Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Limp is Mightier than the Strut

(A sermon based on Genesis 32:22-32)

Sometimes I wonder how interested the church and the people who make up the church, including me, really are in doing things God’s way. We could hardly be blamed for shying away from it, for, as our text reveals, really getting in touch with God and having God get in touch with you and being on journey with God and having God be on journey with you can be risky and painful business.

When I look around at the 21st century church, I get concerned. We seem to buy in too easily to the idea that successful ministry means being big and powerful and rich and comfortable and respectable. If we do buy into such an idea, then corporate weakness has to be denied. Personal woundedness has to be covered up.

We’re not very Christian in our approach to life and ministry if those are our attitudes.

The text tells about Jacob, one of our spiritual ancestors. I’m glad that the Bible is so honest with us about the lives of those ancestors. It is brutally honest about Jacob. When I look at his life, I am impressed by two things. One thing is the complicated character of Jacob. Jacob was an accomplished cheat and a master manipulator. From the beginning and throughout most of his life, one constant was that he had a long way to go. He always had a lot of unrealized potential but he usually used underhanded methods to try to realize it. Another constant was the persistent presence of God in his life.

That brings us to the other thing that I am impressed by when I look at the life of Jacob: the mysterious purposes of God. God chose to make Jacob a central character in God’s story of salvation, perhaps both in spite of and because of Jacob’s complicated character.

Those two things, the complicated character of Jacob and the mysterious purposes of God, came together in a moment to which all of Jacob’s life had been leading. There is no time like the present; in a sense, there is no time but the present. Whether you are talking about a church or an individual, this particular moment is the most critical moment. That is because this moment is the culmination of all the moments that have gone before; everything that has happened thus far comes together to make up this moment. Everything that is going to happen from now on begins with this moment.

For Jacob, it was as if all the streams of everything that had ever happened to him flowed together into the Jabbok River. For Jacob, what happened to him at the Jabbok River was going to have a tremendous influence on him for the rest of his life.

There beside the Jabbok, Jacob wrestled with God. There are other ways to interpret the text, but the fact remains that when it was all over, Jacob said, “I have seen God face to face” (v. 30).

No doubt to wrestle with God meant that Jacob was wrestling with his past. He had been gone from home for twenty years. He had left home with his brother Esau breathing death threats against him. He had left home with the birthright and the blessing but he had, with his mother’s help, lied and cheated to get them. He had been blessed during his sojourn in Haran with Laban and his family, but he had gone through a lot while he was being blessed. No doubt Jacob was wrestling with his past.

No doubt Jacob was also wrestling with his future. Tomorrow he was going to meet Esau. He knew that Esau was coming with 400 men to meet him. Jacob knew the hearts of men because he knew his own heart so well. He expected the worst. He planned to divide everything he had into two companies so that perhaps one could escape if Esau attacked. Tomorrow could bring disaster. Tomorrow could bring reconciliation. Tomorrow Jacob would have to face his past and tomorrow he would step into his future—if he had one.

It was with all of that going on, and with the promises of God to bless him and to protect him ringing in his ears, that Jacob entered into his wrestling match with God. All night long they struggled. It was a mighty struggle, and at times Jacob even seemed to get the upper hand. “The man,” the text says, “struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him” (v. 25).

When the sun came up and the match was over, Jacob left the scene limping. I suspect that Jacob limped for the rest of his life. The Israelites certainly chose to remember the limp in perpetuity. He left with a blessing, but he also left with a limp. He left with some resolution, but he also left with a limp. He left with a new name and a new identity, but he also left with a limp.

Jacob would have liked, as I am sure we would like, both as a church and as individual disciples, to strut through life proudly and triumphantly, to represent God as his perfect specimen. But Jacob instead walked through life with a limp. And that’s ok, because in God’s way of doing things, the limp is mightier than the strut.

When you truly struggle with God, you live with a limp. When you truly do things God’s way, you live with a limp. When you truly live a Christ-like life and carry out a Christ-like ministry, you live with a limp. And it is in the limp that you see God. That is because the limp causes you to remember those times when you have struggled with God and how in those struggles you have become more of what you are supposed to be. It is in the limp that you see God because the limp causes you to remember that God has always worked through people who are wounded. It is in the limp that you see God because the limp causes you to remember that Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, the very Son of God, bore the deepest wounds of all because he perfectly accomplished the will of God in the way of God.

Jacob limps no more. That’s because he’s in heaven. The day will come when you and I will limp no more. But we’ll be in heaven. The day will come when the church will limp no more. That will be the day when God makes all things as he intends for them to be. Notice how the hymn puts it.

‘Mid toil and tribulation, and tumult of her war,
She waits the consummation of peace forevermore;
Till with the vision glorious, her longing eyes are blest,
And the great church victorious shall be the church at rest.
(Samuel J. Stone, The Church’s One Foundation)

We are not the church victorious until we are the church at rest. We are not the church at rest until we are the church victorious. We are not Christians victorious until we are Christians at rest. We are not Christians at rest until we are Christians victorious.

Till then, we limp. Till then, as Paul put it, God’s strength is made evident in our weakness.

We shouldn’t deny those places where God in his grace has wounded us, because it in those places that we can experience and see the grace of God. The music video based on Reba McIntryre’s song “Is There Life Out There?” (the song was written by Susan Longacre and Rick Giles) tells a story about a woman who had married young, had a few children, and then started wondering if she should be doing more. So, she went to college. As the story unfolds, the woman struggles with balancing everything that she is trying to do. She is having conflicts with her husband and her children. An important paper is on her kitchen table and one of her children spills something on it. It’s too late to do anything but turn the paper in. When the professor returns the paper to her, he has given her a good grade, but he tells her, “Next time, try to leave off the stains.” She replies, “I learned more from the stains than I did from the paper.” God teaches us a lot through the stains. He shows his strength through our weakness.

But the day will come when resurrection will be a reality and then we won’t have to be weak anymore. But for now we live with the weakness and it is in fact our weakness that makes us realize how necessary the resurrection is. The Baptist preacher Carlyle Marney visited a college campus. A student asked, “Dr. Marney, would you say a word or two about the resurrection of the dead?” Marney answered, “I will not discuss that with people like you.” When the student wanted to know why, Marney said, “Look at you, in the prime of the life, potent—never have you known honest-to-God failure, heart-burn, impotency, solid defeat, brick walls, mortality. So what can you know of a dark world which only makes sense if Christ is raised?” (Paul D. Duke, in “Transfigured Relations,” Christian Century, October 25, 1995, attributes the story to William Willimon)

The events that cause us to limp may be the events in which we most fully experience God. The events that cause us to limp may be the events that teach us the most about life and about God’s place in our lives. The events that cause us to limp may the events in which we come to understand most fully the hope and power of the resurrection.

Those churches and those Christians who strut around as if they have already arrived have it wrong, I think. Those who limp know and live the grace of God. Oh, we will strut one day, by the grace of God, when the resurrection comes.

But for now, by the grace of God, the limp is mightier than the strut.

Monday, July 5, 2010


I make a lot of typographical errors myself and so I am not hard on others, particularly bloggers and Facebook note writers who don’t have the advantage (or disadvantage) of an editor, when they do—but occasionally one will catch my eye.

Such was the case today. A friend was writing about watching a July 4 fireworks show but his middle left finger acted when his middle right should have and he thus typed a “d” rather than a “k” with the result that he produced the (non)word “firewords.”

I decided that he had inadvertently coined a word that we should add to our vocabulary.

As a human being I am aware of the power of words; as a preacher I am keenly aware of the power of words. My friend’s new word set me to thinking about some of the “firewords” that we use, by which I mean words that are incendiary, that kindle fires in the people who hear them.

I have in mind not specific words but rather categories of words, some of which are harmful.

First, there are destructive words, by which I mean words that have the effect of tearing people down. The use of such words unfortunately characterizes many relationships, either on the part of one party or on the part of both parties. Now, sometimes a corrective statement must be made but when such a thing needs to be said it should be said in love and humility and with a view toward helping and not hurting.

Too often, though, people use words against other people—even people with whom they have the closest relationships—in order to tear them down. In my work as a pastor I have heard far too many accounts, for example, of spouses belittling spouses.

I imagine that such a use of words says more about the person who sends them out than it does about the person who has to receive them. He or she may be motivated, for example, by a desire to keep other persons down so they can be controlled or by a sense of inferiority that creates a need to try to put others in a position beneath him or her.

Regardless, such words are firewords because of the power they have to singe or even to scorch the lives of those against whom they are targeted.

Second, there are demagogic words, by which I mean words that are used in a manipulative way by people in positions of influence to play on a particular group’s fears or prejudices in order to incite greater fear or to arouse anger. Some politicians are guilty of using such words and some radio and television talking heads are notorious in their use of them. Perhaps most unfortunately, some preachers are prone to such verbal shenanigans as well.

We live in a society in which freedom of speech is not only a cherished value but a constitutionally guaranteed one. Moreover, I do not doubt that many people who use what I would regard as inflammatory language in fact hold strong convictions and their passion comes out in their language.

Nonetheless, too often a politician panders to her or his base through the use of such statements and too often the talking heads rile people up for the sake of ego and ratings rather than for the sake of making a meaningful contribution to the discussion and too often preachers confuse their cultural assumptions and their own fears with the biblical message and crave the affirmation that comes from having the congregation respond enthusiastically to having their biases confirmed from the pulpit.

Such demagogic words are firewords because of the power they have to singe or even to scorch the lives of those against whom they are targeted, both in the sense of those who are being attacked and those who are being affirmed.

Not all firewords are harmful though because not all fires are harmful; a fire properly used offers heat and light rather than destruction. What are some categories of helpful firewords?

First, there are constructive words, by which I mean words that are used to build another person up. Positive words spoken consistently make a positive difference. In a recent sermon on the family, I said, “None of you probably has the world’s greatest spouse (because I do!) but, based on the things that you say to your spouses, they should think that they are.” It is hard to overstate how important it is that parents build up their children in the ways they talk to them just as it hard to overstate how vital it is that we encourage each other in the church or in the neighborhood or in the workplace.

Constructive words spoken sincerely and consistently can kindle life-affirming and even life-giving fire in others.

Second, there are prophetic words, by which I mean words that challenge the status quo in ways that properly align with the Word of God as it is revealed in the Bible and as it is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the Word incarnate. Prophetic words as they are presented in the Bible might be negative or they might be positive but they are always intended accurately to bring the Word of God to bear in a particular historical circumstance for the sake of affecting that circumstance.

Not all challenging words, though, not even those spoken from Christian pulpits, are prophetic, because they can be based in the preacher’s biases or fears or assumptions rather than in the Word of God.

Prophetic preaching is hard work—work that requires careful reading of the Bible, careful reading of the situation, and careful listening to the Spirit in prayer. Sometimes, after such hard work, the preacher’s conclusion is that the hard and challenging word must be spoken. Such a word, when it is presented with the motivation of helping God’s people and out of a heart brimming with the love and grace of Jesus Christ, is a positive thing.

Prophetic words spoken carefully and humbly can kindle church and community-changing fires.

Third, there are gospel words, by which I mean words that proclaim the good news of the life, teachings, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Such words may be prophetic or they may be pastoral but the main things about them are that they accurately reflect who Jesus is and what he did and that they come out of a life that is doing its best, by the grace and Spirit of God, to walk humbly with Jesus.

Such words, whether they are challenging or comforting, will be covered up with grace, love, and mercy, just as Jesus Christ was. Such words will be motivated by and will inspire a servant and sacrificial spirit, just as Jesus Christ was.

Our imaginations can hardly contain the possibilities of what kinds of fires might be kindled if we preachers—if all Christians—could and would live and speak the firewords of the good news of Jesus Christ.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Mission Trip

There are people who express some misgivings about church mission trips. They say, for example, that such mission trips can actually be church group vacations dressed up to look like mission trips.

We took our church group vacation this year to exotic Perry County, Alabama.

Don’t get me wrong—Perry County is a lovely place. The county seat of Marion is a nice small town that houses two fine colleges: Judson College and Marion Military Institute. Marion also holds a special place in the histories of both Baptist life and the American Civil Rights Movement. The other town in the county, Uniontown, is also a pleasant community.

But, like many small, rural communities, Perry County has many challenges, economic and educational ones being among the most serious.

Several years ago an organization called Sowing Seeds of Hope (SSH) was established in Perry County as an effort to address in an ongoing way some of the needs in the area with the love of Jesus Christ; among the ministry partners with SSH is the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Alabama. Each year several churches will bring groups to Perry County to work in conjunction with SSH on various projects.

As the Mission Ventures Team of the First Baptist Church (FBC) of Fitzgerald, Georgia cast about in 2009 for a mission project for the summer of 2010, we felt led to Perry County. Thanks to the budget gifts and special gifts and to the encouragement and prayers of the FBC family and thanks to the sense of call that a dozen of our church members felt to give a week of their lives to helping people they didn’t know in a place that they had seldom if ever seen, we went to Perry County.

Here at the end of our week there, I am glad to say that I can speak for all the members of our team in saying we are glad that we came.

We took on two main projects this week, both in Uniontown.

First, some of us spent the mornings conducting a literacy camp at the Uniontown Public Library. The library is housed in a former bank building in downtown Uniontown. There we led local children in activities involving reading, writing, crafts, games, songs, videos, and, of course, refreshments. And, thanks to our having a dentist in our group, we were also able to provide some dental hygiene instruction!

We will never forget the children who came to the camp; there shined in many of their eyes a bright hope that I believe will lead to good things in their lives.

Second, we spent the week painting the interior of the Robert C. Hatch High School cafeteria, including the bathrooms. Some of our team spent all day every day painting; those working in the literacy camp went to the cafeteria to paint in the afternoons. The school’s principal selected the colors and she chose the school colors of purple, gold, and white, which coincidentally happen to the be the colors of our hometown Fitzgerald High School. When the students return to school at the end of the summer they will have a bright newly painted cafeteria in which to eat breakfast and lunch; our hope is that they will find that encouraging and even inspiring.

Two of our team members also spent some time in the afternoons tutoring high school students in Marion.

Here at the end of the week we are tired and ready to go home but we leave with great hope and trust that the love of Christ that we have shared through the work we have done will be of help to somebody somehow.

This much we know: it has been a privilege to serve.

When we get home we will have, I hope, a different perspective through which we will view our own community and the role that our church family can play in addressing the needs that are right in our backyard. I hope that this group will also be the vanguard of many such efforts in the future.

A church grows in spiritual health, I believe, as we tend to our own spirits through spiritual formation, particularly Bible study and prayer, as we tend to the real needs in the real lives of our church family members, and as we reach out to share the love of Christ in the world beyond our walls in places both nearby and far away.

A mission trip can be an important component in the process.

This one was.