What I Am Sure Of

I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about questions, writing about the push and pull of mysteries of the faith, things so many people take for granted.  It may be frustrating to some of you that I don’t always come to a conclusion.  To borrow a phrase from Donald Miller, I don’t “resolve.”  But please bear with me.  There are some things I do believe…

The charge has been leveled that evangelical Christians, and conservative ones in general, can’t stomach ambiguity, ambivalence, and uncertainty.  And surely bumper-sticker catchphrases like “God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It” only add to that image.

But the truth is, people aren’t great with ambiguity, ambivalence, and uncertainty.  That’s why, once we choose a political party, we ignore almost any horrible deed by our side, because it’s “better than the other guys,” whether it’s torture – I mean, “enhanced interrogation” – or drone strikes on Pakistani civilians and U.S. citizens abroad.

Similarly, when we settle on a religious framework, we tend to stick to it, minimizing or exceptionalizing its problems, from ‘crack that limp wrist’ to ‘build a fence so they’ll die out‘ to the ongoing abuses of complementarian fundamentalists.  But much of the time the problem isn’t the theology so much as the certainty itself.  None of us is immune to confirmation bias.  The problem comes when we don’t fight it, but instead sanctify it.

It’s true that we go through times of transition, mostly as young people, when we examine our parents’ beliefs to see which ones are really ours.  The children of conservatives may become socialists, the sons of hippies, Young Republicans, the daughters of butchers, vegetarians.

Of course, times of change and transition aren’t only for adolescents. Sometimes having children sparks a new period of wrestling, brought on by sleepless nights and the awesome wonder of new life.  Sometimes age and approaching retirement, with its distant rumblings of mortality, sparks yet another time of change.

But beyond this?   Most people don’t have a stomach for uncertainty.  As human beings, it’s our nature to prefer flawed, even wrong, answers to rightful questions.

It’s far too easy to stop wrestling, struggling, “working out our salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12-13)  We get comfortable, and soon we find we’re no longer following Jesus across dusty Judean roads, over craggy mountains, and into the land of the half-breed heretic Samaritans.

Instead, we’ve set up our comfortable seats at the temple (always the same pew, every Sunday).  And the sad part is, we don’t even really expect Him to come to us.  We think He has come to us, and we’re good.  We’ve got it.  We got our inoculation, we’re right with God.  We’re all right.  “I’m not a sinner.  I never sin.  I’ve got a friend in Jesus…

And that certainty makes us hard.  It calcifies and ossifies, grinding our compassion and empathy to a halt.  Outsiders become, not the ones we seek out (like the woman at the well), but enemies of the faith.  Our approach is not genuine interest and sacrificial compassion, but alarm and hostility.  We cry “persecution!” from our well-cushioned pews in our air-conditioned churches every time something in the outer world slaps us in the face.  But persecution isn’t a slap in the face; it’s a bullet in the head.

There’s a reason we call it wrestling with a topic.  Wrestling is hard.  It’s sweaty.  It’s physical.  It’s exhausting.  Working out our salvation with fear and trembling requires a lot of energy.  More than that, it requires pain.  Fear and trembling.  This is going to hurt.

Wrestling with God is going to hurt.  And it should.  The Marines have a saying: “Pain is weakness leaving the body.”  If you can’t stomach the pain of questioning, you’ll have to accept the weakness.  But please, don’t claim that weakness to be a stronger or truer faith.  Shouting heretic and TYPING IN ALL CAPS doesn’t make you right.  It didn’t make me right when I did it, either.

This is what I believe.  I believe that Jacob didn’t wrestle an angel.  He wrestled God Himself, a pre-incarnate Jesus.  And though he wrestled all night until his arms ripped and his lungs raged like fire, though he almost lost his leg, Jacob wrestled.  He held on, and in the end God blessed him.

And I believe God still waits to wrestle with us all.  It won’t be pretty.  It won’t be easy.  It won’t be painless.  But it will be worth it.

Amen.

Repetition – an Explanation

I’ve posted two “Repetitions” here, and it occurs to me that some of you may be wondering just what I’m doing.

Well, it all began back in college, when Dr. Meadors had us read Soren Kierkegaard, including Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing and Fear and Trembling/Repetition.

I have to admit, some of Kierkegaard’s writing went right over my head.  Other parts of it challenged me (the knight of faith, the teleological suspension of the ethical as seen in the story of Abraham and Isaac).  But one part slipped, almost unnoticed, into a little empty space in my mind, and hid, almost unnoticed, for many years.

Repetition.

In the beginning of Repetition/Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard re-tells the story of Abraham and Isaac several times.  And each time it’s different.  One time, it focuses on Isaac’s broken trust in his father.  Anther time, it focuses more on Abraham’s pain and dread of what he has to do.

But what struck me was this: the Bible gives us an outline, a story in a form much shorter than what we are currently used to.  It tells us what happened, but we must infer or imagine the feelings, the reasons, the details.

And so we do.

There’s a huge sub-genre of Christian fiction retelling Bible stories in novel form, but even those of us without literary agents rewrite the stories into modern-style narratives within our minds.  And that’s good, because it makes it more than just a brief passage, an efficient chronicle of something that happened long ago.  It helps us make the story real to ourselves.

But it’s important to remember that we don’t know how Jacob or Ruth or Abraham felt (at least I don’t).  It’ s important to know that those details (the ones that didn’t make the canon) could go any number of ways.

And so, when I retell stories from the Bible, as I will sometimes do here, I never just tell them once.  That would be an “answer,” and an answer I am surely not qualified to give.  But by writing the story again and again, using different possibilities, different approaches, I can keep myself engaged with the questions, with the Bible itself.

How did Jacob feel when he wrestled the angel?  Why did he stay behind at the Jabbok ford?  Who started the fight?  If Jacob hoped to live, what did he base that hope on: his gifts and plans, God’s protection, or Esau’s mercy?  Did he ever fear the angel would kill him?  Did he even know what he was wrestling?

I don’t know.  But it helps me, sometimes, to imagine.

Repetition: Jacob and the Angel, Part 2

Eugene Delacroix, Jacob Wrestling the Angel (painting)

Jacob Wrestling the Angel by Eugene Delacroix, detail, 1861

Jacob stood at the edge of the water, waiting.  A hot breeze blew through the desert night, drawing water from the Jabbok, making the air strangely wet and heavy.  For a moment, Jacob wondered if this was what it was like to drown.  The moon shone down, one bright, impassive eye in the heavens.

In his mind, he replayed every detail.  The gifts would arrive: first the goats, then the sheep, then the camels, then the bulls, then the donkeys, each sent with the same message, “These belong to your servant, Jacob.  They are a gift sent to my lord Esau.  And he is coming after us.”  He smiled.  The mind that stole the birthright and spotted Laban’s flocks knew that one gift, no matter how rich, might be rejected out of anger.  But few men could reject gift after gift, each more valuable than the last.

Jacob heard – or more accurately felt – a sound.  Just below the range of hearing, thunder rolled.  He turned his head, glancing back at the visitor with a smirk.  “Who are you, Esau’s angel?”

“Why do you want to know?”  The stranger asked.  The voice seemed to speak within Jacob’s mind, yet echo off every hill in Canaan.

Jacob turned fully to face him.  This stranger was no man, clearly.  The moonlight seemed to dance across his body, as if buoyed by a greater source.  “What do you want?”

The stranger merely tilted his head and smiled.  Perhaps he was not Esau’s angel.  Perhaps he was one of the small gods the Canaanites worshiped, Ba’al or Dagon or some such.  He did not look like the house idols, but why should he?

“Are you simple?” Jacob said, his neck tensing, his hands closing into fists, “Or did you just come to stare, to gawk at the mortal whose own brother may kill him tomorrow?”  He stepped forward, fear and frustration boiling into a rage that pushed past all reason, a rage that might drive him to attack a god. “Answer me!”

The stranger sank into his knees, just a little, and spread his hands wide.

Jacob grinned, mirroring his stance.  “Wrestling, then?”  He said, “Good.  I’ve been doing that since I was formed in the womb.”

 

Jacob hit the stranger with all his strength, crouching low, trying to pull him off-balance.  But the shining man sidestepped, shaking off the hold.

“Don’t laugh at me!” Jacob snarled, shouldering into the visitor wildly.  At the last moment, he slipped his foot behind the stranger’s calf, tripping him.  Momentary surprise flashed across the stranger’s face.  Then they hit the hard, stony ground, with Jacob solidly on top.

Jacob struggled to pin the stranger, tossing one leg across his chest.  The visitor locked arms with him, shoving back with a strength even Esau never equaled.  Jacob’s arms burned with the effort, while his lungs labored against the Jabbok river mist.  The stranger, of course, seemed not the least bit tired.

“Submit,” Jacob said, “you’re beaten.”

The stranger bucked like an unbroken mare, tossing Jacob to the ground.  Jacob’s fingers clenched and squeezed painfully, struggling to keep hold on the stranger’s, then failing.  Jacob scrambled to cover his adversary, but the visitor was too quick, and rolled out of reach.

Both men scrambled to their feet in the fading moonlight.  Jacob stared, trying to formulate a plan between ragged, painful breaths.  But the stranger gave him no time, hitting him like a raging bull, bearing them both to the ground.  It was all Jacob could do to keep conscious.  By luck or miracle, his head missed a jutting rock that would have certainly broken his neck.  The outcropping grazed the strangers head, stunning him momentarily.

Jacob tried to escape, but by the time he regained control of his body, the stranger had as well.  Knowing his adversary’s inhuman strength, Jacob held tight, his rage flagging to fear.  He no longer cared if he won or lost, no longer dared to think he could bow this being’s head in defeat.  He only hoped he could occupy the stranger’s hands so he could not strike him.

Jacob imagined the shining visitor rising above him, raining blows upon his head like fire on Sodom, leaving him as dead as that cursed city.  That thought, that fear, gave him strength, and he locked up the stranger’s arms with his own, pulling him tight against his chest, too close to strike or even slap.  Jacob held tight, his fear giving him endurance almost beyond measure, until the silver moonlight had gone, replaced by the faintest orange glow of the morning sun.

“Let me go!”  The stranger cried out, “The day is coming!”

“No,” Jacob said.  All his plans seemed like desperate grasping.  Esau might forgive him, but his life could still end here.

The stranger moved his hand downward, twisting against Jacob’s grip, until his fingertips rested against the mortal’s hip.  Jacob’s eyes grew wide and he screamed as the muscles in his thigh ripped apart.  His face turned pale, and cold sweat drenched him, but his arms only clenched tighter.

“I said let me go.”

“No,” Jacob gasped, breath ragged, “Not until you bless me.”

“What is your name?”  The stranger asked.

“Jacob.”

The stranger smiled.  “No longer.  You shall be called Israel, for you have wrestled with God and with man, and have prevailed.”

Jacob released his grip and lay back, his breath coming in shallow, ragged gasps.  The pain in his thigh had subsided, but its memory alone was enough to set him shuddering.  “You – you could have done that all along.”

The stranger nodded.

“You could have done that to my neck,” Jacob whispered, slowly pushing himself up to a sitting position, his breath slowly returning to normal, “You could have killed me with a touch.”

Once again, the stranger nodded.

“But you did not.”

The stranger smiled gently, then touched Jacob’s forehead, offering a blessing greater than the one Isaac had offered, greater by far than the one that had set this enmity in motion.

“Who are you?” Jacob said, his voice small and awestruck, “You are not one of Laban’s idols.  Are you a servant of my father’s God, or are you -”

“Why do you want to know?” The man said, rising to his feet.  “Go, Israel, and be blessed among nations.”  And in a moment he was gone.

Jacob rose slowly, hope rising in his heart like the warm light of the morning sun.  “I will call this place Peniel,” he said, “for I have seen God face to face, and I live.  And I will live.”

Repetition: Jacob Wrestles the Angel, Part 1

Jacob wrestling the angel by Alexander Lelior

Jacob Wrestling the Angel by Alexander Lelior

Jacob stood at the edge of the water, watching Rachel and Leah and all their children recede into the gathering dark.  Rachel glanced over her shoulder, a nervous I love you, a battlefield farewell.  He’d told her not to worry, told her he’d find a way out, just like he’d found a way out of Laban’s household and even out from under his anger.  But in her beautiful eyes, he saw doubt.

Esau was coming.

Whatever happened, Jacob knew he deserved it.  But the cunning mind that had stolen his brother’s birthright, his father’s blessing, had little time to spare for guilt.  The word of the day is survival, if not for him, at least for his children.  He’d sent gifts ahead.  He’d split his servants and herds in two, hoping to protect at least half his wealth.  And now he’d sent his wives and sons away.

Jacob stood alone, listening to the last sounds of his family vanishing in the distance, until all that remained was the lapping of the Jabbok river.  He shivered in the chilly desert night, as much from dread as cold.  In his mind he saw Esau as he’d left him; young, wild and strong from a life spent in the fields, the wide-eyed hunter towering above him.  He saw the rage, loss, and hurt twisting Esau’s ruddy features, heard him bellowing threats of revenge.  At the thought of his brother, Jacob spat on the ground, but his dry mouth sent only flecks of foam floating slowly to the ground in the still night.

He felt the stranger before he saw him – an inhuman presence, a roll of thunder like a god.  Jacob turned, barely bracing himself.  Without a word, the stranger was upon him, soundlessly bearing him to the ground.

Jacob snarled, future fears tossed aside by the here and now, his attention sharpened to the point of a spear.  He sunk his fingers into the stranger’s arms, struggling for a stronger grip.  Surprise rippled across the stranger’s body.  His satisfied smirk said it all.  So you will fight.  Good.  Jacob shot his right arm up, sliding past the stranger’s grip, under his arm, and wrapping around his shoulder.  With a sharp shove of his hips, he rolled his divine opponent over, slamming him to the ground, landing on top.  It occurred to him, mid-throw, that he’d learned to wrestle from his brother.  Even if he kills me tomorrow, he’s saved my life tonight.  Jacob almost laughed.

But the angel wasn’t beaten.  He arched his body and slung Jacob to the side, breaking his hold and tossing him roughly to the ground.  Both men recovered, their breath coiling and rising in the cold night air.  Jacob felt his muscles tearing, but fought on out of sheer desperate will.  Esau may kill me tomorrow, but tonight I will win.  The two men struggled, strained, and rolled until the sun’s pale rays lit the eastern sky.

The angel wrested one hand free and slammed it into Jacob’s hip, and pain shot through the man.  He cried out, but his grip only tightened.  He knew that wound would never fully heal, even if he somehow survived his reunion with Esau.  But it didn’t matter.  Pain didn’t matter.  Fatigue didn’t matter.  Despair and fear and guilt didn’t matter.  Right now, by the banks of the Jabbok, deep in the shadow of death, only victory mattered.

“Let me go!”  The stranger cried out, “The day is coming!”

“No,” Jacob said, his face red, his eyes leaking tears, “Not until you bless me!”

“What is your name?”

“Jacob.”

The man smiled.  “No longer.  You shall be called Israel, for you have wrestled with God and with man, and have prevailed.”  The shadow of death lifted, bringing with it the new light of dawn.

“What – what is your name?”  Jacob asked, leaning back, kneeling near his adversary.  He knew what he had wrestled was not a mere god, no Canaanite idol, but someone far greater.  He had battled a messenger of his father’s God, the God of Abraham.  Perhaps he’d wrestled that God Himself.  His throat tightened at the thought, and he dropped his eyes to the ground.

“Why do you want to know?” The man said, rising to his feet.  He reached down to touch Jacob’s forehead, bestowing a blessing far greater than the one he’d stolen.  And then, in a moment, he was gone.

Jacob rose slowly, peace and healing rushing over him like the warm morning sun.  “I will call this place Peniel,” he said, “for I have seen God face to face, and yet I live.”  He turned his face toward the west and, for the first time in many days, smiled.

Wrestling Angels

I’m writing this blog primarily about religious matters.  I’ve tried blogging about my faith a couple of times before, but I always fell away from it (the blogging, not the faith).  I think there were two problems:

First, I was trying to tell people what I think the “answers” are.  I don’t have answers.  Honestly, we don’t get many “answers” this side of Heaven, and anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something.

Second, I wasn’t ever really, deeply honest.  I don’t think it is possible to be fully honest when giving out “answers,” because the truth is, whatever seems right now may seem wrongheaded and petty in a couple of years.  When your business is talking answers, you either lie,  constantly contradict yourself, or become so arrogant that you refuse to change your mind.  None of those is worth the bandwidth.

The only honest path is to admit to the questions, to embrace the questions, and to genuinely study the questions.  Doubt can be a kind of worship.  Doubt is a kind of humility.  Doubt is saying to God, “I don’t understand you, I know I can’t prove you, but I still choose to worship you.”

That’s why I’ve called this attempt “Wrestling with the Angel.”  The title comes from Genesis 32:24-28, when Jacob wrestled with an angel (or possibly a pre-incarnate Christ) throughout the night, refusing to let go until the angel blessed him, even though the angel tore his hip out of joint.

It was here that he lost the name Jacob, the deceiver who stole his brother’s birthright, and became Israel, the one who struggles with God.

And I think that is one of our duties as Christians: to struggle with God, to wrestle the angels, to dive headlong into our doubts and fears.  To hold on until He blesses us, and gives us a new name.