Bad news on the radio. Breakfast on the table. We sit together and drink coffee. Listen. Morning after morning. The news might be local or international and these days, it’s often tense, sometimes shocking so it can be hard to take in. Sometimes we get angry and the kids ask questions that we try to answer, and we try not to rage. Then more bad news: bad decisions, bad outcomes, bad weather on the horizon.
Some mornings, we decide not to listen and turn to a music station instead, but that doesn’t feel like the right answer. It feels important to pay attention. Partly because my husband needs to – this term he is teaching a course on Religion and the News – and partly because not listening doesn’t mean everything will be okay. Things don’t go away because you ignore them.
A couple of weeks ago, I was at the barber with my shaggy boys. While we waited our turn, I flipped through a magazine, but the conversation in the room caught my attention. The man in the barber’s chair was talking about music and how it made him feel good in the morning. He couldn’t understand why anyone would listen to the news or read a newspaper. Why pay attention to all that? Better to play your favourite music and put yourself in a good mood, wasn’t it? What good could come from knowing all that bad news? The barber nodded and smiled. In the background, there was a pop song on the radio and my youngest kicked his legs in time to the music. The barber smiled again, but didn’t say anything and I kept looking at my magazine.
I’ve known this barber for a few years now. Sometimes, he cuts the boys hair; sometimes his son does. Whenever I come into his shop, he smiles and asks if I’d like a coffee. He and I have the same taste in afternoon coffee – small, strong and black – and like mine, his family are newcomers to this city. They left Aleppo because they saw what was coming. They paid attention, took what they could, and got out. When they got here, they had to find new schools for their children, new friends and community, a new house and new shop where they could work. The barber might have mentioned some of this to the man in the chair, but he didn’t. He just nodded and kept smiling, and the conversation moved on.
Another morning and I’m angry at the news again. My 13-year-old wants to know if it’s okay to be angry like this. Is this how we should be reacting? She looked for the right words. Is it. . . faithful? Good question.
I get angry at the hard ways of the world, all the building tensions and the thoughtless decisions but if I’m being honest, I could also say I’m angry that God lets it get so hard. Am I angry at God? Is that unfaithful? Or faithful to the faith we find in the psalms and the prophets? I believe anger can be useful if it prompts us to recognise injustice and work for a better way, but does anger leave space for gratitude? I worry these thoughts over, wondering if I need to let go, feeling compelled to keep paying attention.
Grappling with God
One of the stories in this month’s lectionary tells of Jacob and the angel. All night, Jacob wrestles, testing his strength, pushing back and trying to win his own. You might say this was familiar work for Jacob, but this time it seems he wrestles with God. The night stretches on and neither wrestler pulls away. When Jacob is struck hard on the hip, he still will not let go. The other wrestler asks his name and when Jacob answers, he offers this reply:
“You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.”
A new name is a blessing of sorts, and now he is named for his struggle, giving his name to those who come after him. The children of Israel are those who grapple with God. There is faith in this.
Jacob – newly Israel – emerges from his struggle limping and maybe we all do when we wrestle with the Word. We find we are slowed and changed, but our attention – even our anger – is not condemned. It is what has brought us to this place and there is faith in that, too.
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