Speaking to God
June 21, 2009
Mark 4:35 – 41
Normally we are quite respectful when we speak to God. Controlled and subservient we place our needs before the Lord. “Dear Jesus, help my son be accepted into the college he prefers.” “Gracious God you know I’ve lost my job, help me to find a new one.” Now there’s nothing wrong with speaking respectfully to God. But one of the things that today’s Gospel shows us is that this kind of respectful prayer is not the only kind of prayer; nor is it necessarily the best.
Jesus and the disciples are crossing the Sea of Galilee and a huge storm comes up. The boat is tossed from one wave to another, and the waves are breaking over the side. It has become apparent to the apostles that this boat is going down with everyone in it. Jesus, however, is asleep in the stern on a cushion. What do the apostles do? Do they quietly walk to the back and tap Jesus on the shoulder and say, “Lord I know you’re sleeping, but we have a problem?” Do they gently shake him and say, “Master sorry to disturb you but the waves are getting a little rough?” No. They cry out with accusation. “Master, do you not care we’re going to die?” Now Jesus gets up and stills the storm of course. But I do not intend today to reflect on Jesus’ actions but rather the apostles’ prayer, because this prayer can be a model for us.
Sometimes the best prayers are those which are blunt and seemingly irreverent. The best prayers are those that express what we really feel, and sometimes what we feel is not polite. We have many examples of this kind of prayer in the Old Testament. The Book of Psalms is the prayer book of the Jewish people. Time and again the psalms attack God for a seeming lack of care. The psalmist yells out, “Why Oh Lord do you stand so far away from me?” “How long, Lord, will you ignore my prayer?” Or the famous psalm that Jesus prays on the cross, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” When the Jewish people prayed they asked for what they needed. They were not afraid to demand from God an answer when it seemed what they needed was being forgotten.
You and I need to be able to pray in this manner. We can pray with this kind of strength and emotion because we must pray as the people we really are. If we are angry, it is valid to express anger when we address the Lord. If we are fearful, that fear should not be held back from what we say. If we are disappointed with what God is doing in our life, it is beneficial to express that disappointment when we address God. We need to be the people that we are. It might seem to be preferable to put our best foot forward when we speak to God, but it is more important to be real then to be polite. The only person God can love, the only person God can answer, is the real person that we are. Therefore, it is much better to pray as a real sinner then a fake saint.
Although we might think that emotion and accusation are out of order when we address the creator of the universe, such emotion and honesty is not a sign of disrespect. It is a sign of intimacy. We are polite to strangers. We are brutally honest with the people closest to us, with the people with whom we live. Just remember for a moment the kind of language we use with one another in our own homes: “You did what? Where the # %$ were you? Don’t you ever try that again!” We can speak with that kind of honesty because we are close. We don’t waste our emotions on people we consider unimportant. But we are painfully honest with the people on whom our survival depends. We speak to them as family. God wants us to speak in prayer as family. God wants us to speak what we truly feel because it is a sign of being connected. We should pray not with politeness and aloofness but with honesty and intimacy.
So when we are angry, when we are upset, when we are disappointed, it is important to tell God how we feel. When life dumps on us one more time, it is valid to ask God what the heck is going on? We need to be as brutally honest as necessary to be the people we really are before the Lord. We do not need to worry about God’s feelings. God is big enough to handle it. God wants us to speak as sons and daughters. God wants us to be close enough to speak the truth, to bluntly cry out in our need.
So we need to tell God what is in our heart, both when it is pretty and when it is not. Because it is only after we tell God how we truly feel that we will be able to hear the answer that God gives.
God in the Foxhole
June 21, 2015
Job 38:1, 8-11
Kurt Vonnegut once commented, “There is a saying: There are no atheists in foxholes. Most people think this is a good argument against atheists, but (Vonnegut continued) I personally think that it is a much better argument against foxholes.” What Vonnegut’s comments imply is, if our faith is based on protecting ourselves—if we believe because we want to be safe as the bullets fly by and the bombs explode around us—that faith is incomplete and unworthy.
Now don’t get me wrong. God loves us and we believe that God cares for us. God often blesses us with health, family, and security. But if we believe in God only to receive those good things, if our faith becomes a kind of insurance policy to protect us in the foxhole, then that faith is flawed. Moreover, it doesn’t work. That was made painfully clear to us this week by the events in Charleston, South Carolina, when a young man pulled out a gun and killed nine people at a bible study group. The people who were killed were all believers. They had placed their lives in God’s hands and trusted in God’s care. Yet they were all gunned down in their own church building. If faith is an insurance policy against harm, those nine people should get their money back. Faith does not promise us to keep evil away.
So why, then, do we believe? What is faith about? This is the issue in the Book of Job from which today’s first reading comes. Job was a good, moral man who praised God and served his neighbor. Yet in his life he received only evil. His business failed, his loved ones died, and he was afflicted with serious diseases. Job cried out to God, “Why should I believe in you? Explain to me why I have received so much evil when I have been a good and faithful servant.” The startling thing about the Book of Job is that God never provides Job with an explanation. This is the bible’s way of telling us that there is no explanation for the presence of evil and we would be better served to admit that we do not know why evil exists rather than come up with phony ways of making sense of it. In other words, it is better for us to say that we do not know why bad things happen to good people than to suggest that they happen because people are not good enough or that they do no pray enough. It is better to say that evil is a mystery we do not understand than to say that evil is what God uses to teach us a lesson, or that evil is some good in disguise. None of these things explain evil and none of them are true. So when good things happen to us we immediately and rightly say that they are blessings from God. But when bad things happen to us, when evil strikes us, the Christian response is to simply admit we do not know why this happens.
In this light, the Book of Job tries to move our faith to a deeper level. It readily admits that believing in God will not protect us from evil. So why then should we believe? Today’s first reading poses a question: who made the sea and sets limits on it? The answer to the question is God did, because God is Creator and God is Savior. Therefore, God deserves our praise and glory even in a world where evil exists.
Believing in God is no insurance policy against harm. We believe because God is God, and God can be trusted. Now I know that trusting in God’s goodness in a world where we know that evil can touch us is not easy. It requires a mature faith. But the only alternative is to stay in the foxhole.
Where Jesus Sleeps
June 20, 2021
In today’s gospel, the disciples are in real danger. They are caught in a storm on the Sea of Galilee. Waves are breaking over the side of the boat and it is filling up with water. They are terrified. But they are not alone because Jesus is in the boat with them. He is asleep on a cushion. So all they need to do is shout out, “Master,do you not care that we are perishing?” Jesus wakes up and stills the storm. Problem solved. The disciples are safe. Now when we hear this story we might envy the easy access that the disciples have to Jesus. When they need him, he is there. But no story of the scriptures is just telling us about the past. Every story is telling us something about ourselves, and this story is telling us that Jesus is always with us, especially in our times of need.
This truth is captured most beautifully by the writer Frederick Buechner. Here are his comments on this miracle story: “Christ sleeps in the deepest selves of all of us. And whatever we do in whatever time we have left, wherever we go, may we in whatever way we can, call on him, as the fishermen did in their boat, call on him to come awake within us and to give us courage, to give us hope, to show each one of us our way. May he be with us especially when the winds go mad and the waves run wild, as they will for all of us before we are done, so that even in their midst we may find peace, even in their midst we may find him.”
Buechner is saying that Christ is always with us, asleep in our deepest selves. So, like the disciples, all we need to do is cry out to him, and he will give us courage and hope and direction. When things are going well we might not notice that Christ is slumbering in our hearts. But that does not mean he is absent. He is ready to rise up and save us. So when our life is shaken by death or disease, when our marriage collapses or a friend turns on us, when an emptiness grabs hold of us and will not let us go, when our dreams for the future dissolve before our eyes, Christ is not absent. He is waiting for us to call out to him.
So we do not need to be envious of the disciples. Jesus accompanies us as he accompanied them. And when the winds go mad and the waves run wild, all we need to do is to cry out, and he will awake.