again, this time to Athens. He was deeply disturbed to find a city full of idols, and spent his time arguing with anyone who would listen—in the synagogues, in the marketplace, wherever he happened to be.

Athens at that time was noted as a cosmopolitan city where the inhabitants were entranced by the new and improved, but Paul seemed to confuse them. Was he proclaiming a new religion or a new god? Was he drunk? What on earth was he trying to say?

So they grabbed him and brought him to the Areopagus, which could have been either the council of the Areopagus, or the hill itself. Either way, they asked him to explain himself.

He starts off by complimenting his audience. Those idols which so distressed him are evidence of a deeply religious people who are searching. But the altar with an inscription reading “To an unknown god” indicates to him that they’re not really certain what they’re searching for.

Paul then goes on to explain to the Athenians that the God they were searching for was God who created the universe. He explains that the Creator is separate from the creation, and does not need to be served by it. God is not made of gold or silver, God does not live in a temple. All human beings are from one ancestor, and are one people, created in God’s own image and that we are born searching for God.

And Jesus, in the Gospel of John, tells us that God, through the Spirit, is with us always, and simply waits to be recognized.

What a powerful pair of readings for today’s world!

It seems that the entire world has become one big Athens—everything has to be new and improved.

Line up at midnight to get the latest iPhone before everyone else does, because the one you bought six months ago is already obsolete!

Listen to the talk show doctors, who advocate a different weight loss strategy every week.

Throw out last year’s clothes and buy new ones—styles have changed since last Spring, don’t you know?

And of course we’re all waiting anxiously for the next season of America’s Got Talent, because who knows what crazy thing the contestants will do to get noticed?

And yet our society is more religious than ever.

We can pick and choose not only which God to worship, but how to worship that God. Sacrifice or incense? Meditation or dance? Traditional worship service or snake handling and speaking in tongues? Do we throw coloured pigments, or smear foreheads with ashes?

Even the atheists have a form of religious expression, sermonizing against the evils of religious expression.

And many of us are babblers, which my bible helpfully describes as someone who pick up scraps of learning here and there and welds them together into a less-than-coherent whole.

Everywhere, there are the lost, searching for the God they do not know.

I believe the desperate search for the novel, the addiction to the “new and improved” is a symptom of an illness that can have tragic results. Don’t get me wrong. I am all for well-thought-out and -researched change. I enjoy new products, new activities, learning new things.

But I do that all from a base of knowing who and what I am, and knowing in whose image I am made.

When the base isn’t there, that deep down knowledge that we are loved, that we are created in the image of God, that we are only a part of a whole that is much larger than our own selves, the pain and suffering can be deadly.

Today’s world is not the world in which our ancestors lived. In times past, children grew up knowing to which class they belonged, what their employment and income would likely be, what kind of person they would marry. Most people lived and died within a very short radius of where they were born. They followed the religion and traditions of their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents.

Mobility did happen, but not quickly, and not to many people.

Athens in Paul’s time was more like a modern city than like a village of its own time. People came from everywhere, and they didn’t necessarily follow the paths laid out at their birth. To paraphrase the musical Hamilton, “In Athens you can be a new man,” or woman. Choice was possible, but with choice comes a severing from the roots.

And with the severing from the roots comes a time of fear and dislocation. You wonder how you’re going to survive. You wonder if maybe you should go back to what you were, and when you find that isn’t possible, fear takes hold.

Sometimes the fear wins.

Suicide rates are high amongst those who face changes that they can’t navigate. Seniors faced with the end of their productive years, and unsure of what is to follow, but sure they won’t like it. Queer young people who come out to friends and family, only to find themselves abandoned to a world that views difference with loathing. College students, away from home for the first time in their young lives, caught between the pressure not to waste all that money partying, and the need to kick up their heels and let loose. Aboriginal peoples, longing for a way of life that was stolen from them, and unable to find a place for themselves in a country that still views them as alcoholic, uncouth savages.

There are people everywhere searching for they don’t know what.

So they worship idols. They give thanks to “whoever might be up there,” for the things that go well, and cry for deliverance to whoever is handy when trouble arises.

We live in interesting times.

On the one hand, when the whole order of creation seems to be in flux, some people, like the Jews in Thessalonica and the terrorists and hate-mongers of today, react with jealousy and anger.

But when everything is shifting, then too, we have a chance. Into the cracks of certainty, we can insert the message: There is a God, who is bigger than any evil that can happen. We are all one family, haters and lovers alike, and we are all made in the image of that God. As God loves us, so we are called to love one another. We are not alone.

Like Paul, we will find, if we take that message to the streets, that many will not listen. Some will hate us and persecute us. And some…

Some will listen. Some will find Jesus. Some will come home.

So go, and tell the Good News that God is out there, waiting to be found.

Do not be afraid, for two thousand years have shown us that the message is true and will endure.

You are not alone. You are never alone.

Thanks be to God! Amen.