Haggling with God
I thought I would blog a little more about some of the books that have most influenced my life during the past few years. After reading his book, To Be Told, I drove four hours to St Louis to participate in a two-day conference put on by Dan Allender. The event was held at a big church, and I sat with hundreds of people as we listened to this man in his sixties talk for hours, never flinching from his story of being sexually-abused; of growing up with a father who barely spoke to him; about drug addictions and run-ins with the law; about how he accidental-ed his way into seminary with his best friend, a guy named Tremper Longman III; and about Allender’s long-term marriage with a woman who had a tendency to surprise him by jumping out of closets.
Allender is an author but also a teacher. He founded the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. In the book and at the conference, Allender argued that it is in the entering into our deepest pain, our disappointments and our grief, that we will find the joy and meaning and purpose and life that we seek. The material was about the importance and power of naming. How we take on these names that aren’t really ours, names like Alone or Hero or Golden Boy or Failure and how we need to take God on in the midst of our rage. How our pain can lead us “haggle” with God for a better name and story. I experienced the conference as a kind of cleansing. It gave me permission: I’m allowed to be angry; I don’t have to pretend anymore. On my out of the church, I stopped in at the back table to buy another Allender’s new book, this one co-authored with Longman and named God Loves Sex.
The whole thing made me think back to this friend I had in D.C. several years before. She lived in the same apartment building as I did. We were eight blocks from Capitol Hill, and the building had this great open roof that we could hang out on. Sometimes my friend would go up there when she needed to be alone. From what I understood, it was often when she was feeling sad or angry, that’s when she would talk to God. I would say “pray” because that’s really what she was doing, but her prayers weren’t cute and pious and rehearsed and deferential. No, they were more like Robert Duvall‘s character in The Apostle. In the film, Sonny is a preacher who beats a man with a baseball bat because he caught the man having sex with his wife. It’s a mistake I can understand and even respect without condoning. Before Sonny finally submits to being arrested late in the movie, there’s this great scene where he’s upstairs in a house, yelling at God. My friend in D.C. prayed like that sometimes. I don’t know exactly what she said or even what her beefs were, but I know that when she went up there, she meant business. She didn’t hide her aggressiveness, didn’t hold anything back. I always respected her for that because I thought it meant that her prayers and her faith were real, that she gave a shit, and that she was going to honor whatever was going on inside her.
I suppose I’ve begun praying like that sometimes. Usually the prayers come when I’m feeling a combination of difficult emotions combined with powerlessness. I suppose what I’m really saying to God in those moments is: “I’m doing my part here! Where are you? Do you even care?” Probably with a few expletives littered in. Even Jesus prayed this way when He was on the cross: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” I usually feel better after praying like this. It’s part of my process of accepting my limitations.
“Praying about the things that are truly angering us – including our hurt feelings, our frustrations, and our feelings of abandonment by God – means that we are establishing good boundaries. Just as it is proper to assert ourselves when we feel disrespected by others in our lives as a way of saying ‘I matter’ to the person who may be hurting us, angry prayer toward God can mean standing up to God as a way of telling God that we matter too.”
Maybe God already knows we matter, but we need to know that we matter. And maybe honest prayer — rather than changing God — changes us.