Asking the Hard Questions

Sunday, August 20, 2023
Pastor Jason Bryan-Wegner

Psalm 13

I’ve discovered through my years of ministry that some of the best theologians are also the smallest and youngest members of the church. Too many times to count, I have been approached by a four- or five-year-old in the narthex after worship and asked the deepest questions about God and how God works. “Where is heaven?” “Why did my dog have to die, and is he with Jesus now?” “Does God love cars as much as I do?” “If God loves everyone, why doesn’t everyone love everyone?” “If Jesus is in my heart, where does the Holy Spirit go?”

In some instances, these questions have answers. But some of them just don’t. As we get older, we sometimes shy away from those big questions that aren’t easily answered. Perhaps it’s that we just don’t have time to think about them, or we’re not as comfortable with things we don’t know.

As we journey through the Psalms in this series, we can’t help but stumble into some hard questions that God’s people have asked throughout time – questions that don’t come with easy answers. Today’s psalm begins with a question that isn’t just intellectual curiosity, like many of the kids’ questions asked after worship. It’s a question of existential crisis about God’s location in one’s time of suffering. “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” This psalm is a lament – a complaint toward God when life is falling apart. If you’ve ever thought that your prayers to God need to always be polite and reverent, think again. The psalmist comes right at God, calling out God’s perceived absence when life gets real. At the same time, the psalmist holds fast to the hesed, the steadfast love and faithfulness of God. It is because of this steadfastness of God that we can lay bare our complaints to our Lord.

The truth is prayer doesn’t always have to be nice and polite, and trusting God isn’t always a smooth, straight path. Our faith can be shaken. Life’s circumstances can sometimes seem as though a good and loving God is nowhere in sight. A serious illness suddenly interrupts your life, addiction grips you or a loved one, an important relationship abruptly ends, you look at the world and wonder if it can possibly be better for your children and grandchildren as it was for you. Our faith gets shaken, and it’s hard to know where God is in all of it. Some have called times like these “a dark night of the soul”. We don’t often talk about times like these, but they’re more common than you might think. Some of the most revered and reverent people of faith have had seasons of life where God seemed absent, where the hard questions from this psalmist were on their lips and in their hearts.

Mother Teresa, the holy and admired nun who dedicated her life to God and to serving the poorest orphans of Kolkata, India wrote that she lived for almost 50 years feeling as though God had forgotten her. “‘In my soul,’ she wrote, ‘I feel just that terrible pain of loss—of God not wanting me—of God not being God—of God not really existing.” And yet, she continued to pray every day, to turn in the only direction she knew how to turn, so that when God returned, she’d know it. A lot of prayer is like this, right? We speak our deepest needs, our hopes, and pains to God, trusting that in God’s goodness and mercy, God will respond. But we’re really never sure when or how the response will come. Faith is constant vigilance; expectation and trust that God is not fickle or inattentive, but that God’s commitment to salvation and righteousness through Jesus Christ and the witness of Scripture is as real today as it was to those who first testified to it. What Scripture teaches us is that God is faithful, but God is not always quick with a response. Abraham and Sarah waited 90 years to have a child. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. They spent more than 70 years in exile. And yet, God’s people persisted in trusting in God’s faithfulness. Asking the hard questions, offering the most impossible of prayers to God today, is part of the enduring witness of faith. When we are bold to ask, and patient to receive, we give light to others and grow in our relationship with God.

Our brothers and sisters in Guatemala know something about asking hard questions and seeking God when God most certainly felt absent. Before the people of San Agustín Church settled in La Esmeralda, Guatemala, they endured 36 years of civil war. Most of the people are indigenous Mayan. They spent years as refugees in Mexico during the war, fleeing persecution from their government. When they returned to Guatemala, they were not able to return to the places they came from. Their only option was to resettle with people from different tribes and languages of Mayans in a refugee resettlement village in the north of the country – which is what La Esmeralda is. I can only imagine how often our brothers and sisters’ faith was shaken during the war, and how many times they asked, “How long shall my enemy exalt over me? Give light to my eyes, so my enemy cannot prevail over me!” And yet, they did not give up hope. They have rebuilt their lives, and rebuilt community and faith in ways they never would have imagined. Prior to the war, there was no Lutheran Church in Guatemala, but as they resettled, this new church provided hope for them that they hadn’t received in other churches. And now, their church is training leaders in music and ministry, providing education and training opportunities for their young women, and providing agricultural education so their crops yield a larger, more climate resistant harvest for generations to come.

Our deep laments, whether ancient or contemporary do not turn to praise overnight. Through prayer – turning in the only direction we know – God works to reshape our perspective over time and moves us through this connected, yet distinct relationship between protest and praise.

When the Augustana group visited with our siblings at San Agustín a couple weeks ago, we all stood outside the new kitchen and community building for its dedication. We could all sense the faith and gratitude the people of the church had – for God, for each other, for our partnership. No one but God could have seen all those years ago, amidst war and persecution, the celebration of life and faith and community bursting forth in that little village in northern Guatemala that day. It’s clear that though challenges remain, and lament will always be part of life, that praise and celebration for the goodness and steadfast love of God guides this community of faith. Their enemies did not prevail, and God has dealt bountifully with them.

Friends, there are times when life deals us things that lead to bigger, harder questions than we can sometimes handle. There are situations in life that call for lament and outrage, even toward God. God can handle it. You may be living in a time such as this right now. God hears those questions. God cares about your complaints. God heard the cry of Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!?” and against all odds, God brought life from death in that situation. This is the steadfast love of God for you and for me. When you feel as though you are living in a dark night of the soul, keep turning to prayer and trust that God will respond, perhaps in ways you have not yet imagined, with life and light and an abundance of grace. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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