Jonathan Martin

Archive for January, 2012

Why I can’t be indifferent to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

I am not among the 800 billion people who’ve read Stieg Larsson’s bestselling trilogy.  But I did see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo just after Christmas.  Since I don’t live on an igloo in Antarctica, I was aware that it would be a dark thriller.  For better or for worse (I am a pastor and all), I enjoy such a thriller every once in a while.  I think David Fincher is a brilliant director.  I loved Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score on The Social Network, and had already listened to their rattling but beautiful score for The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo before going and duly enjoyed it.  I very much like Daniel Craig as an actor, and I’m thrilled when Christopher Plummer gets good work in his advanced age.  The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo also had, quite frankly, the coolest and best-edited trailer I had ever seen.  So I had a number of reasons to be excited even having not read the books.

Watching the film turned out to be an unsettling experience for me.  I actually sat down and composed some thoughts a couple days after viewing it, but never quite felt like my thoughts were clear enough to share publicly.  On the heels of my last post, which had me thinking all the more about how I am to love my sisters and mothers in the faith (and in the world), as well as a conversation with a friend in our church who ministers to victims of sexual abuse, I felt like finally expressing them.

For those that aren’t familiar with the story (SPOILER ALERT): Fairly early in the film, we get a graphic scene where the lead character Lisbeth is sexually abused on screen for the first time.  It was intense and uncomfortable to watch, but I assumed it set up who this character is and what makes her tick.  Then came the second scene in which she is sexually abused.  Her abuser chains her to the bed and gags her.  The door to the bedroom is slammed shut, and the camera slowly fades from the door as she howls in terror.  I expected this would establish the pattern of abuse and we are moving onto another scene—until a jolting shot takes you back inside the bedroom for a lingering, terrifying anal rape sequence.  This is all of course part of the back story of how Lisbeth will team up with a journalist to find a serial killer.

I did not doubt that the intention in the film is to depict these as reprehensible acts.  But through the lingering lens of the camera, there was something that felt disturbingly voyeuristic about the entire experience.  Keep in mind, this is hardly Schindler’s List.  For me, this felt like a popcorn thriller, an edgy nihilistic whodunit that, plot wise at least, exists at the intersection of Agatha Christie with the Dan Brown, John Grisham and Patricia Cornwell, not high art.  It was fairly muddled procedurally as a thriller.  If its intended to be social commentary (and I’m basing this exclusively on this film adaptation), that strikes me as disingenuous.  I’m not certain that a story this superficial really gets to masquerade as subversive truth telling.  The very presence of this kind of explicit sexual violence in a movie this relatively unsubstantial trivializes the issues it would attempt to “expose.”  I am aware that in this era of so-called “torture porn” (Saw, Hostel, etc.), this may not be the worst thing movie audiences have been subjected to.  But I wonder if it does in fact mark a shift for a film with that level of sexual violence to make it into the main artery of American culture.  This is not a niche story where greasy fan boys who do little but watch horror movies and play video games come to the theater.  This is a near-universal cultural phenomenon.

I have no problem with the fact that sexual abuse is a plot device, part of what makes this character who and what she is.  While it wouldn’t be a redemptive story regardless, there is room to discern different kinds of stories that are unpleasant to us.  Some of which, not unlike many I read in the Old Testament, will unsettle us or revolt us or make us say “I would never want to be like that,” or make us care more deeply about the plight of a discarded person.  My problem is specifically with this: I think the level of explicit, graphic sexual violence on display in the film, regardless of the intention, serves the function of both fetishizing and minimizing rape—an awfully horrific scene for a movie with the weight of cotton candy.  I am amazed at our inability to differentiate between what art sets out to do and what it actually does.  In the same way that I think that the Church needs the reminder that means are not neutral, that is to say how we convey the message of the gospel is as substantive as the message itself, and indeed in most cases is the message—the manner in which a story is told/presented matters as much as the intended message.

I later heard that the author of the books, Stieg Larsson, had apparently witnessed a rape early in life that he never got over, and that part of what motivated him was a desire to address sexual violence constructively.  If there is anything smart or novel about Girl with a Dragon Tattoo however, it didn’t translate on screen for me.  (Again, I can’t speak intelligently to the novel)  It was only afterward that I was able to go back and read press and listen to interviews, to find that there have apparently always been split reactions to the novel and the preceding Swedish film.  Some felt that in print Larsson was successful in highlighting sexual violence in his native Sweden where many of the stories of victims had been suppressed.  Some have judged that regardless of his intentions, the use of such graphic sexual violence in such an otherwise fairly conventional crime novel unravels any positive effect he could have hoped for (and that the sexual violence then plays out as misogynistic fantasy even in print).   There are others who claim the books handle the sensitive subject matter well enough, that it is in fact the translation to film that is the problem.  Both the Swedish film and the recent US adaptation have ran into similar criticism–that the films leave less to the imagination than the novel.  (While this piece in The Guardian was focused on the earlier film adaptation, it’s a good summary of the diverse reactions to both the novel and the problems with film adaptation)

But I do not write this to give a drive-by survey of pop culture as a distant bystander, but as a pastor grappling with how we handle these issues as the Church.  I think a lot of Christians are afraid to have any of their pop culture interests called into question.  We do not wish to return to an over-simplistic moralism that suggests that anything with strong content cannot have redemptive value.   We do not wish to make too much out of one particular film or initiate a tail-chasing “how far is too far” conversation that lends itself towards new legalism.  For my part, I have no judgment towards brothers and sisters who disagree with me about the film (and am very aware that I have tastes in my own movie-watching that other believers would find offensive.)

But while I have no desire to make too much out of the film per se, I do think it’s an interesting moment in our culture that raises broader questions about ethics and entertainment we desperately need to engage.  Sometimes I’m concerned that in the Western church we aren’t capable of having an informed enough conversation about such matters at all.  The rather vapid, uncritical moralism of the past (if it’s got a dirty word or a sex scene it must be from hell) has been largely replaced with vapid, uncritical laissez-faire moralism in which the morality of our entertainment is not seriously called into question.  It is possible for redemptive stories to be told that are in fact quite explicit, it does not follow that all explicitly told stories are redemptive.

It is not that I don’t think we should be open, discerning students of popular culture who are able to engage difficult content in a meaningful way.  It is that I don’t think we are frankly smart enough to be open students of popular culture who are able to engage difficult content with discernment.  The baseline of being able to discern popular culture in a broad, comprehensive manner is that we maintain enough detachment from the broader culture to see it what it is.  Most Christians in America, quite frankly watch more than they read.  And in the most broad oversimplification I’ve ever written: I don’t think you can discern media at all if you watch more than you read (and I’m not just talking about the Bible here).  We are often not robust enough intellectually or formed deeply enough spiritually to even think about the higher stakes.

We do not want the church to be known primarily for what it does not do or does not watch.  That would be a failure of Christian witness.  We do not want to be known as people who define holiness as prudishness.  We do not want to be the sorts of people who are unable to look eyeball to eyeball with deep human pain and brokenness with compassion and empathy, in real life or popular culture.  We need not run from everything that is sordid or difficult or complex, because that is where the gospel is most at home.

Conversely, what does separate Christians from the world is a relentless tenderness toward human bodies.  We consider the care for all earthly bodies to be directly under our jurisdiction because we believe God inhabited a human body, meaning there is nothing more holy than human anatomy.  God tabernacled in flesh, then decreed that that our very bodies would be the temple of the Holy Spirit.  It is why Christians, while we need not be squeamish, must in turn be protective of fragile bodies.  A body taking shape in a womb, a body rotting in a prison.  The body of a screaming baby and the body of an incontinent senior citizen.  A body in west Charlotte and  a body in Afghanistan.  It is the birthright of the church to show the world what it means to cherish, value and care for human bodies on an unprecedented level, since we believe both that human beings are made in the image of God and that God touched the ground in human form.  We know holiness when we see it, because the most holy people touch and regard other bodies with the greatest tenderness.

I have not yet gotten over the heartbreak I experienced when I read Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusion, which has the most chilling (and accurate) critique of the effect pornography (and more open depictions of sexual violence) are having on our culture. These concerns are not simply academic.  It is difficult for me to separate the mainstream appeal of a film like Girl with a Dragon Tattoo from the very untrivial real stories of sexual violence I hear as a local pastor.  It is not that I think that everyone who watches a film like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are going to go out and become serial rapists.  But rather that I think the popularization of such films calls for a robust, prophetic witness for tenderness that can only come from the people of God.

It has never worked out well for us to attempt to bury our heads in the sand and ignore the darkness or the violence all around us.  I am not proposing that.  I am not proposing a return to a Puritanical refusal to engage with anything that we find unsettling or disrupting.  What I am wondering though, is what effect a prophetic witness for tenderness could have in the world we live in.  What if we were known not for squeamishness towards broken bodies, but a protectiveness of them that not only means that we bind up the wounded—but that pushes back at “entertainment” that does not honor those bodies?  It is true that many of our former markers of holiness have been arbitrary and unhelpful.  But is it not also true that holiness does in fact demand markers and distinctions?

Without retreating into a new legalism, I think we should be able to say collectively as the people of God that we care enough about these issues—that we care enough about broken bodies—that we exercise discernment when it comes to how sexual violence is represented on screen.  That we are attentive not only to what is intended but what is actually depicted.  If in fact someone else found the film unsettled them in a way that caused them to be more attentive to these matters, then I celebrate that.  But my larger concern is that in this culture of death, as accustomed as we are to a non-stop onslaught of visual stimulation, that it is possible to walk away from a film like The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo and not feel anything.  That there is no amount of bodily degradation left for us to see that could not be objectively, and perhaps coldly, judged only the merit of whether or not we were sufficiently entertained without any thought to the broader ethics of what we have seen, how it affects us, and how it might affect those around us.

I heard Elie Wiesel speak in Charlotte a few years ago at an event where he re-visited his famous quote: “The opposite of love is not hate, its indifference.  The opposite of faith is not heresy, its indifference.  And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference.”  The holiness that sets God’s people apart from the world is that we are consumed with the tenderness of God for broken bodies.  If we become so satiated by entertainment as to become indifferent to the real horrors inflicted around us, what else do we have to offer the world?

Why Mark Driscoll is wrong about women in church leadership.

I hope that title isn’t misleading.  In truth, it would take a book-length work to document all the reasons why Mark Driscoll is wrong about women in church leadership.  These are only a few of them.

Since this kind of response is uncharacteristic for me (at least digitally), let me give a little context for my thoughts first.  Last year, I contributed a chapter to a book for Dr. Raymond F. Culpepper called The Great Commission Connection.  I was asked to write about the connection between the great commission and media, with a special emphasis on social media.  In it I wrote at length about not only the promise, but the peril of social media, especially with the ability to so quickly speak destructive words within the Body of Christ without safeguards of Biblical accountability.  I tried to address this constructively in the broader construct of a theology of online life.  To quote myself:

When we have such powerful tools at our disposal, making it possible for us to broadcast our every thought and whim to the world with such ease, the key to using media in our mission may lie as much in our restraint as in our creativity.  Within a matter of seconds, I have the capability to share my opinions about any conceivable topic or issue with the world in a matter of seconds.  But just because I can, doesn’t mean that I should…

I try to heed my own counsel and be cautious about what issues I do in fact choose to address in this kind of format.  I share that to give a bit of context to what I did this week—when I fired a rather uncharacteristically angry tweet about the “pompous” recent remarks by Seattle megachurch pastor and neo-reformed guru Mark Driscoll.   While there is much about Driscoll’s ministry to admire and appreciate, I have taken exception on many occasions in the last decade over remarks he made about gender issues (in general) and women in ministry in particular.  And I have, for the most part, remained silent—as healthy diversity in the body of Christ should be tolerated and I don’t relish the idea of “calling out” other pastors or church leaders.

For my part, I am about as ecumenical as they come.  From my studies at Duke, where I focused on constructive dialog with Catholic Moral Theology from a Pentecostal perspective, to my relationships on the ground (here in Charlotte just this week I’ve spent a lot of time at Elevation Church celebrating a city-wide revival with my dear friend Steven Furtick), I think I model a kingdom-first unity in both my life and my preaching.  I also attempt to be a very gracious, civil voice in a world that is so unaccustomed to civility these days.

Given such a preface, it might seem like I am setting up for an apology.  But alas I am actually writing my non-apology.  I don’t think I should swing at every pitch.  But I don’t feel bad in the least about the pitch I swung at this week.  I’m swinging a little harder with this post.  I have no problem being charitable to brothers and sisters with whom I have deep disagreement with, even on issues I hold to be sacred.  I never engage in gossip or innuendo about other leaders.  Even in the case of extreme sin and moral failure, I have nothing but compassion to those in leadership who fall and fail—and am ever aware of the depth of my own need for grace.

But I don’t like bullies, and I don’t like bullying remarks.  And for as easily as I find it to be compassionate to the failings of leaders, there is such a thing as justice.  For me, when oppressed and/or marginalized groups within the body of Christ are maligned, you stand up every single time and you tell the truth.  That’s what preachers do—we stand on behalf of people who are bullied.

I don’t think Pastor Mark intended to bully in this recent interview.  But I think that is what he did.  And given the consistent pattern of commentary (and subsequent apologies, and subsequent occasions for him to say what he really thinks all over again), I don’t find this to be a one-off fluke.  You can listen to the entire unedited interview here.  The sections that I took exception to are printed here (while dealing only with this section, I find it to be an accurate depiction of the tone and spirit of the interview), in which Driscoll suggests that the church led by the interviewer’s wife is ineffective in evangelism, church growth and discipleship (as well as somehow unable to deal with complex sexual issues because it is led by a woman).  It would seem perhaps such a church would, for Driscoll, be unable to be blessed by God.  In a staggering display of arrogance, he compares his own numbers at Mars Hill to that of this smaller UK church and says, regarding the gender of their pastor, “You look at your results, you look at my results, and you look at the variable that’s most obvious.”  For Driscoll, churches that have female leaders inevitably embrace a sort of bland liberal tolerance in which lives are not transformed by the gospel.

The big question from everybody has been “have you listened to the whole interview? Have you heard Mark’s side?”  The answers are yes and yes (Mark’s blog response is here).  Though given the history of these kinds of remarks, including in his own teaching and blogs, I fail to understand why it is that whenever he says very plainly what he thinks there is always this tiresome backlash from people just who say he is “just taken out of context.”  Pastor Mark claims the interviewer was combative.  I don’t agree with that characterization.  I thought the interview was indeed tough, but fair.  Given his history regarding sex and gender issues, I don’t think it was off limits in the least to bring up some of those remarks in context of discussing his new book on sex and marriage–it all seemed in-bounds to me.  But you can listen and judge for yourself.  Even if the interview was antagonistic, I still don’t see how you get around the fact that his essential response to women in leadership absolutely reflects his consistent beliefs on those issues.

To be clear, my reason for taking this on has nothing to do with Mark Driscoll personally, per se.  I have been just as passionate about defending women in ministry inside my own tradition.  (Those are other stories for another time—I just think its important to note that this is an issue dear to my heart in general that I have spoken to consistently, as opposed to just being a bandwagon critic of Driscoll’s.  People within my tradition know my, um, reputation for speaking to these matters well enough)  I am very aware of how my reformed brothers interpret some key texts on the role of women in the church differently than I do.  The argument that Mark lays out implicitly here, however, is not so much from Scripture but his own culturally conditioned assessment of the role of women in leadership.  I come from a very different cultural context that tells a very different story, so I will limit my remarks to that today (though the Biblical debate is one I would love to have anytime).

As a third generation Pentecostal preacher who has been and continues to be shaped significantly by women in ministry, this time I had enough.  Within my tradition, which is theologically very conservative, we have never had prohibitions about women in leadership.  From the beginning, we have believed that the Spirit given on the day of Pentecost causes both “sons and daughters to prophesy.”  We had women pastors and leaders while at the same time forbidding our congregants for many years to wear make-up or jewelry, go to the movies, swimming pools or beaches; play cards or play sports.  Women were not allowed to wear pants or wear their hair short, men could not wear their hair long or wear shorts.  And yet in all of this—women were fully authorized to preach, teach, marry, bury, baptize and serve communion.

We did this all in a tradition that had an extraordinarily high view of the Bible (I would argue a much higher and even more terrifying understanding of the Word of God than the fundamentalists).  We did it because we did not interpret the apostle Paul’s teachings on the role of women in leadership the way many Protestant traditions had.  We did it because we believed there was in fact serious evidence in the New Testament that women were in fact leaders in the early church.  We did it because we had a dynamic belief that what happened on the day of Pentecost set us ablaze with tongues of fire and altered our perception of reality.  Now there was neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free.  We did it because we no longer believed that institutional structures were the source of authority in the Church, but the Spirit of God that moves on both male and female alike to preach and prophesy.

We had no connections to liberal social movements, but were demonstrating racial equality in pockets all around the world years before the modern civil rights movement.  We weren’t demythologizing the Bible or playing down the blood or the cross of Jesus or the judgment of God (as Mark’s logic would suggest these are interrelated with the ordination of women as pastors).  There was a new social order coming in not through politicians or seminarians or professors, but from ordinary people who were taking the Bible and the Spirit seriously.

Today, depending on whose statistics you use (and the rapid growth of the gospel in places like Latin America, Africa and China right now make it hard to keep track with the explosive growth), but around one in three Christians in the world are part of the global Pentecostal movement, with staggering growth in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.  And now more than ever before, female pastors and leaders are bringing the gospel empowered by the Spirit into the most volatile parts of the world—to remarkable results.

Such is the case with my spiritual grandmother, Sister Margaret Gaines, whose work in the Palestinian community of Aboud has brought the kingdom of God into the Middle East with devastating effectiveness.  Still today, the Muslim clerics in the area send their children to the school she founded even though they know they will learn about Jesus, because the legacy of Sister Gaines so changed the character of the village.  (One leading cleric said “Sister Margaret changed the character of our entire community” when she left)  She led both a church and school there, and even served as the Regional Overseer for the Church of God in the Middle East.  After 50 years of missionary service, health problems forced her to retire to her home of Pell City, Alabama.  But in the last year, at 80 years old and never married, she came out of retirement to pastor a Church of God of about 20 people that was about to get shut down. I was there a few weeks ago to help her dedicate their new worship space, and saw how among poor rural people she is doing just what she did in her Arab community—loving the marginalized and the oppressed, teaching them the gospel of Jesus and growing them in the faith.  It’s a thing of beauty.

Now given Pastor Mark’s rubric for success, I guess none of this would count.  Her church does not have 12,000 people.  She does not have a popular podcast, and her books have not sold as many as yours.  She does not have a “bold” reputation for sophomoric remarks from the pulpit or witty one-line smack-downs to her critics.  I don’t think she’s delivered edgy talks about masturbation or the morality or lack thereof of oral or anal sex in Christian marriage.  She has had the audacity to lead both men and women, not only as a woman, but as a single woman.  (how relevant could she be?)  Perhaps this is evidence, per Mark’s logic in the interview, that God isn’t blessing what she’s doing?  She is after all only leading a congregation of twenty at this point.

The reason I can’t let Driscoll off the hook here is that he does in fact travel the world (as he notes in the interview).  While I’m not convinced that any of the insufferably know-it-all current crop of neo-reformers are nearly as smart as you they think they are, I find it hard to believe that he has not noticed that most women in ministry on the ground are not, in fact, mainline Protestant liberals who are embracing some leftist agenda, but fire-breathing Pentecostal females who are preaching the whole gospel with other-worldly boldness.  Or is the neo-Reformed movement so elitist and self-congratulatory at this point, that this escapes their attention?  I don’t mind you differing with me about the role of women in leadership.  For heaven’s sake, my academic work has been all about constructive dialog between Pentecostals and Catholics—who has a more traditional understanding of gender roles in ministry leadership than they?  Yet they don’t seem to hold these views nearly as, shall we say, pretentiously.  And at this point I’ve heard so much grating “we deserve a merit badge because we don’t ordain women” rhetoric in these circles that the act is getting a bit tired for me.

If numbers is going to be the judge though, I’ll play by those rules.  How about the many Latin American and African female mega-church pastors out there?  Or my dear friend Pastor Roselen, a Brazilian woman who got kicked out of her Catholic convent for speaking in tongues and went on to start the largest evangelical church in Milan, Italy?  I celebrate the unique work Driscoll is doing in Seattle, where he loves to remind us that he is making disciples in the most liberal city in America.  I might suggest it is no small feat to have a thriving Pentecostal church with explosive growth in the fashion capital of the world, a city far more cosmopolitan, liberal and secular than Seattle. In 2013, she is hosting a massive city-wide revival and celebration where Christian leaders from all over the world will come and celebrate what God is doing in Italy.  And yet in all of this, her fiercest opposition has not come from her intensely secular culture, but from area church leaders who look down on her as a woman.  From Margaret to Roselen down to many other female evangelical and Pentecostal pastors I know serving around the world right now, there is more than enough opposition from the devil, the world and yes in some cases still the church without additional discouragement from people like Driscoll.

You can only be so offended at me for this.  I am, after all, just trying to be the kind of man Mark Driscoll wants me to be—confident, secure, comfortable showing some healthy testosterone.  Mark has taught us it is good and right for men in general and male Christian leaders in particular to have balls.  Well I do, and since I do I have no problem saying that the boorish, middle school remarks have gone far enough.  I respect his right to interpret Scripture differently than I do when it comes to issues of women in church leadership.  But I find the suggestion that churches that are led by women are either blanketly liberal, intrinsically cursed by God and/or unable to grow or win lives to Jesus to be not only false but slanderous.  There is no way he doesn’t know better at this point.

Mark Driscoll is now 41 years old.  He’s got an enormous platform, and sometimes he stewards it quite well.  I agree with his frequent assessment (reiterated in the interview) about the phenomenon of prolonged adolescence among males, that many young men in our culture are stunted by their obsession with pornography and video games and unable to step into the responsibility of adulthood. I applaud the way he is challenging young men to rise beyond these cultural expectations.

I just think that in this area of leadership, it’s time for him to take his own advice and grow up.

Church image: from excellence to authenticity

I was recently asked to contribute to a feature article for a forthcoming issue of Engage Leadership Journal on “Creating an Influential Church Image.” Several pastors are contributing for a variety of perspectives.  It’s a short piece, but I think it gets to the heart of the unique message and approach we believe God has given us at Renovatus.  So here’s an advance preview:

The dominant message most churches have heard in the last twenty years is that we need to create an excellent image—and of course there is something to that.  At Renovatus, we strive to do things well, from graphic design to web presence.  But what is often missed in our efforts to reach people that are over-marketed to is their increased suspicion that we are trying to sell them a used car.  In such an environment, where people are becoming increasingly suspect of slick methodologies and want to see all the way underneath the hood, there is a need not just for an excellent image, but an authentic image.

At Renovatus, our goal is that there be no discrepancy between who we really are and who we proclaim ourselves to be.  Since the Church is both beautiful and broken, we do not pretend to be less broken than we actually are (or less beautiful, for that matter).  The tagline for our church from the beginning is that we are for “liars, dreamers, and misfits,” an apt description of the odd assortment of characters caught up in the story of redemption from Genesis to now.  We do not oversell ourselves.  We promise only what we know we can deliver—an authentic Christian community of people deeply devoted to following Jesus in our day-to-day lives, fully aware of our deep brokenness.  We are desperately dependent on God and on each other.  As a church established on the baseline that we are all in deep need of God’s renovating grace, we feel that we can in fact promise to provide a safe place for people to confess their sins, praying for one another that we may be healed (James 5.16).

The Church of the present is attempting to catch up with the culture in terms of presenting herself attractively to the world.  The Church of the future is one that presents herself as she really is—broken, wounded, and desperate—but desperately beloved.

The inevitable.

I am generally not a fan of any sort of thinking about God that is too deterministic.  I don’t tend to think that God scripts everything in advance and then just leaves us to run through the paces.  It is not just that those systems don’t appeal to me, but that they are deeply at odds with my own understanding of Scripture.  I grew up so intensely wrapped up in the narratives of the Old Testament, where the relationship between God and his people in the world seemed so open and dynamic: the way not only that God’s creation responds to Him, but that God responds to His creation.  I’ve also grown to dislike it when various notions of God’s providence or sovereignty make people feel like they are left out–or they at least wonder if they are the sort of person who might be left out, the sort of person who just drew the cosmic short straw and are stuck with a destiny not of their choosing.

I maintain all of that, and yet cannot ignore the sort of inevitability of grace I see in my life and the lives of people around me.  I don’t believe God chooses some and not others for salvation–that for me is a wrong understanding of the word “election,” which I will not go into here today.  For me it is very much possible to reject that sort of elite pre-determinism and yet still recognize the vast, conspiratorial nature of grace to bring about good in our lives against ridiculous odds. God’s intentions to bless his sons and daughters is an overwhelming thing, even given our most clever attempts to escape Him.  I don’t know that I think grace is irresistible (that it literally cannot be resisted), but that grace absolutely is inevitable.  That the grace of God when released moves with fearsome velocity towards happiness, peace and blessing–towards our good.  That grace that is not gentle but hard and substantive, less like a wind or breeze and more like a midwestern tornado.

I’ve lived much of my life in fear that I was destined to mess everything up.  And while I don’t doubt my capacity to create a mess, in light of the sheer scope of God’s grace and mercy at work in my life, I may not be big enough to derail things as much as I once thought.  Who I am to stop a cyclone of love?  I’m a big guy, but I don’t think I’m big enough to stop the beauty of God.  In this way, I am diminutive compared to the swirling grace and destiny that surrounds me.

Thus, in our staff meeting today, my text was not from Scripture but from Tolkien’s The Hobbit:

“Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”

the blessing and the limp.

Yesterday I launched a new series at Renovatus on Jacob called “The Blessing.” Based on the overwhelming responses we’re receiving so far, I think the whole notion of wrestling at night seemed to connect with where a lot of our people are.  I actually wrote a short piece about Jacob’s angelic royal rumble a few weeks ago, not in context of the series but more as a devotional meditation.  I wanted to share it again with you today for those of you that want/need to go a little deeper into this enigmatic but powerful story of night wrestling. 

“Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’

But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’”–Genesis 32.26

It’s one of the most enigmatic passages in the Bible.

Jacob has a mysterious encounter with an angel.  He wants a blessing from him.  In order to get it, he wrestles with the angel all night long.  When the dawn breaks, Jacob has the blessing he was looking for–but he’s also got a dislocated hip.  He clung on through a tumultuous dark night of the soul, and he got was he looking for.  But he walked away with a permanent limp.

I’m more convinced than ever before of the generosity of God, of the ways He delights to give good gifts to His children.  But if you walk away with a blessing, blessing won’t be the only thing that marks you.  There is still the dried blood and unsightly bruises that come from the long night of wrestling.  Gifts come without strings attached, but that’s not to say they come without consequences.  It’s why so many people will happily go through their lives keeping the greatest blessings at an arm’s length.  Because intrinsically we know that blessing is on the other side of struggle, that blessing is on the other side of the dark night.

If that makes you want to stay home, you’re in good company.   Many strong and competent people have chosen the path of least resistance, deciding it is better to walk away without bruises or broken bones.  They have pragmatically decided it is better to keep the safer blessings they have rather than taking the risk of having to stare down God, the devil and themselves.  And make no mistake–the dark night of the soul will involve wrestling with all three.  In the midst of it, you really don’t know if you are going to make it to sun-up.

It sounds so sterile and truncated to narrate the tale even now: “Jacob wrestled with an angel all night.” It sounds so straight forward, so uncomplicated.  But how could wrestling with angels be uncomplicated?  Night complicates most everything to begin with.  And don’t you know how long a night can feel?  The way that time seems to slow down at night?  In the middle of the night, temperatures shoot up while hope plummets.  If it feels like our lives are in perpetual fast forward sometimes, sleepless nights feel like an endless instant replay–where it is fear and regret that are in slow motion.  Given all of that, it is difficult for me to judge anybody to harshly for wanting to avoid something as terrible as having to stare down God and their own demons.  I understand all too well the desire to avoid bruising.

And yet there still is the reality of blessing, the promise that lies on the other side.  That if you just don’t let go–for it is not necessary to win, only to not lose hold of the one you’re wrestling with–that the blessing is as extravagant as the night is long.  That the bliss is as sweet as the night is painful.  Blessedness is a feast that can only be tasted by those who’ve first tasted the acerbic taste of their own blood in their mouth.

When you’ve been wrestling all night for a blessing, it may be difficult to say that you would do it all over again when the dawn breaks.  But to say that you’re glad you didn’t let go and you hung on for dear life is not the same thing as saying you’d volunteer for it again.  You are glad you didn’t let go.  You can’t escape the truth that the sacredness of your own life has been enhanced not only by the blessing, but even by the wrestling itself.

The truth is, blessings that don’t come with bruises–victory that doesn’t come with a limp as a trophy–will neither be particular sweet nor memorable.  Granted, there is the soreness inherent in a night of wrestling.  It is true that long after the night is over, the slightest movement may trigger the familiar pain.  But with the wince of the wound also comes the visceral reminder of blessedness.  What a fascinating phenomenon: that every time Jacob stepped awkwardly, you couldn’t tell if he was wincing or smiling–and maybe he was doing both.  Because every step would now have the message of blessedness and belovedness implicit in it.  To have that message contained in your joints may well be worth a thousand of years of long nights.

In short, if you have no limp then you likely have no blessing.  Or at the very least without a limp you are unaware of the blessings you have, which is likely just as bad.  I am at this point far more inclined to think that walking with a limp but knowing the blessing is decisively better than walking whole without the blessing.

If you are in the long night of wrestling, there are neither strategy nor steps I could give you to end it faster.  But strategy is not needed–perseverance is.  You wouldn’t remember steps if I gave them to you, not when the night gets dark and long enough.  But you can remember this much: don’t stop until the sun is up.  You can remember that the reason for the wrestling is not because God is out to kill you, but that He’s really wanted to bless you all along.  You don’t have to do anything to earn the blessing–you cannot be strong or powerful enough.  You just have to stay in the ring, and the dawn that creeps up when the wrestling is over will take care of the rest.

“Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”  Psalm 30.5