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Colossian Blog
November 19, 2018 | Michael Gulker

Wrestling Toward the Promise…

 “Your name will not be Jacob anymore. Instead, it will be Israel. You have wrestled with God and with people. And you have won.” Genesis 32:28

As most of us are painfully aware, our county is reeling from ever-deepening political factionalism. This factionalism doesn’t stop with the evening news but invades our workplaces, friendships, homes, and churches. We want to sidestep this ugly fact about our lives, but I ask you to take a risk and follow me in an exercise. Take a moment to think about a person you love and long to be in relationship with, but from whom you are now alienated. Hold this person in your mind. Don’t avoid the brokenness or the hurt. Just sit with this person and your feelings for a minute or two. When we, as God’s people, can’t seem to be reconciled with those we most love, it’s hard to find a way “to give reason to the world for the hope that’s in us.” (I Peter 3:15)

The Colossian Forum is an experiment, a possibility, an idea with which to wrestle. What if we used all the energy surrounding these political conflicts, not to deepen division and warfare by our desperate need to win, but to deepen discipleship and witness? What if “that person,” (the one you can’t talk to) has been gifted to you for your sanctification, motivating a renewed and authoritative witness to Christ’s gospel of reconciliation?

As we ponder the possibility of personal sanctification, I would like to wrestle with a biblical text—the story of Jacob as an overtly political act. This text opens a window into two different politics, two different visions of “the good life.” (Genesis 25 to 33)

Before their birth and throughout their lives we see the politics of Jacob and Esau on display—brothers wrestling, angling, and seeking dominance over one another to attain blessing, wealth, and security. Esau comes first and is the perfect specimen to carry on and extend Isaac’s worldly holdings. He’s not dependent upon God for his wellbeing, nor does a transcendent vision guide his life. He’s privileged enough to despise his birthright, even selling it for a cup of soup. 

Then comes Jacob, the heel-grabber, usurper, deceiver. He envies and despises the status and success that come naturally to Esau. Jacob’s a wannabe, the weaker brother, who must use his brains to manipulate Esau to steal his birthright and blessing, even though God already sovereignly bestowed it upon Jacob before his birth. Jacob can’t depend on his natural ability or the social order to provide worldly security—he needs God’s promise and blessing. But as the younger brother, the blessing is not naturally his. Instead of conserving the social order, he spends most of his life scheming to subvert it for his gain and Esau’s loss.

And Jacob pretty much succeeds. Until years later, as he flees from his father-in-law Laban, God sends him into the heart of conflict to face Esau. As confrontation with Esau draws near, tension mounts. Is Esau going to forgive him or slaughter him? Will he be able to outfox Esau again? Will God’s promise be fulfilled? By every measure, Esau appears to be the child of blessing—the natural and social order are in his favor.

That night as Jacob rests alone by the Jabbok river, he discovers that he has company. Someone is wrestling with him. He’s always wrestled, hasn’t he? Since before his birth, he jostled with Esau in the womb, and throughout his entire life, he’s competed with Esau for his father’s love and blessing. In this late-night wrestling match, neither he nor his opponent get the upper hand. He then realizes that he is wrestling with heaven—with God himself, and acknowledges his defeat. His opponent touches Jacob’s hip, and the fight is over. Jacob is crippled.

From another perspective, however, the fight goes on. The now-crippled heel-grabber caught up in the mystery of divine-human agency, continues to grab, not letting go. If Jacob lets go, he has nothing. He is nothing. It’s his name, after all. It’s who he is. By refusing to let go, he desperately tries to extort one last blessing as, perhaps, the final ploy to escape his conundrum with Esau. But his opponent, immune to such manipulation and compelled by Jacob’s refusal to let go, gives him far more.

“What is your name?” asks his opponent. Who are you? What are you? What constitutes you?

Hip out of joint, pinned down, and Esau approaching, Jacob can no longer evade the ugliness of his scheming, lying self. Wrestling by the river Jabbok, he replies, “My name is Jacob, (heel grabber, deceiver, usurper).” He has lied, cheated, and stolen what God has already abundantly given him. Trickster is Jacob’s identity. But . . . no longer.

Jacob will no longer be the heel-grabber. Instead, he is given a new existence, baptized into the fulfillment of his true identity. Jacob, the heel-grabber, is now Israel—the God-grabber. He is named one who wrestles with God and the world. It’s the politics of baptism, death, and resurrection, as well as the politics of promise and abundance.  Through Israel’s struggle with God and the world, we also have been grafted into this identity and bear the name of Israel—God-grabber. In Jacob’s destiny, as fulfilled in Christ, we find our destiny. In the politics of Jesus, we locate ourselves in the promise.

Perhaps “that person”—the one we love, who is so wrong—gives us a chance to live out our identity and be more than a cliché. Perhaps we wrestle with God as we wrestle “that person”—refusing to let go even when we disagree. We encounter brokenness that mirrors our brokenness.  Perhaps it’s when we grasp God and “that person,” we encounter God in “that person.” 

I suspect this is our hope—holding on to God while holding on to one another. Only as we wrestle will we move from fear to hope, and be capable of “giving reason for the hope that is within.”

Suggested Posts
The Vulnerability of God
December 24, 2019 | Chris De Vos
The Vulnerability of God
Upon being born, a baby presents problems—problems that seem so manageable during the nine months of pregnancy. Rude cries for food in the night, raw soiling of blankets throughout the day, and utter dependency upon us in each passing moment drain our energy and, for some, test the limits of our patience. Although we are programmed to respond a certain way when a baby smiles (a gesture that releases pleasant chemicals into our central nervous systems), her piercing cries have the power to render nothing short of sheer frustration from the best of us. For me, it was the daily, unrelenting dependence upon my wife and me that led me to wonder what we were thinking when we decided to have a child. Well, we thought about the future. About the future of this world. After all, there is no future without babies. As grandparents now, we see this even more profoundly. I wonder whether Mary and Joseph had similar reflections. After all, the birth of Christ was always about the future. From the moment Adam and Eve acted in self-defiance against God’s wishes, the future of creation itself was in question. God spoke of the future when blessing the nations through Abraham, when establishing a throne for David, and when anointing a suffering servant king that Isaiah foretold. The future of everything hinged upon God’s decision to conceive a child in Mary. The logistics of all this have produced stretch marks in the minds of the best thinkers in history, and many have rejected the reality or deconstructed its power.  But the message proclaimed in Christ’s birth begins with the reality of God, incarnate in a baby. God, emptied, to some extent, of God’s pure divinity, born as any human baby is born – to a woman crying out in labor and a father pained by the agony in his wife‘s face. A child, smeared with bluish-white goo, wiped perhaps by a rough muslin rag and washed while breathing in his first breath of air. A couple questioning the sense of having a child in this world, let alone one with such strange prophecies about it. God took a chance at the right time, we’re told. But it all seems so full of vulnerability, ready to fall apart at any moment. Salvation depended on Joseph and Mary trusting in God’s idea of the future. The whole plan rested upon those two parents and their openness to the possibility of Jesus -- “God with us.” And to a great extent, the future still does. My theological muscles are not strong enough to understand the fine points of human-divine natures co-mingling in the person of Jesus, but I do believe it and believe that Jesus’ birth is our greatest hope for the future. For to deny it, or turn from it, or go about life as if it didn’t happen means to turn life over to ourselves. It means to say that God never has come to live in our skin. That God is distant, uninvolved. It means to say that God does not exist, or if he does, he does not understand us. To trust in this story is to keep the door open for new possibilities for the future, despite our fears, doubts, weaknesses, and divisions. To believe this story is to accept vulnerability as the starting point for new life. In our cultural moment, in which we’re so deeply polarized, this hope for renewal and reconciliation is more meaningful to me than ever. At Christmas, we reverently and joyfully remember that the vulnerability of God leads to the viability of a renewed creation – a new you, a new me, and a new relationship, even with our enemies!
Refusing to Separate – Post-Conference Reflections
October 16, 2019 | Michael Gulker
Refusing to Separate – Post-Conference Reflections
Last year, our Annual Conference brought together Christians desperate to find ways to move from fear to hope in polarized times. A year later, it’s no surprise we find the world still divided, ourselves still held captive by our political and cultural ideologies and still struggling to remember the promise of the gospel. These are the challenges of our time. But as Christians, we know the Holy Spirit is calling forth something new in Christ’s resurrection, and at The Colossian Forum, we’re eager to participate in it. We’re in for the long journey—a journey toward hope. Last month, at our second Annual Conference, we spent three days traveling that journey with experts and friends from around the world. As you’ll see from the presentations of our remarkable plenary and workshop speakers, we journeyed through The Colossian Way, gathering in the name of Jesus, practicing engaging our deepest conflicts with receptivity to the Holy Spirit and to one another, and witnessing what new thing God is doing in our midst. We gathered across deep disagreement—as brothers and sisters, Republicans and Democrats, activists and businesspeople, pastors and laypeople, students and senior citizens. We practiced worshipping together in the face of conflict, which is present “…where two or three gather in my name…” (Mt. 18:20). And we witnessed the body of Christ flourish. Gather Dr. Robert Chao Romero helped us remember that great eschatological vision of all nations and all peoples gathered before the throne of God and the Lamb, proclaiming in every language and through every culture the manifold glory of God’s beauty. But he also shared the hurt of the Brown Church, of the American-Hispanic community, at the demeaning of their ethnic brothers and sisters. He helped us name the very real barriers this hurt creates to gathering together in the name of Jesus. Through his gentle hospitality and receptivity to us, he called us to repent of our ideologies and false allegiances. He reminded us that while we are not practiced at listening to the unique cultural honor and treasure of those who come from places different from our own, we can, through the power of the Holy Spirit, learn to listen to one another across difference and hurt. He helped us see that to hope honestly, we must hear these voices. He reminded us that Christ has already torn down the dividing wall and that we are family. Practice Dr. Ruth Haley Barton ushered us through the next steps in our journey. She reminded us that unless we develop intentional practices to welcome the Holy Spirit into our conflicts, true reconciliation will remain beyond our reach. She introduced practices uniquely suited to our polarized times and challenged us to leave behind the secular, Spirit-starved ways of engaging difference, where self-protection and suspicion prevent us from becoming vulnerable to the Holy Spirit and one another. When we welcome the work of the Spirit, we can imagine our lives together as one in Christ, even across our differences, and experience a new thing being done in our midst—between Chinese and Congolese Christians, Trump defenders and haters, border wall opposers and supporters, persecutors and persecuted.   Witness Then Dr. Bungishabaku Katho challenged us to be honest about the nature of our witness. He shared a story of Buta Seminary, the only school in Burundi where students from both Hutu and Tutsi ethnicities lived together amidst horrific civil war and genocide. In 1997, after several years of living through tribal hatred and violence, a Hutu militia group attacked the school. Three times, the commander ordered the students to separate by tribe. Three times, they refused. After the third refusal, the commander opened fire in reckless slaughter, murdering over 40 students. One wounded boy ran to find the rector and proclaimed just before he died, “Father, we have won. They told us to separate, and we refused. We have won.”   Because of their brave witness, this horrific event became the building block for healing and the reconstitution of the Burundi government. These martyrs, these witnesses, have become a wellspring of national unity. Officials and citizens alike regularly visit their gravesite. Their courage and sacrifice redefine what it means to win. To be faithful witnesses—to win—we must become weak, vulnerable to one another and the world. It can be costly—even deadly. This is the way of Christ on the cross. Our opportunity to witness to the resurrection begins when we’re willing to lay down our lives, rather than be separated, as the boys in Butu did. How are we to stand and reject our imposed, worldly loyalties as these martyrs did? Answering this question is beyond the minds of mortals, for only by the power of the Spirit can we proclaim Jesus, the Lamb who was slain, to be Lord, and follow him. And following him begins with repentance, with recovering our imagination as to how we might belong to God’s kingdom more absolutely than to the tribes into which we’re born or adopted. Robert reminded us that even in our context of division, the river of life that conquers all sin and death flows from throne of the Lamb. And it leads to the tree of life, the leaves of which God has given for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22). With a view from heaven, a view given for the healing of our country, we’re being invited into this story—just as the Hutu and Tutsi students’ story began the healing of Burundi. If we don’t participate in this story—in God’s grand work—we risk becoming the walking dead, ideological captives of the left and the right. Our conference speakers reminded us how to live into this story. As long-time TCF friend and partner Dr. Joe Liechty reflected after listening to Dr. Katho, “I’ve been present to hear the latest chapter of the New Testament, the epistle from the apostle Katho to the church in North America.” Moving toward this hope of healing, the TCF community will continue to gather, practice, and witness, opening ourselves to God and one another, to voices we might not normally encounter. Because we cannot, from within our own echo chambers, overcome the polarization that has us by the throat. But by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can be a part of a new thing and live into a space beyond enemies[1], where all things hold together in Christ. We humbly invite you to join us. Together, we can reflect Christ’s shining light by refusing the idolatry of the left and the right, remembering what it means to win, and refusing to be separated. [1] Fitch, D. (2019). The Church of Us vs. Them: Freedom from a Faith the Feeds on Making Enemies. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press. Excerpt available at http://cdn.bakerpublishinggroup.com/processed/book-resources/files/Excerpt_Fitch_Short.pdf?1561576116.

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