Posts Tagged ‘love’

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Maunday Thursday – Jesus Washes his disciples’ feet

April 5, 2012

Human hands gently clean human feet

Maunday Thursday

Traditionally, at this time of year, Christians from across the world gather together to remember the Biblical story of a man called Jesus, who led a group of male and female disciples in first century Palestine.

The story (or stories) of the Biblical Gospels tell us of how this young man spent time with a small group of close friends having a final communal meal before being arrested by the religious and political establishment of that time,  brutally tortured and executed. 

It is a story told that represents a prescient moment in the history of world religions and civilisation. In a traditional society with entrenched hierarchies of power and authority, the charismatic young leader, who has at times gathered crowds of thousands followers, prepares for an intimate dinner (possibly the Jewish Seda and Passover meal) with an estimated twenty to thirty close friends and family.

 Before eating, however, it is custom for people of that time and place to have their feet washed by a slave. Their feet are covered with dirt and sweat having travelled mostly on foot on dusty roads,  fitted only with simple sandals.

According to the historical texts, the disciples of Jesus should be at the peak of their knowledge, insight and training. Yet, predictably, like so many of us human beings, they expect a ‘lesser’ person to do the dirty work of feet washing.

As almost a final gesture of the young leader’s life,  Jesus, the man at the top of the hierarchy of the group of disciples, takes off his outer clothes, wraps a towel round him and begins to wash…to wash the disciples grimy feet.

The scene is described in chapter 13 of the Gospel of John.

In sparse words, a moment of scandalous epiphany in the history of human/religio relations is richly described. The man at the top gets down on his knees and takes the role (probably of a woman) at the lowest strata of society. For believers this scene represents even more than that…it is God Himself in human form washing dirt from the feet of human beings.

It is an often overlooked aspect of Christian teaching, that I think all of us, certainly myself, continually struggle with. Yet it shows forward a new idea in human beings relationships with one another and with God.  Here we see illuminated that the path to God is downwards not upwards. We encounter God not as ruler or king, but as a servant for blood and boned, fleshly humanity.

Artist Howard Banks captures in earthy hues and subtle light a  silent, close up of this scene. The figures and faces of the people involved are not revealed. We see (we believe) the hands of Jesus and the foot of one of the disciples in a tender gesture and gentle intimacy. Yet, the painting leaves open the viewer to question whose feet and whose hands are portrayed? Might they also be yours and mine? The painting is entitled Our Humble God.

 “Our Humble God”, by artist, Howard Banks, is reproduced with permission by Veritasse Ltd. More  Christian art work by other gifted artists can be found on the Veritasse site at www.veritasse.co.uk 

For a link direct to Howard Banks gallery see below:http://www.veritasse.co.uk/community/artists.html?artist_id=58

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Fixing my life

November 28, 2010

Giving up on trying to be in control, I am learning to accept and appreciate the beauty of 'normal' life.

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I sometimes find myself shedding tears at the most unexpected moments.
I confess that it often happens late at night when I read the ‘Look inside’ sections of obscure books on amazon. It has happened tonight…and I feel blessed, literally as if someone has spoken a liberating good word over me.
Do you believe me when I say how welcome the tears are?
They are the end of my self-serving mechanical like reason. They represent a crossing-point, like those once manned by soldiers at the border points between Eastern Communist Bloc states and our Western Democratic ones. The tears are the transition through the heavily guarded check-point of self-determination into the short, but seemingly everlasting, solitary walk through ‘no-man’s land’ to the realm of mystery and spirit. I let go of ‘self-love’ and enter into the empty, open space of freedom from self.
Does this sound idealistic?
Futile or fanciful?
I don’t know. Maybe to some, even to many, it does.
Yet, for me it’s the quiet fulfilling of the aching longing that has tormented me all day, all night. The deep-seated drive to be alright, to be sorted, to be good, to be perfect, acceptable to others. At last at 11.30pm at night, I find my solace among the digital reproductions of the works of the dead authors of yesteryear.
Books, books, books…
Sometimes it feels as if these books are my only friends, my true comforters. Like gentle nurses and godly doctors of times gone by they treat my wounds gently. They unwrap the dressings, layer of cotton gauze upon layer of cotton gauze, taking note of the dried blood that has soaked the bandage.; aware of the discharged fluids – the poison that has seeped out from within. These authors and their words heal…and they heal the long way round. They whisper stories of words I know so well, but through familiarity have forgotten their true meaning. They go back to the beginning to stories and characters I feel I am a seasoned expert in and they tell me once more how what I thought I knew to be true was in fact just an ephemeral phantom. I realise again, and not for the first time that I am…but…a child! A novice…a complete beginner, who thinks himself an expert because he has finished his bottle of milk!
This death…This kindly release…to my ego…to my self…the writers bring. Yet, they do not bring their wisdom cruelly, so as to induce a shameful self-criticism, but deftly.  They are tender and welcome as a nurse or as my mother  used to bring a warm moist flannel to my head when I was feverish as a child. The water was warm, but in my burning fever it was ‘cool’. Coolness that took away pain. A human gesture which told you, you were loved and more than that it told you this infection and illness was not the end – it was transitory.That someone was in control as you drifted in and out of turmoil and consciousness. That someone would be waiting for you at the end, when you woke up. Revived, restored, alive again to a new day.
The authors and their works act as catalysts for me of divine healing. Their words for some reason tell me to let go of trying to fix my life. Only Mystery, only the holy can heal my ‘sickness’. Finally, I give up. I stop trying to be in control to dictate terms to God and the forces of nature and society on how my life should be.
I let it be.
I allow what is to be.
And give up trying to be in control.
……………………………………………..
A Prayer of thanks for emptiness
Thank you tears.
Thank you authors.
Thank you books.
Thank you death.
Thank you life.
Thank you holy, divine mystery…whoever you are!
Blessed be your name!
Yes, let it be so!
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Open up the Sky – Deluge

September 16, 2010

I love this song! I had never heard of this band or heard of this song until I bought a compilation of worship songs on CD recently, but I love it. Pure unadulterated worship of the Divine. A beautiful, wasteful, exuberant, gracious pouring out of love for the Loving God. 

I love the lyrics:

 Open up the sky
Fall down like rain
We don’t want blessings
We want you

‘We don’t want blessings….we want YOU!’

I don’t know if people can relate to that, but these lyrics express a wonderful idea in the history of religions that people would pursue God, not because of what favours or blessings he can do in their lives (as good and important as this is), but because they want…they hunger…they desire…INTIMACY with the Divine. It’s really a holy idea. A sublime concept that us…broken…frustrated…foolish and sometimes self-indulgent human beings would use our faculties, our human capacities to cry out to God:

“Put aside the blessings, Lord!

Let’s forget the good things you give us!

Can we just have closeness to YOU?

Can we just be close…united even to you?”

In the Bible stories, Moses cried out to God in the desert on Mount Sinai:

“Let me see your face?!”

This is the spirit of this song…a desire for intimacy with the Holy One…a longing for  a purity of love….a longing to perceive the expressive, healing countenance of the Invisible One.

 Let it be so on earth as it is in heaven! Thank you for this song…for the great music and beautiful lyrics.
Here are the lyrics below:

 Open up the sky by Deluge

Our beloved Father
Please come down and meet us
We are waiting on Your touch
Open up the heavens
Shower down Your presence
We respond to Your great love

We won’t be satisfied with anything ordinary
We won’t be satisfied at all

Open up the sky
Fall down like rain
We don’t want blessings
We want you
Open up the sky
Fall down like fire
We don’t want anything but you

Our beloved Jesus
We just want to see
You In the glory of Your light
Earthly things don’t matter
They just fade and shatter
When were touched by love divine

Here we go let’s go to the throne
The place that we belong
Right into His arms

Music and lyrics by Deluge

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Greenbelt Festival – August Bank Holiday Weekend, 2010

August 31, 2010
Welcome to Greenbelt 2010

  

I have just returned from an inspiring and really encouraging weekend at this year’s Greenbelt festival at Cheltenham racecourse. It’s been for me a truly wonderful time, for a number of reasons. Firstly, I love Greenbelt because there’s the chance for just a few days of the year to be able to soak up the eclectic carnival atmosphere of thousands and thousands of people from  many different traditions and viewpoints gathering together for a celebration of art, music, poetry, politics and God in one large event. The shere variety of people from dribbling and chortling babies to children, to adolescents and young adults, to the worldly worn middle-aged and the open-minded mature and elderly – the sections of society represented at Greenbelt don’t fit the picture of normal church congregations – here is a much more varied and encouragingly multicoloured spectrum of people.   

Beauty in arts, craft and good conversation

Secondly, there’s the great opportunity to meet new people and make new friends or to catch up with family, old friends and colleagues in a uniquely open-minded, open-hearted, open spirited and celebratory environment. I have met numerous people this year – particular leaders who made a lastingly good impression on you at a time of growth and exploration in your life and faith; good friends you once worked closely  with on experimental projects who you have since lost contact with after you and they have moved to different parts of the country. There have also been those serendipitous meetings with people who were complete strangers, but over the course of the weekend and several coffees, wine and beer in disposable paper cups and some great conversations have become like soul friends and kindred spirits. As a Christian, an event like Greenbelt is so stimulating because there are so many possibilities – opportunities for gift, grace, humour, heart-felt emotion, tears and laughter. 

Colourful flags decorate the Cheltenham race course grandstand

A rainbow coloured celebration - people from all walks of life participate in Greenbelt

Perhaps, equally important to all the opportunities to catch up with old friends and meet new ones, and if not more significant than seeing the wide variety of people who find help, grace and a sense of deep belonging through relationship with God and Jesus, are the occasions of divine ‘eruption’ that break into our ordinary lives through great speakers and artistic, musical events centred on giving worth and valuing God. For me personally, there were a number of occasions where I felt I met not just with a well crafted and intelligent, thoughtful talk, but experienced an encounter with  the Living God – the Divine power, presence and personalities that created the whole of our awe-inspiring and breathtaking universe.   

At 9am on saturday morning, bleary eyed and un-caffienated I managed to drag myself from my tent to find an unoccupied space of green grass in the  Big Top to listen to the harmonious vocals and melodic acoustic guitars of Andy Flanagan and friends leading singing and worship of God.   

I wonder if someone who isn’t a Christian, or a believer in some kind of God, can understand the special moments that take place when beautiful, aesthetically pleasing music combines with an internal knowledge and realisation that you are singing not just into the air and expressing the deep-seated feelings and aspirations of one’s soul, but also communicating – intimately, gently, in a kind of perfect child-like innocence with a Divine Presence that is Love. I know from before I was a Christian that good music and art can bring people to such emotional heights as an artist expresses great truth or beauty in an aesthetic medium that does not bypass reason, but transcends it a brings a person into the realm of the sublime. But somehow…true worship…good worship is MORE than this. It is all of the above, yet it is also unadulterated, raw communication with the Holy teased out and enwrapped in the tenderest perfect love. One experiences not just the deep-seated longing and desires for a true and just and forgiving life and universe. One experiences, a simple, quiet, gentle voice whispering love songs back to you. Affirming in the deepest most emotionally tangible way and yet physically and visibly illusive a voice saying, “Yes, you are loved. All of you. Even with those parts of you that you feel you cannot show the rest of the world – you are loved…and yes, those hopes you had as a child to be a princess in a happy ending fairy tale or those dreams you longed to fulfil to be a knight in shinning armour defeating the enemies of justice and oppressors of the poor, and rescuing the beautiful damsel in distress….They were NOT fantasy. They were REAL. They were You and they were Me trying to teach you…help you to understand your role in all of this in language and images you – a child – could understand. I AFFIRM your desires for love, for justice, for peace, for acceptance, for forgiveness. I AFFIRM YOU, whatever the world or church or christians or priests or ministers or congregations think of you. I…GOD…affirm YOU. YOU ARE LOVED.”   

It’s difficult to explain, but that’s how worship can feel – like a beautiful, intimate, tender dialogue – simplified perhaps as God saying: “You are loved.”   

I had that experience participating in the worship on saturday morning as Andy Flanagan, a small group of musicians and a talented young actress brought together a superb musical and dramatised journey through the story of Mary of Bethany’s love of Jesus, loss of her brother Lazarus and gratitude to Jesus for bringing him back to life. A very touching experience.   

Vibrant colours and flags flowing in the wind of the Spirit represent the variety of humanity and the movement of God's Spirit at Greenbelt

Mark Yaconelli – Our Desires, the Prodigal Son and a God of Compassion

Listening to mature and wise writers and speakers like Richard Rohr, Simon Parke and Lawrence Freeman speak on matters from the importance of holistic worldview to the tortured lives of mystical geniuses such as Van Gogh, Leo Tolstoy and Meister Eckart or on how to practise contemplative prayer were among the highlights of this year’s festival for me. However, the great spiritual breakthroughs for me this weekend came hearing North American author and youth specialist Mark Yaconelli speak on the true nature of our ‘desires’ and on the nature of God in Jesus of Nazareth as a God of weakness and vulnerability, rather than conceived of as an abstract all-powerful, all-controlling and dictatorial Deity ‘up’ in heaven.   

  

 I have never heard Mark speak before, yet listening to him this weekend communicate so passionately and inspirationally the Love of God for human beings – all people – represented for me, two of the highlights of my religious journey and human life. Some of the ideas I had encountered before, yet others were original and new to me. However, what struck me in particular was the bringing together of the ideas with moving real life, true stories. One idea that I had never met before was the notion that the Father in the Prodigal Son story approves generously of the prodigal son’s ‘desire’ to escape the Father’s House and find himself/express himself in the world. I had always thought that the Father (and therefore by implication God) only reluctantly and regretfully releases his younger child into the big, open world. Mark turned this action of releasing around, into a Father who longs to see his child venture out, experiment and express their desires for creativity and self-fulfilment in the wider world. For me this was a new and poignant revelation, made all the more moving by the personal testimonies Mark told which made us laugh out loud and quietly cry at the irony of the passions of adolescent and young people’s desires managing to find expression in spite of the stifling repression in traditional and conservative religion. Thanks Mark, for all your patient work with young people and for not losing hope in a God who is vulnerable and weak, a God who rejoices, not resents when people discover their true desires in their hearts and have the courage to live them out. Thanks also for believing in the God who can redeem and heal all of us. Both those people, like the Prodigal, who are themselves wounded and living in an injured world fall into the trap of abusing their desires and hurting others in the process AND those who out of a desire to do the right thing bury their feelings and passions and end up trapped in dutiful lives, feeling unappreciated and unloved by parental figures and God and feel resentful toward their wasteful and self-indulgent peers.   

Mark Yaconelli’s talks can be bought and downloaded from the Greenbelt website.  

  

More flags at Greenbelt, Bank Holiday Weekend August 2010

 

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A Night Sky Poem

August 23, 2010

There Will Be Stars

A poem by Paul Field

 

Watch the sky tonight

there will be stars

there are always stars

Sometimes hidden

by clouds

illusion

confusion

darkness

 

but there will always be stars

 

Sometimes one will fall

shoot across the timeless sky

and in an eternal split second burn brighter and shine

if we glimpse it we are blessed

 

It will scatter the diamonds of heaven around our feet and guide our

footsteps

for a few precious seconds of our journey

through clouds

illusion

confusion

darkness

 

The stars that remain can burn on brighter from it’s loss

become more radiant through having shared

it’s power

energy

joy

grace

it’s beautiful, priceless, irreplaceable verse in the eternal song

 

There will always be stars

when we glimpse one on its fragile, fleeting journey and touch its light

we have been truly blessed

Watch the sky tonight

there will be stars

 

 

Words copyright of Paul Field. Taken from the album Rites of Passage  by Paul Field and Dan Wheeler, available from www.elevationmusic.com

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Atheism and religion – the church has nothing to say to the world until it throws better parties.

May 22, 2010

‘Ultimately our gift to the world around us is hope. Not blind hope that pretends everything is fine and refuses to acknowledge how things are. But the kind of hope that comes from staring pain and suffering right in the eyes and refusing to believe that this is all there is. It is what we all need – hope that comes not from going around suffering but from going through it. I am learning that the church has nothing to say to the world until it throws better parties. By this I don’t necessarily mean balloons and confetti and clowns who paint faces. I mean backyards and basements and porches. It is in the flow of real life, in the places we live and move with the people we’re on the journey with, that we are reminded it is God’s world and we’re going to be okay.’

Central to reclaiming creation and being a resurrection community is the affirmation that when God made the world, God said it was “good”. And it still is.

Food and music and art and friends and stories and rivers and lakes and oceans and laughter and…did I mention food? God has given us life, and God’s desire is that we live it.’

Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell, page 170, 171

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Friday night!

Actually, Saturday morning…

Nearly 1 am and I’m sat at my desk with my laptop and the diffuse light of my desk lamp creating a cosy corner in the dark, still room, contemplating the world and how it should be…at least how I believe it should be. I have an interview on Monday for an inspiring role at a church and I’m thinking about what to say. I have been asked to make a short presentation to the interview panel on how I would host a group of people who are unfamiliar with the church and possibly, somewhat skeptical of its value and  ‘good intentions’. It’s a good task to set candidates. I feel challenged and enthused, but I ask myself – Can I really answer that question faithfully?

Faithfully, in two ways. Two different motivations and yet not entirely unrelated.

One, first and foremost, being faithful to the good people I know and love who, in my eyes are quite entitled to doubt  the existence of God in the Universe. Moreover, who question the Church’s sometimes dubious achievements in representing God and/or Jesus to the world. Skeptical, even antagonistic atheists have in many ways made a powerful case for arguing that progress in human rights, freedom, civilisation and democracy have often come from sources outside the religious establishment. Even worse than this, such reforms have often been actively opposed by the Church. I struggle within the keenness of such arguments, but I recognise their basis in fact and history, and my need, I believe, to accept those criticisms face on as bitter, yet necessary medicine.

Two, I want to be faithful to my God, my saviour Jesus of Nazareth. According to the ancient documents we call the Gospels, Jesus was a historical figure of passionate, religious fervour. Few would doubt this. Yet, at the same time his zeal for high ethical and moral standards was balanced by a wide and embracing grace and forgiveness for those who aspire and try to live a moral life, but fail. Jesus cared for those who found themselves tripping and falling on the very, lofty steps they had set themselves to climb. When I use the word climb, I am not suggesting that Christians believe people have to somehow climb up to God, by their own efforts.  Rather, Christianity teaches that God in the man, Jesus, descended from heaven to us, to earth. Jesus lived our life and lived with us – Emmanuel –  which means – God with us. When I refer to climbing, I am imagining our human predicament. The personal daily, neverending, trial of endeavouring to climb our own standards. The challenge of living an ethical and good life, authentic to ourselves and caring for our fellow human beings and creatures, inhabitants of this world. Jesus somehow held this balance and paradoxical tension lightly. High moral ethical standards in our individual and common lives, but mercy and generosity, not judgement for those who failed to meet those standards. Probably this was because Jesus himself, as a young man had grown up in the brutish hardship of ancient Palestinian life, and was aware of how frail, as well as how galant, the human frame and soul could be. Mercy, not judgement, he lived and preached.

So how might one answer the interview question faithfully, both to skeptics outside or on the margins of the religious frame of reference and to the source of religion itself – God and his/her teachings.

Firstly, listen. Listen, to the antagonists and iconoclasts who decry the self-serving delusions of religion.

There are a number of good, thoughtful voices who express eloquently these viewpoints in popular literature and media. A.C. Grayling, love him or hate him, has put forward a strong case to argue that much of  the freedoms, rights and privileges, as well as modern, technological breakthrough we take for granted, both religious and atheists, have originated in developments from the atheistic philosophical and scientific revolution of the Enlightenment. He is an atheist and his arguments, are not always waterproof. Yet, in a real way, I believe, he is right. Much of the benefits of modern society have been hard-won for humanity by non-believing pioneers working in science, philosophy, politics and social welfare.

To argue this, as Grayling does ably and articulately, is not in itself proof against the existence of God. However, it does present a healthy and sober challenge to the claims of institutional religion and personal religious conviction to represent a benevolent deity that has humanity’s best interests at heart. It also pours cold water, on religious confidence – I am thinking of Christianity in particular – that faith in God represents purely a revolutionary force for social justice and human welfare. Grayling and popular authors, such as Philip Pullman (See his recently published – The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ), argue that in fact religion and Christianity, in particular, has often been an anti-progressive force in history.

Ok… point taken. A sharp incision is made in the bubble of  benevolent, religious self-illusion by these intelligent and thoughtful authors.

Secondly, embrace. Embrace the refreshing source of  original ethical behaviour in religious terms – God himself, the Ultimate, the Eternal Spirit. And do so by remembering your history. Return to the stories of old. Rediscover, the lives of the great figures of the past, who did act faithfully – true to the incandescent, dynamic divine message of love. Love one another, love your neighbour, care for the oppressed, even love your enemy.

 It is true that looking back in history there have been great social reformers, philanthropists, artists and benefactors who have been inspired and passionate Christians – William Wilberforce, Joseph Rowntree, John Cadbury, Sir Titus Salt, Thomas John Barnado, Florence Nightingale, Chad Varah, Martin Luther King Jr, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Charles Dickens. These figures and many others have made seismic shifts in society by improving the quality of life for poor, disadvantaged and marginalised people. 

It can be a depressing place to be standing face to face with the critics of religion. It is, I believe, a healthy practice to remember the good which many religious followers have accomplished by practically serving others. A lifestyle many of them claimed to be at the call of God. Both believers and non-believers can find inspiration and encouragement at the selfless, kind and noble acts of others who took faith in God as a vocation to help others.

So, we do two things. We listen to our critics and we embrace the stories of heroines and heroes of the faith of old. We don’t deny the voices of either. But how can we reconcile these two opposing accounts of history and the nature of the world and universe? Well, here I return to the original quote by Rob Bell. Perhaps, at one level the purely rational there is no easy or even adequate answer to these contradictory histories, to affirm one is to suppress the other, to silence another’s view, is to diminish the strength and authenticity of one’s own assertion. Perhaps, rather than operating purely rationally, as if in battle at the debating hall, we might meet over the dinner table. Rather than fighting to assert one’s case and defeat our opponents we could raise our glasses to life in all it’s fullness and variety. We could toast and celebrate our company, as long-lost friends, fellow travellers on the journey of life, in the search for truth, wisdom, companionship, belonging and love.

There will still be ample time to discuss and listen to our differences, but at another level we might just find more in common with each other than we previously expected. We are all subject to the same plethora of difficulties and troubles. Most of us still delight in the same joys and hidden exultancies of life. Music, food, drink, dancing, crying and laughing…Maybe this way as Rob bell so eloquently puts it in his book Velvet Elvis:

‘I am learning that the church has nothing to say to the world until it throws better parties.  By this I don’t necessarily mean balloons and confetti and clowns who paint faces. I mean backyards and basements and porches. It is in the flow of real life, in the places we live and move with the people we’re on the journey with, that we are reminded it is God’s world and we’re going to be okay…Food and music and art and friends and stories and rivers and lakes and oceans and laughter and…did I mention food? God has given us life, and God’s desire is that we live it.’

 

 

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Wrestling failure – slowly coming to understand its treasures

May 16, 2010

‘Suffering makes us deeply aware of our own inability. It takes away our power; we lose control. The light of our eyes can see nothing. Now it is only the inner light in the eye of the soul that can help you to travel this sudden, foreign landscape. Here we slowly come to a new understanding of failure. We do not like to fail. We are uncomfortable in looking back on our old failures. Yet failure is often the place where suffering has left the most precious gifts.’

Eternal Echoes, John O’Donohue

Having dusted off, John O’Donohue’s book Eternal Echoes and written some about it a couple of days ago, I was leafing through it again today. There is such a wealth of wisdom in this book some thoughts are sad, others joyful, most are a result of deep reflection and compassionate, sensitive articulation. The above quotation caught my eye, among others, and I thought I’d cite it for little more reason than I think it’s beautiful and maybe someone who is questioning the value of their life will read it and feel encouraged. A kind of internet message in a bottle.

I like the first words of the citation especially:

‘Suffering makes us deeply aware of our own inability.’

This is such a hard lesson to come to terms with never mind embrace, but it is an absolutely necessary one and precious gift if we can accept it and receive it in the spirit it has been offered to us by ultimate reality. Suffering is that valuable reminder that we are not eternal, at least not in the sense that the Divine is. God may have ‘placed eternity in our hearts’ and there may be an eternal element of our souls, even our redeemed and future resurrected bodies…but, unlike God eternity is not for us the natural state of our existence.

Rather, we are finite.

We are mortal.

We will come to an end.

Grappling with this element of our vocation, an aspect that is common to all human life, indeed all physical life, has been one of the great battles of human history, of political, artistic and religious life. Yet, if we can not just grapple with this spiritual messenger, like Jacob and the angel at Peniel, in the book of Genesis in the Bible (Genesis 32: 22-32), but actually receive it into our lives, then its painful lesson can sweeten our existence.  The wounding, yet paradoxically healing message the struggle brings will help our lives to be transformed. We will receive a new start, a new identity. In the terminology of ancient cultures we will be given a new name. Not merely any name, but rather a better name – a name that reflects and sparkles with our true nature and inspires our highest achievement.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3a/Lutte_de_Jacob_avec_l%27Ange.jpg

 

The ancient texts of the Bible discuss this paradoxical relationship with suffering in many places and yet, perhaps non is so vivid in its physical and poetic imagery than the story of Jacob. In the Biblical story, Jacob whose name means ‘deceiver’ (literally ‘he who grasps the heal’) had earlier in his youth stolen his brother’s birthright, when he tricked his father into blessing him (Jacob) rather than the rightful heir in tribal law the eldest son, Esau. Later in the narrative, Jacob is an older, more mature man, one who has personally experienced suffering, deceit and trickery himself at the hands of others, mostly in the employment of his cunning uncle Laban. In chapter 32 of the story, Jacob is now wealthy with two wives children, servants and cattle. It is at this point that he has to come terms with the real consequences of his youthful betrayal of his brother, as Esau and his band of warriors ride towards Jacob and his family’s caravan.

Aware of the wrong he committed as a young man, Jacob internally faces death as he contemplates what will happen when he meets his long-lost brother. It is in these circumstances: of contemplating his guilt and shameful failure of character with the prospect of ultimate punishment looming ever closer, as well as considering the harm that might be done to his family too, the innocent ones whom he loves, that Jacob comes face to face with God in a most intimate encounter. They literally wrestle each other.

The Bible tells the story this way:

Genesis 32:22-32 (NIV): Jacob Wrestles With God

 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” 
 But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

 The man asked him, “What is your name?”
      “Jacob,” he answered.

 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”

  Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” 
 But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.

 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

 The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.

Jacob – the deceiver – like many of us fights God’s presence in his life, difficult, uncomfortable and afflicting, like physical combat with a wrestler, until he is wounded at the hip and faces his ultimate inability to overcome God. He has been, however, tenacious and utterly determined to win, to literally earn a blessing this time from the Divine messanger…and he does. He becomes Israel, ‘He who wrestles with God’. The stigmatizing label of deceiver(Jacob) is removed and a brand new, sparkling identity of a God Wrestler is stamped into his spirit and soul.

Yet, lest Israel forget the difficult process that led to this new name and new level of vocation, he is physically wounded. His hip is dislocated. From now on, he, Jacob, Israel will walk with a limp. It is this limp, I believe, this reminder of  hard-won successes and their intertwining with personal failures that characterise the mature disciple of Christ. It is also the sign of the weathered, seasoned, spiritual pilgrim of whatever tradition she or he may be a part of. The great  nineteenth century theologian and scholar of religion, Frederich Schleiermacher, (sometimes frowned upon in Evangelical circles), described religion as a sense of ultimate dependency on the Infinite. Perhaps, it is only through suffering and the persistent physical putting into practice of the desire to seek the Divine face and blessing, that we can truly become aware of our own ultimate inability…and thus… our need for… and dependency on God.