(Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, Eugène Delacroix, France, 1860)

(Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, Eugène Delacroix, France, 1860)

Wrestling with God

Faith is a summons to build the future

Yme Woensdregt

I love the CBC radio program “Tapestry” which calls itself “your guide through the messy business of being human” and deals with large subjects which help us rediscover our “connection to something larger than yourself.”

Mary Hynes, the host, deals with a wide variety of subjects. Often, she interviews spiritual leaders such as Desmond Tutu or the Dalai Lama. Other times, she talks with people who help the dying; or with musicians about the power of music; or the question of race oppression, or civil rights lawyers about justice and injustice. Wonderful interviews. Amazing programs.

This year, Tapestry is celebrating its 25th season. At the moment, they are replaying some of the best–loved shows from the archives. Recently, I heard Mary Hynes’ conversation with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom (1991-2013).

Near the end of the conversation, Rabbi Sacks said something quite profound — “Most religious faith is about acceptance. Jewish religious faith is about protest. This is quite unusual.”

He gives several examples: Abraham challenges God in Genesis 18, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do justice?” In the story of the golden calf in Exodus 32, when God is angry enough to wipe out the people, Moses reminds God that the people are God’s people and “if you won’t forgive them, then blot me out of the book you have written.” In Jeremiah 12, the prophet faces God and says, “God, whenever I have an argument with you, you win. But I’m still going to ask you, ‘Why do the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper?’” And most famously, Job argues with God for 38 chapters, and God finally replies with 4 chapters of questions of his own.

“Judaism,” Lord Sacks says, “is a sacred argument. It is a conversation scored for a multiplicity of voices, and faith is found in the willingness to stay together and argue our way through to recognizing that the world that exists is not the world that ought to be, and the truest faith is to protest against the evil and the violence and the injustice of the world. Therefore, to be religious is to right those wrongs: to be a teacher fighting ignorance, or a doctor fighting disease, or a businessperson fighting poverty, or a therapist fighting depression and despair. When you do that, in Judaism we call that ‘being God’s partner in the work of creation’. And that is a grown–up faith. Faith is not a tranquilizer to lower your blood pressure. It is a summons to collective responsibility to building the future.”

Faith is a summons to build the future. I believe that my Christian faith has the same sense. After all, Jesus was a Jew, and his teachings are borne out of Judaism.

Sacks’ vision reminds me of two of my favourite Bible stories. In Mark 7, a foreign woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter. Since Jesus is a compassionate rabbi, we’d imagine that he would readily agree to such a request. But no. His response? “I was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

But she doesn’t give up. “Help me,” she cries out. Then Jesus makes it even worse. “It’s not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Excuse me? Did Jesus really just call this woman a dog?

But this strong woman still doesn’t give up. “Even so, the dogs under the table can eat the children’s crumbs.” Finally, Jesus says, “Go; your daughter has been made well.”

This woman models the faithful protest which Rabbi Sacks talks about. This foreigner, this Syrophoenician woman (an ancient enemy of Israel) was not about to let ancient prejudices stop her from seeking healing for her daughter. She challenges Jesus’ prejudice. She opens his eyes to so that he can learn that his mission was larger than even he had thought. Her protest taught Jesus that “Syrophoenician Lives Matter”. She helped him learn to build a new future.

The second story, found in Genesis 32, is part of a much longer story about the struggle between two brothers Jacob and Esau. After having run away, Jacob is finally returning home to reconcile with his brother. The night before the two brothers meet, Jacob ends up wrestling with God all night long. Jacob will not give up until he receives a blessing. Part of that blessing is a name change: “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

You struggled with God and prevailed. You wrestled with God, and even though you find yourself limping, you have endured. “Israel” becomes the name of the nation, the name of the people: those who wrestle with God and prevail.

To be known as a people who wrestle with God is a blessing. To be a people who protest with God is a blessing. To be a people who strive to build a better world is our work and our faith.

This time of pandemic is a perfect opportunity for us to heed that summons. God has not sent this virus to punish us. Neither is this a time to insist on our rights to do whatever the heck we want.

Rather, this time can be seen as a divine blessing to reorient our vision. It will transform who we have been, what we have feared, our deepest sense of who we are as a people, so that we might be formed for that which is to come. I don’t know what that is going to look like, but God invites us to continue to struggle on with every fibre of our being, trusting that there is indeed a blessing on the other side of this.

For me, it’s part of the heart of our faith. We are being summoned to limp into our new reality. And it just might lead to reconciliation and to new forms of community.

Yme Woensdregt is a retired Anglican priest living in Cranbrook