Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Holding on and letting go

Genesis 32: 22-31; Luke 18: 1-8
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
October 20, 2013 
Jacob and the Angel, Anthony Armstrong

About three weeks ago, at the beginning of the government shutdown, Susan Thistlethwaite, former president of Chicago Theological Seminary, published an article in the Washington Post entitled “Why Republicans Long for a Debt Apocalypse”. In it she quotes a Washington Post/ABC poll in which 66% of Republicans want their representatives to cause an economic catastrophe. She writes that this is something more than just crazy talk. She goes on to remind us of Freud’s theory, that when human beings are overwhelmed with fear and anxiety, the psyche, individual or collective, can induce a death wish, what the Greeks called thanatos.

The citizenry of the United States has been living with the “War on Terror” for 12 years, as well as wars we fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, and an economy in recession since 2008. All of this has been occurring during a period of immense social, climate, and technological changes, some of which happen faster than some of us can adapt to them. According to Thistlethwaite, all of this pent-up anxiety and fear has produced within our political culture a desire to ‘just crash the whole thing’.

As I was preparing to move here, I found it increasingly difficult to leave decisions open-ended, or I would wed myself passionately to a particular option. I have not lived alone for 20 years. I have not moved for 15 years, the longest I have ever gone without changing my address. As the anxiety escalated within me, I was frightened that living apart from my family could have the power to separate us for good. There were times I was crabby, tense, and difficult to live with. And when I read Susan Thistlethwaite’s article, I realized that I too was exhibiting my own version of the urge ‘to just crash the whole thing’.

Yet even when I became aware of this very human urge toward implosion, later that night I had a waking dream in which I rose out of bed, ready to fight some dark threat, my heart beating as if I were confronted by a burglar. It was as if my unconscious mind was saying, (pull out Darth Vader mask) “You don’t know the power of the dark side. You can’t end the turbulence within so easily. Hang in there, keep wrestling until you receive the blessing.”

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 we move toward self-destruction, why do we act on our darker impulses 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 any peace. We have witnessed the power of prayer in times of inner and outward conflict and yet we have also experienced its apparent failure, when it seems the dark side has won.

How do we pray and not lose heart sometimes? We are all shades of light and dark, sunshine and shadow. Often, in the midst of change and transition, it can be daunting to trust the unknown, seeing only one step at a time. God never promised us a rose garden. God offers no guarantees; that’s why it’s called faith. And so, 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?

In my experience, 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 emptiness 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 dark side. We also tend to let go of God in that very same emptiness, 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 an aching emptiness that often we can be so desperate 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. 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 my Connecticut colleagues, 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 relatively unimportant matters. But what the church needs is more wrestling. For instance, what about wrestling with the push and pull of the Holy Spirit and how we are called to be church not only today but in the future? What about wrestling with how to be like Jesus in our daily lives? What about wrestling with forgiveness and self-acceptance?

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 emptiness 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. And it is then that a lower power can take the place of our higher power.

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 unconditionally—forever.

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? And so Jesus compels the disciples to engage in a spiritual discipline that is the same for disciples of the 21st century: to pray always and to not lose heart. And it is possible to pray always and not lose heart because prayer is a team sport.

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 blessed community 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 only 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 has power, like any other prayer, to bring change and healing: “Holy Spirit, if this direction or course of action is right for me (or for our church), let it become more firmly rooted and established in my life (or in our life together). If this is wrong for me (or for our church), let it become less important to me, and let it be increasingly removed from my life (or our life together).”

Are we ready to hang on for love and healing and understanding? Are we ready to let go of the schedule, the timeline, the expectation, the outcome and trust God? Are we ready for blessing, for justice, for mercy? Are we ready to be saved from ourselves? Are we ready to go deeper with God that we would be raised to new life? And may the people of God say, “Amen”.

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

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