301 First Street NW
Mount Vernon, IA 52314
Worship Sunday at 9:30 am
Yesterday we celebrated the life of Paula. She died last Sunday at the age of 66. She was too young. Cancer. Stupid, senseless, cruel cancer.
Paula attended regularly here for the last 6-7 years. She found peace here after years away from the church. She had never left God, but she hadn’t felt at home in a house of worship for years. She was raised in a more fundamentalist tradition and was deeply hurt by the judgment and blame she experienced there during and after her divorce. Paula told me many times how much she appreciated this church, the welcome she received here, and that we are “real” as she called it.
After the service, one of her friends said to me, “You’re gray.” (And that’s g-r-a-y, not g-r-e-a-t as I thought at first!) “You live in the gray, not in the black and white.”
I take that as a great compliment. Because we are not afraid here to wrestle with God, about what’s in the Bible, what it means for our lives, what being faithful looks like. And the answers, we have found, are not always clear.
We do live in the gray, that place where the answers aren’t always obvious and clear, in which ideas and issues have multiple perspectives and facets to them and that sometimes, sometimes—two or more things—sometimes even seemingly contradictory things—can be true at the same time.
For example, it is possible that it is respectful to stand for the flag and the national anthem as a sign of respect for our nation and the men and women who have served in our military AND that so is kneeling during the anthem in protest over the ways our country is not yet the land of the free for all of her citizens. Both of these can be true at the same time.
I was trying to think last night of an example of something that is truly black and white.
Thou shalt not kill.
Well, for the most part, I agree with the commandment and–with the exception of mosquitoes and those teeny tiny black bugs that really hurt—and the dozens of spiders that have invaded my house—I will follow this commandment all the days of my life. But are there times when killing may be allowable, forgivable, understandable—in self-defense, or a mercy killing, for example. I know I’m not comfortable in saying that no one should ever, ever kill.
Even abortion. I attended the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) as a youth advisory delegate in 1987. That assembly passed a resolution saying that abortion is sometimes the least sinful of many sinful options. You may, of course, disagree with this resolution, but I thought it was a nuanced, compassionate position for the church to take about one of the most difficult decisions some human beings face. It acknowledges the Gray area in which we live.
This is one of the reasons I am glad to be a Presbyterian. Because at our best, we acknowledge the complexity of being human and being faithful. We allow for struggle and for searching and for questioning—for wrestling with those important issues.
There are some in our Christian family tree who say when it comes to the Bible, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”
But one of my high school Sunday School teachers said, “I take the Bible too seriously to take it literally.”
Think about it: How often did Jesus speak in black and white terms? He taught in parables, in which his point was not always entirely clear. And when Jesus spoke plainly—the two most important commandments are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves—he challenged his audience by defining “neighbor” as everyone, even the people we define as enemy.
The Bible itself calls us to wrestle with God and faith.
But let’s also be honest: it is difficult work. It’s a lot easier when everything is black and white, cut and dried, when the rules are simple.
Sara Groves has a song called “Second Guess Girl” that gets at this tension exactly:
Is it time for a speech or for silence
Are you calling for peace or defiance
Is this darkening counsel or wisdom
Are we all perpetrators or victims?
Is this childlike simple rote history
Is it complex deciphering mystery
Is this blessing or ill gotten wealth
Am I speaking for God or myself?
It’s a hard world for a second guess girl
With one hand and another
I try to take it in but it leaves me spinning
Trying to love my sister and brother
[Hear the whole song https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2BkV2Qkc7PM]
I so appreciate this song and the tough questions she asks, questions that—while difficult—are so worth asking. Because we ask them not simply out of our love for God, but for the sake of loving our sister and brother. That is, loving God with all we are and loving our neighbors as ourselves.
I can’t help but think of Paula and her experience of deep hurt in those black and white churches. And bless them, they probably thought they were being loving.
I have so much admiration for Paula because even after she left the church, she kept her faith. She found the healing and hope she needed through the twelve steps she learned through Al-Anon. Talk about wrestling with God—this was hard work! But it rooted and grounded her in a faith so strong and so deep, she was able to help others to find hope and healing, too.
Wrestling with God is a fundamental part of faith for those who want to follow Jesus. Sometimes we wrestle with God about theological beliefs, personally, as a congregation, as a denomination, even as the whole church. Other times we wrestle with God about things happening in our personal lives. We are also called to wrestle with God over how the gospel and our faith intersects with political and social issues happening in our communities and world. What is the faithful response to Black Lives Matter, to the Syrian refugee crisis, to Islam, to the Bakken pipeline, to allowing transgender people to use the public bathroom in which they feel most comfortable? How should a Christian vote in the upcoming election? These are just a few of the reasons wrestling with God is so important—because our beliefs become the actions and attitudes that shape our world. And ultimately, our actions and attitudes are the fundamental expression of our faith to others.
Martin Theilen, a pastor and author, wrote bout this passage:
“…don’t be afraid to wrestle with God. Instead, join Jacob in the match. Jacob’s wrestling match did result in a limp. But it also brought a great blessing. And in the struggle, Jacob saw God “face to face.” Such is the mystery, the pain, and the beauty of wrestling with God.”