Is It Okay to Argue with God?

Jacob Wrestling with an Angel, Jack Levine

Some believers talk about a personal relationship with God. Their thoughts reach out to the Supreme, and God answers back. But all relationships eventually lead to conflicts. Is it okay to argue with God?

I attended a series of talks in which representatives from different faiths explained core beliefs and unique features of their religions. A Jewish woman proudly declared that the descendants of Israel had a right to argue with God. Jacob wrestled with an angel, God’s representative, and won a blessing. Job pointed out to God that his fate did not match his state of piety. Hadn’t he done all the right things? And for this he loses family, property and good health? God chose not to smite Job for impudence, but answered at length and restored good fortune to His faithful servant.

St. Theresa of Avila once chided God. She fell into a ditch during a rainstorm. She sat in the mud for a minute, stood up and shook her fist at the sky. She said, “If this is how You treat Your friends, no wonder why You have so few of them!”

I was raised a Roman Catholic, and the priests never based a sermon on St. Theresa’s soggy moment. God might be our Father, but no one thought it was a good idea to question the Ultimate. Privates don’t sass the general.

But wouldn’t it be a relief if we could vent once in a while? Would the world end, would our souls get fried to crispy bits if we gave an honest reaction to God about the latest unexpected misfortune plaguing our lives?

I’ve heard some theologians promote the idea of unquestioning gratitude. They suggest that the response to every vicissitude should be, “Thank you, God.” The argument goes, “If we’re grateful for the pleasant things that come from God, then we should be grateful for the painful things too. It all comes from the same source; it’s all part of the same plan.” That position might be fine for fully realized spiritual beings, but what about the rest of us?

I don’t thank God at funerals. Don’t feel gratitude when unfortunate phone calls announce upcoming tragedies. (My prayer during these times is for endurance. I don’t want to become a bitter jerk in the face of harshness.)

Sometimes I let Him in on the misery I’m feeling. I pray, “Here I am, Lord. By the way, this sucks!” I don’t blame God after registering my complaint, but I do ask, “What’s the point of this? Was this the only way this could go?” Those are the only genuine questions I can ask.

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Gramps and Gram Visit for the First Time

Annie and Ava
Bryant and Ava having “tummy time”. Sedgewick pondering the changed state of affairs.

Driving to Miami is no one’s idea of a picnic, but Judy and I had a strong motivation to make the five hour trip from Orlando. We wanted to hold Ava, our first grandchild.

I had a two-day gap in my schedule this week, so we loaded up the car and took off this Thursday. The turnpike holds a few mysteries for the uninitiated. Some stretches are covered by photo plate reading, and others require tickets. Some entrances are clearly marked. Others, especially at the jumbled service plazas, inspire puzzlement. Some exits only properly service cars with transponders. Folks bearing paper tickets must travel on to other exits, visit towns they had no intention of visiting, and double back. Traffic gets progressively more cutthroat once one travels south of Palm Beach. Construction zones multiply.

Annie, Ava and Bryant seemed properly exhausted. A new way of life requires tough adjustments. Ava mostly slept and ate. Her cries were plaintive but not unreasonably demanding. She calmed down readily once basic needs had been met. She kept her eyes closed for the most part, but peeped at us occasionally. When unwrapped from her swaddling blankets, she stretched her arms, legs, toes and yawnnnnnned. The world, if I’m interpreting her reactions accurately, appears unexpected but untroubling. She’s too bleary to worry much about anything.

Judy and I spent a lot of time holding her. We marveled at how small and frail she seemed. We’d forgotten over the last 30 years what newborns are really like. I felt calm and peaceful once she settled in on my stomach. I wanted to join her in baby slumber land.

I walked her around the apartment, rocked her in my arms, sang a few songs. K.C and the Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight” worked well. Steady rhythms and innocuous lyrics soothed her. Might have to sing soft 70s rock at the next visit. I draw the line, however, at “Muskrat Love”. My sweet granddaughter will never experience that horror if I’ve got anything to say about it.

Unexpected surges of happiness and mellow joy struck me on the drive back to Orlando. I had a bit of extra pep in my step during class yesterday. Ava is here, and we met her.

Revisiting the Past

Albert Pinkham Ryder, Untitled

Have you ever wished that you could go back to a particular moment and make changes? I’d still like to alter the outcome of a confrontation with an eighth grade teacher, a nun who grimly asserted that my soul’s destination was hell. I have more resources now, better counterarguments. I wish that I could take back a change up I threw that same year. The batter expected the pitch, cranked his bat, and hit a walk-off home run. If only I could return to the mound and throw a fastball up and in. Also wish I hadn’t engaged in quite a few pointless arguments with my wife. I understand, now, finally, that many disagreements meant nothing in the long run.

I’m not sure whether things would improve if I could interfere with my past, however. Unexpected consequences multiply in most time travel stories. Change one crucial decision, and a life suffers radical transformations.

I’ve recently come down with an older artist’s malady: the need to revise paintings once considered finished. I used to let flawed paintings go seeing them as stepping stones to better work. A growing accumulation of stepping stones fills up two racks in my studio, however. I’ve begun to paint over the weakest and to revise near misses. Why make new pieces when old ones still cry out for help?

Albert Pinkham Ryder, an American painter active in the late 19th and early 20th century, reworked his paintings obsessively near the end of his career. He stopped his beginnings and relentlessly edited the past. But Albert used suspect materials and improper techniques. He worked in numerous thick layers, and paid no attention to how well a prior layer had dried before applying varnish and fresh paint. His canvases began to grow lumps,, cracks, blots and fuzzy patches soon after he died. The current state of his work barely resembles photos taken in 1920. As years go on, his oeuvre self-erases.

Perhaps the trick lies in knowing when to swim with the tide and when to fight the current. Sometimes it’s best to flow forward with time. Sometimes reparations for past mistakes must be offered. My standard is to try to make things better when I can, and to let the irrecoverable go.

Albert Pinkham Ryder, Macbeth and the Witches

Could’ve Skipped That

Dropped off the Honda at the local mechanic, an honest guy with a friendly smile. Walked a mile home on a hot morning. Felt a little vertigo (tight shoulders and neck, slight veering to the left), and the hips creaked with each step. Approached a middle school bus stop and saw two punks staring at me. One smirked to the other. They laughed up their sleeves as I came closer. Glared at them, but the bigger kid smirked again, whispered to his buddy and drew a laugh. Leaned in and barked, “Something must be real funny.” Silence.

Could have skipped that. Who cares what 13-year-olds think?

Ate breakfast, worked on the screened-in-porch door. Made lunch for Judy and me. Assembled the door. Glued and stapled the sections together.

Called the mechanic and walked back to the garage. Felt woozy as I got near. Had to cross Aloma ( a busy four-lane road). Vertigo came back as I stood on the median. Spread my feet wide apart to brace myself as traffic wooshed by in front and behind me. Considered sitting down. Could have skipped that.

Made it to the mechanic’s, and he offered me a cold drink. Must have looked wrung out from the heat.

The man had time to talk. We discussed fly-by-night service companies in Orlando. Agreed that we’d avoid any company sporting a Christian symbol on their ads. They’re usually the worst. Said, “Hey, Hitler was a Catholic, just not a good one.”

The mechanic said, “Speaking of Hitler, what about Trump?”

“You don’t like Trump?” I asked.

“Oh, I do,” the mechanic answered.

The conversation turned into a political debate. The mechanic’s assistant spouted conspiracy theories. Blamed Obama for Russian election interference. The mechanic floated the idea that Trump was a better choice than a career politician for defending social security. Business men manage money better. Trump is a business man.

Made a few counterpoints. The assistant identified me as a liberal moron, sneered, fell back on smug indignation. The mechanic enjoyed the debate, laughed frequently. (He must enjoy starting political fights when things get slow.)

Could’ve skipped that.

The Contrary Generation

Tom Brokaw dubbed my father-in-law’s compatriots the greatest generation. They grew up during the Great Depression and fought WWII. They believed in sacrifice for the greater good and love of country. They worked hard, persevered against long odds, and fought harder after getting knocked down.

They also spawned the Baby Boomers.

I’ve been wondering what moniker pundits will give to my generation. Some of the early Boomers protested the Vietnam War, participated in the free speech and free love movements, took drugs, formed communes, refused to conform to the demands of the free market system. Then, in the eighties, Yippies evolved into Yuppies. They swerved to the right and pledged allegiance to capitalism, greed. Yuppies became neo-cons in the late 90s and early 2000s. They believed in the United States’ right to use military power to intervene in the Middle East, to depose governments and install American-leaning democracies. Now a significant percentage of the Boomers believe in Trump, the great Big Daddy. They pray that he’ll use charisma, loud-mouthed bullying and cut-throat bargaining to secure the tattered remnants of white privilege. So much for peace, love, nonconformity and power to the people (uh huh).

We are the contrary generation.

Of course, not all the boomers swayed to the tune of every passing fad and bowed down to every commercial campaign. Not all sold out. Some tried to make their portions of the world better. But I had hoped that the abundant youthful idealism of the 60s would have produced more positive action over the long haul.

The 60s were a party. The 70s a hangover. The 80s a redirection. Every year from 1992 on has been part of a fitful thrashing about, a search for solid ground. I understand why the millennials look at us in disbelief.

But the Boomers are human. Current and future generations can look at us as a cautionary tale. The Millennial and I-Generation’s assumption that they won’t fall into the same traps leads to identical behavior. The Boomers, once upon a time, thought they were better than the Greatest Generation. They thought they were special. Look how that turned out.

Friday Morning

Went to the ATM near the Publix where I buy subs for Judy and me. Felt a bit nervous as I fed checks into the machine, but no one lurked close by. The lady at the sub counter expressed astonishment that the contents of Judy’s sandwich were a whole wheat roll, turkey, lettuce. She looked at me with doubt in her eyes and kept asking whether she should add mayonnaise and cheese. I’ve grown tired of explaining Judy’s food sensitivities to strangers and kept insisting on simplicity. I gave her some relief when I asked her to load up my sub.

Walked back to my car parked by the ATM and saw a tall man leaning against a tree for shade. He had big doe eyes and springy dreads. Drove to the lot exit and waited for the light to change. The same man walked across the cross walk in front of me, turned around and slowly made his way down the queue of cars behind me. He walked tentatively as if each step required a series of decisions. He stopped to ask a man in a sedan for something, received an abrupt dismissal and tried at another car window. The light changed.

I pulled into a gas station at the opposite corner and parked at a pump. Went inside to pay cash. A balding sixty-ish man stood ahead of me at the counter. He turned abruptly and almost bumped into me, placed a can of soda five feet away on a ledge in front of a candy display, and turned back to the counter man. Ordered five cash-for-life lotto tickets and carefully sorted them into his wallet.

Pumped my gas and saw the lotto man get into a silver sports car beside me. He beat me out of the lot, popped the accelerator, burst forward. He sped nearly out of sight before I got up to speed. “Adrenaline junky,” I thought.

Interrupted Nights

Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie, Whose Line Is It Anyway?

I’ve fallen into the habit of dozing near bedtime in a recliner in front of the TV. Going to bed at 11 feels like giving in to old age, so I try to stay up till 12. I sometimes make it through Stephen Colbert’s opening monologue at 11:35, but often nod off during the sports segment of the local news. An info-mercial wakes me up around 2:30. I stagger back to the bedroom on stiff legs, use the facilities and realize that I’ve become wide awake.

I sit on my bed and stare at the alarm clock. Anxieties and regrets surface as the day’s events parade before my inner eye. I wonder why I’d been so insensitive to Judy, impatient with the cashier at Publix, way too blunt with a woman at church. I link these transgressions with past moments of folly and see a dark, dark pattern running through the course of my life.

A few voices of protest ineffectually interrupt. My wife still likes me. I can’t be all that bad. Most dogs let me pet them. Folks don’t cross the street when they see me approach…

I play solitaire to reroute my thoughts. A novel sits nearby. I read a few chapters and yawn. I consider snapping off the light, but a moment’s pause in activity allows the negativity caravan to start marching again. I turn on the laptop and go to YouTube. Colin Mochrie on Whose Line makes me laugh. The little devils retreat into the shadows and I nod off to the sound of laughter.

I sometimes wake up the next morning with the laptop lying on the bed beside me. It’s turned itself off. My wrist is stiff from holding it in a viewing position during the night. My neck tightens up when I try to turn and flex it. I feel like a hung-over addict as I switch the computer on again. A few more videos will wake me up and lighten my mood before I make an appearance at breakfast. The laptop flickers briefly to life to present the following message: CRITICAL LOW BATTERY.

I plug it in to the charger and trudge off to the bathroom. I wish the outlet near the sink had an attachment that could recharge my brain.