Grappling with God
The church I attend reserves a brief time in which people in the pews can voice aloud their prayers. Over the years, I have heard hundreds of these prayers, and with very few exceptions, the word polite applies. One, however, stands out in my memory because of its raw emotion.
In a clear but wavering voice, a young woman began with the words, "God, I hated you after the rape! How could you let this happen to me?" The congregation abruptly fell silent. No more rustling of papers or shifting in seats. "And I hated the people in this church who tried to comfort me. I didn't want comfort. I wanted revenge. I wanted to hurt back. I thank you, God, that you didn't give up on me, and neither did some of these people. You kept after me, and I come back to you now and ask that you heal the scars in my soul."
Of all the prayers I have heard in church, this one most resembles the style of testy prayers I find replete in the Bible, especially those from God's favorites such as Abraham and Moses.
Abraham, a man rightly celebrated for his faith, heard from God in visions, in one-on-one conversations, and even in a personal visit to his tent. God dangled before him glowing promises, one of which stuck in his craw: the assurance that he would father a great nation. Abraham was 75 when he first heard that promise, and over the next few years, God upped the ante with hints of offspring as bountiful as the dust of the earth and the stars in the sky.
Meanwhile, nature took its course, and at an age when he should have been patting the heads of great-grandchildren, Abraham remained childless. He knew he had few years of fertility left, if any. At the age of 86, per his barren wife Sarah's suggestion, he followed the ancient custom of having intercourse with his wife's servant to produce an heir.
The next time God visited, that offspring, a son named Ishmael, was a teenage outcast wandering the desert, a victim of Sarah's jealousy. Abraham laughed aloud at God's reiterated promise, and by now, sarcasm was creeping into his response: "Will a son be born to a man 100 years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of 90?" Sarah shared the bitter joke, muttering, "After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?"
God responded with a message that to Abraham's ears must have sounded like good news and bad news both. He would indeed father a child, but only after performing minor surgery on the part of his body necessary for the deed. Abraham becomes the father of circumcision as well as of Isaac.
That pattern of feint and thrust, of Abraham standing up to God only to get knocked down again, forms the background for a remarkable prayer, actually an extended dialogue between God and Abraham. "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?" God begins, as if recognizing that a valid partnership requires consultation before any major decision. Next, God unveils his plan to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, notorious for their wickedness and moral pollution of Abraham's extended family.
By now, Abraham has learned his role in the partnership, and he makes no attempt to conceal his outrage. "Far be it from you to do such a thingto kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the judge of all the earth do right?"
Then ensues a bargaining session much like what occurs in any Middle Eastern bazaar. What if there are 50 righteous persons in the city, will you spare it? All right, if I can find 50 righteous, I'll spare the whole place. With a jolt, Abraham remembers who he's bargaining withNow that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashesbut proceeds to lower his request to 45 persons.
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