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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.”

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We live in exciting times—times when the need for the reconciling power of the gospel is blindingly clear. Christendom is in retreat. The church suffers from a brand problem, rooted in its complicity with a divisive culture that it tacitly reflects. Young people, as well as old, are leaving the faith at an unprecedented rate.[1] Yet, there are pockets of beauty, faithfulness, and hope, as hunger for communion, community, and peace is becoming increasingly pronounced.[2] Pockets of Hope The work of The Colossian Forum (TCF) is privileged to be situated within these pockets of hope—as well as within the tensions among them. We recognize the depth of our society’s polarization and alienation, while at the same time, seeing that, by the grace of the Holy Spirit present in the body of Christ, the solution has already been given and indeed is embedded in the problem itself. Conflict, at its core, arises from differing desires, and those differences are perceived as threatening. Yet, the Christian tradition from Augustine onward has recognized that desire is always desire for communion—with God and one another. If this is the case (and we think it is), then conflict is that same desire for God and one another gone awry. How so? Well, we begin with our confession that humanity is created in the image of the Triune God, whose very life is constituted by self-giving love across three distinct, different persons. The Father gives himself completely to the Son, the Son gives himself back—unto death—to the Father through the Holy Spirit, catching up all creation into the divine and eternal dance of self-giving love and delight. This is ultimately who we are and how the world most truly is. Harnessing Conflict But in a world full of brokenness, hurt, and sin, rather than participating in the divine dance of pouring ourselves out through self-giving, our love has become self-protective and self-serving. Rather than experiencing delight and desire across different persons, there is defensiveness, fear, suspicion, and even violence. Yet the very desire powering conflict (all the energy of our desire gone awry) can, by the healing power of the Holy Spirit, be harnessed for our own redemption and the salvation of the world. The conflicts raging across our society, denominations, churches, and even our families are driven by our deep and abiding desire for communion with God and one another, however distorted that desire has become. And we have, in the words of 2 Peter 1:3, “…been given everything we need for a holy life...” TCF is an organization tasked with the recovery of the language, imagination, and practices that will help open up believers to the Spirit’s power to reshape our desires, moving us away from the fearful and combative desires of the self-protective “flesh” and toward active participation in God’s own holy life of self-giving love, especially in the face of the conflicts that plague our time. Built for Communion To our deep delight, we have found believers and non-believers alike are hungry for this way of being-in-communion-in-the-world. We are made for this. We are ready for this. We are built for communion, and even amidst the intense divisive language we experience in social media and elsewhere, we haven’t forgotten it. Because of this deep longing, and because of the vision and faithfulness of people like you, TCF has had the privilege of being set aside—given the time and space—to walk with believers, churches, leaders, and Christian organizations from divisiveness to discipleship and to the first fruits of reconciliation. Through almost eight years of research, reading, writing, experimentation, and evaluation, we now have the clearest sense in our history of where we are as an organization and where we need to go next. And with this emerging clarity, we are embarking on a five-year strategic planning process next month. Envisioning a five-year horizon will insure that near-term planning plots the appropriate trajectory. This is an exciting, yet daunting, time. [1]Pinetops Foundation reported in 2018 that if the current trends continue, 30-50 million people will have left the church by 2050, never to return. [2]Google’s NGram tool analyzing word usage across time marks a 46% increase in references to “community” from 1960 to 2000.
Conflict and Christian Discipleship - Michael Gulker Interview with Faith and Leadership
January 24, 2019 | Michael Gulker
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The church today has a poor record in helping people navigate conflict, but conflict can be the very thing that can heal them. In fact, we can harness it to be better disciples. Learn more in Faith and Leadership's interview with The Colossian Forum President Michael Gulker here.