Sunday, October 20, 2013

Tossing, Turning, and Transformation

Have you ever experienced so much turmoil in your life that you couldn’t sleep?  You’re exhausted and you need to sleep more than anything, but your mind keeps racing and you toss and turn. You wake up in the night to check the clock and every time you do, it’s about 10 minutes later than it was the last time you checked. 

It can be like that when you know you’re going to have to face something difficult and you start to imagine all the terrible things that could happen, because you don’t know what lies ahead.  Maybe you have an important decision to make and you don’t know which way to go. Maybe you know you’re going to be faced with something so big that it could change the course of your life. Like it’s the night before your wedding.  Or the night before you know you’re going to have a confrontation with your boss at work.  Or the night before you have a big test in school that will determine your whole grade.  Or the night before you’re going have surgery.

Now, I know there are some people who can sleep like a baby no matter what is going on in their lives. But if you’re not one of them, you’re not alone. Apparently, Jacob wasn’t either.  When he was on the brink of what could amount to either the end of his life, or a new beginning to his life, while he should have been sleeping because he has big ahead of him, he finds himself engaged in a nightlong wrestling match with God.  Here’s the situation…

After being away for 20 years, Jacob was finally going home.  To say that he hadn’t left under the best of terms is an understatement.  He remembered it all.  The lies and the manipulation he had used to cheat his brother Esau out of his heritage and Esau’s understandable vow to get even with Jacob and kill him.  Jacob knew it was time to leave.  So he went off and made a life for himself far away from home.  Then after he burned all his bridges in his new life, he wound up having no where else to go but back home again. 

Jacob isn’t sure how his brother Esau will receive him.  Had 20 years mellowed him, or did Esau still want to kill him?  When he sends some messengers ahead, they bring back news saying, “Your brother Esau is on his way to meet you and he’s bringing 400 men with him.”  Now, Jacob knows that you don’t need 400 men to have a friendly family reunion, so he prepares himself for the worst.  He divides his family and his lifestock into two groups.  That way if Esau attacks one group, maybe the other one will be safe.  He also sends some gifts on ahead of him, hoping to ease Esau’s anger against him with a little bribery. 

            Jacob’s whole life is hanging in the balance.  His slimy past has finally caught up with him and he has no idea what’s going to happen.  It’s a turning point in his life.  In fact, in the midst of the wrestling, God asks him what his name is.  “Jacob,” he says.  “Not any more,” God tells him.  “From now on you’re not going to be called Jacob.  But Israel will be your name.”

Israel means “one who wrestles with God.” And this was a wrestling match with a purpose. God wants Jacob to let go of who he was so that he can become who he will be. That’s really the ultimate wrestling match that any of us can engage in. God wants us to let go of who we were so we can become who we will be.  It’s the struggle of transformation.

Liz was a woman who seemed to go through one crisis after another in her life.  From my limited experience with her, I could see that her life was a mess because of the bad choices she made. Despite the fact that she was very bright and capable, she had gone from one lousy relationship to another and one lousy job to another. I couldn’t figure out why, until I got to know her better. She had a self-esteem issue in her life. She thought that she wasn’t good enough to have a really good job, so she settled for something that didn’t begin to challenge her or use the gifts she had.  She thought she didn’t deserve to be loved and accepted for who she was, so she ended up in relationships with people who put her down and treated her with contempt.
 
I shared my observation with her, that she was making choices in her life that seemed to reinforce her low self-esteem. She said: “When I was growing up my father was always finding fault with everything I did. He told me I was worthless and that I would never amount to anything.” That was her explanation. She was raised by a man who belittled her, and it had ruined her life. 

It was good for Liz to recognize how her history had affected her.  But what bothered me was that she seemed to be saying that her history actually defined her.  Do you ever find yourself doing that? Do you ever let your history define who you are? 

Nothing could be further from the life that God wants for you.  God wants you to let go of who you were, so you can become who you will be.  God wants more for you than the same old, same old.  God wants your life to be transformed. 

That’s not just true for us as individuals, but it’s also true for us as a church.  It’s not God’s will that his people define who they are by their history. That they continue to rehash a difficult time in their past, over and over.  Or, that they spend all their time trying to recapture the glory of days gone by. Our history doesn’t define who we are.  We don’t have a status quo God.  We have a God of transformation. 

Change is hard for all of us. If you’ve ever been walking in the woods, you’ve probably noticed that there are pathways between the trees. These are routes that have been traveled in the past.  The more traveled the pathways are, the more beaten down, the easier they are to use.  That’s also how it is for the pathways we have in our brains.  The more we travel a certain pathway, the easier it becomes to use it. 

When we’re hiking around in the woods, we tend to stay on the pathways that are well worn.  It’s easier for us to get from one place to the other and we don’t have to worry about becoming lost.  Our pathways in the brain are the same for us.  We tend to stay on the well-worn pathways, the ones that we have traveled in the past.

In order to change, we have to step off the well-established pathway and form a new one.  That’s why transformation can be so difficult for us.  It means setting out on a different course than the one we’ve always used in the past. 

A path isn’t a path at all until it’s been traveled a few times.  It takes a lot of effort to forge a new path in the wilderness.  There are boulders to be removed along the way, weeds to be chopped down, and trees you may need to go around. It can be such hard work that you may return to the old path by default, even if you know it doesn’t really get you where you need to go. It’s difficult to resist taking the well-worn path.  

Socrates once said, “The secret of change is to focus your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” Do you feel like you’re expending all your energy fighting the past and getting nowhere? Do you climb out of bed, after tossing and turning all night, and walk around the next day exhausted like a zombie, or agitated for no apparent reason? Could it be that you’re wrestling with God, perhaps without even realizing it?  
           
Jacob stood on the brink of the unknown and was reluctant to become anything more than who he had always been. But God had more that he wanted for Jacob. God wrestled with him and from then on Jacob was a man named Israel who walked with a limp. 

God wants more for us too.  Don’t neglect the opportunities he puts before you to forge new pathways. Stop fighting the past, so you can move into the future God has for you. And your life will be transformed.   Amen.

 

 

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