George MacDonald (1824–1905) is by far my favorite author, poet, and spiritual mentor. Lately, I’ve been more and more drawn to his poetry and found this gem in the May 26 entry of his compilation called Diary of an Old Soul:
My prayers, my God, flow from what I am not;
I think thy answers make me what I am.
Like weary waves, thought follows upon thought,
But the still depth beneath is all thine own,
And there thou mov’st in paths to us unknown.
Out of strange strife thy peace is strangely wrought;
If the lion in us pray—thou answerest the lamb.
Bear with me while I make the connection to the Haftarah for this Shabbat (Judges 13:2–25), the story of Manoah and his barren wife and a visit from God’s angel. The wife saw the angel first and knew of the divine gift of a son, then tried to convince her husband that she had seen an honest-to-goodness angel. Let’s call the wife’s response “the lamb” for now, my code for the one who simply receives a gift from God with humility. When the angel showed up again, the husband insisted on treating this “man” as an honored guest and feeding him dinner, rolling out the red carpet with all the striving and effort involved (we’ll call his response “the lion”). But then the husband saw the angel rise up in flames from the altar and disappear. He declared to his wife that they would now surely die for they had seen God’s angel.
I love the wife’s matter-of-fact response that if God wanted to kill them, he would not have accepted their burnt offering or had the angel deliver the glorious news of a son on the way. I wish she could have been around to talk sense into the people who disbelieved the good report of the land. Maybe she could have convinced them to simply trust and accept this gift without worrying if their efforts and human strength would be enough to conquer it on their own. That would have saved the long 40-year trek in circles through the desert.
Better yet, I wish she could have been around when God offered to appear and talk in person with the people of Israel at Sinai before they refused and asked Moses to meet God in their place. If they could have humbly submitted to this mind-boggling gift instead of preferring to have more controlled interactions with the Almighty, it would have saved centuries of separation from the Holy One and all that misguided reliance on human intermediaries.
But unfortunately, the lion’s type of response—disbelief followed by fearful rejection of God’s gifts—won the day on both those occasions and the pattern continues to this day. We have all turned away in fear, wanting to orchestrate things our way, even those of us who say we’re living our lives for God. Those who can’t believe in God’s existence because there is no reliable proof may indeed be less culpable and less hypocritical (and less nauseating to God, I suspect).
With Shavuot around the corner (today is Day 47 of the 49 days of counting the omer), the Jewish world is getting ready to celebrate the giving of the Torah on Sinai. Despite our fear and rejection, God gave us what became the “textbook of the soul,” as the Stone edition of the Tanach describes it. When MacDonald writes, “Out of strange strife thy peace is strangely wrought,” I hear Manoah’s wife counseling me to just accept the gift (like a lamb) and stop striving to be worthy of it (like a lion). Could it be that simple for all of us—believers and non-believers alike?