Questions for God? Why do we struggle so long? Psalm 71:14-18

by Connie Frierson

Today is the first Sunday of our new sermon series, “Questions for God.” Boy! Did we get the questions! But we only have six Sundays in lent so we have got to pick and choose. Graham and I employed a very scientific method. We pulled questions out of a hat. So here is the hat. Let’s see what is inside. Hmmm. Why do we suffer? Next question, “Why do we suffer?” Next question, “Why do we suffer?” I am detecting a trend. Next question, Oh here’s one that is different, I’ll save that one for Palm Sunday. Next question, “Why do we suffer?” You see the pattern. The interesting thing is that each question isn’t exactly identical. Each reflects something personal and unique, while carrying the common thread of suffering and struggle and bad things happening. The biggest questions for God, all surround why we hurt; why does God ask us to do hard things; why does God permit terrorism. On this weekend of all weekends, the suffering in Japan from the terrible tsunami and earthquake shakes us. This suffering is almost too much to imagine. It seems too much to bear, too much to comprehend. This is when I must admit I am a small person. My mind is so small that this type of disaster is hard to take in. I don’t do well with abstract ideas, or global questions. In my experience God speaks best to me when God speaks to a question that is little, local and close. God’s great big answers often come to me in little packages. So this morning as we pray for Japan and the world, I am going to ask us to turn to one little local question by one friend that we probably all know. When we do this perhaps God will provide a blessing, so that we can then pray and act better in the face of such big tragedies. The question that I pulled from the hat is this one. “Why do we often have to struggle so long before we finally experience God?”
I have already confessed that I don’t do well with global, abstract questions. I can understand my world by thinking about it in context, in a particular situation or circumstance. What is the situation of this question? Most of these questions don’t come with names attached. But I am going to make some assumptions about this person. I am going to make predictions about this person’s context. So if you are this person forgive me if I am wrong, but here are my predictions. This person has suffered. To struggle often means to suffer. This person is concerned with how long it took them to come to faith. Notice these words, “sooooo long” and “finally.” I think this person is old. I think this person has been wrestling around with life and trials and God for a long, long time. I think this person is feisty. This person has tussled and thrashed around with God, like Jacob wrestling that angel and getting a blessing. I think this person has had true experience of grace and of God. But man, oh man, it took a while. This person is like many of us. This person is asking the age-old question, “How come we are too soon old and too late smart?”
“Too soon oldt and too late schmart.” You might have seen this expression from Amish Dutch kitsch. When I was a kid I would see this expression on a trivet or potholder, or a plaque in every other kitchen. Why did I see it everywhere? Because this silly nick knack captures something universal about our experience. Translate this to our spiritual journey. We are too soon old and too late smart. We struggle so long until finally we rest in God. The question is why is this and is this the way it has to be? I think we need to look at the young and the old, youth and age. If we have a general assumption that young people don’t have faith and old people do, let’s ask if that is actually true. Let’s see if this is the way it has to be. If it is true that people often come to faith later in life I think this is a function of two things, trust and experience.
How we view the world is so often a function of trust and experience. We come into the world primed for trust. Perhaps this may seem a fanciful notion to cynics, but I think we come from God and we return to God. I think babies have known the presence of God, that infants have had experience of God before birth. I think babies know how to attach and to trust because they came from attachment and trust in our heavenly father. I believe babies are primed to trust, just as they are primed to breathe. As babies we gaze into our mother’s and fathers eyes. Physiologically, that only place we, babies, can see, only about 12 inches in front of our eyes. That space is also the distance from a baby’s eye to a loving parent’s eyes. God has primed us to look with trust and love at our parents, and for our parents to look with love and caring at us. This loving gaze is one of the most powerful things on earth. The loving gaze is how we start to love and to trust. As babies, we start out trusting. That is the characteristic that Jesus talks about when Jesus says, “We must become like children to enter the Kingdom of God.” That openness and trust helps us enter the Kingdom of God, to have faith. We start out high on the trust chart. But then things happen. People prove untrustworthy. Our needs aren’t quite met. We get preoccupied. We seek our own way. And often trust diminishes over time.
This leads to the second universal fact of life, experience. Just living and breathing, crawling or walking or talking we have experiences. As babies we start out with very little experience. The world is a new place. But over time we learn about the world from each experience. We experience suffering. We experience joy. We experience hot and cold and fear and comfort and sickness and health. Our experience grows and grows through age. Experience is both good and bad. If our understanding of God and life is that only pleasant things are evidence of God. Experience is going to be quite confusing. The bible says, “Rain falls on the just and the unjust.” (In an arid country, rain was considered good, like a blessing.) So experience is both good and bad. Regardless whether they are experiencing good or bad we get lots of it. But this alone doesn’t lead to wisdom or to faith. So empirically we see older people who have grown in grace and wisdom and we sometimes see older people who are hard, cynical and bitter. We sometimes see young people with wisdom beyond their years. We have a saying for this, “out of the mouth of babes comes wisdom.” But we also see young people who are foolish. How do we explain this? But that’s not all we run into people who have suffered great tragedy and pain, yet they have trust and faith and joy. Or we know other people who have lived with every advantage or money, health, love, looks and education, yet they are miserable and despairing. How do we explain that? My conclusion is that experience is neutral. Experience is good and bad. But experience alone, (good or bad) doesn’t lead to faith or God. The path to faith, to experiencing God’s grace is to infuse trust into each and every experience of life. We need to take every experience and wash it in trust, let trust soak way in until we sense that God is somewhere or everywhere in that new experience. We need a chart line of high trust. This leads to faith. This leads to the God infused life.
So why does it take us so long to get this merging of trust into our experiences? When we are babies, trust is a gift. When we grow older trust is a choice. The shock of terrible things often jolts us out of the gift of trust and in that time we need to do the much harder thing. We need to choose to trust. Perhaps we are deceived by evil that tells us we cannot trust God. Perhaps we deceive ourselves by thinking we have control over everything and that we should trust ourselves. Perhaps we choose to trust money, or medicine, or science, or some person. Or perhaps we choose to trust our own philosophic worldview that God isn’t there or God can’t be trusted or God is mean. We choose.
The God that saves and heals us assures us that it is never too late to change the direction of faith. We can infuse trust into the chart of our life. We can even go back to our experience line and rewrite it with trust. We all have times when the foundation of trust is shaken to the core. Times perhaps of abuse, or of a sudden death, or of health crisis, or joblessness. A path to grace goes back to revisit that time and ask God to breath trust in God into that terrible time. This is one of those things that finally, after so long, we can look back and see the blessings, the gifts, the providences and look for the presence of God in the whole time line of our experience.
There were once two little girls who were watching their grandmother read the bible. And one little girl says to the other, “Why does Grandma read the bible so much?” The older little girl says, “I think she is studying for her final exam.” Maybe. Or maybe the older woman was rereading her life in the light of trust and faith. Can we go back after so long to finally get the trust and see the grace of God throughout our life? I think that is one of the spiritual tasks God wants us to do. It would have been better if we had lived our life trusting as each new experience comes in. If we did we would have this lovely purple high line of trust and experience flowing through life. But sometimes what we need to do is to circle back and to re-see our lives through the eyes of God’s graces.
I have a film clip that helps to illustrate this spiritual task of a life review in trust and spiritual insight. This clip is taken from the film, “The Immortal Beloved” which is a story about Beethoven’s life. At the very end of Beethoven’s life he wrote his ninth symphony, which includes the Ode to Joy. One of the things that perhaps broke Beethoven’s trust was his early experience with a brutal father. Beethoven’s father was an alcoholic and would beat him. In this film clip Beethoven is deaf, standing before the orchestra as they play his ninth symphony. He is replaying this God given music though a night in his life as he ran from his father and experienced the glory of God in a pond out in the country. He is replaying that experience and I think this illustrates how trust in the God who created the universe can break into our life in significant ways. At the end of this boys run from his father through woods and paths. The boy lies down in the pond. He lies in the pond in which all the stars are reflected and looks us at this infinite starry sky. In this moment that boy understands that he is one part of this magnificent creation. The boy touches the stars and the stars are in him and around him. This is how God heals us. This is how God uses one starry night to remind us that we are part of God’s wonderful creation. We are not alone, but the stars of all God’s beloved souls surround us too.
God wants us to wash all our experiences in life with grace and love. Why do we struggle so long before we experience God’s grace? Because we don’t live life with trust though all our experiences. But it is never too late to ask God to help us choose to trust. Amen.