My gangly bird legs stretched out in front of me and I watched my tennies rock back and forth, scraping over sandy dirt like windshield wipers. I alternated between note-taking and doodling, then shifted again, trying my best not to roll right off the log into a dead sleep.
As my mind began to wander toward the lake and a free afternoon, the Charlie-Brown-teacher-drone voice broke into clear syllables and I froze.
Did she just say Willingham? What on earth is she talking about?
Remain calm. Look casual. No sudden moves.
“The Willinghams are a perfect example,” she told my group. “I like to think of them as the ‘Yelling Family.'”
The umm, what?
There under the northern Minnesota pines, the last thing I expected in my morning Bible camp breakout was for my family to be Exhibit A for the Confrontational Communication Style.
I set my oversized junior high feet to window wiping again, in rhythm with my indecision: Should I rise up proud of our newfound notoriety or slink back to my cabin in shame?
As it turned out, the instructor (in truth, a longtime family friend who’d spent many hours in our home) meant only to share her appreciation for my family’s practice of communicating openly, albeit with a little gusto. While it could get noisy sometimes, what needed to be said got said, some other things got said back, and most nights everybody went to bed still friends.
So when I turned the page to my prayer study this weekend and saw the chapter entitled Prayer as Argument with God, I smiled big and couldn’t wait to read it three times.
Finally. A happy chapter.
After weeks of plunging the depths of prayer as groaning, prayer as desperation, prayer as God’s absence (or seeming), prayer as argument looked flat out refreshing.
Author and pastor Matt Woodley recounts a conversation he had with a friend, a Jewish follower of Jesus. Every week for two years, his friend would argue some point in his sermon, piecing out Woodley’s interpretation of a Biblical passage. When he could stand it no longer, Woodley erupted over his friend’s constant critique. But his friend explained,
When New York Jews like me argue about Scripture, we’re asking for a dialogue. When I tell you that I disagree with something you’ve said, I’m expecting you to fire back and say, “Oh yeah, well I think that you’re wrong, too, and let me tell you why.” You see, Jewish people sometimes get close by arguing. Confronting each other is a sign of intimacy in the relationship. So when I dish it out, I want you to dish it right back. That’s how the relationship grows. (The Folly of Prayer, Matt Woodley, p. 85, emphasis added)
I’m a midwesterner, not a New Yorker. And I live a hair’s breadth away from the border to Minnesota Nice. In these parts, things get a little awkward when disagreements heat up. (And maybe this is a good time to add the disclaimer that we’re talking about spirited discourse here, not verbal abuse that twists intimacy into something it was never meant to be, nor divisive arguments that are all about power and control.)
But awkward or not, Woodley suggests that a richer and fuller relationship with God grows out of our willingness to contend with God.
We can, he’ll say, in all the security that comes from a covenant relationship with God, come to Him to say – and boldly so — “This isn’t right.”
Abraham did this. In Genesis 18, he reminded God of His justice. Abraham badgered God until He agreed not to destroy a city if just ten righteous men could be found there.
Moses did this. (Often.) In Numbers 11, at his wit’s end, he reminded God of His promises to His people, wondered why the whole burden sat on Moses’ shoulders, and told God He may as well just kill him on the spot if He wouldn’t treat him any better.
And we do this, God and I. We carry on a little of the tradition of the Yelling Family. When I am disturbed at how He carries Himself out in the world, or especially in my tiny corner of it, I can’t pretend it’s not like that.
I tell Him.
And when what He says in His Word just doesn’t make sense, we wrestle it out until it does. Or at least until I can live with it.
Sometimes, things change in the world. More often, though, after a sparring match with the Almighty (for Whom, I might add, I know I am no match at all), I come away bruised and disheveled but with a deeper love and knowledge of this One Who loves me so.
In this practice of argument, of humble but robust dialog, my intimacy with the Father grows deeper. It is a process of pursuing His heart, remembering we are on the same side, and relaxing in the safety that is covenant with Him.
Photo by Jose Fernando Carli via Stock.xchng Reference: The Folly of Prayer: Practicing the Presence and Absence of God, by Matt Woodley