Blessings in the MessOthers, Addictions , Suffering
Contributed by: Inner City Youth Alive
Three rabbis are sitting around discussing Talmud. One of them quotes a certain opinion, which he says was stated by Rabbi Yochanan. The second concurs, but the third and youngest insists that it was actually stated by Rabbi Samuel. The two older men tell him he must be wrong, but he’s adamant.
The argument rages on, getting more and more heated, until suddenly the heavens open and a great voice booms out,
“HE IS RIGHT. IT WAS RABBI SAMUEL, NOT RABBI YOCHANAN!”
The heavens close again, and the three sit in stunned silence for a moment. And then the oldest Rabbi says,
“Well, so now it is two against two…”
That joke encapsulates something I love about the Jewish tradition – they wrestle with God. In fact, as some might remember from Sunday School, that’s literally what the name “Israel” means. There’s an honesty and a directness that you find in the story of the Children of Israel that speaks of genuine relationship – a relationship that gave them the freedom and confidence to enter into that wrestle. They believed there was one true God, and that God was for them, and responsive, like a good parent. I don’t think that relationship could have been sustained throughout millennia without a faith like that.
It’s a faith that resulted in a story and a people who survived against remarkable odds. I’ve never met a modern day Hittite or Babylonian, but the Jews are with us to this day. That uniqueness is apparent when you read the history they wrote about themselves. While the prevailing pattern of ancient cultures was to write histories that glorified (and exaggerated) their triumphs, the Jewish story can seem at times like pretty much a recounting of how things went wrong – and how God was faithful in spite of it.
It seems like if you are committed to living within “God’s story,” being honest and genuine is non-optional. This theme got real to me recently when Harvey, a “hood pastor” on ICYA’s community outreach team, was asked to do a funeral for a young, gang-involved man in our community. Somehow the guy made some street-level mistake and when an attempt by the gang to punish this “sin” went too far, it ended his life. Harvey asked my son and I to provide some music at the funeral, so, without thinking about it too much we chose some songs and headed down to the chapel.
It was not a funeral like I have ever experienced before. The mix of family and gang members, past and current, made for a high-tension situation. At one point in the ceremony there was an outbreak of yelling, cursing, and crying in the lobby. A number of family members ran out of the service to enter the fray but as far as we could tell the best thing for my son and I to do was to just keep on singing those worship songs.
We happened to be singing a song that has grown popular in churches lately, called “The Blessing.” It is basically an adaptation of a scripture that I have heard recited as a benediction since I was a kid in church. “The Lord bless you and keep you, and make his face shine upon you and give you his perfect peace.” The lyric rises to a pronouncement of God’s favour on “your family and your children and their children, for a thousand generations.” It follows with what seemed, in that moment, to be an endless repetition of the phrase, “He is FOR you!”
It was hard to sing those words in that context. It led me into an odd, almost combative moment of prayer. I found myself wrestling with God. Am I to believe, Lord, in this context of urban poverty and extreme generational suffering, that You are for the people I’m singing this song to? What evidence is there for that? And how am I supposed to believably sing them a promise of generations of blessing to come? I found myself praying a prayer that, had it been out loud, might have sounded dangerously close to calling God out. “You better get down here! You are needed! These people need you to show up, now!”
Maybe that’s exactly what God wants, for us to know our inadequacy and to call for help? Or maybe I was awkwardly forcing my impoverished understanding of blessing onto the situation? It’s too easy to default to a view of blessing that simply equals a lack of suffering, and a desire for all the things that make life easy, and comfortable. And if there is one precious lesson that the North End will teach you time and again, it is that there is more blessing in facing your pain in the middle of the messy collision of all the people who love you than there will ever be in sterile isolation surrounded by nice things. My hunch is that it is somewhere around there – in the honest and painful wrestle with a God who promises to be in the mess with us – that we find the blessing.
By John Janzen
Director of Development