Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Wrestling God

Jacob has heard that his brother Esau is on the way to meet him with 400 men.  Considering how Jacob and Esau last parted ways, with Esau planning on killing Jacob because of his deception, this is not good news.  Jacob, as always, seeks to gain an advantage in this situation.  For one, he begins to pray.  But this is no pious prayer that God's will be done.  This is an urgent pleading that God will remember his promises to Jacob.  Jacob knows he is in trouble and he hopes that God will help him in a situation that he is not sure he can manage on his own.  Jacob hedges his bets though in case God doesn't come through for him.  He divides all that he has into multiple gifts for his brother while Jacob himself stays behind hoping to ameliorate Esau's anger before they meet face to face.

However, Jacob will have to meet a much more serious opponent face to face before he meets Esau.  Not unlike the story of Jacob's ladder in Genesis 28, God again shows up in Jacob's life during the dark of night.  We hear that they wrestle each other all night and that this God in human form must throw Jacob's hip out of socket in order to win the fight.  Even then Jacob will not let his opponent go.  He demands a blessing from his opponent before he will let him leave.  As always, Jacob is seeking gain for himself.  In fact, he even asks his opponent his name, yet another attempt to grasp control since knowing one's name was thought to be a form of power in the ancient world.  God refuses to give his name but does give Jacob the blessing he seeks.

This story in Genesis 32:22-32 has to be one of the most intriguing stories in scripture.  It raises all kinds of questions that our often simplistic, stale, black-and-white, easy answer approach to scripture can not answer. The most obvious question this text raises is how it is that Jacob, a mere man, is able to wrestle with God at all, much less all night and apparently wrestle God to at least a draw if not an outright victory for Jacob?  Who is this Jacob who can pull off such a feat?

But I wonder if the most significant statement in this story is not one about Jacob but one about God; not that Jacob is able to wrestle with God but that God would wrestle with Jacob.  This is a man who has shown no interest in God until confronted with the fear of seeing his brother Esau again.  In spite of that, God keeps trying to get into his life.  God blesses Jacob.  He appears to him in a dream and binds himself to him with the same promises he made to his father and grandfather.  But still Jacob is content to be blessed by God rather than really know God.  But now, God wants to get into Jacob's life so badly that he shows up in human form and physically wrestles with him.  Here is a God so desperate to get into Jacob's life that he is willing to take on human flesh and even be defeated in that flesh in order to be present in Jacob's life.  Who is this God who would pull of such a feat?

Here we are, a people who are often less than righteous, less than completely honest, a people often seeking our own gain, going about our daily business, just trying to survive, seldom turning to God except in times of fear and desperate need.  Into the darkness of our world steps a man whose identity we question only because we lack the light to see him for who he is; a man from whom we demand blessing, signs, and miracles only to have him remind us that it is we who need a new name and the transformation that comes with it.  It is only after he wrestles with us, in our flesh and all its brokenness and weakness, even being willing to be defeated by us on a cross, that we come to realize that it is God himself with whom we have been striving and supposedly prevailed.

The God who wrestled with Jacob, who is Jesus Christ, is the God who continues to strive with us even now. Even as we are blessed by him, we often ignore him.  Even as we ignore him, he still wants to get into our lives.  So he waits for the quiet and still, maybe even those dark and fearful moments of our lives, and in the inky blackness the Spirit of God strives with our Spirit.  Even as he grips our soul and we grasp blindly at him seeking blessing for ourselves, he remains hidden and unrecognizable, unable to be boxed in by our propensity to name and label and thereby limit, define, and control.  Even as we seek to subdue this mysterious stranger who dares to insert himself into our life in this way, he reminds us that it is not more blessing but a new name, a new existence, a new birth that we really need.  Like any birth, this one involves pain and even some scarring.  Such an encounter with the living God will surely not leave our walk unchanged.  It may even cause us to limp.  But we will come away knowing the God who strives.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Results or Relationship

Genesis 29 tells the story of Jacob meeting Rachel and eventually marrying her and her sister, Leah.  In some ways, this story sounds similar to a story just a few chapters earlier in Genesis 24.  In that chapter, Abraham sends a servant to find a wife for his son.  The servant meets Rebekah at a well and knows that she is the one for Isaac when she draws water for him and his camels. Rebekah and Abraham's servant then go and report all that happens to Laban (Rebekah's brother and Rachel's father).  Likewise, the story of Jacob and Rachel's meeting takes place at a well, the watering of animals is significant to the story, and the meeting is ultimately reported back to Laban. However, it seems the similarities in these stories really serve to highlight the differences of these two characters.

Abraham's sending of his servant is a story of trust.  Abraham states that the Lord "will send his angel before" his servant in order to guide him and ensure that he finds the proper wife for Isaac.  The story, indeed, unfolds in this way.  The servant's prayer is answered, Rebekah willingly goes with him, and the story concludes by noting that Isaac was comforted by Rebekah's presence.

These elements of trust in God to provide are absent from the story of Jacob.  Instead, Jacob is portrayed as taking matters into his own hands.  Rather than waiting for the right woman to come along to provide water, Jacob provides water for Rachel's flocks.  (This is a clear demonstration of strength on Jacob's part since he rolls away from the mouth of the well by himself the stone which the other shepherds say they can not move until all the shepherds have gathered to move it together.)   Jacob also does not propose the matter of marriage with Rachel to Laban as guidance from God.  Instead, he offers it as a business contract; Jacob will work seven years for Rachel.  When those seven years are complete, Jacob demands that Rachel be given to him as if he has earned her.  Of course, things don't turn out quite that smoothly.  Instead, Laban shows that Jacob is not the only one capable of deception.  He throws a party and gives his oldest daughter, Leah, to Jacob instead of Rachel.  Somehow Jacob manages to have intercourse with her without noticing that it is not the woman he has been pining over for seven years.  In the morning, he realizes it is Leah and he becomes angry with Laban who says he must work another seven years if he wishes to marry Rachel as well.

At this point, it would be easy for me to say that this story demonstrates yet again why we should trust God instead of trying to be in charge of our own lives.  It's tempting to say that if we will trust God as Abraham did then things will always go smoothly for us as they did for Abraham's servant and if we try to carry out our own agenda then we will run into problems as Jacob did.  While there is probably some truth captured in that statement, it is not a whole truth.  It doesn't do justice to the experience of those who have placed their trust in God and find that things still often do not go so smoothly.  And I don't think it does justice to this story in its context either.  After all, even though Isaac is initially comforted by Rebekah's presence, it is this same Rebekah who will incite Jacob to steal his brother's blessing, causing Isaac tremendous discomfort in his old age.  Likewise, while Laban and his daughters will cause Jacob tremendous anxiety along the way, they (and their maidservants) do ultimately give him 12 sons (as well as some daughters) which would have been counted as a tremendous blessing in this culture.  Additionally, these 12 sons are the fulfillment of the promises God made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; they are the 12 patriarchs of Israel.

So here's my crazy conclusion from all that.  The primary difference between Abraham and Jacob wasn't the results of their lives but their relationship with God.  Or to put it another way, the results of their lives were not a measure of their relationship with God.  Abraham's closer relationship with God didn't automatically mean he was more blessed than Jacob.  Jacob was actually blessed by God tremendously despite the fact that he showed no interest in having the kind of relationship with God that his grandfather had.  Abraham knew God, walked intimately with God, knew the presence of God and that was its own blessing much greater than than any blessing Jacob would ever know.  Jacob, on the other hand, knew the blessings of God but never really seemed to know God and seemed to be perfectly content with that.

I think this is a point worth making because I think most Christians and churches in America today are much more like Jacob than we are like Abraham.  We too often equate God's blessing with knowing God himself and experiencing his presence.  We assume that if an individual is blessed or a church is growing then "they must be doing something right".  We assume that God would not bless a person or a church unless they really knew God but the story of Jacob demonstrates that this is not always true.  Indeed, Jacob shows us that God can bless and bless and bless a person and that person still not be drawn any closer to God.  They simply go on enjoying the blessing but they miss out on the relationship, the intimate presence of God that Abraham came to know in his life.  As the Church, we have to ask ourselves whether or not really knowing God, experiencing his presence, being in intimate relationship with him is actually more important to us than whatever blessing God might pour out on us along the way.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Reflecting on NYC

Twelve years ago I went to Nazarene Youth Congress in Toronto, Canada as a student entering my senior year of high school.  In addition to being a lot of fun and an overall spectacular event, this was a time when God spoke to me.  It was one of the first of many nudges toward a call to ministry.

Last week, three of our teens, our NYI president, and myself attended Nazarene Youth Conference in Louisville, Kentucky.  Although I had shared with others several times how impactful NYC had been in my own life and how I believed it would do the same for our teens who were going, I had no such expectations for myself this time around.  After all, I figured, this was a teen focused event and I am now nearly 30.  I have experienced 7 years of theological education, 4 years of pastoral ministry, and ordination as an elder in the Church of the Nazarene since I was a student at NYC, not to mention the normal growth and maturity one expects to gain from 12 years of life, 8 years of marriage, having 2 children, and living in 4 different states.  Not that all of this makes me "old and wise" by any stretch of the imagination.  It is simply to say that there are many ways in which I am not the same person I was 12 years ago.  This was a teen event and I am no longer a teen nor am I especially in tune with youth culture.  My sole purpose in going was to be present with our teens and to see what God would do in their lives.  

But I guess when God decides he is going to show up and work in the lives of those who are present, it doesn't really matter if you are part of the "target audience".  My expectations no longer mattered.  The event organizers' expectation didn't matter.  It only mattered that God was present.  And God was present.  For some brief, sweet, almost dream-like moments the glory of heaven was manifested in a basketball arena in Louisville, KY.  I went for our teens.  I left having experienced God's presence in a way that I have not for a very long time.

Much like 12 years ago, this NYC was more a nudge down a path where God has already been leading than it was any kind of final word.  I was not given a blue print for the rest of my life or some radical new direction for my congregation.  I simply got to experience the intimate presence of God and that was enough.  For months now, I have been begging God in prayer to pour out his Holy Spirit in fresh and undeniable ways on our congregation; to make his presence among us evident.  I'm honestly not even sure what I expect that to look like.  I just know I am hungry for God to show up and do something, to transform lives in the way I believe it is possible for only God to do, to demonstrate that God's Word and God's Spirit really can create and shape a holy people.  I have been longing for something to happen that can not be attributed to me or the work of our church but only to a movement of God, something that can only be called revival.  I believe that is what I witnessed in Louisville last week.  This certainly hasn't satisfied the longing I've had for God to do something in our church and our town.  Instead, it is yet another nudge down the path to trust that God can and will work among his people if we will continue to seek.

I suppose that in my moments of greatest honesty I would admit that at the center of my low expectations coming into last week was a fear; a fear that runs much deeper than the realization that I'm not quite as a young as I used to be.  It was a fear that perhaps I was more naive 12 years ago than I would like to admit; that maybe 12 years ago it was more the hugeness of the event that was talking than the voice of God, that maybe there was more "smoke and mirrors" than I remembered and that now 12 years later I would see through the smoke and mirrors and be disappointed.  At this point in my life, my faith can not be a blind one.  I have seen too much in the Church that is fake and disingenuous.  I've had too many moments that caused me to roll my in eyes disgust and frustration at our attempts to be puppeteers rather than prophets.  As a result, I've sometimes become slow of heart to real and genuine movements of God.

But last week was different.  Yes, the music was exciting.  Yes, the worship services were technologically impressive.  Yes, there were emotionally charged moments.  Yes, the speakers were gifted communicators.  Yes, we were often tired and overworked.  And yes, I'm sure there were teens more concerned with members of the opposite sex than with what God was doing.  These are all things of which I am normally a little wary in worship, especially worship involving teens, since I think it can leave them vulnerable to emotional manipulation rather than the leading of the Spirit, a "worshiping" of the worship experience rather than worshiping God.  But last week was different.  While all of those elements were present, I believe God's Spirit was genuinely present as well.  There was no sense of pretension, no goal to whip the crowd into an emotional frenzy, no sense that if a certain number of people didn't come forward to pray then the night wasn't a success.  From the outset there was a freedom and depth of worship calling us to a life of service and sacrifice that said this was a movement not merely of light and sound and charged emotions but of the living God.  Quite in contrast to looking through smoke and mirrors and finding disappointment, last week I looked through the lights and loud music and found the face of God, the same God whose voice I heard 12 years ago.  Thanks be to God for showing up in Louisville, Kentucky last week and for letting this pastor be there to witness it.

Heaven in Unlikely Places

It is only three verses after the birth of Jacob and Esau that we begin to here about Jacob's conniving and self-serving ways.  Genesis 25:19-26 tells of the birth of Jacob and Esau.  Verses 27-28 give us a short summary about Esau and Jacob.  Verse 29 begins the story of Jacob bartering for Esau's birthright.  Jacob's story has barely gotten started and he is already portrayed to us as someone who is looking out for his own gain, trying to find the best angle to better himself.  His brother is hungry and rather than treating him as a brother he sees Esau as someone who has something he wants.  He refuses to share food with his brother until his brother gives up his birthright as the firstborn.  Of course, this trend continues in Genesis 27.  Jacob deceives his father Isaac in order to receive the blessing that should fall to Esau as the firstborn.  Isaac, being too old to see well, was easily deceived when Jacob put on his brother's clothes and used goat skin to make himself feel hairy like his brother.  So Jacob succeeds in obtaining both his brother's birthright and his blessing through questionable means.  Surely Jacob is not the kind of person through whom God plans to fulfill his promise to Abraham.  Surely God will look elsewhere.

As the story moves to Genesis 28, there has been no mention of any remorse or repentance on Jacob's part over what he has done.  In fact, his only concerns seems to be his own survival.  His mother has made up an excuse about him looking for a wife so that he can get away from home in order to avoid his own brother murdering him out of anger.  So in this chapter one who is a proven deceiver and con-artist and fleeing from his family out of concern for his own self preservation finds himself in a "certain place" that is so unimportant as to be unworthy of a name at this point in the story and the only reason he has stopped in this place is to get some rest.  There is nothing sacred about this person or this place or this journey or this activity.  Jacob could not be any less interested in God.  There is no reason for God to show up here.  

But as Jacob sleeps, he has a dream about a ladder that reaches from earth to heaven with the angels of God ascending and descending on this ladder.  And this is not just any dream filled with wishful thinking.  Scripture tells us that God speaks to Jacob in this dream explaining the meaning of the vision.  This is the God of Abraham and Isaac and this God is now extending the same promises to Jacob that he promised to Jacob's father and grandfather.  God promises to be with Jacob and to keep him until the promise of inheriting this land on which he sleeps is fulfilled.  God binds himself by these promises to a con artist who has spent no time or energy seeking God.  Heaven has come to earth in this most ordinary of places.  It is only after the dream of promises made by God that Jacob in turn promises himself to God, binding himself to be faithful to God if God will keep his promises.

Naturally, we wonder why God would do this.  Why make promises to a man who has only served himself?  Why should God reveal himself to one who was not even seeking?  Why bind yourself to a man who felt no bond even to his own brother?  What does God have to gain in this endeavor?  While it may be difficult to answer those questions in a satisfactory way, we do find that this is a pattern with God.  God is constantly showing up in places where we least expect, not least in the person of Jesus Christ.

The end of John 1 tells of Jesus' call to Philip and Nathanael.  Jesus calls Philip first who then goes and tells Nathanael about Jesus of Nazareth.  Nathanael is skeptical asking "Can anything good comes from Nazareth?"  However, upon meeting Jesus, Nathanael is quickly convinced of Jesus' messianic qualities.  But Jesus says to him "You will see greater things than these....Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man."  Jesus is letting Nathanael know that just as heaven came to earth in that unlikely place where Jacob dreamed now heaven has come to earth in a whole new way in the unlikely place of this man from Nazareth.  The God revealed in Jesus Christ is a God who makes a habit of bringing heaven to unlikely places.