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“Smooth Sailing Isn’t All It’s Cracked up to Be”
Dr. Christopher C. F. Chapman
First Baptist Church, Raleigh
August 3, 2014
Some people seem to have smooth sailing through every part of
life and proceed as if the journey of faith should be one long Disney
Ride with Jesus. This has not been my experience nor has it been the
experience of most people I have known throughout the course of thirty-
two years of ministry.
I have known much love in my life, experienced inspiration in the church and found meaning in service to others, in building bridges with people of other cultures and faiths, in helping people grow in their love for God and each other. But I have known my share of struggles, too.
My parents divorced when I was eight months old, my grandfather died when I was ten and my mother died when I was twenty-seven. I have had to send a staff member in one setting to prison for embezzlement, I have had to confront clergy misconduct in another setting, thankfully before it rose to the level of criminal behavior, and I have had to engage all sorts of conflict in various churches which must sicken the heart of Jesus but surely does not surprise him.
And though it ought to go without saying, let me say that each of these struggles has raised questions of faith. Where is God when terrible things happen? Why does death have to be a part of life? Why do the good people seem to die too soon while the stinkers live forever? And why does God still care about the church at all, given all the ways we waste precious time and energy on things that do not matter or should not exist? As Barbara Brown Taylor has said, Jesus came preaching the kingdom, but we ended up with the church. It is not the same thing.
So, I have not had smooth sailing for all of my fifty-four years. I have struggled, even in regard to faith. And many of the people I have been privileged to serve among have struggled much more than I have.
Interestingly, most of the characters we read about in the Bible struggle too. Even Jesus has his ups and downs, his struggles with life 1 and God. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he questions whether he really must go to the cross. The Rock Opera Jesus Christ Superstar has him put it this way, “Show me there’s a reason for your wanting me to die.
You’re far too keen on where and how and not so hot on why!” If that sounds irreverent, perhaps we should read the Gospels again. Jesus doesn’t have smooth sailing all the way. He wrestles with God, at least verbally, and on the cross he feels utterly alone. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he cries.
In today’s reading from Genesis 32 we find another biblical character whose journey is filled with struggle. His name is Jacob and though he is a leader, a Patriarch of Judeo-Christian faith, he seems to make much of his own trouble. His name suggests as much. Jacob means “he supplants” or “he takes by the heel.” He is given this name because he comes into the world this way. His twin brother Esau is born first and Jacob comes out holding on to Esau’s heel. The writing is on the wall, we might say, birth provides a preview of coming attractions!
It is not always this way. The second child in our family came out kicking and screaming. We often said when she was young that, if she had been the first child, there would not have been a second! She was not happy to be in the world and she let the world know this by crying most of her first three years.
When Mickey Mouse came over to wish her a happy birthday in Disney World, she kicked Mickey in the back and told him to go away!
I’m sure that character muttered something to the effect of, “I don’t get paid enough for this!” Margaret, or Alison as we call her, came into the world fighting mad, but she has not remained at odds with life. She is a precious young woman, as you know, bright and witty and full of life.
First impressions do not always tell the whole story.
But for Jacob, they do. He is a supplanter, a deceiver, a man who takes what he can from everyone around him to get ahead in life. He manages to scheme his brother out of his birthright for a pot of stew when Esau comes in hungry from hunting. Esau should value his birthright more highly but Jacob doesn’t have to demand payment from his own brother for a meal.
2 Jacob also manages to trick his father into giving him Esau’s blessing as the oldest son. Isaac is on his deathbed, his eyesight is poor, and the boys’ mother, Rebekah, comes up with the scheme, but Jacob is the one who carries it out, fooling his dying father and stealing, in effect, from his brother.
Over time he also has trouble with Laban and only God knows why Rachel and Leah put up with him! Jacob comes into the world trying to grab what he can and keeps grabbing every step of the way. He is a supplanter, a deceiver, his life is full of struggles but he makes most of his own trouble.
As we join his story today, he has reached the most anxious point in his life. Thus far he has stepped in a lot of stuff but always come out smelling like a rose. But time may have run out on him. It may be time to pay for his transgressions.
He is scheduled to meet Esau the next day. They haven’t seen each other in some time and Jacob senses that Esau may be planning to kill him. He has every reason to be angry. So, Jacob sends gifts to his brother and he sends his wives ahead of him as well. What a guy! Jacob the schemer is scheming again, hoping to weasel his way out of trouble one more time but realizing that his luck may have run out.
As all of this is running through his mind, darkness approaches. It seems like he has had an unusual experience at night before, some kind of dream about a ladder going up to heaven, with angels moving up and down. Somehow he feels more open at night, more vulnerable. On this night, as everyone else moves on and the sun goes down, someone else approaches him and they begin a wrestling match that lasts all night.
Who is this sparring partner? The text says he is a man, ish is the Hebrew word, but he seems like more than a man, perhaps an angelic figure, some representative or representation of God. Jacob is struggling again but this time his struggle is with God, or at least he seems to think so. For when it is all over, he names the place, Peniel, the face of God, saying he has seen the face of God and lived.
But that’s getting ahead of the story. This stranger appears and they wrestle all night. When the stranger doesn’t prevail, he strikes Jacob a vicious blow on his hip socket and knocks the hip out of joint.
3 As the sun begins to rise, the stranger tells Jacob to let him go.
Apparently this sort of Holy encounter can only take place in the stillness of the night. Jacob says he will not let go unless the stranger blesses him. Jacob may eventually be transformed but he is still Jacob, still supplanting, still trying to grab what he can!
The stranger agrees and blesses him with a new name, Israel, saying, “for you have striven with God and humans and have prevailed.” Israel means, “The one who strives with God” or “God strives.” Jacob the deceiver has become Israel the one who strives with God. Then, Jacob/Israel asks for the stranger’s name but he doesn’t grant this request. He only gives the blessing of a new name and then Israel walks away limping because of the damage done to his hip.
Clearly this is a turning point in Jacob’s journey. It is a transformational experience, perhaps the most critical moment in his life. It is not a smooth sailing sort of experience. Jacob struggles, wrestles, fights through the night with an adversary who may be representative of God, anyone with whom Jacob has had a conflict, Jacob himself or all of the above. At the end of this struggle, Jacob is marked, wounded, he will never forget this experience nor will he ever be the same. But it is worth all the effort, he is a changed man now, so much so that he requires a new name. He no longer deceives and supplants, he strives with God!
So, what does this story have to say to us? It tells us not only that struggles are “O.K.”, indeed a part of life through which we grow, but struggles with God are a part of the journey of faith which are absolutely necessary for some kinds of growth.
Many people in our culture practice a much more careful and tentative kind of faith. I don’t know why. Mostly, I suspect, because we were taught to be respectful of God in all the wrong ways and thus fear that honesty might get us in trouble. So, in our prayer life, for example, we are always kind and courteous, like good southern ladies and gentleman; we never express any anger or disappointment; and we certainly don’t ask any deep existential questions or express any doubts.
4 To what end are we so careful and frankly dishonest? Who are we fooling? The Psalmist says God knows our thoughts before we express them (139) and thus even if we do not express them at all. God knows what we are really thinking and feeling about life. Why not go ahead and say what we think, give God the real courtesy of being honest and give ourselves a chance to grow. Jacob wrestles with God and lives to tell about it. Surely we can too. In fact, I think this is what God wants.
In his personal journal, at the very beginning of a sabbatical which turned out to be the last year of his life, Henri Nouwen expressed his doubts and frustrations very openly (Sabbatical Year, p.5). Nouwen, one of greatest spiritual guides of 20th-century Christianity, said this.
The truth is that I do not feel much, if anything when I pray. There are no warm emotions, bodily sensations, or mental visions. None of my five sense is being touched – no special smells, no special sounds, no special sights, no special tastes and no special movements. Whereas for a long time the Spirit acted so clearly through my flesh, now I feel nothing. I have lived with the expectation that prayer would become easier as I grow older and closer to death. But the opposite seems to be happening. The words darkness and dryness seem to best describe my prayer today.
Nouwen went on to diagnose the sources of his struggle, he had been too busy for too long, he had given too much without replenishing his own spiritual resources. But through the year he continued to be open and honest with God, to struggle with tough questions, to engage in lively debate if not open combat with his Maker. And as a result, he renewed his faith in an authentic way. Struggling with God was not a problem. It was a doorway to a deeper kind of faith.
Sister Eileen Dennis had a similar experience. She was a chaplain at Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem and a nun, a gifted caregiver and a woman with a depth of faith that inspired patients, colleagues and medical staff. But she was not a superficial Happy Christian who denied her struggles. She was an authentic follower of Jesus, yet she had 5 questions, and her honesty not only deepened her faith, it made her the kind of person to whom hurting people would turn for help.
One time when she was speaking to a group at our church in Winston-Salem, she referenced her close friendship with my predecessor there, who had died after a struggle with cancer. She described prayer time she had with Tom and then her personal conversation with God.
Jesus, in the Garden, Sister Dennis said, questioned God’s will for his life but ultimately said, “Not my will but thine,” and he was “O.K.” with that. Regarding our mutual friend’s death, she said, she had gotten to the place where she could say with Jesus, “Not my will, but thine,” because Tom was so sick. But she had not reached the place where she could say, “I’m ‘O.K.’ with that.” “I am not ‘O.K.’,” she said.
She was still wrestling with God over this matter and everyone in that room shared her struggle. To have denied this reality would have been an insult to the One who knows us better than we know ourselves.
To be honest and struggle even with God over why some things happen creates space for us to grow. It doesn’t mean we get easy answers, but it allows us to be honest, to let off some steam, and to find some way of holding on to our belief in the goodness of life and our trust in God.
The Dark Night of the Soul, the poetic vision of the spiritual journey written by St. John of the Cross in 1578/9, insists that there is no way to experience our ultimate goal in life – union with Christ - without honestly facing our struggles along the way. Some of these have to do with purifying our senses while others have to do with purifying our spirit, but struggles are required if we are to reach our goal.
We might add that many of our struggles are like those the Apostle Paul describes in Romans 7. We struggle to do the right thing, to do what we know we ought to do, to do what God desires in our lives. Not all of our wrestling with God concerns some perceived injustice in the world. Yet still, as long as we are willing to struggle, we grow.
Jacob's story tells us that struggles with God are part of the journey which help us to grow and then, there are couple of other lessons here.
First, when Jacob struggles with God, he is changed in the process, transformed, so much so that he requires a new name. Others will not 6 believe it is him. It will take more than a name to convince them, but, in time, the new Jacob, Israel, will. In like manner, when we are honest in our struggles with God, we are transformed, so much so that it takes time for others to believe it is us and accept that we have changed.
For some this change happens around the time of accepting Christ, professing faith and being baptized. For others it happens when we finally beat an addiction and make progress toward health and wholeness. For still others it happens when we finally come to terms with God about some loss we have experienced or suffering we have witnessed. But no matter when or how it happens, when we struggle with God and ourselves and finally make peace, we are transformed.
Second, when Jacob struggles with God, he is wounded, marked, given a limp. He does not come out of the battle unscathed. He is not only changed for the better, blessed with a new name. He will walk with a limp the rest of his days. In like manner, when we struggle with God and ourselves, attempt to follow God’s intent for our lives more faithfully, we too are wounded.