Wrestling with God

Wrestling with God

Genesis 32 tells the story of Jacob wrestling all night with God.  When the morning came, God said, “You will no longer go by the name Jacob. From now on, your name will be Israel because you have wrestled with God and humanity, and you have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:28)

Of course, Jacob is a patriarch of the nation of Israel, from whom the nation received its name.  The name, Israel, means “wrestles with God.”

Besides the literal event in Genesis 32, isn’t it interesting God named his chosen people, “You will wrestle with me.”  And, Israel did.  God’s people have always wrestled with God.  We still do.

I’ve always enjoyed that little tid-bit.  As a son of the “New Israel,” I’ve appreciated God welcoming our wrestling, rather than squashing us like bugs when we challenge him.  In fact, God seems to initiate the wrestling, as life, and our ability to navigate it, is never easy.

I’ve relished digging at some deep theological question, some perplexing ethical dilemma, or some difficult passage of Scripture.  Even when I’m left dazed and confused, I’ve found the wrestling stimulating, and even enjoyable.

But, right now, I’m tired of wrestling.

A month after the terrible tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I continue to wrestle with questions I’ve never truly wrestled with before.  Even though terrible tragedies happen all of the time, and always have, this one has literally hit much closer to home.  Even though I’ve had neat theological answers in the past, they haven’t been working so easily for me lately.  I haven’t even been directly affected by this tragedy.  Yet, being a pastor in this community, at this moment, I feel an urgency to know what to say.

I don’t.  I’m wrestling.

Why does a good God allow evil and suffering?

If we believe God intervenes in the affairs of this world sometimes, why not this time?

Why does God allow the innocent to suffer?

Is it sufficient to say, “God suffers with us?”

Is it sufficient to say, “Someday, all suffering will end?”

I’m torn between knowing that the answers to such questions exist in the realm of mystery, and needing to know the answers to my questions NOW.  I’m torn between the reasonable theological answers I’ve been taught, and the lack of meaning they have for me at this particular moment.

I’m wrestling.  But, right now, I’m tired of wrestling.

Maybe that’s the point.

Maybe we’re meant to wrestle until we’re worn out.

Maybe we’re meant to wrestle until we can’t wrestle anymore.

Maybe we’re meant to wrestle until we find some kind of peace with the One we are wrestling with.

Maybe…

Until then, as tired as I am, I’ll keep on wrestling, whether I find my answers or not.

 

 

“Dim Dots” – Where we’ve been, and where we’re going

“Dim Dots” – Where we’ve been, and where we’re going

Annie Dillard ends her childhood memoir, An American Childhood, by reflecting on the “dim dots” of her life that led to her becoming fully alive – “the moment of opening a life and feeling it touch this speckled mineral sphere, our present world.” By “dim dots” she means the moments and events of our lives that form a single contiguous line toward who we eventually become.  Her “dim dots” include various memories of childhood, that continue to hold significance to her, while others, she had hoped not to forget, have strangely faded away.

Though I am more than sure many of my “dim dots,” though significant, have fully faded from view, many remain clearly visible in my mind’s eye.  For fear of leaving something important out, or overemphasizing less important memories, I’ll refrain from sharing my list, as it occurs to me today.

The point is, we are the accumulative sum of all of those “dim dots.”  Though some life experiences are clearly more memorable and impactful than others, nothing can be excluded.  Remove any of my dots, to some degree, I’m no longer who I am today.  Obviously, some things matter more than others.  But, every experience, every interaction, every relationship, every sensation, every mistake, every achievement, every moment of transcendence, every coincidence, every hurt feeling, every life-stage, every moment of ecstasy, every sickness, every season, every loss, every holy moment, every employment, every abysmal failure, every skill we learn, every book we read, every test we pass, every moment of breathtaking beauty, every act of service, every gauntlet we endure, every weakness we overcome, every act of selfishness, every spiritual encounter, every moment of debasement, every goal achieved, EVERYTHING contributes to who we become.  EVERYTHING has contributed to who we are.

In fact, I think it could be argued that every dot, to some degree, predicts the dots that will follow.  Not always.  But, often.

Beyond the moments that could potentially be marked on a calendar or a map, or recorded in a journal, yearbook, or police record, or photographed or videoed, are the countless other influences – our genetics, our parent’s guidance, our birth-order, our ethnicity or nationality, our social/economic status, our geography, our traditions, our generation, our friendships, our loves and losses, our education, our religious influences, our exposure to beauty or tragedy, etc.

As you reflect on the “dim dots” of your life, here are some questions to ponder…

  • Who are the people who’ve made the biggest impact on your life, for good or ill?
  • What memories cause you the most joy?  What memories cause you the most pain?
  • When were you the happiest?  When were you the saddest?
  • Where has been “home” for you?
  • What, to date, has been your greatest achievement?
  • What would you erase from your past, if you could?
  • What if you had chosen a different school to attend, a different career to pursue, a different place to live, a different person to marry?
  • What memories haunt you?
  • What historic events do you remember most clearly?
  • What precious moment would you relive, if you could, simply for the joy of it?
  • When have you felt most alive?
  • When did you stop pretending?  Have you?
  • What moments or experiences, if erased, would most alter who you are today?
  • How has your faith and spirituality affected who you’ve become?

If you drew a line, starting with your birth, from dot to dot to dot, all the way to this very moment (yes, this moment – as you read this blog), what dots might be coming next, and after that, and after that?

What are your “dim dots?”

Taming Leviathan: in search of God, and an elusively acceptable explanation for suffering and evil

Taming Leviathan: in search of God, and an elusively acceptable explanation for suffering and evil

Among the ancient cultures referenced in the Christian Old Testament, a mythical sea monster, called “leviathan,” was believed to exist.

Leviathan were believed to be great sea serpents, living in the depths of the oceans, having fearsome teeth, impenetrable skin, and fiery breath.  Nothing conceivable could defeat the Leviathan; neither harpoons, spears, hooks, swords, arrows, or clubs.

“Nothing on earth is its equal— a creature without fear.”  (Job 41:33)

Leviathan falls in the same category of dragons, kraken, the Loch Ness Monster, the Abominable Snowman, and Big Foot; powerful, frightful creatures that never existed, but people have sincerely believed in at different times and places throughout human history.  I can imagine Hagrid, from the Harry Potter novels, keeping a pet leviathan in the lake outside of Hogwarts!  I can imagine a special leviathan episode of the old TV show, “In Search Of,” hosted by Leonard Nimoy.

In biblical times, the leviathan represented the most fearsome creature imaginable on the earth, and a good reason to keep your feet on dry land!  Whether or not leviathan literally existed is irrelevant to Scripture.  In biblical times, leviathan were believed to be real, and thus had significance.

The longest description of leviathan in Scripture is found in Job 41.  The book of Job describes the life of a man named Job, who experienced terrible tragedy, and questioned God’s fairness.  Most believe the book of Job was written to wrestle with the theological question of theodicy – why evil things happen to innocent people.

The Book of Job does NOT tell us why bad things happen to good people.  Instead, Job reveals the error and weaknesses of many of our pathetic theological explanations and rationalizations for why tragedies occur.  In the end, the book of Job simply describes a God that is beyond our ability to define, explain, predict, or control.

Today, I discovered a line in Job I’ve never noticed before.  God asks Job, “Will (a leviathan) make an agreement with you for you to take it as your slave for life?  Can you make a pet of (a leviathan) like a bird or put it on a leash for the young women in your house?” (Job 41:4-5)

In essence, God asks, Who can make the most fearsome creature known to man a house pet?  Who can train a leviathan to walk on a leash?  Who can teach it to sit on your shoulder, like a pet parrot?”  God’s implied answer, “I can.  Only, I can.”

Since the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I’ve been wrestling, a lot, with the question of why God allows evil and suffering the in the world.  Frankly, the comfortable theological explanations I’ve believed and preached in the past, have felt a bit thin, as of late.  Though I haven’t discovered any new explanations I like any better than the old ones, somehow the image of a tamed leviathan sitting on God’s shoulder provides some perspective.

Though leviathan are mythical – especially tamed ones – and the real-life tragedies of this world are definitely not, this image – literal or not – reminds me that God is not defined by my simplistic definitions of good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust, fair and unfair.  Though I still want to believe God is good, right, just and fair, who am I to call “foul” when God doesn’t act on my terms or schedule?

Thomas G. Long, in his book, What Shall We Say?:  Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith, asks, “Do we ultimately want to offer our own scheme of moral order, the very one we employ to determine that some human suffering is unjust, as a replacement for God?  Do we want in other words, to be God, or are we willing to move toward being the kind of human being who, even in the midst of inexplicable pain, trusts the One who is God?”

I love the contrast of Job 41:8, If you lay a hand on (a leviathan), you will remember the struggle and never do it again!” versus the image of God taming a leviathan to be a house pet.  Though it doesn’t explain “unfair” human suffering to my satisfaction, and though I can’t comprehend why a leviathan-training-God can’t or won’t intervene in human tragedies, and though leviathan aren’t even real, I sense that God is saying, “I’ve got this.  Even when evil things happen, even when the darkness seems to rule the day, even when you doubt me, I’ve got this.  You can trust me.”

Perhaps we aren’t suppose to trust God AFTER we understand why bad things happen, which we likely never will.  Perhaps, we have to trust God first, to find peace in our inability to understand.  Of course, that doesn’t make tragedy “ok.”  Perhaps it helps me to be more “ok” with God, even when I’m devastated, and can’t begin to understand.

If God can tame the one who, makes the depths churn like a boiling caldron and stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment…” (Job 41:31), perhaps he is greater than the sum of our real world tragedies too.

 

My New Favorite Question…

My New Favorite Question…

“If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never. And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating, as possibility!”  Soren Kierkegaard

Listening to Ian Cron’s podcast, Typology, I learned my new favorite question…

What does “this” make possible?

Replace “this” with almost anything, and a new, surprising vista of unexpected possibilities appears…

What does this opportunity make possible?

What does learning a new skill make possible?

What does accepting this invitation make possible?

What does saying “no” make possible?

What does losing weight make possible?

What does breaking this bad habit make possible?

What does being 50 years old make possible?

What does this loss make possible?

What does this trauma make possible?

What does this new friendship make possible?

What does forgiving make possible?

What does trusting make possible?

What does this new information make possible?

What does apologizing make possible?

What does simplifying my life make possible?

What does this risk make possible?

What does this idea make possible?

What does “letting go” make possible?

What does going back to school make possible?

What does reconnecting with an old friend make possible?

What does changing my mind make possible?

What does bravery make possible?

What does trying again make possible?

What does starting over make possible?

What does this disagreement make possible?

What does asking this question make possible?

etc., etc., etc.

To ask, “What does ‘this’ make possible?,” suggests that certain possibilities wouldn’t have been possible, except for “this.”  “This,” whatever “this” is, positive or negative, opens the door to new possibilities, that were previously impossible – or at least not as likely.

My new favorite question is making me think about my “this”s, and new exciting possibilities I hadn’t been aware of.  What your “this?”

 

 

Why do we pray?

Why do we pray?

“What’s the point of prayer?”  I’ve been asked this question more times than I can remember.  Lately, I’ve asked it, myself.

People of faith pray.  It’s what we do.  Even people, claiming no faith, sometimes find themselves praying in difficult situations.

Often, we pray for wants or needs.  Often, we pray for the people we’re concerned about.  Sometimes, we ask others to pray for us.

But, what’s the point?  If God already knows what we need, why pray?  Does God need convincing?  And, why do we ask others to pray for us?  Do more, or other’s, prayers motivate God more?

What about when prayers go unanswered?  Did I pray the wrong prayer, or did I not pray long enough, or fervently enough, or say the right words, or ask enough others to pray with me?

These are hard questions.  But, these are questions many ask.  We pray.  But, why?

C.S. Lewis said, “I don’t pray to change God.  I pray to change me.”  Is that the point of prayer?  Maybe.

Sometimes, though not often enough, we offer prayers of thanks.  Sometimes, we pray to worship.  Sometimes, we pray to repent.  Sometimes, we pray just to be with God.  Sometimes, we pray to listen.

Sometimes, we lament.

Do I believe there’s value in prayer?  Yes, of course.  Do I believe God answers prayer?  Yes, but…  Do I believe there’s value to praying for others, or asking others to pray for me?  Yes, but not for the sake of ganging-up on God.

Increasingly, I’m thinking of prayer as connection, and less about the requests I may or may not make.  Just as an electronic device needs to be connected to an electrical outlet to function, I’m thinking of prayer as connection to the “Source.”

Sometimes the connection may lead to answers and outcomes.  Sometimes, not.  Sometimes, God might speak.  Sometimes, not.  Sometimes, I might feel something – peace, or forgiveness, or refreshment.  Sometimes, not.

But, regardless of the outcome, I need the connection anyway.  I need the connection, because I need God.

Maybe it’s like the conversations I have with my wife.  Though we certainly talk about all kinds of things – from basic information like the grocery list, to decisions we need to make, to sharing our hearts – the main reason for our talking is connection.  If we just need to pass information or make requests, we could leave each other notes, or send each other texts.  But, we need more than that.  We need to hear each other’s voices.  We need to look into each other’s eyes.  We need to see the joy or concern on each other’s faces.  We need to connect.

I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t bring our requests to God, or that we shouldn’t pray for others.  I’m not suggesting God doesn’t answer prayer.

I’m saying the specific outcomes of prayer aren’t the point, at least not to me.  Connection is the point – connection with the God who created the universe, the God who became human to redeem a fallen world, the God who is love, the God in whom I live, and move, and have my being.

The point is connection.

What follows your “but”?

What follows your “but”?

Somewhere, along the way, I started thinking of the word “but” as an erasure.  Add “but” to any statement, and everything before it disappears…

“I think you’re really great, but...”

“I really appreciate the gesture, but…”

“Thanks for the kind offer, but…”

“I know you didn’t mean to hurt my feelings, but…”

“I’m sorry, but…”

Often, as soon as the “but” shows up, you know the jab is coming…

“…, but you’re just not my type.”

“…, but it’s just not good enough.”

“…, but I’m not interested.”

“… but I think you’re a jerk.”

“… but you deserved it.”

Etc., etc., etc.  “But” always seems to be followed by criticism, complaint, or rejection.

I need to confess, I’ve been saying a lot of “but” prayers lately.

“Lord, I know you are good, but…”

“Lord, I know you are in control, but…”

“Lord, I know I should trust you, but…”

It occurred to me, this morning, that the Biblical writers often reversed the “but.”  Often, in Scripture, the “but” follows the negative, instead of the positive.  Throughout the Psalms, for example, the negative precedes the “but,” followed by hope and trust in God…

“My enemy will say, ‘I have overcome him,’ and my foes will rejoice when I fall.  But I trust in your unfailing love.” (Psalm 13:4-5)

“Weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)

“For I hear many whispering, ‘Terror on every side!’  They conspire against me and plot to take my life.  But I trust in you, Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.'” (Psalm 31:13-14)

“Many are the woes of the wicked, but the Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the one who trusts in him.” (Psalm 32:10)

“My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”  (Psalm 73:26)

I’ve always appreciated that Scripture allows for lament.  Lament is a raw, honest, human form of prayer.  Lament cries out to God in anger, pain, anguish and despair.  Lament, often, is a complaint to God, against God, about perceived unfairness.  Lament, sometimes, even blames God for the complaint.

There are times, we all need to lament.  I’m thankful God is graciously willing and able to receive our laments, even when they are less than kind, respectful, or faith-filled, without holding our complaints against us.

In the wake of recent events, I’ve been lamenting a lot.  “But,” my laments have been mostly ranting and raving, without a lot of faith or hope.  What my laments have been missing is the properly placed “but.”

“…, but I will trust in you.”

Quicksand Spirituality

Quicksand Spirituality

In a meeting with strangers, Thursday night, the question was asked, “Who gets stressed?”  We all knowingly chuckled.  We ALL get stressed.

The leader asked, “What stresses you?”  Work.  Family.  Relationships.  Health.  Money.

In my head, I was screaming, “WHAT STRESSES ME?  SEVENTEEN STUDENTS AND FACULTY WERE SLAUGHTERED TWO WEEKS AGO IN A LOCAL HIGH SCHOOL!  INSTITUTIONS MEANT TO PROTECT US FAILED!  A TROUBLED KID, REPEATEDLY SHOWING SIGNS OF MENTAL ILLNESS, LEGALLY PURCHASED AN ASSAULT-STYLE RIFLE, WITH THE EXPRESSED INTENT OF COMMITTING MASS MURDER!  OUR WHOLE COMMUNITY IS TRAUMATIZED!  WHAT STRESSES ME?  ARE YOU JOKING?”

But, I never said a word, out loud.  I smiled and nodded.  “Yes. Work, family, and money stress me too.”

I know this sounds terribly judgmental – please, forgive me.  As I listened to our trite examples of stress, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Have we forgotten what JUST happened?  Or, are we just being polite?  Or, is it too painful to say out loud?  Are others inwardly shouting, as I am?  Or, has everyone else moved on?”

I know we have to move on, some how.  We can’t wallow in this forever.  The students have gone back to school.  Businesses are open.  Teams are playing sports.  New stories are making the headlines.

But, I can’t “move on.”  Though I wasn’t directly affected by this tragedy, this tragedy has deeply affected me.  I’m functioning, fairly normally, I think.  But, my soul is troubled.  I’m wrestling with questions I’ve not really wrestled with before, and I can’t find satisfactory answers.  My heart hurts, a lot.  My prayers have devolved into angry rants.  I’m listening, but not hearing.

My struggle is not nearly as significant as the MSD families who lost loved ones, or the students who witnessed horrors, or the parents who now fear their children’s safety, or the faculty and staff who, somehow, must pick up the pieces and make something of the remaining academic year.

Perhaps I’m struggling because I’m supposed to speak for God.  After all, that’s my job.  That is what I’m paid to do.  I’m supposed to know why God allows tragedies to happen.  No. I take that back.  I’m supposed to know why God allowed THIS tragedy to happen.  I’m supposed to know where God was during THIS shooting.  I’m supposed to know why a “good” God allowed THIS evil and suffering.  I’m supposed to know why God didn’t intervene.

God!  Why didn’t you intervene?????

I don’t know.  I’ve had answers before, when things happened to strangers, in far away places.  But, today, two and a half weeks later, my neat theological explanations aren’t holding water.  At least, they’re not for me.

I can’t seem to retreat into comfortable spiritual routines, or familiar theological answers, or even my faith.  In fact, it’s my faith that troubles me most.  How do I speak for a God I don’t understand?  I’ve never presumed to comprehend God.  But, that’s different.  God is beyond human comprehension.  I actually like that.  I need that.  I’m comfortable with that.  This?  Not so much.

Though I haven’t lost or abandoned my core spiritual convictions, or turned my back on God, I feel like my foundation has turned to quicksand.  Where is my rock?  I don’t know where to step and stand with confidence.  And, I’m beginning to wonder if “moving on” spiritually will require me to know and speak for God with a lot less certainty.  That’s unsettling.  To say the least, that stresses me.

Stressed?  Yes, I am stressed.  But, for none of the normal reasons.