Last summer I read Good Book by David Plotz (Harper, 2009), in which he reads through the Hebrew Bible from start to finish as an amateur. He gives his impressions on the old standard stories we all know and the ones you never get to hear in Sunday school. And as an amateur, not influenced by years of scholarly interpretation, he comes up with insights that most of us miss.
One important thing Plotz notices about the Old Testament "heroes" is that they didn't immediately go along with God's plan. They weren't the nice people who never cheated anyone or said, "OK, sure, whatever you say." Quite the contrary, they were the questioners, the hagglers, the tricksters. They were the people who dared to talk to God.
This fall, my wife Cheryl read Karen Armstrong's book The Case for God (Knopf, 2009), and one day she walked into the kitchen and said to me, "You're a good Jew."
Let's be clear here, by calling me a "good Jew" she wasn't implying that most Jews are bad and that I'm one of the good ones. By no means! She based her statement on what she had read about Judaism in Armstrong's book: I am an example of what modern Judaism asks its adherents to be.
My reaction to this was, "Well, duh. After 22 years you finally figured that out?"
But seriously, I'm from the New York City metropolitan area, I had a lot of Jewish friends and I studied a lot about Judaism in college. As a result, for a Lutheran, I have a very Jewish mind. And along with the Old Testament heroes, I'm a haggler. I've learned to say to God, "Excuse me, but ...."
I recently ran across a Jewish prayer that goes along the lines of "Why should we have to ask the ruler of the universe to do what is right, what is just, what is merciful?" Ah, another haggler. Another person who dares to talk to God. I can just see this person saying, "Excuse me, but why do you let things like the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile happen, and then make it our job to clean up after you?"
I grew up in the Episcopal Church, regularly hearing a prayer that said we come to God not as we ought but as we are able. This seems to say that we should haggle, we should show our frustrations when we have them, and we should not pretend that everything is fine when it's not.
With that in mind, let us pray:
"Heavenly Father, we love you, but we are frustrated. We are frustrated by the fact that it feels like we are often carrying on a one-sided relationship with you. We are frustrated by the fact that you seem to let people make a mockery of you by doing evil things in your name. We are frustrated by the fact that you let so many of us who honestly desire to do your will disagree so vehemently with each other over so many things. We are frustrated by the fact that time and time again you have let your church splinter over such disagreements when a clear word from you might have made the difference.
"Yet, while we are frustrated, we are also like Jacob, determined that we will not let go until you bless us. Remind us as we wrestle with you that wrestling is a contact sport, and that this wrestling may put us in contact with you in a way that simple acceptance of the situation doesn't. So while we remain frustrated, give us the strength to continue hanging on — which may in itself be the blessing we need from you.
"But ... if you wouldn't mind, it sure would help out a whole lot if you'd speak clearly to us. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen."
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