Monday, July 11, 2016

Wrestling With God

Audio version available:

(Genesis 32:24‑30 NRSV)  Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. {25} When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. {26} Then he said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." {27} So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." {28} Then the man said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed." {29} Then Jacob asked him, "Please tell me your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And there he blessed him. {30} So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved."

It all began with Dan Brown and his novel THE DIVINCI CODE. 
          Well, that is not completely true. 
It really began, for me, as a child.  I read the Bible, I went to church, but to be honest — some things just didn’t make sense.   My parents, raised me in the church (my father is a retired United Methodist minister) but, more importantly, they raised me with a sense that it was okay to ask questions.  I didn’t have to believe everything at face value.

I was a history major in college.  Maybe that is where the blame lies.  In learning history, I learned that everything is seen through the lens of those who are telling the story.  The history of an event, told from opposing sides, sounds sometimes like it is two different events — yet, they both told the truth, as they perceived it.  That lesson seeped over as I began to earnestly study the Bible and the history of the early Church.

Maybe Albert Sweitzer, the great doctor and missionary is too blame.  As I studied his quest to find the historical Jesus, I realized that the only Jesus that we have is not a Jesus of history, but a Jesus of faith.  That doesn’t mean that Jesus didn’t live — I believe he did.  But what we can know about the Jesus of history can never be isolated from the Jesus of faith.

While I have learned to live comfortably in that grey area of life, I know that many people struggle with this.  I see this most profoundly in people who are what Bishop Spong calls “The Church Alumni”, people who no longer can believe the doctrine of the church, yet are still looking for something. 

There is a great deal of excellent scholarship out there on the formation of the Bible and the early church.  I claim no expertise.  What I do claim, is that Christianity is still valid and important in the 21st Century. 

The “Old” Christianity may be dead (or at least dying), but Christianity certainly is not.  Jesus came to show us a way of life, and he died trying to teach us. 

About a year and a half ago I was struggling with what God desired for my life.  I had been ordained for 30 years and had spent the last 17 years in Munster.

I sensed that it was time for me to move on, but I wasn't able to get a clear vision of what that meant.

I think what really made the waters muddy was the fact that I had said repeatedly over the previous 17 years that Ridge Church was my last appointment. 
          But now it was coming to an end --- what does one do?

I spend many hours praying and listening intently to what I thought God might be speaking to me --- but to be honest --- I never got a clear answer.  The only thing that was clear to me was that my ministry at Ridge Church was coming to an end.

What made it even more difficult was that I was passionately involved in the community.  I took John Wesley's imperative: All The World Is My Parish very seriously, and the other thing that was clear to me that my ministry in that role wasn't completed.

So what does one do?

How do we KNOW what God wants for our lives?

How do we KNOW, that our interpretation of scripture on a particular hot button issue is correct?

Unfortunately I don't thing we do KNOW, with absolute certainty.

The challenge for me has been getting comfortable living in the grey.

About four years ago I attended a seminar led by Donald Miller called STORYLINE. Don is best known as the author of a number of books including Blue Like Jazz and the one that really grabbed me: A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.

At the STORYLINE conference, one of the things we were challenged to do was create a timeline of significant events in one's life --- the good and the bad.

The good is easy
          Making the decision to go to Duke
          Meeting Nancy there
          Our wedding
          The birth of our children
          Starting Celebration Church
          Buying our first house
          The list could go on and on

Even coming up with the bad for the most part isn't that tough
          Being told in elementary school that I can't sing
          Failed relationships
          The death of my brother Stewart
          Leaving Celebration Church
          The death of Nancy's dad and brother in a six month period
          Dealing with the declining heath of parents
          Again the list could go on and on

The hard part is honestly looking back at those events and seeing God present in them and finding purpose in them.

Don’t get me wrong --- I don’t believe God allowed Stewart to die to change me --- I have come to believe that through Stewart’s life and death God gave me the opportunity to grow.

I don’t think God is mad at the USA so we are seeing this spike in violence --- God is praying that we will grow and learn and change because this violence is happening.

Jacob is one of my favorite characters in the Bible.

Jacob was the younger of twins, and throughout the pregnancy he and his brother Esau were fighting in the womb of their mother.

Rebecca (their mother) is rather unhappy about this fighting that is going on inside of her and she takes her struggle to God and we are told that she asks God “why?” 
          Why this conflict that is going on within her womb.

And the text tells us:
(Genesis 25:23 NRSV)  And the LORD said to her, "Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger."

The story goes on
(Genesis 25:24‑26 NRSV)  When her time to give birth was at hand, . . . {25} The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. {26} Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau's heel; so he was named Jacob.

Jacob, in Hebrew Ya’akob, means “supplanter.”

It was the perfect name for him, as it spoke of his tendency to want to get ahead, to try and turn the tables and change the outcomes —
so that the smaller could become the greater, the younger could gain the privilege of the older, the one with little could get a lot.

There are a number of stories in Genesis about Jacob trying to best his brother.
          In one story he convinces Esau to sell his birthright for a bowl of stew.

In another he and Rebecca create a plan to trick old, blind Isaac (the boys father) into giving his blessing to Jacob, when it should have gone to Esau.

When Esau finds out what has happened, you can imagine he was just a little upset at his brother for stealing their father’s blessing, and we are told that because of his brothers anger --- Jacob the deceiver flees for his life.

Chapter 28 of the book of Genesis is all about Jacob on the run from an angry and murderous Esau.

On his way to his uncle’s home in Haran he lies down and dreams a remarkable dream. In his dream the Lord is poised atop a ladder, or a stairway, and from this place the Lord makes a promise to Jacob:

(Genesis 28:13‑15 NRSV)  And the LORD stood beside him and said, "I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; {14} and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. {15} Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you."

I am with you, God says.
I will protect you wherever you go.
I will bring you back.
I will not leave you.
At the heart of these promises is the promise of presence and protection. God commits God-self unconditionally to be with Jacob.

As far as we know, this is Jacob’s first encounter with God. And the interesting thing is that the promises, by themselves, are not enough for Jacob.
          Jacob wants proof.
          Jacob wants to KNOW that God will deliver.

So, when he wakes from his dream, Jacob makes a vow.
It is an interesting vow:
(Genesis 28:20‑21 NRSV)   "If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father's house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God,

God’s promises to Jacob were unconditional. Jacob, however, lays down conditions.
Jacob is concerned for his survival, for his safety, and for his well being.

I don't know about you, but too many times in my life I have been like Jacob.  God promises unconditional love, but I offer back conditions.

Eventually Jacob's past catches up with him.

The deceiver is deceived by his uncle and unaware he marries the ugly older sister instead of the beautiful sister that he loves.

After all kinds of twists and turns, the time comes for Jacob to return home. 

In order to go home, he must face his past.
He must acknowledge those bad moments in his life.

And for the first time in his life --- Jacob feels afraid.

He is afraid of what his brother Esau might do to him.

Jacob decides that maybe he can placate Esau by bribing him --- again trying to be in control.

So Jacob sent send messengers ahead bearing extravagant gifts of goats, sheep, camels, bulls, and donkeys, 550 heads of livestock in all.

But before that can happen, Jacob encounters God and learns what it really means to see the face of God — to engage, to wrestle, in authentic relationship with another.

After Jacob has sent his possessions and his family — everything that he owns; to the other side of the Jabbok — he is utterly alone. 

It is then that we read this remarkable story:

(Genesis 32:23‑28 NRSV)   Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.  When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. {26} Then he said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." {27} So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." {28} Then the man said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed."

This encounter is a turning point in Jacob’s life.

When Jacob wrestles—truly wrestles — with God — He receives a new name, and with that new name, he is transformed. 
          He is, as Paul writes in Galatians “a new creation”.

He is no longer Jacob the deceiver --- he is now Israel, the one who wrestled with God

When I look back at those critical moments in my life I find one constant
          Not that I have the answers to:
Why Mrs. Boone told me at 12 that I could not sing
Why Stewart at 23 developed cancer and died
Why Mike at 55 died suddenly just six months after the death of his father

          When I wrestle with the issues of violence in our society
Why we kill each other
Why we distrust each other

What I have come to understand is ----
          I don't wrestle alone
God wrestles with me
·         God weeps with me over the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling
·         God weeps with me over the deaths of Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarripa and Brent Thompson.
·         God weeps with me over the violence and hatred in this world
I do not have the answers --- but I know that God is willing to wrestle with me

God wants to wrestle with you too

Not to solve your problems
But to help you understand that in the midst of them --- you are not alone

I too am willing to wrestle with you --- not to give you my answers, but to help you encounter God as you wrestle to find yours.

Like Jacob of old, God wants to wrestle with you and change your name as you grow in ministry and service with Jesus.

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