Author: Monroe, Shawnthea
Date published: July 26, 2011
Sunday, July 31
WHAT SUPERPOWER would you like to have? " my son asked as we were driving away from the local cinema multiplex. With all the superhero movies we've seen this summer, I wasn't surprised by the question. "I'd like to be invisible," said his sister. "Flying would be cooler," he responded, and so the debate began. All the way home, they argued about the merits of flight versus invisibility, telepathy versus magic, laser vision versus X-ray vision. Eventually they agreed that it didn't matter if the power was cool; the point was to pick a power that made life easier.
"Which power would you choose, Mom?"
I thought for a moment and replied, "Perseverance."
"That's not a superpower!" They laughed and went back to ignoring me.
It may be true that perseverance is not a superpower in the classical sense, but it's a human characteristic that's in short supply these days. There's not much call for perseverance, tenacity or endurance. If something isn't working- with our jobs, with our relationships, with our possessions- we give up and move on. That's why the story of Jacob wrestling at Peniel is so countercultural- and such good news.
Jacob was in a real bind. He was a rogue and a liar who'd spent his life cutting comers, gaming the system and running away. Now there was nowhere to run. God had called him back from Haran, saying, "Return to the land of your ancestors and to your kindred, and I will be with you" (Gen. 31:3). But as night descended in the wilderness, Jacob had only his fear for company, and there was a lot to fear.
When Jacob had last seen his brother Esau, the cheated man was breathing violence and plotting Jacob's demise. If his brother continued to rage against him, Jacob could lose everything: his property, his family and his life. In hopes of softening his brother's mood, Jacob had sent generous gifts in advance. Yet how many head of livestock could compensate a man for a lost birthright and blessing? Alone in the dark, Jacob feared what the coming day would bring.
Then night fell and God showed up as promised.
"And a man wrestled with him until daybreak." Scripture doesn't begin to capture the raw physicality of the scene. Imagine the grappling, the struggling, the straining and the sweating as two powerful figures attempt to subdue one another through brute force. This is no ethereal angehe vision; this is flesh against flesh. There are no words until the sky begins to lighten. Seeing that he cannot defeat Jacob if he continues to play by the rules, the holy stranger deals Jacob a crippling blow to the hip socket. Yet even this painful cheap shot cannot shake Jacob's resolve: he just hangs on.
Exhausted and spent, the stranger speaks, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob, who suspects that he has his hands on the Lord, demands a blessing. God gives him a new name: Israel, the one who has "striven with God and with humans and has prevailed." Now Jacob is sure that this is the Lord, and in fear and trembling he asks to know his name. God replies, "Why is it that you ask my name?" Then, as suddenly as it began, the encounter is over. "And there he blessed him."
So what was the blessing? Was it the new name or the new self-understanding the name represented? I don't think it was the name. Jacob became Israel not in the moment God declared it so, but over the course of a night spent struggling with the Lord. Up to that point, he'd always had some trick up his sleeve, some angle he was working. Jacob had made fools of Isaac, Esau and Laban, which is how he'd gotten into this mess. But Jacob couldn't fool God. By human standards, Jacob was charming, clever and cunning, but his true power was revealed when fear stripped him of all pretense and all he had to hold on to was God. The experience was the blessing, the experience of persevering despite the cost.
When I think of people who have persevered through exceptionally hard times, I remember a woman whose marriage had survived her husband's series of affairs. She told of discovering the betrayals and of all the rage and fear and sorrow and guilt that followed. Instead of giving up, she and her husband held on through painful marriage counseling and a slow rebuilding of trust. Years later, they seemed like the perfect couple, two people in a loving relationship that was a model of mutual care and understanding. I was in awe as I listened to her. "How did you get ever past the pain?" I asked. "I didn't," she said. "The scars are still there, but that's OK. They remind me of how strong this relationship really is and what we've been through."
Jacob never got past the pain either. For the rest of his Ufe, he limped as proof of the high cost of holding on to God. But that may have been part of the blessing.
When this country goes through hard times, we flock to movies about superheroes and their otherworldly adventures. But instead of dreaming about powers we will never have, we might do better if we just learn to persevere. In the dark of night, when fear and despair threaten to rob us of all hope, we should, like Jacob, hold on to God, even if it causes us pain. Learning to persevere through the worst of times: that's a blessing better than any superpower.
Reflections on the lectionary
Sunday, August 7
THE WORST HAIRCUT I ever received was a $7 special at a local salon. I was in my thirties and my hair was thick and curly, the kind of hair that could hide a multitude of styling sins- but not after the $7 special. It was short in back and uneven in front, with tufts sticking out in random places I looked like I had mange.
No one at church said a word until Linda, a dear woman in the choir, came up to me after worship. Lifting a misshapen curl from my face, she said kindly, "You need to see Nan." Nan was Linda's hairdresser, a magician with sheers who fixed my bad haircut and then styled my hair for the next eight years. Before I met Nan, I didn't know what a difference a good stylist could make. I became a convert, a true believer, and I recommended Nan to many other people. To this day, I'm grateful to Linda for her hairdressing evangelism.
Every church is full of evangelists, and by that I mean people who spread good news. Listen to the conversations in the fellowship hall, where we churchpeople freely share opinions about movies, restaurants, cars and resorts. We talk about diets that have transformed our bodies, books that have touched our hearts and therapists who've saved our relationships. We recommend doctors, plumbers and hair stylists. When I first moved to Cleveland, the Welcome Wagon lady, in true missionary form, came to my door and dropped off colorful tracts extolling the virtues of everything from lawn care compames to department stores.
Yet most people don't think of themselves as evangelists. For some the word conjures up negative images of tents, Bibles and revivals. Evangelists are well-meaning yet annoying people who go door-to-door distributing pamphlets about the benefits of salvation and asking about "your personal relationship with Christ." Popular culture portrays evangelists as conservative Christians with a narrow worldview imposing their beliefs on others- sometimes to comic effect, as in the Tony- winning musical The Book of Mormon. Given the prevailing stereotypes, who'd want to be called an evangelist?
Furthermore, most of us who inhabit the mainline church have cut our teeth on a doctrine of tolerance, that postmodern point of view that makes the value of all things relative. In a highly diverse and complex society, tolerance is an essential value. But when it comes to faith, tolerance- or the fear of appearing intolerant- can stifle the evangelistic impulse.
Christians are called to be evangelists. In fact Jesus put it at the top of our "to do" list: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . ." (Matt. 28:19). True, he doesn't use the word evangelist, but it seems clear that he expects us to do more than update our Facebook status This is where Paul comes in.
In the tenth chapter of Romans, Paul explains the necessity of Christian evangelism. God's gift of Jesus Christ can be received only through faith, the act of taking the word of God to heart. But you cannot take the word to heart if you haven't heard it. As Paul writes, "And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, 'How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!'" For Christians, silence on the subject of Jesus is simply not an option. That's the bad news. The good news is that evangelism isn't as onerous a task as we make it out to be. The key is to remember two things.
First of all, the only story you're required to share is your own. In fact, that's the only story you can share. You don't have to evaluate or criticize other stories of faith, just tell yours with passion and integrity. It's like the church retreat where the facilitator asked us to name a favorite teacher. While everyone named a different teacher, each story was a testament to one thing: the power of excellent teaching.
The second thing to remember is that Christian evangelism is rooted in real-life experience- not sophisticated theological language or abstract theories. An evangelist is anyone who is willing to give a specific answer to the question, "How has Jesus Christ changed your life?"
When Linda saw my disastrous haircut, she didn't tell me about the benefits of finding the right stylist or hand me a leaflet featuring haircuts; she sent me to Nan. While it may be easier to spot someone who's having a bad hair day than someone whose soul is in turmoil, there are people all around us who are hungering for a word they can take to heart. We must be ready and willing to speak the word: "You need to see Jesus."
You cannot take the word of God to heart if you haven't heard it.
The author is Shawnthea Monroe, who is senior minister at Plymouth Church UCC in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and coauthor, with Shannon Craigo-Snell, of Living Christianity: A Pastoral Theology for Today (Fortress).