Living in the question

'. . . the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.' RAINER MARIA RILKE Letters to a Young Poet

Sunday, 3 June 2012

A struggle with God

 from a service 3.06.12

I tend to give my services titles as it helps me to focus on the subject.  Today’s is called ‘A struggle with God’ strange you might think as a title for a minister of Religion, but then of course I am a Unitarian so maybe it might not be such a surprise after all that I should speak about struggling with God.  Actually the title came from the story in Genesis 32 where Jacob wrestles with an angel.
  In that story it is more a wrestle but for me it is definitely more of a struggle.

I remember when I first became a minister, (is it really almost six years ago?) someone once said to me, Gillian, you mustn’t assume that we know the stories of the Bible we’re Unitarians.  So I suppose I had better give you a bit of background about Jacob so that we all understand why he should be wrestling with God in the first place.

 Jacob was the son of Isaac and Rebecca, the grandson of Abraham and Sarah. So he is a pretty important figure. The whole story of Jacob begins in one of those really, really strange Bible moments. Jacob, God’s chosen leader essentially cheated his older brother out of his birthright of inheritance. Jacob dressed up as his older and simpler brother to trick his father, Isaac, who was on his death bed. With his mother’s help he pretended to be older brother Essau, so that their father would bless him and make him the official heir. And Jacob pulled it off so that he could be the leader God wanted him to be. Not really a very auspicious start for someone so great.

Then, afraid that Esau might kill him for his treachery, Jacob fled the country, fell in love with Rachel at a well, worked for seven years for Rachel’s father so that he could marry her. The father cheated Jacob by sending in his other daughter Leah, disguised, so that Jacob was married to her. So Jacob worked seven more years until he could marry the sister he first fell in love with.  You might think that this would mean that Jacob’s life is sorted, but no. As we all know there is a saying ‘cheats never prosper’ and so it is in this story. Eventually the cheating caught up with Jacob.    He decided that he must return home,   so he set  off; with two wives, eleven children, the servants and all his belongings—

Then he heard that his brother Esau was coming toward them, accompanied by an army of about 400 men. Jacob panicked —it must be payback time; his brother must still hate him. So Jacob sent his servants ahead with an army of gifts, hoping to buy his brother’s goodwill. And then he sent his family and his flocks of sheep across the river at a river crossing one night. Then he came back across, all alone to get his possessions. While he was there, a mysterious being appeared. Some say it was a man, some say an angel. The two of them wrestled until daybreak.
                          Rembrandt - Jacob wrestling with the angel

 When the man saw that he could not overpower Jacob, he touched the socket of his hip so that the hip was wrenched terribly. Then the man said, "Let me go, for it is daybreak. But Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." The man asked him, "What is your name?"
" Jacob," he answered.
Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome."

This story is often used to illustrate the moment of a personal struggle with faith. It’s quite literally, if you read the story that way, a moment of wrestling with divinity. It’s a hard fight. Jacob walks with a limp for the rest of his life from where the angel injured his hip. But Jacob struggled with divinity and he refused to let go of that struggle until he got a blessing out of it.

In our lives we all of us have times of struggle, times when we have to wrestle with demons.  No one is exempt.  And when it comes to faith that can be a struggle too.  I envy the person who has such a belief that they have not had to struggle with it, or do I?  Maybe the struggle is worth it, maybe the struggle makes faith stronger.   One person who epitomises this for me is C S Lewis.  Probably best known for his children’s book The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe and the rest of that series and  less well known for his science fiction and for his religious writings.  All of his books though, whichever genre, are about faith, belief and religion.  It is then hard to think  that he was once an atheist.  His autobiography Surprised by Joy tells the story of how he moved from atheism to one of such strength of faith that all his writings speak to it.  In that book he says:

You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnest­ly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.

Like Jacob, he had gone through his wrestling match with God.  Rainer Maria Rilke, my favourite poet, puts it into better words than I could in his Book of Hours

It starts with a dream
Add faith, and it becomes a belief.
Add action, and it becomes a part of life.
Add perseverance, and it becomes a goal in sight.
Add patience and time, and it ends with a dream come true.
In deep nights I dig for you like treasure.
For all I have seen
that clutters the surface of my world
is poor and paltry substitute
for the beauty of you
that has not happened yet....

My hands are bloody from digging.
I lift them, hold them open in the wind,
so they can branch like a tree.

Reaching, these hands would pull you out of the sky
as if you had shattered there,
dashed yourself to pieces in some wild impatience.

What is this I feel falling now,
falling on this parched earth,
like a spring rain?

~ Strange, how this too speaks of dreams, and struggle.  This particular poem always reminds me of the struggle I underwent in finding my faith.  I grew up being involved with the Anglican Church, attending Sunday School and being confirmed and yet by the time I left home to go to college I found that I had no true sense of faith at all.  I fell out of the church and church life and explored many paths.  Over 30 years of exploration I was, I felt, certainly agnostic if not atheist.  Nothing seemed right or true.  Then about fifteen years ago, something happened which was to change my life completely.  I had my own personal struggle with God.  

 Over many years I had suffered with a recurring nightmare.  It began when I was a child and would always rear up when I was feeling vulnerable, or in turmoil.  So times like exams at school.  Leaving home to go to college.  When I got married.  When I got divorced. . . . . .  With alarming regularity the awful dreams would return.   
Then I went to stay with a lovely lady called Amy, she was in her nineties and for various reasons I ended up staying in her house for a month when she had a serious fall and needed nursing if she was to stay in her home.  It coincided with my summer holidays when I was teaching so I stayed.  I was in one of those times of turmoil and was experiencing that dreadful nightmare almost every night.  Amy belonged to a religious group that believed in having an altar in her bedroom.  

 We never talked about it, that was not Amy’s way but I was aware of the existence of this sacred place in her room.  Then one night, the dream happened again and I found myself terrified, literally.  I woke to find myself trying to scream, and the scream was so bad that it was a silent scream.  I was so scared that no sound would come out.  As I lay there in this strange house, with only a frail, elderly woman for company I wondered where my life was going and how I was going to overcome these nightly terrors.  It was then, when I felt at my lowest that I found in my head a vision of Amy’s altar on the other side of the wall and gradually my breathing settled and suddenly I found myself crying, ‘ok, ok, I give in’ and then I admitted to myself, reluctantly, that I did really believe in God.  

 It was another couple of years before I finally found the Unitarian Church in Padiham and I set my feet on the path towards Unitarianism and eventually into Ministry, but it was that night when It all began and everything changed.  And touch wood – I have not had that nightmare again.  It was my Jacob moment.  I had wrestled all night and in the morning I felt blessed by God.
There is a beloved passage from the poet Rilke:
You have had many and great sadnesses, which passed... But, please, consider whether these…sadnesses have not rather gone right through the center of yourself? Whether much in you has not altered, whether you have not somewhere, at some point of your being, undergone a change while you were sad? …Were it possible for us to see further than our own knowledge reaches, and yet a little way beyond the outworks of our divining, perhaps we would endure our sadnesses with [even] greater confidence than our joys. For they are the moments when something new has entered into us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy perplexity…a stillness comes, and the new, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it and is silent.

Something new has entered into us’ – said Rilke, and yes something new had entered into me and continues to enter in, daily.

We all, I am sure, have had our moments of struggle with God on a greater or lesser level; and our human struggle with God is never easy.  Yet within that struggle we experience divine blessing. 
There is a poem by William Stafford called "The Way It Is." It offers wise advice for wrestling with God:
There's a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn't change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can't get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time's unfolding.
You don't ever let go of the thread.

Jacob's struggle reminds us of that thread: we may struggle with God through the night, but by daybreak there is only the blessing.
May God’s blessing be with us all.
So may it be.


1 comment:

  1. What a joy reading this just before settling down to rest...I can see that this has been coming for a while Gill and I love it...I love to read and listen to sermons when the preacher gives of them self truly from the core of their being. It seems to me that our congregants like it too, it helps them relate...of course it should not be self indulgent, which this most certainly isn' has hit me right at the core of my being, probably because I can relate strongly to it...also it's a subject I've felt compelled to explore in recent weeks...thank you so much Gill x