Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Wrestling with God at The Wall

The following continues a series exploring Vibrant Spirituality and the Wall. 

Part one: Vibrant Spirituality and the Wall can be read here.
Part two: Face-to-Face with the Wall can be read here

Part Three:

“The Wall” is this distinct experience of disenchantment in regard to your Christian faith.   

It’s where you realise that what has worked for you for so long, in terms of how you out work this thing called being a Christian, some sort of a relationship with God, the rule and reign of Jesus in your life, well it just doesn’t seem to be working for you anymore. Not like it used to. Everything seems up in the air.

While a place of disenchantment though, “The Wall,” is also simultaneously the promise of new possibilities. At first it might just seem like remote possibilities; just a rumour or echo. But increasingly you get that sense, that suspicion, that there has to be more to this Christian thing. There must be something on the other side of the wall. And of course, there always is, there has never been a wall that doesn’t have something on the other side.

If we are to move forward we must embrace honesty, abandon ego and accept discomfort. Most of the time we try to arrange our lives to be as comfortable as possible. We few discomfort as a bad thing. Discomfort, at times, is just a part of the journey though.  

Let’s now briefly consider the life of Jacob. See Genesis 25 – Genesis 32.

Jacob is one of the great Hebrew Patriarchs. We’ve Abraham, we’ve Isaac and we’ve Jacob. He is the son of Isaac and Rebekah. A twin to his brother Esau. Esau was born first but Jacob followed soon after clutching at Esau’s heel.

Esau mean’s hairy. Jacob or Yakob (Hebrew) means heel grabber or deceiver, we could add to this though, wheeler and dealer, schemer and plotter, smooth talker; Mr Slick (as BZ put it in a sermon one time).

Esau is an outdoors kind of guy; hunting, fishing, craft beer, rugby league. Jacob is a wheeler and dealer, drinks Pinot Noir, dresses nice. He’s the kind of guy who likes to work the angles, always trying to find some sort of advantage for himself.  He’ll happily use people for his own advantage without the blink of an eye. He manipulated his brother out of his birth right, talked him into trading it for a bowl of stew. He deceives his father into giving him the first born blessing, wears goat skins. Wheels and deals his uncle Laban in regard to speckled sheep, speckled goats and who owns what. He has a knack for winning. He’s a success. Mr Slick always seems to come out on top. 

Now he’s going to try and get a scheme going with God.

In Genesis 28 Jacob has an encounter with God. He’s sleeping on the ground, a rock for a pillow and he has a vision of a stairway to heaven with angels ascending and descending. It’s a mysterious encounter. In his vision God promises Jacob descendants like the sand, land and favour. Essentially the same blessing that his grandfather Abraham received and that his father Isaac carried as well.

Not content to just trust God though, Jacob wants to set up an agreed upon arrangement.

Genesis 28:20-22
Then Jacob made this vow: “If God will indeed be with me and protect me on this journey, and if he will provide me with food and clothing, and if I return safely to my father’s home, then the Lord will certainly be my God. And this memorial pillar I have set up will become a place for worshiping God, and I will present to God a tenth of everything he gives me.”

This 10% thing is something started by Jacob’s grandfather Abraham. Abraham in an act of worship honours the King of Salem, King of Jeru-salem, the priest who comes with bread and wine (a type of Christ). Abraham’s gift of 10% is an act of worship and devotion and fidelity.  For Jacob, it isn’t an act of worship, it’s a deal, a bargain, a transaction. If God blesses him he’ll give God 10%.

Jacob thinks he’s bargained God into a corner. Jacob thinks he’s got God by the heel. Mr Slick. God’s smiling though. God knows he has his foot in the door of Jacob’s life.

I think sometimes we’re more like this than we might realise. God if you just answer this prayer ________. I’ll never ask for anything again. This is one of my official three wishes in life God!  God if you could help me through this mess I’m in at the moment, I’ll double tithe for a year. Really though, it’s subtler than that, we come to unspoken arrangements in our head in regard to how giving works, how prayer works, how fasting works, how doing good and loving our neighbour works. Specifically, in regard to how it all “works out” for us. We’ve formulas of how to engage God, what we’ll do and then what God will do for us. A transactional faith that we’re happy to participate in.

Techniques. Strategies. A hand-shake kind of agreement with God. Wink, wink, nod, nod. We’ve got God by the heel. God smiles. God’s just got his foot in the door.    
Jacob sees in God the potential for some advantageous transactions. God’s not about transactions though, God’s about transformation.

20 years come and go for Jacob. He’s now middle age. He has wives and children, wealth and riches. He decides to head home with his substantial flocks and herds. He is afraid though. How will Esau receive him?

As he gets closer to Esau’s territory Jacob decides to hedge his bets, diversify his assets you could say. He’s still a player and he doesn’t want to get played. He’s camped by a river, but in the middle of the night he divides everything he owns into two groups. His family, his cattle, his sheep, his goats etc. He sends the two groups across the river and then splits them up, sends them in slightly different directions. If one gets taken perhaps the other will escape.  

Genesis 32:24-31
This left Jacob all alone in the camp. (Returns to the camp all alone. All by himself. No stuff now. No family. No distractions. Just him. He’s been reduced down to himself. Rare moment of stillness. He has a troubled mind. He’s worried about Esau. Worried about an attack. Can’t see much in the dark. Can’t hear much), and a man came and wrestled with him until the dawn began to break. When the man saw that he would not win the match, he touched Jacob’s hip and wrenched it out of its socket(All of a sudden Jacob is attacked, Esau has found him and is going to take his life, he’s wrestled to the ground… But this man isn’t hairy… Who is this man? No time to figure it out, he’s fighting for his life and he’s not going to give up. They wrestle through the night. At times Jacob thinks he’s got the upper hand, but then he is pinned down again. This is the hardest thing he has ever done in his life. They are evenly matched. Until near the end of the night. In one move. Just like that. The stranger dislocates Jacob’s hip. Jacob knows in that moment this is no ordinary man. He’d thought they were evenly matched but he was being toyed with the whole time. He’s in agony, the hop wrenched from the socket). Then the man said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking!”

But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” (There is not fight left in Jacob now, but he is holding on. That’s all he can do. He’d been trying to get away, but now he won’t let go. He’s holding on to God, but he has given up the wrestle. He’s broken but he knows now that this isn’t an ordinary man; “at least bless me”).

“What is your name?” the man asked.

He replied, “Jacob.”

“Your name will no longer be Jacob,” the man told him. “From now on you will be called Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have won.” (No longer is this man Jacob a smooth talker, a deceiver, a heel grabbing Mr Slick. Now his name is Israel; “one who wrestles with God.”)

“Please tell me your name,” Jacob said.

“Why do you want to know my name?” the man replied. Then he blessed Jacob there.
Jacob named the place Peniel (which means “face of God”), for he said, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been spared.” (Jacob didn’t get the name of the stranger, but he called the place of the wrestle, Peniel “face of God”). The sun was rising as Jacob left Peniel, left his face-to-face encounter with God, and he was limping.

Jacob limped forward into the next season of life. Broken but blessed. Never again would Jacob use people. His story continues but Mr Slick is dead and gone. Never the hustler again. The stranger took his old life and gave him new life. No longer was it about transactions that might advantage him. It was now about transformation. He was now Israel, one who wrestles with God. Eventually, a few hundred years later, Israel came to be the name of the Jewish people. Those who wrestle with God.

Who are the people of God?
The people who wrestle with God.
Israel is not the people who have God all figured out.
Israel are the people that wrestle with God.
And all that are in Christ, as the Apostle Paul says, are the people of God.
We are the people of God, but, we are not the people that have God all figured out.
We are the people that wrestle with God.

Part of the experience of “The Wall,” not all of it, but a part of it, is a wrestle with God. We thought we had God by the heel, God’s been smiling for a long time though, God's got a foot in the door and now wants to move in. A non-hostile takeover. I want to go as far as to say that sometimes a part of our experience of the wall is a new experience of God. A wrestling with God over whether or not God can be who God is, or whether God can only be who or what we want God to be. Our will verses God’s will.

In appreciating this wrestle though, we’re best to quit fighting early and instead just hold on tight. If we’ve any sense of being able to bend God to our will, win the wrestle, we should appreciate that we’re being toyed with. God will be God whether we want that or not.

Jacob met God, bargained with God, supposedly made a deal with God, wrestled with God, but then was broken and blessed and made into a brand new man.

Another guy, a whole bunch of years after Jacob, said that you have to lose your life to find it. If you lose your life you will find it. If you try to keep your life you will lose it.

Appreciate that a part of the “The Wall” experience is a wrestle with God. We should quit the wrestle early though and instead just hold on tight. Even if there is only one thing left we feel we can hold onto, (everything else being up in the air), hold on tight to that one thing in amongst all the uncertainties.

God is good.
God is like Aslan.
God is the creator of the heavens and the earth.
God spoke to me in 1992.
God will be faithful to begin the good work he has begun in me.
I feel God’s presence when I sing, when I worship, I’m going to keep on signing at least.
Hold on to something of God, even if it just one thing.

Next invite a friend into your story. Maybe give them these blog posts to read and then organise to have a coffee with them. Let them know how you are feeling, the questions you have, what you are unsure about. Let them come alongside as a companion. Don’t expect them to have all the answers, to solve everything. This isn’t about getting all the answers this is about going on a journey, a pilgrimage of re-enchantment. Answers will be a part of it, but so will mystery!

Having done this. Pick one thing that is up in the air and then start exploring this, digging into this. You can’t process everything at once, it has to be one at a time. What about suffering? Isn’t God all powerful? You mean tithing is a guaranteed strategy for personal prosperity? What exactly is hell? Do we even need to go to church? Was this prophecy I got in 87 legit or not? How do you pray? Why read the bible every day when it doesn’t make sense? I feel numb to God at the moment? My church has let me down? I don’t love my neighbour, I hate them. Wow, wow, wow. Slow down, slow down. That’s a lot to process. Takes time. Can’t do it all at once. It may take a long time.  

Grab a friend or two, find someone a bit wiser in the faith than you, take them out for coffee, explain the situation, start working through just one thing.

Embrace honesty.
Abandon ego.
Accept discomfort.
Give up the wrestle.
Hold on to God.
Invite a friend into your journey.
Start exploring one particular issue or frustration or question.
As we do this. We discover the first glimpses of what’s on the other side of the wall; the ministry of Christ to us. 

We begin to see a journey unfolding.

Christ is for me – Becoming like Christ – Ministry for Christ – Ministry of Christ (to us)

Awakening – Learning – Doing – Transforming

Enthusiasm – Community – Responsibility – Exploration

Ministry of Christ: Here we hold fast to two fundamental truths that undergird Christian spirituality. 1) that we hunger and thirst for more than bread and water, and 2) that God’s love actively seeks the hungry and thirsty. The trouble here is that we are no longer sure how to drink and eat of the life of Christ. Mostly we don’t feel like there is something we can go back to that will help in the process. And to keep doing the same things and expect a different result, well, that’s insanity. We are unsure where to head next. (We’ll start looking at this next week).

Transformation: What’s taking shape though is a season of receiving a fresh from Christ, a season of transformation into something new. Or at least that’s on the cards! This is a mystery and an adventure, and fundamentally different from a transactional faith which weighs and measures or performs a cost-benefit analysis on the Christian faith. We’re entering into God as Mystery now and we don’t necessarily know where that will take us. There is a lot less control when you embrace faith as transformational rather than transactional. But there is also a lot more adventure.

Exploration: What will be required is a fresh exploration of faith. How are we going to receive this ministry of Christ? How are we going to sort through some of these issues that might feel all up in the air at the moment? We’re going to have to engage in some new practices, find some fresh voices and new conversation partners. This does not mean new in the sense of North American hipster pastors with all the right answers. New can be something old that is new to us. Eugene Peterson is old, he was new to me when I started reading his works and it changed everything!  This season is about discovering expressions of faith and spirituality that one can own for oneself. This doesn’t mean reinventing Christianity but rather is about finding ways to inhabit it that feel authentic and credible.

Our original wide-eyed acceptance of the Christian message as it was presented to us over the many years on the front side of the wall, has given way to doubts and questions and we have to deal with this. We shouldn’t be surprised by this though. Most people come to know Christ and are discipled in following Christ between the ages of about 14 and 24. We shouldn’t be surprised that some of what we picked up and learnt in this season needs visiting.

There is plenty more to cover in regard to this sometime soon.

Genesis 32:32
The sun was rising as Jacob left his face-to-face encounter with God, and he was limping.

How awesome is that!
A new day dawning.
An encounter with God.
Limping forward into a whole new season.

PS: The thoughts above are some of my reflections on life, ministry and the journey of following Jesus. They are informed by more than just my own journey though and a tip of the hat must be giving to Fowler's Stages of Faith, Hagberg and Guelich's The Critical Journey, Tomlinson's Re-Enchanting Christianity, Alexanders work in Dancing with God, and a sermon by Brian Zhand one time.  

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