2016-06-30
The church I attend reserves a brief time in which people in the pews can voice aloud their prayers. Over the years I have heard hundreds of these prayers, and with very few exceptions the word polite indeed applies. One, however, stands out in my memory because of its raw emotion.

In a clear but wavering voice a young woman began with the words, "God, I hated you after the rape! How could you let this happen to me?" The congregation abruptly fell silent. No more rustling of papers or shifting in the seats. "And I hated the people in this church who tried to comfort me. I didn’t want comfort. I wanted revenge. I wanted to hurt back. I thank you, God, that you didn’t give up on me, and neither did some of these people. You kept after me, and I come back to you now and ask that you heal the scars in my soul."

Of all the prayers I have heard in church, that one most resembles the style of prayers I find replete in the Bible, especially those from God’s favorites such as Abraham and Moses.
 
Abraham, a man rightly celebrated for his faith, heard from God in visions, in one-on-one conversations, and even in a personal visit to his tent. God dangled before him glowing promises, one of which stuck in his craw: the assurance that he would father a great nation. Abraham was seventy-five when he first heard that promise, and over the next few years God upped the ante with hints of offspring as bountiful as dust on the earth and stars in the sky.

Meanwhile nature took its course, and at an age when he should be patting the heads of great-grandchildren Abraham remained childless. He knew he had few years of fertility left, if any. On one of God’s visitations, Abraham made a veiled threat to produce an heir through a liaison with one of his household servants. At the age of eighty-six, following his barren wife Sarah’s suggestion, he did just that.

The next time God visited, that offspring, a son named Ishmael, was a teenage outcast wandering the desert, a victim of Sarah’s jealousy. Abraham laughed aloud at God’s reiterated promise, and by now sarcasm was creeping into his response: "Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?" Sarah shared the bitter joke, muttering, "After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?"

God responded with a message that to Abraham’s ears must have sounded like good news and bad news both. He would indeed father a child, but only after performing minor surgery on the part of his body necessary for the deed. Abraham thus becomes the father of circumcision as well as Isaac.

That pattern of feint and thrust, of Abraham standing up to God only to get knocked down again, forms the background for a remarkable prayer, actually an extended dialogue between God and Abraham. "Shall I hide from Abraham what lam about to do?" God begins, as if recognizing that a valid partnership requires consultation before any major decision. Next, God unveils a plan to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, notorious for their wickedness and moral pollutants of Abraham’s extended fatally.

By now Abraham has learned his own role in the partnership and he makes no attempt to conceal his outrage, "Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?"Then ensues a bargaining session much like what occurs in any Middle Eastern bazaar. What if there are fifty righteous persons in the city, will you spare it? All right, if I can find fifty righteous, I’ll spare the whole place. With a jolt Abraham remembers who he’s bargaining with—Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes—but proceeds to lower his request to forty-five persons.

Forty-five? No problem. May the Lord not be angry . . . Now that I have been so bold—Abraham bows and scrapes, then continues to press – Forty? Thirty? Twenty? Ten? Each time God concedes without an argument, concluding, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”

Although ten righteous people could not be found to save Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham got what he really wanted, deliverance for his nephew and grand-nieces. And we readers are left with the tantalizing fact that Abraham quit asking before God quit granting. What if Abraham had bargained even harder and asked that the cities be spared for the sake of one righteous person, his nephew Lot? Was God, so quick to concede each point, actually looking for an advocate, a human being bold enough to express God’s own deepest instinct of mercy?

As Abraham learned, when we appeal to God’s grace and compassion the fearsome God soon disappears. "The Lord is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion." God is more merciful than we can imagine and welcomes appeals to that mercy.
 
Skip forward half a millennium when another master bargainer appears on the scene. God, who has "remembered his covenant with Abraham," handpicks a man with the perfect résumé for a crucial assignment. Moses has spent half his life learning leadership skills from the ruling empire of the day and half his life learning wilderness survival skills while fleeing a murder rap. Who better to lead a tribe of freed slaves through the wilderness to the Promised Land?

So as to leave no room for doubt, God introduces himself via an unnatural phenomenon: a fiery bush that does not burn up. Appropriately, Moses hides his face, afraid to look, as God announces the mission: "The cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt."

Unlike Abraham, Moses turns argumentative from the very first meeting. He tries false humility: Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh? When that fails, he marshals other objections: I don’t know your name . . . and what if the Israelites don’t believe me . . . I have never been eloquent. God answers each one, orchestrating a few miracles to establish credibility. Still Moses begs off: O Lord, please send someone else to do it. Patience runs out and God’s anger flares, but even so God suggests a compromise, a shared role with Moses’ brother Aaron. The famous exodus from Egypt thus gets under way only after an extended bargaining session.

Moses puts that knack for negotiation, that chutzpah, to a supreme test sometime later when God’s patience with the tribe truly has run out. After watching ten plagues descend on Egypt, after walking away from slavery scot-free and burdened down by plunder, after seeing a pharaoh’s state-of-the-art army swept underwater, after following a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, after receiving miraculous supplies of water and food (some of it digesting in their bellies at that very moment) – after all that, the Israelites grow afraid, or bored, or stiff-necked” in God’s diagnosis, and reject it all in favor of a golden idol made for them by Moses' sidekick brother, the very Aaron God had recruited by way of compromise.


God has had quite enough. "Let me alone, so that I may destroy them and blot out their name from under heaven. And I will make you into a nation stronger and more numerous than they." Moses knows well the destructive power God can unleash for he has seen it firsthand in Egypt. Let me alone, God says! Moses hears that remark less as a command than as the sigh of a beleaguered parent who has reached the end of a tether yet somehow wants to be pulled back—in other words, an opening stance for negotiation.

Moses rolls out the arguments. Look at all you went through delivering them from Egypt. What about your reputation? Think of how the Egyptians will gloat! Don’t forget your promises to Abraham. Moses flings down a sack of God’s own promises. For forty days and forty nights he lies prostrate before the Lord, refusing food and drink. At last God yields: "Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way." Moses proceeds to win that argument, too, as God reluctantly agrees to accompany the Israelites the rest of the way.

Sometime later, the tables have turned. This time Moses is the one ready to resign. "Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant, to the land you promised on oath to their forefathers?" And this time it is God who responds with compassion, calming Moses, sympathizing with his complaints, and designating seventy elders to share the burden.

Moses did not win every argument with God. Notably, he failed to persuade God to let him enter the Promised Land in person (though that request, too, was granted many years later on the Mount of Transfiguration). But his example, like Abraham’s, proves that God invites argument and struggle, and often yields, especially when the point of contention is God’s mercy. In the very process of arguing, we may in fact take on God’s own qualities.

"Prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance," writes Archbishop Trench; "it is laying hold of his highest willingness."

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