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Looking Ahead

My plane skipped and sped down the runway, dropped her arms and climbed. I gazed out the window at my snowy home, said “goodbye” with a full heart and watched as clouds slowly bled across backyards and housetops until I was blind and my 4 1/2 month separation from the place I know as home  has begun.

These were the opening words to a brand new journal, a journal that is now torn, tattered, and has only two or three pages left empty.

My time in Israel is quickly coming to an end. Airplane tires will soon race and rise as I skip across three continents on my way back home. And as I peer into my final week here at Jerusalem University College, I wanted to take an opportunity to share how I anticipate that the next few weeks and months will look.

Next week: During finals week, (along with studying for two exams and writing a paper) I’ll be reflecting on the past 4+ months, sharing a few highlights from my time here. This will perhaps be mostly an endeavor for my own benefit, but I think (as I ponder what it means to pack up and leave) it will be a healthy thing for me to do.

May 8-13: My final week at JUC will consist of a field trip to Jordan. We’ll be spending five nights living with a Bedouin community in remote Southern Edom (Jordan). There, I will have the opportunity to ride camels through Wadi Rum, battle scorpions and poisonous snakes (meaning, avoid them), shepherd sheep, and reflect on the sort of experiences that would have typified the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I’ll be taking a ton of photos and perhaps shooting some videos; however, without electricity (or running water) my experiences will have to wait until after my return to Minneapolis to be documented.

May 16th (5:00 a.m.): After checking out of my dorm, I’ll be spending a day and a half in Tel Aviv before heading home. I may have an opportunity to post some reflections from my time in Jordan while in Tel Aviv; however, my Internet access may be limited.

June-August: Much of my summer will be spent editing photos, videos and blog posts in anticipation of proposing a manuscript to publishers by early Fall. My hope is that this book will be profoundly interactive, taking those who may never have had the opportunity to journey to the Holy Land for an extended period of time into the heart of the land of dust and sun.

I would sincerely covet your prayers during this time of transition. While I am eager to return home and reconnect with the people and places I love, I know that I will miss this beautiful place.

Thank you for your love and support!

In His Grip,

Bryan

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It is Finished

There is good reason to be afraid. Sin has marred our frame and carried us far away from the Creator. Adam’s curse is an ancient poison that has seeped its way into the very fabric of our DNA, informing our race of death’s inevitability and our culpability is the mess spread out before us.

Sin: Defiance. Mocking God to His face. We are the bent ones who have been created for so much more.

For a thousand years the path to reconciliation with God was necessarily strewn with the bloodied carcasses of goats and lambs. A priest stood shaking before the presence of God, clinging to a promise,

…he [the high priest] shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and…[sprinkle] it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleanliness of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sin….” (Leviticus 16:15-16).

Written within the Levitical code is a powerful picture of what our sin cost. Namely, blood. There will be blood. Something (or someone) must die to pay the penalty of our rebellion, our unwillingness to live in the image of the One who breathed into our lungs and gave us life.

Year after year this went on. People began to count on the fact that no matter what they had done, no matter how far they strayed from the commandments of God, He was somehow obligated to forgive them. But we’re dealing with a God who is interested in our hearts, not our religion. Amidst tears [I imagine], God speaks through the prophet Amos,

Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. (5:22).

After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the sacrifices stopped…for the most part.

A month or two ago, I wrote about the small community of peculiar people who are found throughout Scripture (and at that time were a much larger group), the Samaritans (click here to read about them). Tucked atop Mount Gerizim (Joshua 8:30-35) is a community of about 350 Samartians (half of the worldwide population), and since they believe Solomon’s Temple was actually stood (before it was destroyed by the Babylonians) on Mount Gerizim, they continue to carry the Leviticus 16 commandment, annually.

Yesterday was a bad day for the sheep of Mount Gerizim.

Some people carried their sheep to the slaughter, some rolled them in.

I arrived with very little expectation of how I would react. The place was packed with curious folks from all regions of the globe representing a multitude of religious affiliations. Since only Samaritans were allowed in (and people like my friend Tim who managed to jump a massive fence [aka trespass]), I was forced to scale the side of a building in hopes of catching the “action” atop an adjacent rooftop. My camera began snapping.

The Samaritan men (in anticipation for what they seek God to do in regards to their souls as a response to their offering) wear all white, and filled the fading daylight with a sense of anticipation and celebration. Hugs were exchanged and children (who were in no way protected from the bloodshed that was about to take place) were scooped into the arms of loved ones.

The Samaritans are a close knit community who have struggled resist assimilation into the Jewish and Arab populations that surround them. They speak Arabic in everyday conversation (Nablus [biblical Shechem], the closet city, is in fact one of the largest Palestinian cities), however, their liturgy is conducted an ancient dialect of Hebrew. Samaritans always intermarry, which due to their small numbers unfortunately result in devastating birth defects. They are resolute, firm in their convictions (which was made explicitly clear last night), and pride themselves on being extremely hospitable.

As the sun set, I spotted a procession moving into the sacrificial area directly below me. The head of the high priest was covered by a talit (prayer shawl), and he was surrounded by several lesser priests (as well as several Israeli police officers). A hush took hold of the crowd. Prayers were led over a loud speaker. Devout Samaritans began to respond with a bowed heads and memorized responses.

Night fell. Prayers stopped. Suddenly, gleaming knives emerged from the right pant legs of the men. Sheep were pressed down to the ground by entire families, and as the angry roar of men pierced the night everyone wondered, “what’s happening?”

And Aaron [the priest] shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins (Leviticus 16:21).

Everyone was shouting there sins at the sheep. Then there was blood…everywhere.

Note the blood on the back of the man in the center of the picture...also, the headless sheep next to him.

The final seconds of a young sheep’s life found it both berated and butchered.

My heart broke…because I’m not a Samaritan. Two thousand years ago, however, I stood in the same place: knife in hand, curses pouring off my lips, mocking a broken man who would be pierced through.

We arrived back in Jerusalem around 10pm and during the half hour walk back to campus from the bus stop, Tim and I spoke of what we’d seen. “What do you think God thinks about all this?” he asked. I thought for a moment, “I think it breaks His heart.”

The writer of Hebrews tells us,

[Jesus] entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh. How much more with the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God (9:12-14).

God on the cross, Jesus as the bloody lamb on the floor of the sacrificial place in Samaria, is not simply about purification from sin. He isn’t my “get out of Hell free” card. I think what grieves the heart of God the most about what happens annually atop Mount Gerizim is that this tiny community (and everyone who does not cling to the cross) is missing the heart of the Father–the One who in response to the massive rift we’ve created between His holiness and our depravity would choose to bridge the gap with His own broken body. A lesser god would hand us a to-do list, would burden our backs with blistering requirements in order that we might pay penance. Instead, the one who bled on our behalf whispered,

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30).

We need a burden bearer, because we’re buried under the weight of our sin. We need a rest-giver, because offering a bloody sacrifice year after year wears us out, and if we’re honest, there are questions in our mind regarding weather a bleating lamb is enough to make right all I’ve turned wrong.

We have Christ. We have hope. It is finished.

Gerash

In Jesus’ day, the Galilee region constituted a meeting point of cultures from all corners of the known world, a place where orthodox Judaism collided with the pagan rites, and Jewish zealots clashed with Roman legions, often times with tragic consequences. From the very beginning of his earthly ministry, Jesus was making it perfectly clear that His Gospel was to have an international audience; confronting Jewish fishermen, Samaritan adulterers and Romanized tax collectors with truth like a sharp, double-edged sword. The towns surrounding the Sea of Galilee spoke powerfully of the region’s diversity. Tiberius (on the western shore) was the crown jewel of Herod Antipas’ governorship, a strictly Jewish city where the Rabbinical movement gained significant ground after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. Across the sea, on the eastern shore, lay the Decapolis cities–ten cities that through their Corinthians columns, hippodromes, basaltic amphitheaters (below) and pagan shrines testified to the lordship of Caesar.

Naturally, the Decapolis cities were rarely visited by observant Jews, Jews who were interested in maintaining their piety and believed pagan Gentiles and Hellenized Jews were lost causes. Which, of course, made them perfect contexts for the pioneer of our faith to make manifest His love, a love transcending borders and pointing light into pagan places:

Then they sailed to the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. When Jesus had stepped out on land, there met him a man from the city who had demons. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he had not lived in a house but among the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell down before him and said with a loud voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me. (Luke 8:26-28).

Jesus walks into a Gentile graveyard, confronts an unclean, demon possessed man as pigs graze all around.  In what is perhaps the most unclean place imaginable–a non-Kosher wonderland swirling around a set of awestruck disciples–Jesus unfurls grace like a banner of burning truth.

Gerash (the likely site of "the Gerasenes") and the ruins of an ancient tomb area

…For he had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many a time it had seized him. He was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the desert.) Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Legion,’ for many demons had entered him. And they begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss. Now a large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside…(Luke 8:29-32a).

I’m trying to think of parallels in our modern context that might convey the lengths Jesus is going to in order to reach out to an individual even his pagan neighbors considered unclean, weird, and way too far gone:

Mother Theresa dips a sparking white habit into the sewage gutters of Calcutta.

A group of college students decide to do something about the horror of Uganda.

A raped mother carries a child to term and loves her boy like the child of God he is.

While certainly admirable pursuits of justice, the audacity of Jesus is the paradigmatic foundation by which these pursuits of love learn their trajectory.

And it isn’t just that Jesus met with outcasts. He goes to them, proclaiming the reality of the coming Kingdom in massive places like Gerash, hilltop cities that were meant to be testimonies to Caesar’s unrivaled rule and enduring kingdom. Sure, Caesar can command armies by shouting orders to able bodied generals. Big deal. Jesus can cast powers of darkness out of raging grave-dwellers by breathing orders into the midnight air. He is King. He is general. He is all:

The ruins of Gerash, looking north in the Golan Heights

Now a large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, and they begged him to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned…The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.”And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him (Luke 8:32-33, 38-39).

Have there been places you’ve ended up, places you believed yourself to have finally lost God? Then God showed up, in the midst of your raving lunacy, broke your chains, opened your eyes, and sent the sin in your life sliding down the hill into the sea? Yes? Take a moment and thank the One who shows up in our Gerash’s and calls us His own. Then, follow the bit of advice Jesus gives to the former grave-dweller, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.”

Do you sit is chains still today, cursing the darkness and writhing in agony? Look up. Dare to believe that a Kingdom has come and is coming, and the King, His eyes burn with a zealous love for you. He’s near even now, stretching out His hand…

And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for, ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’ (Acts 17:26-28).

Soul Fire

There are a myriad of ways one might express the beauty of this place. On coffee shops and in tiny parks scattered on lonely street corners, pilgrims pour words into journals, paint limestone landscapes and snap photos with bulky black cameras.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been welcomed into a group of fellow students who have definitively chosen their preferred form of expression, the way in which our hearts can sing the song of Jerusalem, the canticle of Israel: poetry. Once a week, usually after assigning a topic for a poem a few days prior, we gather at a local pub or a nearby home and share what our hearts have churned out.

As my friend Ryan and I wandered back from poetry night last week I was struck with an idea, “Ryan, we should invite Rabbi Moshe to poetry night!” I was only half serious. Ryan responded, “Yes!”

Rabbi Moshe is the professor for two of my classes here at Jerusalem University College, “Jewish Thought” and “The Parables of Jesus.” Moshe’s isn’t a Christian, though he does hold Jesus to be a compelling, first century Rabbi. I’ve never had a Rabbi before, and Ryan, Jordan (the other member of our poetry group) and I have come to love Moshe, his passion for God, his knowledge of the Scriptures (both testaments), and his genuine love for teaching.

The moment we returned to campus Ryan sent Moshe an email inviting him to poetry night this week. Rabbi responded indicating that he would love to join us. After class last Friday, Jordan came up with an idea for a topic: success. Ryan informed Moshe and with a sort of spark in his eyes he confessed, “Ryan, this is the perfect topic for me. I took a new job as an academic administrator a year ago. It was a huge career move for me, but to be honest, I hate my job. I miss teaching.”

The four of us met this evening at the college and walked to Jordan’s apartment on the east side of Jerusalem. Moshe hadn’t been to the Arab part of the city for over ten years, and as we strolled past the Damascus Gate he kept remarking at how the time had flown. Our path brought us through back alleys packed with Arabic signs, the smell of falafel and the allure of saffron. Jordan swung open a gate to our right and led us into a secluded garden: our evening stage.

The Poetry Crew (left to right): Rabbi Moshe, Ryan and Jordan

To protect the sanctity of the poetic muse, I can’t share what the others wrote; however, I’ll gladly share my own stumbling semblance of “success”.

—–

Formative years all galsses and braces
Hide and seek bottles and hideaway places
A tone deaf child couldn’t hum to the song
That sang of a home where children belong

So fluttering eyelids and frantic embraces
Tying up baseball cleats and hockey skate laces
Rhymed all his verses to forget all his wrongs
And to sing of a home where children belong.

While chasing applause from wonderstruck faces
He preached from the pulpit of saviors and graces
And fought for his voice and to prove himself strong
To sing of a home where children belong.

Then he came to his senses.

The quiet eyes of a dying man
Ran to him from a hospital bed,
handed him needle and thread,
And a pattern for a tapestry.
They spun.

A gray house with a faded red door
A sweeping front porch with a crooked, creaking floor
Morning light igniting the hair of a bride
Her hand tracing his back
Like the evening tide.
And God in the space between palms pressed together.
Tying atoms to atoms like summer to heather.
The three of us humming a melodious song
Is the space itself where children belong.

Good Enough

I arrived in Israel four months ago with certain pictures drawn in my mind–perceptions of how things ought to be, and what the phrase “holy land” means.

Most of these presuppositions have turned out false, and instead I’ve been cast into a crucible of sorts where my faith has been deconstructed, refined and renewed. There are physical landscapes I’ve visited which speak to these changes, but perhaps none more so than the ancient Moabite city of Kir-hareseth:

Kir-hareseth served as the Moabite capital during the reign on Jehoram in the north and Jehoshaphat in the south. We read in 2 Kings 3 that Mesha served as king over Moab, but since the reign of Jeroham’s father (the illustrious Ahab) Mesha served Israel and was forced to pay an annual tribute of 100,000 lambs and the wool 0f 100,000 rams. It’s likely that Mesha did not, himself, pay the tribute, but rather taxed the Moabite people heavily in order to pay the tribute.

One cannot help but feel sympathy for the Moabite leader who likely found himself stuck: pay the tribute and risk the rebellion of his own people or rescind the wool and lambs and risk wrath of Israel.

2 Kings 3:5 tells us which path Mesha took,

But when Ahab died, the king of Moab rebelled against the king of Israel.

Jehoram garnered the support of the Judean king Jehoshaphat, and the two marched south, around the southern tip of the Dead Sea. The text reminds us of the climate or that route (as a general rule, rainfall in Israel decreases as one moves south and east),

So the king of Israel went with the king of Judah and the king of Edom. And when they had made a circuitous march of seven days, there was no water for the army or for the animals that followed them… (2 Kings 3:9).

The Dead Sea is surround by extreme nothingness, an arid wasteland (Pop quiz: how many fish live in the Dead Sea? Right, none…thus the name). Oases like En Gedi and Jericho are anomalies scattered like diamonds in a massive coal mine.  Languishing in the desert and suffering from dehydration, the Israelite army realized that the imposing 3,000 foot ascent of the Dana Wadi’s sharp cliffs still stood between them and the rouge Mesha. The prophet Elisha (who for some reason had chose to travel from Israel to the middle of nowhere) is quickly summoned to the side of his king, Jehoram and asked to provide something of a miracle. Jehoram probably thought, “If Elisha’s predecessor, Elijah, could provide rain for my father, Ahab, then certainly he could do the same for me.” As usual, the prophet says something that could get him killed,

As the LORD of hosts lives, before whom I stand, were it not that I have regard for Jehoshaphat the king of Judah, I would neither look at you nor see you (2 Kings 3:14).

No sooner, water rolls down the Wadi, without rain or wind. Clearly this is the hand God. Clearly God is fighting on the side of Judah and Israel (and the Edomites, who joined forces with Jehoram and Jehoshaphat) side, Mesha would soon be back in the pocket of Israel (along with his substantial tribute). The prophet even promises,

[The LORD] will…give the Moabites into your hand, and you shall attach every fortified city and every choice city, and shall fell every good tree and stop up all springs of water and ruin every good piece of land with stones (3:18-19).

Charging up the cliffs of the wadi, the Israelites struck hard against Moab (just like the prophet promised),

And they went forward, striking the Moabites as they went. And they overthrew cities, and on every good piece of land every man threw a stone until it was covered. They stopped every spring of water and felled all the good trees till only its stones were left in Kir-haresth, and the slingers surrounded and attacked it (3:24-25).

Crusader castle in Kir-hareseth (Karak)

Most biblical stories end here. Israel wins, the kingdom grows…next chapter. However, in this section of the narrative, something strange happens,

When the king of Moab (Mesha) saw that the battle was going against him, he took with him 700 swordsmen to break through, opposite the king of Edom, but they could not. they he took his oldest son who was to reign in his place and offered him for a burnt offering on the wall. And there came a great wrath against Israel. And they withdrew from him and returned to their own land (3:26-27).

No explanation is given to what this “great wrath” was. Some suggest that the horrendous nature of the king’s actions left the Israelites utterly disgusted, to the point that they would forsake the battle and return home. Others say the king’s child sacrifice elicited such a fury from his troops that they were able to regain ground and force the Israelite contingent into retreat. Either way, Mesha’s decision to kill his own son turned the tide of the battle and caused the “good guys” to fall back. Did God do this? Certainly He allowed it! Which is interesting, given how clearly He expresses His feelings about child sacrifice in other parts of the Bible, for example,

You shall not give any of the children to offer them to Molech (a Canaanite god), and so profane the name of your God (Leviticus 18:21)

Hundreds of years later, it would be Judah’s embrace of this despicable practice that would move the hand of God to carry the Babylonians into Jerusalem (Jeremiah 32:35).

The Israelite withdrawl from Moab leaves lingering questions. Mesha kept his kingdom (though it had been ravaged by the Jehoram and Jehoshaphat), held onto his tribute, and even extended his borders north onto the Medaba Plateau (a more fertile and centrally located stretch of land).

The guy who offers his son to the fire (apparently) wins? He’s given a bigger kingdom?

2,000 years later, as dark cloud of Medieval Christendom swept through the Middle East, leaving corpses of Jews and Muslim scattered atop the sand, a fortress was built in Kir-hareseth by Crusaders looking to force Arab Muslims back into the Saudi deserts.

a chache of canonballs found at Kir-hareseth

2,000 years later, questions arise for Kir-hareseth: “Why would God allow something like the Crusades to happen? How could Christians participate in such brutality? What does it look like to prove to the watching world that ours is not a theology of pointless violence, but of love, grace and truth?

I have no idea why Mesha’s victory only became secure after he sacrificed his son to a pagan God (really, to a demon). I can’t figure out why God would bring the fiery rain upon Sodom and Gomorrah while sparing the Moabites.

During my time in Israel a realization of my ignorance has taken center stage. God is bigger than the boxes we try to squeeze Him into…and my arms are tired from trying. I don’t know why God does the things He does. Questions have turned my brain into an aviary where ponderings perch and and take flight with no semblance of order.

I don’t know much. But I do know that God is good. I realize how simplistic this sounds, but these past few months have torn down presupposition, speculation, and made me feel like a kindergartner with a massive red crayon trying to draw God. I grab my piece of paper and draw a stick figure with a huge heart…good enough.

Petra

Moses was found by the living God amidst the crooked crags of Egypt’s Sinai.

David and Jesus encountered the burning heart of the Father in the desolate landscape just East of Jerusalem–the Judean Wilderness.

Paul tells us in his letter to the church in Galatia,

…when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus (Galatians 1:15-17).

From Damascus, Paul would have likely traveled South along a common route stretching from Syria to what is now southern Jordan. Quite possibly, one of Paul’s final stops before reaching the wasteland of Arabia was Petra: a sandstone wonderland where the finger of God carved perfect paths across sand-whipped desert floors. Petra: the place where Indiana Jones became the penitent man, correctly spelled the name of God (in Latin), bravely leaped from the Lion’s Head, and identified Jesus’ Last Supper cup.

And while “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” is an awesome movie, my experience at Petra taught me a very different lesson than the supremely evident, “Don’t mess with Harrison Ford, especially when he’s got a whip in his right hand.”

Wilderness.

For some reason, God has a habit of dragging his world-shakers into the suffocating sands that dot the landscape surrounding the Promised Land. Before we are able to receive what God has for us, we must learn how dependent we are on Him. It’s easy to seek the things that flow so graciously from His hands; however, we need to learn a yearning for His face, the simple and devastating reality of His countenance reaching into our cloudy eyes.

We hiked for hours under the April Jordanian sun, which may mean nothing to you, so feel free to insert your particular town, and instead of April, add July. Uphill. Camels and donkeys passed us on the path, carrying awkward looking and significantly more wealthy (thus they were able to afford a camel ride to the top) tourists from the far corners of the globe.

Eventually we reached a bit of a shady spot. I stopped, opened my Bible, and eventually found my way to Psalm 19,

In them he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom leaving its chamber; and, like a strongman, runs its course with joy. It’s rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them, and there is nothing hidden from its heat (vv. 4b-6).

I looked up from my weather worn Bible, scanned the rocky horizon frantically looking for some semblance of life (apart from the sun scorched tourists bobbing like corks upon haggard camels). Nothing. The Psalmist seems to liken the heat of the sun to the relentless nature of God’s presence among His people–if the sun covers the face of the earth, how much more does God (who made the sun to burn) cover His creation.

It’s hot. My neck is quickly running the summer spectrum of skin colors–stopping on cherry red. God is near. The sun tells me so.

Deserts are lonely places. They represent humanity’s limitations. While we’re able to tame certain landscapes–diverting water and leveling ground–in places like Petra we can do nothing more than throw our hands in the air. But God is still at home. God isn’t tied to rainfall amounts or soil types. He is. And He welcomes people like Moses, David, Jesus and Paul, as well as you and I, into barren places so that we might know that God alone is our sustenance.

To the people of Israel, God made this profoundly clear,

And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord (Deut. 8:2-4).

When the rocks cry out, “desolation”, we are reminded that He is our portion. Why does God lead his world-shakers into wilderness? Because something happens when we allow the One who clothed the first humans to strip every semblance of comfort from our frail frames, and re-clothe us with garments of grace. Grace: getting all that we don’t deserve; receiving with open hands all the affection of the One who causes our hearts to bloom in broken places.

A New Name

This winter I wrestled with God. As the wild evening winds tore at the facade of my monastic guest room atop the Mount of Olives, I stretched my hands out across the cold tile floor and listened–rain pounding against dusty windows, the buzz of my tiny space heater…and sobs like a drowning man’s angry lungs scrambling for life.

Looking back on these past four months I realize that God has quite assuredly set me up. In my mind I had assumed that I was in control: booking tickets, enrolling in classes, raising support, and packing up my townhome.

I was wrong.

I was Jacob: a deceiver having stolen that which does not belong to me (in my case, a deep-seated sense of self-sufficiency).

The heart is deceitful [Jacob] above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9)

God cast me out from Paddan-Aram, from the land I’d grown accustomed to. Like Jacob, I drove my heart hard toward Gilead, putting a multitude of miles between myself and any semblance of familiarity.

I gave God space, space to meet me. Like Jacob, I sent my people, possessions, familiarities on ahead until nothing but me, my Maker, and Jerusalem’s cold winter rains remained.

En route to Beersheba, Jacob stopped at a place that was called Mahanaim “two camps”.

The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone (Gen. 32:22-24a).

All alone, under the devastating night that swallows up the foothills of the Transjordan mountains like death in war, Jacob welcomed wandering beasts, shivering cold, and violent raiders. Why?

While Jacob’s motivations for sending his family and possessions on ahead of him were certainly ignoble (as perhaps mine were), God was using Jacob’s cowardice as a means of driving two worlds together. Jacob had become a wealthy, semi-nomadic sheep breeder; however, his success was built upon the sandy foundation of him living out his namesake: Jacob: “deceiver”. Under the hushed moonlight reflecting off the Jabbok River’s rolling back, Jacob realized his need for a reckoning. Before he met his brother Esau, before returning home to reclaim his inheritance, Jacob needed to shed the cloak of his heritage. He needed a new name.

And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day has broken.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then he said, ‘Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed’ (Gen. 32:24-28).

The identity of the man Jacob strives with remains covered under a cloak of mystery. The Hebrew name the man gives himself is eloheim, which can refer to either a singularity or plurality (“god” or “gods”). We have no idea what the name Israel really means. This passage suggests that it is derivative of the Hebrew verb sarah which means “perseverance” or “persistence”. Whatever the case, a fundamental change takes place.

I believe that all of life is a grand invitation. We are welcomed into the courts of contention, beckoned by the Creator to wrestle with Him so that we might receive a new name. Why consider throwing down with the King of Kings? Because, if we’re honest, each of us have a sense that who we are is not who we’re meant to be. We live and breathe broken names: “deceiver”, “addict”, “failure”; and when we are finally willing to say, “enough” God leads us to the riverside, provides spaces like the top of the Mount of Olives, and wrestles with us.

Jacob “persisted” through the angry hours of the night, peering into the darkest parts of his heart. He earned his new name. As the breaking dawn began to light up the river like an oil lamp, I imagine Jacob, Israel, seeing a different man as staring back at him through the Jabbok’s rushing waters.

Healed and wounded: Israel greets morning with a limp. Jacob’s fight illuminates the paradox of the spiritual life. We are simultaneously broken and mended.

The narrative closes with one of the most poetic images in the Bible,

So Jacob called the name of the place Penuel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip (32:31-32).

Old westerns depict the hero wandering with something like a swagger into the sunset. Jacob got it backwards. Sunrise is likened to the face of God, and as the awe-full beauty of Him rose upon Israel, the new man stumbled out of the canyon with a limp: broken and reborn.

I cried for two straight months. My evening rhythm began with the curtain falling early on those winter afternoons. As the last thread of light tore and fell away below the horizon, I’d think about dinner, cook a modest meal, write about the day’s adventures, and by 7:30pm, retire to Penuel, where tears would always fall. When I couldn’t cry any longer, I would sleep. Each morning I woke with a limp.

Jacob’s legacy, the place called Israel, is sending me home with two profound gifts: a new name and a permanent limp. My narrative, Lord willing, will conclude with a familiar refrain:

So Bryan called this land Israel, saying, ‘God has led me here to teach me how to wrestle. I have welcomed God, and He has both wounded and healed me.’ The sun rose as he boarded his plane, limping because of his hip, weeping because of his God.

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