Monday, October 18, 2010

Holding on and letting go

The Widow and the Unjust Judge

Genesis 32: 22-31; Psalm 121; Luke 18: 1-8
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
October 17, 2010

Earlier this week I hope you all had an opportunity to watch some of the footage of the Chilean miners being rescued from their 68-day ordeal 700 meters below the earth’s surface. To me, it was like watching a birth, as the workers stood by the rescue shaft, waiting as the cable slowly raised the capsule containing, each in their turn, one of the 33 miners, moving from darkness into the light. I couldn’t help but cry with joy and with memories of those times when someone lifted me or a loved one out of the darkness, when God reached into that pit of despair and raised me into the light.

Of course, as a follower of Jesus, I can’t help but think of the resurrection, as though that deep hole underground was a tomb of death yet through love and hope and prayer and the hard work of many, it became a womb of life. As a person of faith I would say it was the prayers of perhaps millions around the world that sustained the miners and their families in their waiting, as well as knowing that everything was being done to rescue them and care for them.

In fact, one of the miners, Mario Gomez, the 9th and oldest miner to reach the surface, knelt down and prayed when he emerged from the rescue capsule. Two of the miners who were previously agnostic were said to have ‘found religion’ in the midst of their ordeal and joined in the daily prayer time the miners shared with one other. Many are calling what happened a miracle. And the Chilean people are ascribing the success of the rescue not to themselves but to God.

Mario Gomez

Alexander Chancellor, a columnist for the British newspaper The Guardian, and a self-avowed non-believer, writes that “[the] Chilean miners' rescue had everything to do with the impressive feats of the rescuers and nothing to do with God.” He admires their humility but is also confused by it, saying that the miners were also very lucky in their circumstances, unlike the nearly 500 who perished in the earthquake earlier this year. To this journalist and to us too at times, it seems that God’s mercy is mercurial, reserved for some and not for others.

Since humanity has been able to reflect on itself and human beings have perceived themselves as individuals and not just as a member of a group, the question of why do bad things happen has persisted. We have been wrestling with God on this point for millennia and we have not come any closer to an answer that gives us undoubted assurance. We have witnessed the power of prayer and yet we have also experienced its apparent failure. Does the efficacy of our prayers depend on our faith or how frequently we pray? Is it how we word our prayers, how specific or general our requests? Would things have turned out the way they did anyway, regardless of our prayers?

It seems to me that, in the American Christian experience of faith, too easily we grasp onto God and too easily we let go. The idea of God is something we should approach with fear and trembling as much as with comfort and release. The same could also be said about letting go of the idea of God. Too often, in the vacuum that our fear or anger or despair creates, we latch onto God as a cosmic cure-all, in a desperate attempt to assuage our very natural, very human feelings. We also tend to let go of God in that very same vacuum, when the God of our perceptions fails us.

There are two fundamental questions at the core of our human experience that as yet have no once and for all, satisfactory answer: one, where did this existence we live in come from? How was energy transformed into matter? What started all of this? And two, where is all this headed? What is the purpose of the universe? To put it in terms of human experience, where did we come from, how did each of us unique persons come to be? And what will happen to us when we die? Any of those questions has the power to create that vacuum, that empty space we so desperately try to fill.

The majority of human beings have come to believe that there is some sort of higher power at work in this world, that there is something beyond what science and our five senses can tell us. There is a mystery beyond our present capacity to understand, despite what Stephen Hawking says. Author Joseph Campbell wrote "We keep thinking of deity as a kind of fact, somewhere; God as a fact. God is simply our own notion of something that is symbolic of transcendence and mystery. The mystery is what's important." But how do we encounter the mystery, the unanswerable, the ineffable?

Ironically, we generally avoid these existential questions at church. Ron Brown, one of our associate conference ministers, says that there’s not a great deal of wrestling in the church. There’s plenty of what he calls ‘rassling’: arguments over small details, tussles over unimportant matters. But what the church needs is more wrestling. For instance, what about wrestling with why the church is in decline and whether nor not we’re going to follow? What about wrestling with how to be like Jesus in our daily lives? What about wrestling with forgiveness?

In these days it’s too easy to hang on to a feel-good faith or to let go of it when it runs empty. It’s hard hanging on to that mystery called God when what we’re wrestling with is the poverty or oppression of our neighbors or the cancer eating away at our life or an addiction compelling us to fill that vacuum inside us or the darkness seeping into our souls. It’s hard hanging on to God when we’re feeling spiritually hurt, especially when the church has been involved.

Jacob had the nerve to hang on until the blessing came, and we are challenged to do the same. Yes, he came away with a limp, but God never promised us a struggle-free life and certainly not struggle-free community. God did promise to help us and to remain faithful and love us—forever.

Jacob wrestling with an angel

Jesus dares us to be persistent, even nagging, in our need for justice. God’s mercy is not of the quick-fix variety or a security blanket or a bulletproof shield protecting our bodies from all harm. Luke’s gospel was speaking to early followers of Jesus—Jews and Gentiles—around the time that the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Few, if any, of Luke’s readers may have known Jesus; most did not. They were hopeful of his return but also despairing over their circumstances of persecution and what appeared to be permanent exile. In this parable, Jesus is telling his present disciples and those through the ages that God’s mercy will come quickly.

But how quickly, they and we wonder? People were perishing; communities of faith were growing weary, the power to transform seemingly ebbing away from them. Sounds familiar, yes? The spiritual practice that Jesus compels the disciples to engage in is the same for disciples of the 21st century: to pray always and to not lose heart.

Prayer that sustains us is more, though, than talking to God and a list of our requests. Rabbi Harold Kushner writes that prayer is “to come into the presence of God in the hope that we will be changed by doing so.” In prayer we persevere with God, we wrestle with God and we hang on until the blessing comes, until justice is done and mercy is granted. Prayer does not take us out of the world but brings us face to face with it and with God’s dream for the world, that kingdom of peace and righteousness for the whole of creation. In prayer we hang onto God for dear life and we let go of the outcome, trusting that God has not our best interests, but the wholeness of all at heart.

The Serenity Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer are ones we can say through the day to help us not lose heart, to help us not let go of our hearts. I’d like to introduce you to another prayer to take with you, one that if prayed in sincerity and honesty, has power, like any other prayer, to bring change and healing:

“Holy Spirit, if this direction or course of action is right for me, let it become more firmly rooted and established in my life. If this is wrong for me, let it become less important to me, and let it be increasingly removed from my life.” [1]

Are you ready to hang on for love and healing and rescue? Are you ready to let go of the schedule, the timeline, the outcome and trust God? Are you ready for blessing, for justice, for mercy? Are you ready to go deeper with God that you would be raised to new life?

[1] Flora Slosson Wuellner. Prayer, Stress and Our Inner Wounds. Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 1985, pg. 78.

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