God is in the Struggle

“That which does not kill you makes you stronger” is one of those “power sayings” that often get bandied about in polite society, a sort of talisman against the challenges of daily life.

In fact, the phrase has its origins in the work of Freidrich Neitzsche, who includes it in a list of aphorisms in his work entitled Twilight of the Idols.  In fact, the phrase in its entirety reads thus:

Out of life’s school of war: What does not destroy me makes me stronger.

In truth, there are many things in this world that can destroy us, and those that do not succeed do not necessarily strengthen us. That which doesn’t kill us has the power to alter who we are, not only for better, but for worse. It may not kill us, but it may embitter us. Or we may find ourselves immobilized by trauma and fear and scars that will not heal.

There is much in the world to be afraid of, and that which threatens us physically is just the tip of the iceberg.

Consider this story of Jacob from the book of Genesis:

22 The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man[b] said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,[c] for you have striven with God and with humans,[d] and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel,[e] saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.

In Genesis 32, we encounter a lonely man, agonizing on the edge of his homeland. For here Jacob finally finds himself face to face with the past from which he has been running all of his life: a past in which he earned his name, which means “trickster and supplanter,” by stealing his hard-working older brother’s birthright and tricking his father while he was on his deathbed. A past in which he tricked and cheated his way into wealth and riches. But no amount of games and trickery can save him now, for if he wishes to come home, he must face what he has done.

Pen and Ink "Jacob Wrestling the Angel of God" by Jack Baumgartner, 2009
Pen and Ink “Jacob Wrestling the Angel of God” by Jack Baumgartner, 2009

Poor Jacob! How great is his sense of dread! He cannot possibly know that the same brother whom he once shamed with his games, the same Esau who pursued him to the limits of their land seeking vengeance, is a different man. Jacob cannot possibly know that something in Esau is softened. That his anger has ebbed, that forgiveness is possible. All that Jacob knows is his violation. His fear. The adrenaline that coursed through his veins as he ran from his brother. His conviction that he deserved to be chased, to be hunted, to be condemned.

Jacob, who has made a life for himself, who surrounds himself with evidence of his own success, suddenly seems not to feel so strong. No amount of wives, or children, or goats can still the rushed beat of his heart.

Because no matter how much wealth or family he amasses, he cannot change his reality: He is a hunted man. He cannot shake his past. And he can scarce imagine a future in which he will make it through this reunion unscathed.

And so he does what any shrewd person would do: he plans. He schemes to protect his family, to dull the edge of his brother’s rage with gifts and displays of power. And then he does what all of us do when we feel we have nothing left: he prays. Out of options, Jacob lies vulnerable on the dirt with his heart opened to heaven and begs for mercy.

That sleepless night, waiting for the morning light of justice to shine on his life and determine his fate, Jacob discovers that sometimes our demons are right there with us, when we least expect us.

At least, we think it could have been a demon. We do not know. Perhaps it was Esau himself, come to meet his brother under the cloak of darkness. Or perhaps it was a numen, an ancient divine power brought up from the deep of the river itself. We could spend our whole lives wondering and never discovering the truth of exactly who this stranger is.

But whomever it was who rose out of the darkness that fateful evening, it is Jacob who finds himself locked in a battle between life and death, light and darkness, curse and blessing on the banks of the Jabbok, a river whose name means both “a place of passing over,” but also “to struggle.” The very geography bears witness to the spiritual battle within Jacob—he has chosen to face his past, to stop running, to turn and face the consequences of his own making, and now he must struggle with what that means.

Because that is what this story is about. It is about a man who, from his first breath, was defined by his flaws: he was a supplanter, a trickster, a heel. He was the one who stole, who cheated, who knew how to look for loopholes and exploit them with abandon. And now, this one has chosen the more difficult path of accountability, of reconciliation, of struggle.

It is a choice that will both mark and bless Jacob for the rest of his life. As the dawn breaks, he emerges, not exactly victorious, but marked by a new sense of who he is—no longer is he Jacob the trickster—he has become Israel, the one whom God protects.

Jacob does not emerge unscathed—changed, but also wounded, crippled, forever marked. It is what Fred Beuchner called, “The magnificent defeat. A defeat because he limps. Magnificent because he prevails. And he limped every day afterward to show others (and himself) that there are no untroubled victories with this Holy One. He lives, with new power, but also new weakness.” God answers his prayers, but in ways that he could not possibly have expected.

I wonder if perhaps the news that we need to hear at this moment, in this place, is that our faith in God will not grant us victory in all things, nor will God promise that we will not emerge wounded from battle. Perhaps, instead, we are meant to understand that even when we struggle, even as we enter the thresholds that separate our past from our present, even as we are wounded, or wracked with fear, that God is with us. And that God is not only present, but that God bears witness to the power of these moments to change us so fundamentally that we emerge with a new identity, a new sense of who we are and what we can endure.Joshua1-9

How could Jacob have known what would happen when the light blessed his bruised and shaking body? Even so, perhaps that struggle, interior and exterior, gave him the courage to trust that God would be with him as his brother Esau rushed to greet him, wrapped him in his arms, and called him beloved, brother, and friend as tears of blessing fell upon them both in the light of a new day.

May it be so for us, as well.

South Korean Park Yang-gon, left, and his North Korean brother Park Yang Soo get emotional as they met during the Separated Family Reunion Meeting at Diamond Mountain resort in North Korea, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014. Elderly North and South Koreans separated for six decades are tearfully reuniting, grateful to embrace children, brothers, sisters and spouses they had thought they might never see again. (AP Photo/Korea Pool, Park Hae-soo)  KOREA OUT
South Korean Park Yang-gon, left, and his North Korean brother Park Yang Soo get emotional as they met during the Separated Family Reunion Meeting at Diamond Mountain resort in North Korea, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014. Elderly North and South Koreans separated for six decades are tearfully reuniting, grateful to embrace children, brothers, sisters and spouses they had thought they might never see again. (AP Photo/Korea Pool, Park Hae-soo) KOREA OUT
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Guest Post: Sarah Donovan

suicidepreventionmonthI know there this some serious things happening in the world with the refugee crisis and I spoke with my pastor this week about it, but feel I need to talk about another topic right now. September is National Suicide Prevention Month. I have known people who have lost people to Suicide I want to talk to you about young adults and suicide.

This is a hard topic for me because unlike some people suicide has personally affected my life. I have a form of mental illness, I am not talking about having a bad day every now and then or having a drug problem I am talking about something that developed inside of me that I have no control over and no idea when its going to blow up and take over my life and so I have to treat with medication and therapy and some times hospitalization. I know how hard it is to talk about suicide but I know how important it is to bring up the subject. When I was a teenager and first dealing with my problems my mother would talk to me about suicide, I would roll my eyes and think why is she talking to me about this, but I would remember when I was at my lowest point hearing my mother’s voice in my head and how much of an impact that made.

People NEED to talk to children. Not just teenagers, but not only talk to them they need to listen to them. In fact they need to list to the child before they speak to the child. Children and teenagers are amazing, sit down with one and talk to them, trust me it will not be a waste of your time. So many children are afraid to share what’s bothering them; they need to know they have a voice and that their voice matters. There are too many kids out there today who think that people don’t’ care about them and what they have to say, there are kids out there who are being bullied and who don’t have a voice. We need to make sure these kids are given a chance to have a voice and that, their voice is heard. We need to stop young people ending their lives before they have a chance to live them. Please reach out to a child.

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Sarah Donovan is a ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a lover of cats and an avid traveller.  She recently celebrated earning her degree in Electrical Engineering from UMass Lowell.  

HOME (by Warsan Shire)

turkish-soldiers-stand-guard-syrian-refugees-wait-behind-border-fences

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
pitied

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough

the
go home blacks
refugees
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
savage
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
drown
save
be hunger
beg
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying-
leave,
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here

Hungarian policemen stand by a migrant holding a baby at the railway station in the town of Bicske Hungary
Hungarian policemen stand by a migrant holding a baby at the railway station in the town of Bicske Hungary

Warsan Shire is a Kenyan-born Somali poet, writer and educator based in London. Born in 1988, Warsan has read her work extensively all over Britain and internationally – including recent readings in South Africa, Italy, Germany, Canada, North America and Kenya- and her début book, ‘TEACHING MY MOTHER HOW TO GIVE BIRTH’ (flipped eye), was published in 2011. Her poems have been published in Wasafiri, Magma and Poetry Review and in the anthology ‘The Salt Book of Younger Poets’ (Salt, 2011). She is the current poetry editor at SPOOK magazine. In 2012 she represented Somalia at the Poetry Parnassus, the festival of the world poets at the Southbank, London. She is a Complete Works II poet. Her poetry has been translated into Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. Warsan is also the unanimous winner of the 2013 Inaugural Brunel University African Poetry Prize. 

Prove It

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

The Epistle of James 2:1-17

Kids-Waking-Up-Too-Early

I have been haunted this week by the image of a father being awakened by his children in the morning.

It is such a simple thing…. When you are a parent, the odds are good that, if you aren’t a morning person, you have been awakened by little hands on your eyelids, a sloppy kiss on the cheek, or that undeniable feeling that SOMEONE IS WATCHING YOU.

Little kids are like that—they wake up and they want to be with the people that they love. More precisely, they want YOU to be with them. Doing whatever it is that they want to do in that moment. It is one of those classic experiences of parenting that is so mundane, so simple, that you almost forget about it, until you are reminded.

And I have been haunted by this image, because this week, all I can think about is Abdullah Kurdi, and of the awful truth that he will never be awakened in the morning by his little boys again, because both of them drowned off the coast of Turkey this week in a desperate bid to escape the kind of life that no parent would ever imagine for their children.

Alyan and Galip Kurdi, beautiful little boys whose lives were claimed this week by conflict in Syria
Alyan and Galip Kurdi in better times

“They were so wonderful,” Abdullah said of his two boys, Aylan and Galip. “They would wake me up in the morning to play with them.”

http://graphics8.nytimes.com/bcvideo/1.0/iframe/embed.html?videoId=100000003889838&playerType=embed

And all I can think as I hear his words, as I watch this devastated father in that space where there truly are no more words that can speak into the horror of this moment, is this: that could have been me.

I look at Abdullah, this Muslim father from Kobani, Syria, and I hear myself in his pain. I hear my own experience of loving my children, of living every day, of cherishing the little things. And when my children wake me up each morning, this week I cannot help but think of the thousands of Syrian, Afghanian, Somalian, Guatemalan and Burmese refugees who have lost the average and the everday, the promise and the hope of life with loved ones, to the crushing brutality of violence.

As I read our scripture today, I am reminded that the life of the Christian isn’t so much about defending God—we weren’t put on this earth to prove that God is powerful, or almighty, or worthy of praise. God can do that on God’s own.

But according to James, the brother of Jesus himself, we were put on this earth to love our neighbors. And as God’s people, perhaps we more than anyone else have a special calling, a commission, if you will, to protect and care for all of God’s children, because they absolutely do need protection.

  • For it is God’s children who are drowning in distant waters
  • God’s children who are wasting away, forgotten, in refugee camps and holding pens in countries that don’t want them.
  • God’s children who are suffocating in refrigerated trucks
  • God’s children who are trapped in monasteries, in small villages, in slavery, in violent societies and desperate to escape but too poor to run.
  • God’s children who are crying out not only for a chance at a fair wage, but for a chance at any life at all.

I was reading a popular blog this week, and in it the author observed that perhaps it is time for us to remember that, for all of the problems our country faces, every single person in this room was born lucky enough to grow up in a country that protects our fundamental rights to life, to liberty, to the pursuit of happiness. Let’s stop acting like this is something we deserve, and remember that it was a gift. Because maybe, just maybe, if we remember that this is a gift, we might be more inclined to compassion for those who have been born into countries and situations where there is no peace, no safety, no promise of freedom. Perhaps we might be inclined to act with compassion, and grace, to extend a warm hand to our neighbors, to live out the best inclinations of a country that was first people by outsiders, refugees, and minorities from their own mother lands.

Perhaps what is required of us is the courage to respond faithfully to Jesus’ own brother, who reminds us that Jesus called us to set aside the temptation to group our neighbors into categories of those who deserve our attention and those do not, of those who are worthy and those who are unworthy, those who are rich and those who are poor, those who are in and those who are out. And instead, perhaps we are called to use our god-given energies and talents to fulfill the Scripture, which calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves. To see our neighbors as ourselves, and respond as we would hope that others would respond if we were in a similar predicament.

“For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.”

Mercy will cost us, friends. Mercy may require that we choose to put another’s hurt above our own comfort. That we choose to alleviate the suffering of others instead of keeping ourselves comfortable. Lord knows mercy isn’t easy—mercy got Jesus crucified, and the apostles martyred. Mercy will cost us, and it won’t make us popular.

If we cannot be merciful on our own, we may find that God shames us into action. For as I watched Germany and Austria throw open their borders to thousands of refugees this yesterday, I was put in mind of Jesus, who, in speaking of perseverance, tells this story:

Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

Or of Paul, who writes in 1 Corinthians:

But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.

Is it not the poor, the weak of this world, who are throwing their bodies against our doors this very moment, begging for little more than bread to eat and the opportunity for their children to live and play in peace? And will we be those who shut ourselves into our homes, and thrust our fingers into our ears, or will we recognize that no-one picks up and leaves everything behind, no one treks through mountains or sneaks through train tunnels, no one boards an inflatable raft to cross an unknown sea, no person would do this if things were just fine back home. When will we see that nothing will change until our hearts are changed? And our hearts will not change until we open our eyes and our minds and our ears so that we may be informed about the suffering of our neighbor.

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”

“Do you love Jesus?” Asks James. Then prove it. Prove it by choosing to do the hard thing. Prove it by loving your neighbor until it hurts. Until it hurts like mercy overflowing, and justice without limits. Prove it, and remember: faith without works is dead.

In Presbyterian theology, we call this sanctification. The daily work of acting on the principles and teachings of our Lord and Savior, of living out what we have been taught. It’s the difference between reading a book about hiking and walking the Appalachian trail. And I promise you, it isn’t easy, but it is worth it in the end.

Walking this trail will change your life far more than looking at a picture of it.
Walking this trail will change your life far more than looking at a picture of it.

Fear not, brothers and sisters, for God walks beside you, just as God walks beside the thousands of Syrian refugees risking life and limb to find a place in this world where they might experience mercy and justice. Just like God stands watch beside grieving families on distant battle fields and beside unstill waters and refuses to let us stand silently by as God’s people suffer.

In that Momastery post I mentioned earlier, author Glennon Doyle closed with the following words:

The two most repeated phrases in the Bible are “Fear not.” And “Remember.” If someone is fear mongering, telling you to build walls instead of tearing them down, instead of scaling them to feed hungry people, encouraging any sort of us vs. them mentality….THINK HARD. The Gospel says, “do not be afraid. Remember.” Remember is the opposite of dismember. When we shut our doors to our own family: when we are afraid of each other—we are dismembered. The kingdom of God comes when we treat each other like Kin. Like family. When we remember.

The balls in our court.

A Syrian refugee holding his son and daughter
by Daniet Etter/New York Times/Redux /eyevine. Laith Majid cries tears of joy and relief that he and his children have made it to Europe.