August 3, 2014
I urge you to wrestle with God until this church is blessed with a bold new mission identity that discloses the face of God. Wrestling with God is often, wrongly assumed to be a sign of faltering, feeble faith.
After at least 14, but probably 20 or even more years, of growing under painful tutelage as the nephew/son-in-law of Laban in Haran, Jacob was about to begin his life destiny as the leader of God’s covenant community in Canaan. Wrestling with God was the boundary, turning point, hinge between these two legs of his journey. His wrestling with God was deeply spiritual and mystical, but it was not a dream or a vision; it had a bodily reality. His hip as well as his heart carried the scar of that night for the rest of his life.
Two weeks ago, I mentioned Lucy and Aslan the Lion from C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. When Lucy was first introduced to Aslan she asked, “Then he isn’t safe?” To which Mr. Beaver answered, “Of course, he isn’t safe. But he is good.” Wrestling with God cannot be safe, but it is good. God has welcomed wrestlers since the days of Job who compared his wrestling with God to a conversation with a whirlwind (38:4; 40:6). After Job had rejected the safe, pious talk of his friends and insisted on his challenge to God, God spoke to Job’s friends and said, “You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done.” (42:8)
I am convinced that many people outside of the church avoid church because they imagine us as piously superficial and out of touch with the inscrutable, tragic realities of our world. I am also convinced that many of them will come running to a community of faith that honestly wrestles with God and welcomes them to join in.
I urge you to wrestle with God until this church is blessed with a bold new mission identity that discloses the face of God. When you wrestle with God, don’t give up too easily but persist until God blesses you.
Like Jacob we are increasingly aware that he was not wrestling with another man or even an ordinary angel (if there is such a thing) but with “The Angel of the Lord,” that is with God. As is clear from Jacob’s dislocated hip, God could have easily escaped Jacob’s grip, but didn’t, so Jacob could tenaciously hang on until he extracted a blessing from God.
Like our instant gratification society, many churches try one program after another to kick start growth, and when they don’t get immediate results conclude, “That didn’t work,” and discontinue before something new would have a chance to take effect. J. Allan Petersen, whom I worked with in marriage and family ministry 35+ years ago, used to tell frustrated parents of teens and young adults, “Don’t count the score at halftime.” That applies to church ministry as much as parenting.
We find it admirably quaint that some past spiritual giants wore holes in their knees and in the floor where they knelt to pray. While we can pray without kneeling, I fear we have made prayer so casual, we are in no danger of wrestling with God when we pray. Fully 100 of the 150 Psalms are complaints and laments – giants of faith wrestling with God. The fourth century Desert Father Abba Agathon said, “Prayer is warfare to the last breath.” (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Tr. Benedicta Ward, 1975, Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, MI, p. 22)
I urge you to wrestle with God until this church is blessed with a bold new mission identity that discloses the face of God. A blessing that has been wrestled from God will inevitably give you a bold new mission identity.
The blessing God gave Jacob was a new name to go with his destiny as the leader of God’s covenant community. No longer Jacob, the sneak and cheat, but Israel, the one who wrestled with God and prevailed. He is still called Jacob 65 more times in Genesis and Israel only 23 times. Yet, Israel is the name by which his descendants were known, through whom the covenant with Abraham was fulfilled. British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has said, “Faith is wrestling with God as Jacob once did.” Israel still identifies with the God Wrestler today.
Our society does not attach that kind of meaning and significance to names as was common throughout Old and New Testament times, and even in some other cultures today. Nevertheless, we know people acquire reputations by which they are known, and sometimes get a fitting nickname. We all had teachers we knew believed in their students. We all have neighbors who are known to be friendly and welcoming. We all know people in this church whose faith we admire. Churches, too, acquire reputations by which they are known in their community.
Even before we came to Odessa, in phone conversations about possible housing, we learned that First Christian Church was known as the downtown church with bells. As I talked to community people who came to Spaghetti Day, I learned that many people identified that event and the causes it supported over the years with this church. News coverage of the $5,000 check that went to Hope House this year communicated that this is a church committed to changing the Odessa community for the good. I know your new pastors are coming because they want to see that mission identity grow.
I urge you to wrestle with God until this church is blessed with a bold new mission identity that discloses the face of God. Through your face to face encounter with God, you will invariably disclose the face of God to others.
When Jacob realized he had been wrestling with God, he was awestruck if not terrified. He said, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” He went from invoking “your God” when he spoke to his father Isaac, to bargaining that if God would take care of him, Jacob would claim Him as his God. Now, as he was about to assume the role for which God intended him before he was born, leader of God’s covenant community, he had been face to face with God. From now on God’s intimacy and immediacy would be readily apparent to him and all who came close to him.
God comes face to face with us in many different ways that are as individually distinct as our personalities are unique. At exactly the right moment, when we are sensitive and open, often when we are vulnerable, God converges all of our experience with the Bible, prayer and church through people who make the face of God unmistakably real. In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo wrote, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Mother Teresa frequently spoke about seeing the face of Christ as she looked into the faces of those who were dying in the streets of Calcutta. I’ve mentioned before how when we were living in the Daybreak community with mentally handicapped folk, we learned to discern the presence of Christ in the pain of the core members. One young woman named Heather could not speak but she could sing. She sang along with the group as we sang in worship. When the group stopped singing, Heather often kept singing, as a kind of musical accompaniment to whatever was happening in worship until we got to the next song. In the house where Heather lived, she often sat for hours in a rocking chair singing, “Jesus loves Heather, yes he does, yes he does,” over and over again.Our daredevil son David, who lives in Milwaukee, has adopted the opening lines of Poi Dog Pondering’s 1995 song Al Le Luia as a kind of personal anthem, “You should wear with pride the scars on your skin. They're a map of the adventures and the places you've been.” He had his face stitched five times before he started kindergarten. Axe in the leg, surgery to repair a dislocated shoulder, abraded face and shoulder when his bike handle bar broke in a 24 hour bike race (he rode in it again this weekend). Jacob, too, was scarred by wrestling with God. Yes, he got the blessing and the new identity for continuing the Abrahamic covenant, but his hip was dislocated, and he limped for the rest of his life. A face to face encounter with God will always leave a mark, a scar that points away from us to God. I am excited for what lies ahead for this church and the impact God will make on the people of Odessa through you. But you will receive wounds. Along the way you will feel tension in some relationships. You will have to let go of comfortable things you cherish. You will have to embrace new things that leave you uncertain and uneasy. Nevertheless, as you wrestle with God, you will be blessed with a bold mission identity by which the people of Odessa will see the face of God through you!