Proverbs 3:5 commends these words to the people of God, “Trust in God with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” Counter-cultural journalist and author Hunter S. Thompson has a different take on that wisdom, “Call on God,” he writes, “but row away from the rocks” (1). President Ronald Reagan had a similar phrase, taken from a Russian proverb and cited often in his negotiation with leaders in the USSR during the mid 1980s. Do you know it? “Trust but verify.” The sentiment, though, is much older than the twentieth century. The 13th century Sufi mystic Rumi tells this little fable:
There was once a man who was on his way back home from market with his camel and, as he’d had a good day, he decided to stop at a mosque along the road and offer his thanks to God. He left his camel outside and went in with his prayer mat and spent several hours offering thanks to Allah, praying and promising that he’d be a good Muslim in the future, help the poor and be an upstanding pillar of his community. When he emerged it was already dark and lo and behold – his camel was gone. He immediately flew into a violent temper and shook his fist at the sky, yelling: “You traitor, Allah! How could you do this to me? I put all my trust in you and then you go and stab me in the back like this!” A passing sufi dervish heard the man yelling and chuckled to himself. “Listen,” he said, “Trust God but, you know, tie up your camel” (2).
I suppose the desire trust in God and lean on our own understanding transcends time and culture, despite the wisdom of Proverbs. I think most of us would agree that we trust God, but when pressed to relinquish our own understanding, we find that our trust wavers a little. Sure we trust God, but wouldn’t it be prudent to hold just a little something back, just in case God turns out to be less trustworthy, less faithful, or less gracious than promised?
There are lots of things that shake our trust: an unexpected diagnosis, the death of a close family member or friend, personal failings, especially ones that affect our family and home life. We sometimes do not trust that God is present because we cannot feel God’s presence. Cultural change and global crisis can shatter trust, too. The cultural shifts happening in our country mean that many who have had control (or at least the illusion of control), suddenly realize that the world is turning in different direction. If I am not in control – if my cultural, political, or religious group is not in control – then God may not be in control, either. When life’s waters get rough and things do not go as we hope or expect, when the world is shifting and wars are raging, we too might shake our fist at the sky. Next time, we will remember to be more careful with our trust. Next time we will remember tie up our camel.
As Rumi reminds us, we in the twenty-first century are not the first to feel this way. In fact, we can look all the way back to the Israel of Hosea’s day. Following years of national prosperity, security, and growth the nation is suddenly at war with its much stronger neighbor Assyria. Among Israel’s leaders, things do not look any better. Three coups in ten years have created a culture of instability and distrust. “Has God abandoned us?” Israel wonders.
The prophecy of Hosea is powerful not through what Hosea says but through what he does. Hosea’s life is his prophecy. Following God’s command, Hosea takes the prostitute, Gomer, for his wife. Gomer treats Hosea not as a husband but as one of her many lovers. She gives birth to three children of unclear paternity, whose names symbolize the unfaithfulness of their mother, names that mean “defeated,” “no mercy,” and “not my people”. Hosea casts out his unfaithful wife, only to finally receive her back again this time not as one lover among many but as husband and wife bound to one another in covenantal faithfulness. He receives his children, giving them new names: “victory,” “mercy,” and “my people.”
The message from God to Israel and to us is clear: you are not a trustworthy people, but I am a trustworthy God. Despite all of your indiscretions, I will take you back again and have you still as my covenant partner. Come home.
That, of course, is not the last time God’s trustworthiness will be called into question. In chapters 9-11 of Romans (which we have been studying in Sunday school), the apostle Paul is seeking to lay out an argument to Christians and Jews alike that God can continue to be trusted. Remember that Paul himself was a zealous Jew who persecuted early followers of Christ. Paul identified deeply with his people, and he wrestled with how to interpret God’s covenant with Israel in light of their rejection of God’s own son, Jesus. Had God abandoned those Jews who did not become Jesus followers? Was the covenant with them stamped “NULL and VOID?” If that is true, how can the church be confident that someday God will not abandon us, too? If that is true, then maybe we should be sure to tie up our camels, just in case God proves to be less faithful than expected. These are big theological questions that call to account the very character of God, and Paul is not afraid to ask them. He is also not afraid of the answers.
Paul looks all the way back to God’s promise with Abraham, back to God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt, and back to God’s presence with the prophet Elijah to remind the Christians in Rome that God has been and will remain faithful to his chosen people. “The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable,” Paul promises. God, in his gracious mercy, will not forsake Israel and God will not forsake us. God can overcome every human failing – even the failure of Israel to receive Jesus – in order to bring about his plans for the redemption of the world. If that kind of rejection is not too big for God to overcome, neither are all of our wars, all of our injustice, all of our social, political, and personal trials.
The message from God to the early Christians and to us is clear: your failures cannot conquer my mercy, but neither can you goodness earn it. Despite all of your rejection, I still govern the world that I have made. Trust in me.
Perhaps in no way is the irrevocable gift of God made more personal than in the giving of the Holy Spirit. The disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray. He gives a short instruction – we know it as the Lord’s Prayer – and then goes on to tell them not how to pray, but what to expect when they do. Ask, Jesus says, and it will be given. Search and you will find. Jesus likens God to a Father who would not give his hungry child a snake instead of a fish or a scorpion instead of an egg. (Address children in congregation: Can you imagine if you sat down for breakfast and instead of scrambled eggs your mom or dad gave her a plate of scorpions? That’s crazy, isn’t it! They would never do that! Why? Because they love you.) Moms and dads, if we, in all of our human fallibility, in all of our failures to love others well, know how to give good things to our children, then imagine how much more our heavenly Father, whose love is perfect, will do for us.
The Holy Spirit is the gift of a loving father to his children to sustain us and accompany us in the midst of our trials, our pains, our victories, and our celebrations. In the words of Paul, it is as near to us as our lips and our heart (Romans 10:8), and the gifts of God are irrevocable.
The message from Jesus to his followers then and now is clear: if you seek me, you shall find me. Like a father gives good food to his children, I will give you my Holy Spirit. Rest in me.
In the current issue of Sojourner’s magazine, editor Jim Wallis writes publicly for the first time about his diagnosis with prostate cancer. For over seven months he kept the diagnosis a secret, sharing it only with his inner circle of family and friends. His silence, he writes, was due largely to a desire to maintain control over his life, even his illness (3). Trust God, he might have been thinking, but tie up your camel. Just before Wallis went in for surgery, a close friend and spiritual advisor shared a prayer with Wallis, written by Charles de Foucauld (Fou-coh) titled the Prayer of Abandonment. It is a prayer of total trust, an untying of every camel rooted in intimate knowledge that the God we worship is a faithful spouse, calling us home; a covenant partner, keeping his promise and guiding the world to its good end; and a loving father, feeding his children. I invite you to pray it with me as a closing prayer:
I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me, and in all your creatures.
I wish no more than this, O Lord.
Into your hands I commend my soul;
I offer it to you
with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord,
and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father.(4)
3. Jim Wallis, “My Unexpected Diagnosis,” in Soujourners v. 42. no. 8. August 2013. p.7