Sunday, February 25, 2001

Clear as a Bell

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Mark 9:2-9

Whence Saving Insight

When and how does a moment of insight come? What are the steps up along the mountain trail that give a moment of clarity that can save us?

Peter must have heard our Lord's ageless command: "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow." (Mark 8: 32). Then Peter is led, step by step, up a high mountain, where something…unearthly…occurs. He sees what cannot be seen. And, from this mountain view, for a moment, there is insight and there is clarity.

When and how does such a moment arrive, a moment of clarity that can save us from an anger that leads to murder, or a heartache that leads to suicide, or a despair over a velocity addicted nation drenched in violence, or a chagrin about a country that ever more closely approximates Fosdick's verse, "rich in things and poor in soul"?

Today's Gospel promises you clarity and insight, found step by step along the rocky trail of life, that can lift us up above sin and death and the threat of meaninglessness.

Walk along with me, if you will, for just a few minutes…up the mountain path we go…take five steps up the mountain.

My friend Ken McMillan says, "plan for the worst, hope for the best, then do your most, and leave all the rest".

Insight Through the Thicket of Personal Need

One step toward insight lies through the thicket of personal need. Careful, step carefully here. Here you recognize your mortality. "It is a great life, but few of us get out alive." Here you admit that the acts of desperation in news reports come from conditions you also know. Fear, anger, jealousy, hatred, dread. Here-step lightly- you see the shadow, and your shadow in the greater shadow. One called this "the feeling of absolute dependence". Here we are confessional. We say, "Hello. My name is John Smith and I am an alchoholic." We say, "We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep." We say, "There but for the grace of God, go I.

Last week I finished reading Don Snyder's book, his story of personal need, The Cliff Walk. With four children under 7, and a history of easy success in college and graduate school and writing and teaching, Don loses his job, and for the first time gets a pink slip, from, of all places, Colgate University. For two years he cannot find work and for the first time faces lasting unemployment, changeable housing, no health insurance, depression, and shame. He returns home to the physical life of his grandfather and father, hard day labor along the Maine coast. He had fled that life, not looking back, hoping for ease and plenty, as he says quoting Willie Loman, "on a shoeshine and a smile". Disaster overtakes him and he is nearly crushed. But then, something happens. Walking on a cliff out past South Portland, after a hard winter of nailing shingles in the bitter wind, downcast downeast, he realizes that for the first time in his life, he is happy, confident, self-employed. There came a moment, high on the mountain of personal struggle, that was clear as a bell:

I'm just a man who paints houses for a living, and who pays his own way through this world, and who takes care of his family and fears for his children's future and doesn't try to become something else and doesn't judge others and who lays down his tax money willingly because he can afford to help people who can't find their way anymore.

When we are helpless, insight can come.

Wesley is still with us to ask, "will you visit from house to house?" From Brentwood to Brighton and beyond? Insight sees inside the closed door of personal need, and measures the distance between public appearance and private reality.

Every Sunday in our worship service we hear the cry of personal need, clear as a bell, in our prayers.

Insight Over the River of Others' Hurts

A second step toward insight lies over the river of another's hurt. Here, we'll jump the river at the portage path, where we bear each other's burdens like canoes carried in tandem. A moment of clarity can come when you truly see another's plight, and feel it in your heart. Some insight comes from serving others, some from sensing others' hurt. It is really a matter of understanding power, this insight about others. Think of the Prince and the Pauper, or of Lazarus and Dives. Insight happens in the chorus of the common life, when we sing out, "so that's what it's like to be you…"

The progressive tradition, theological and political, which is Rochester's hallmark (Rauschenbusch, Douglass, Anthony, and others) may be criticized as a "johnny one note" presentation. But if you have to choose just one note to play, this is the one to pick. Jesus means freedom. To learn about the nature of power, and the effects of power, we listen to the powerless.

Some in our church are working in mission with a church in Honduras. Dr. Mark Baker, our friend and missionary, now teaching in California, has written about this moment when things are as clear as a bell, in his book Religious No More:

Living in Honduras led me to take a new look at the version of the Gospel that I grew up with, and I observed things that I had not noticed before…

Insight comes through the common song that recognizes another's hurt, and then learns by seeing through the lens of another's hurt, as did Mark in Honduras, and as we have been following him to Honduras.

You know, we recognize this chance for insight every Sunday as we sing hymns together, to recognize that we are all in this together.

Insight Scaling the Cliffs of Reason

A third step toward insight lies over the cliff of reason. "Come let us reason together" says the Psalmist. God has entrusted us with freedom, and with minds to things through our use of freedom. While reason has its limits, it is reason, finally, that will help us learn the arts of disagreement - at home, at work, in church, in the community. We say, "try to be reasonable".

On the Mountain of Transfiguration, Peter sees Jesus with Moses and Elijah. Moses is the lawgiver, the reception to the divine and lasting truth in the ten words:

No other gods but me. Not that there are no other beings to worship - there are, humans enslave themselves regularly in their worship. For you? No. Only the one God who is one.

No graven image. Not even the golden bull which the hyper patriarchal Israelites are making for themselves even as Moses meets God.

No taking of the divine name in vain. There is a reverence before the Mystery of Being that is a part of the truth, all our new age religiosity notwithstanding.

Remember the Sabbath. At least 1/7 of our time is meant for rest and recreation. 52 days a year at least.

Honor your father and mother. Dad and Mom both. For all the traditionalism of the Scripture, there is remarkable space, early in history, for mom - Deborah, Miriam, Esther, Ruth, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel.

Do not murder. Are we as a culture moving closer to this word, or farther away? In sports? At both ends of the life continuum? Is it noteworthy that only one of the four major Presidential candidates opposed the death penalty?

Do not adulter. Mark Twain said it is not the things in the Bible we cannot understand that are so tough, but the things we can all understand, and easily.

Do not steal. We are careful about others' property. Are we also careful not to steal others' time?

Do not bear false witness. More than a civil law is involved with testimony to truth.

Do not covet. Be happy with what you have, what you have earned, what you will have.

On the high mountain, the austere place for wind, sand, stars and truth, we may know the truth in a way that is clear as a bell.

You know, we recognize this chance for insight, this moment of clarity, every Sunday through a sermon, a word fitly spoken (we hope).

Insight Across the Gorge of the Will

A fourth step toward insight lies across the great gorge of the will. Look before you leap. We are here ever closer to the mountaintop. Real insight comes in a moment of decision. Some say we learn to choose. But our experience is that we learn by choosing. Viktor Frankl spent his whole life developing the "logotherapy" around this one conviction: we grow by deciding. Choose. You cannot lose, in the fullest sense, and in the long run. Choose. Either way, you have learned, you will grow, you have changed, you will improve, you have developed. Choose.

Peter sees Elijah up on the mountain, too. Elijah is the grandfather of all the prophets, whose words about justice we heard again along the village green last fall. Moses stands for Law and Elijah stands for prophets.

For Elijah itself, the Voice came this way. He also, like Moses before, is alone upon a Sinai mountain, fearing that all is lost for his people. He holes up in a cave as night falls. Then a voice draws him out to the mountaintop. And he knew that God was present. There was a hurricane. There was an earthquake. There was a great fire. But God was found in none of them, rather, later, in "a still small voice." As Thomas Cahill says,

YHWH is not Baal the bull, not the storm god after all. He controls the weather, since he is its Creator, but he is not in any of its elements. He does not belong to the special effects. He is in us, the still small voice, the murmuring of personal conscience.

Faith is not a matter of emotion or feeling or soul or heart or intellect only. First, faith is a decision. "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow."

As Kierkegaard put it, "either/or"… Either God exists or not. Decide. Either you see God in Christ or not. Decide. Either Jesus Christ has a claim on your life or not. Decide. Either every day is a chance for love or not. Decide. Either the way of love means particular consequent acts regarding your time, your money, your body, your community…or not. Decide.

Faith is not as much thrill as it is will.

You know, we recognize this chance for insight every Sunday, in a moment of invitation - to devotion, to discipline, to dedication.

Insight Upon the Summit of Loyalty

A fifth step toward insight brings us to the summit. There. Take a breath. Up here, the air is rarified. Up here, you may have a moment of clarity. For the fifth step toward insight brings us to the altar of loyalty.

Forgive the use of archaic words - loyalty, duty, chivalry. Beware though the sense that loyalty is a matter of sullen obedience. On the contrary! Loyalty is the red flame lit in the heart's chancel, lit with the admixture of personal need and social concern, illumined by the reason and ignited by the will. Loyalty combines the conservative concern for morality with the liberal hunger for justice. Loyalty is life, but life with a purpose.

Insight, real clarity, can come with a brush up with loyalty. Tell me what you give to, and I will tell you who you are. Tell me what you sacrifice for, and I will tell you who you are. Tell me what altar you face, and I will tell you who you are.

You know, we recognize this chance for insight every Sunday, through the presentation of gifts, an expression of loyalty, at the altar of grace and freedom and love.

Sunday, February 11, 2001

Arrive Alive

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: 1Peter 5:1-11


Do you sense, here and there, an increase in discourtesy and incivility? Just how well did the audience at the elementary music concert behave? How, exactly, would you characterize the communication you receive by e-mail? When the telephone rings during dinner time does your heart leap expectantly, or are you conditioned to expect a conversation that is mercantile, anonymous, harsh, brutal and short? What do you see on the streets, the actual streets, where you live?

One morning I watched a man back his car out onto a busy street. It was early and the snow drifted lightly onto the pavement. He calmly continued a cell phone conversation as the car meandered back into the street. He did not notice, or was not paying attention, as two cars came toward him, one from the east close lane and one from the west far lane. They honked, he proceeded. They braked, he proceeded. They went over their respective curbs to avoid collision, he proceeded. They gestured memorably as he proceeded, conversation continuing, not a worry in the world.

Do you sense an increase in motorist discourtesy and incivility? Is this very basic aspect of community life any indication, any measure of the spiritual awareness of our time? One driving teacher admonished her pupils, "drive always so as to arrive alive." Is this how we drive and live?

The first Letter of Peter, written during the empire wide persecution of Christians and others in the late first century, is generally understood to be a long essay on the meaning of baptism. Our chapter happens to address features of life with which we are very familiar: relations between leaders and followers, the young and the old, the strong and the weak, those inside and those outside. Under the impress of Roman domination, so artfully recreated in our youth production last weekend, the earliest church crystallized for later ages some rules of the road. I think it is important for us to recognize when this passage is read that men and women sacrificed to give us this Word.

The flock felt very much like sheep when subjected to the Roman lash. Exemplary behavior truly was valued, because it set a course for safety, safety in the midst of persecution. No matter how the empire behaved, these few could take on new clothing - humility, love, grace. Yes, they knew anxiety, the fear of being thrown to lions. They knew of others who, due to their identification with Jesus, and their willingness to call him "Lord", where eaten by lions, as others watched. So when the writer said, "Be sober. Be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour", they heard more than just a fine literary phrase, well-turned, and holding colorful metaphor. They heard a stern warning, meant to help them arrive alive, through all the journey of life.

My friend Ken McMillan says, "plan for the worst, hope for the best, then do your most, and leave all the rest".

The early Roman church also had its motto: "Be sober. Be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour."

In a three point sermon, we would say: Pay attention. Be honest. See others. Here are some simple rules for the road, as you back out of the driveway, coffee splashing and cell-phone dancing: concentrate, communicate, compensate.

Driving Home

1 Peter may have some lasting meaning. It helps, around the house, if you do pay attention, and if you are honest, and if you do "see", really "see" others.

What a rich and healthy time this is in our life together! I marveled last weekend to observe our church in worship services and in youth theater, and in adult classes and in musical ensembles and in service work and in new forms of communication—all at the same time and that more than 50 of our leading women went away for the weekend. By all reports those were glorious days away on retreat! Still, there is the moment of return, of re-entry. I wondered how those moments went….

Honey, I'm home"
How was the retreat?
"It was just great! We laughed and cried. Margie and Robin were there. The food was fine. What a real treat in the middle of winter!
I am so glad.
"Honey, uh, what are these two partially eaten bananas doing on the kitchen floor?"
It's a funny thing, you'll be amused by this…
"Never mind, I know how hard it can be…(silence)…uh, honey, where is the dog?"
It's a funny thing, you'll be amused by this…
"No, I'll look for her down the block, never mind…(silence)…Honey, why are there eleven pairs of shoes and one hockey skate in the middle of the living room? What is this, a prayer meeting for footgear?"
It's a funny thing, you'll be amused by this…
"I doubt it. Anyway, how was church?"
It's a funny—
"Don't tell me. You didn't go."
Well, the alarm went off, and I just rolled over for a minute, and then it was already 9:00 so I figured we would just listen to the service on the radio.
"Well, ok, I have to give you credit, there, that is better than nothing. What was the sermon about?'
It's a funny thing, you'll be amused by this, we didn't actually listen…
Yes, it was a good and joyful thing, men, when you ducked as the frying pan came sailing toward your scalp. Those skillets can smart. And they leave a little bump on the forehead.

All attempted humor aside, how is your home front driving going? Have you avoided recently all rolling stops, all marginal speeding, all running of red lights, all unlicensed travel? I think we still have some unfinished driver education at home, when it comes to women and men. Sometimes our need can be revealed, apocalypsed, to us on a winter weekend, when least we expect it. Do we pay attention, when the other asks? Do we honestly state our needs, so the other truly can hear? Do we "see" the hurt and desire of another and work to bring out the best?

Here is a Biblical imperative, wrought for us in the fire of first century trouble: pay attention, be honest, see others; concentrate, communicate, compensate.

The Scripture reminds us: "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you." For Paul and the Colossians it was a kind of slogan.

"Be sober. Be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour."

Driving From Home to Church

Most of us drive to church. We park carefully to leave space for the less mobile. We filter out into the far reaches of the back lot. You know, there are some similar lessons that we learn over time not about driving to church, but about driving in church. A measure of civility is required to maintain a community. We learn that when someone really needs us to stop and listen, really stop and really listen, a rolling stop is not good enough. We learn that speeding through work that has some gracious, reasonable and venerable speed limits, set for our own good, can cause an injury or two. We learn that running a stop sign, whether it is a cautionary octagon in red about use of resources or personal morality or use of language or use, let us beware, of another person - we run real risk when we run red lights. We learn that driving when and where we are not licensed, especially in licentious behaviors, does lasting damage, generationally lasting damage. Few of us get through life without an existential traffic ticket or two.

Even in the best of circumstances, there are occasional collisions in church life. Of all the things that worry us, these are the greatest. They are in some measure inevitable. They are going to happen. But we want to do our very best to make them as few and as minor as possible.

In fact, the New Testament presumes that accidents happen. Matthew 18, yet another of the teachings of Jesus recalled for the need of the church, counsels us about car repair. Speak privately. If you need to, take a friend. If more is needed, gather the church. What is most astounding is the end of this paragraph on ecclesiastical driving: "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them."

My friend says, "There are four rules in life. Show up. Pay attention. Tell the truth. Don't get too attached to the results." This is his motto.

Here is another slogan. 1 Peter has some wisdom to share with us in the life of the church. "Be sober. Be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour."

Or, in three point parlance:

First, pay attention. Truly attend to the presence, form, voice, history, needs, hurts, longings, desires, doubts, graces, failings - the soul - of another. Wherever you are, be there.

Second, be honest. Name the truth as you have experienced it and as you need to name it for your own salvation, worked out in fear and trembling. You can be kind, and still be honest. There are ways, and we learn them better as we age. Praise in public, criticize in private. Communicate clearly, early, truly, surely. If you signal to turn left, turn left. Trust others, the Spirit, your heart, God.

Third, "see" others. The first letter of Peter, and the whole of the Bible, remind us to watch and measure not from the heights but from the depths. " Seeking someone to devour." I think our best guide to this verse is through our own suffering, which is in fact what the letter of Peter later says.

The church is always both a representation and a demonization of the divine, wheat and tares together sown. Tillich taught us that.

Concentrate, communicate, compensate.

Drive So As To Arrive Alive

There come moments in life when we wake up. For some people, as for Paul, there is one earth shattering and road splitting moment. The heavens open and a voice speaks. For others, as for Peter, there is a series of moments. Peter liked the snooze control. A moment by the Sea of Galilee, and the leaving of nets. Leaving home. A moment in Caearea Philippi, and the dye is cast. Growing up. A moment outside the court of the guard in Jerusalem, in the fire light, and tragic denial. Seeing our worst selves. And then a glorious moment, on the far side of trouble, call it Easter morning tombside, when we see who it is who has loved us enough to give us life, and forgiveness and eternal life. There come moments in life when we wake up.

Is this such a moment for you?

I mean. Are you ready to concentrate and communicate and compensate? Are you ready to wake up and live the life of a dying man? Are you ready to pay attention and be honest and see others? Are you ready to start to drive concentrating all your attention and communicating with real honesty and compensating for the hurts of others you see? Are you ready to wake up?

I mean. It is one thing to audit the course, another to sign up for credit. It is one thing to sit in the stands, another to lace up your own cleats. It is one thing to say hello on Friday and goodbye on Sunday, another to commit. And: it is one thing to sit in the pew and sing the hymn, another to say to yourself, "I am a Christian. Come what may, I am a Christian."

If you love Jesus you will do something for him. This week. Volunteer to watch kids. Sign to become a member. Write a check. Maybe most radically: give yourself 15 minutes of attentive silence every morning. This is a call to wake up and live. Whether you push the snooze alarm or swing your legs to the floor, the word is the same: pay attention, be honest, see others.

Then you will drive as to arrive, alive

Sunday, February 04, 2001

Which Angel Is It?

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Genesis 32:22-32

Lost My Car

Wednesday, Peter, our eastern European car mechanic, gave me the bad news. Along Monroe Avenue, along the River Jabbok, on the banks of LIFE, we meet up with death, forms of death, dark angels with whom we wrestle from dusk to dawn. We do not change them. They change us. We do not name them. They name us. Our struggles name us. Especially those chronic struggles that continue without conclusion, they name us.

Peter gently and kindly let me know that the angel of death had come to our beloved Dodge caravan. After many miles and trips, adventures and repairs, boogey boards and camping gear and dog days wet willies and laughter and mayhem - the poor thing died. With this vehicle we had visited the ocean and the mountains, attended weddings and funerals, carried kids to college and back again.

"But is there not anything you can do?"
There is nothing to do.
"Surely you can repair the transmission, the axles, the carburator, the front end and the frame?'
No, I cannot.
"You mean - this is it?"
This is it. Donate the car to a good cause, maybe your church. You cannot change this.

Lost My Dog

Five years ago at Christmas, that old van took us, five humans and one dog, a little farther out on the River Jabbok, a little farther east on Monroe Avenue. That day the angel we wrestled was not in the auto repair but in the animal clinic. It seemed like we had left so much behind over the last year - schools, friends, church, home, family. Now one more "goodbye" loomed inside the veterinarian's office. The poor dog could not walk and could not breath, could barely hear and see, and looked up drooling with such a plaintive gaze, a hard gaze to hold. No barking, just the rough labored breathing of the last day. One by one we said our farewell - a hand on the head, a hug, a kiss, a tear. We tried to negotiate with the veterinarian, the implacable white-gowned angel of the day.

"But is there not anything you can do?"
There is nothing to do.
"But surely you can administer some medicine, suggest surgery, provide a therapy, offer a new drug?"
No, I cannot.
"But Molly is more than dog, she is a friend, a member of our family. You don't understand. There must be something you can do."
No, there is nothing. Take her ashes and remember the good times, and someday find another dog or give someone a pet as good as the one given you. You cannot change this.

Lost My Mom

Still farther east on Monroe Avenue, or farther out on the River Jabbok, depending on your point of view, beyond the auto repair, on the far side of the pet cemetery, you know that there is a funeral home. One day we stopped there, late in the afternoon. Some of the community had gathered to honor the life and faith of a woman who had lived a long and happy life with great and joyful faith. Her sons and daughter welcomed all with conviviality and an air of celebration. A great life and a great lady! The room resounded with laughter and conversation. And then we left, walking out into the cold night air. There, before the best of deaths, one could feel the lurking, stalking presence of the angel, which one is it? - that implacable presence of what does not change, the chronic contest of life with its own ending. And a silent internal conversation ensued.

"Is there nothing more to be said or done?"
There is nothing. All the rivers run to the sea, but the sea is not full.
"But surely there is something more than can be offered, at such a time, more faith, more friends, more feeling."
No, there is not. You cannot change this.

Chronic Struggles

We notice, as we move through our brief set of days, that many of us wrestle with lasting, implacable losses and hurts. The arthritis that mounts its attack each morning, and lies in wait each night. The past, that is to say permament, frozen in time, forever present, unchanging hurt of a deed done or endured. The inexplicable, unfair illness, incurable and unchanging. The social ill that seems to have been addressed in one generation, only to reappear, metastasized, in another. The chosen, permanent departure of someone loved. Perhaps you have wondered, as I have this week, whether the faith of Jesus Christ has anything to offer in the midst of such a wrestling match. That is what I would like to talk with you about this morning. Does faith mean anything in the midst of unwinnable struggles? Does the faith of Jesus Christ have anything to say to those grappling, wrestling to a draw, with unconquerable opponents? What does our faith say when, as we struggle along, we realize: Though you will wrestle until dawn, you cannot change this?

Named by Trouble

Which brings us, straightway, to Jacob. You will remember his earlier life. With help from his mother, Rebecca, Jacob stole his Father Isaac's blessing, out of the hands of hapless brother Esau. Isaac was old and blind and Jacob pretended to be his brother, and with guile received the blessing meant for another. You will remember the hatred that Esau, the loser, felt as he did see his thieving brother prosper. I believe the Scripture says that he hated Jacob and wanted to kill Jacob. For Esau was deeply, permanently hurt. I hear his voice week by week ringing out from Genesis 27: 38, and ringing out in the actual experience of this congregation: "Esau lifted his voice and wept." Jacob, in whom there was guile, then fled. He fled to Haran and on the way dreamed of a ladder coming down out of heaven, and heard God bless his future. Then, remember, he went to his uncle, Laban, and fell in love with Rachel, served for seven years to earn the right to marry her, was tricked by Laban and married to Leah, and then was given Rachel too by a satisfied, guileful, father in law uncle. From these odd stories we learn the history of the people of faith, and particularly the provenance of the twelve tribes. Further entanglements ensue, involving kinfolk, sheep, he-goats, capitalism, camels and bitter conflict. Jacob has learned, through hardship, to seek blessing where he can find it.

Now Jacob comes to a point of reckoning. He must the next day face his brother Esau, after many years of separation. His fear is evident. He sends his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the river. Jacob stays alone by himself as night fell. Everything Jacob is and has will be on the table the next day. He wants some time apart, some time to think, or perhaps to plot.

Of all the images in the Bible, I find this one, of Jacob roaming the riverbed alone, one of the most haunting. Here he has come around to the permanent, lasting struggles of his life. History, family, brother, past deeds, all. Like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill again, Jacob has come home to lasting hurt.

All of his life has been a struggle, and so perhaps it should not surprise us that the writer here in Genesis simply inserts, with no comment, that Jacob "wrestled with an angel until dawn". Jacob did not prevail and the man or angel or lasting condition or divine presence, never named - did not either prevail. They wrestled to a draw, and they wrestled all night long. We are meant, I think, to see that Jacob is caught up in an unwinnable, lengthy contest.

Now it is just at this point in the story that something remarkable happens. I wonder if we who profess the faith of Jesus Christ, who endured the cross, might also grow in our faith from this one Scriptural moment. Here is what happens. Jacob has wrestled with an angel all night long. He has not won, but neither has he died. He has struggled, and has still enough native guile to try to wring a blessing from this lasting struggle. "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." He asks the name of the angel, trying to learn which angel it is with whom he strives. Jacob receives a new name and a new identity, then, as his opponent renames him: you shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, one who wrestles with God.

We find our name in the middle of our struggles. Or, we are given our lasting name in the middle of our lasting struggles. Or, we became who we are meant to become right through the heart of our chronic struggles. So, I ask you…

I wonder, for you, which angel is it? Which presence has you caught? Which messenger? Which approximation of God? (For an angel, like a church, is always both a representation and a demonization of the divine.) Which condition? Which struggle? Which chronic difficulty, lasting opposition, unchanging reality has you in a half-nelson? Can you name it? Can we at least have the courage to ask its name? For there is a strange and hidden good here.

We are in earshot this morning of ancient promise. The promise is that in our struggles we will learn our true names.

We are in earshot this morning of good news. The good news is that through struggle, you may be given a new identity.

We are in earshot this morning of a whispered blessing, that within struggle there is quite possibly the birth of a new person.

We are in earshot this morning of the voice of Christ, in whose incarnation God has grappled with our chronic, implacable contests.

More than we would like, more than we admit, more than we appreciate, more than we know, we are identified by our troubles. And as my friend says, if we all through our troubles up in the air at the same time, we would probably end up picking up our very own to go home with anyway.

One Who Struggles with God

Fifty fine females from our church have retreated this weekend to the rounded shores of Owasco Lake, to pause and talk and have some fun. In a light snow they may walk through a clearing where 25 years ago the camp manager was killed in a tragic hunting accident. Why do such things happen? We do not know why such things happen. His widow has now struggled with the lasting separation in his death, inflicted without a breath of warning, on a random November day. She has wrestled an unchangeable loss, wrestled from dusk to dawn. She has done so with grace, dignity and courage. So she has wrung at least this blessing from a night of pain. She has received a new name: one who struggles with God-through loneliness.

Many of you know men and women who have had to grapple with addiction. They have faced a permanent feature of their social setting and their physiology. They are alcoholics. They are some of the most courageous people around. Some night one may come to you and say, "I am a drunk. Help me." And there are ways to help. But the condition does not change, it is a wrestling partner for the long haul, all the way from dusk to dawn. So one introduces oneself still as an addict, but in recovery. Did you hear? Right there, right up against the wall of a lasting condition, some find a new name, "recovering". We have AA groups that meet in this church. You may have a close friend who faced his condition 20 years ago, struggled, and prevailed. He has received a new name - one who struggles with God - through addiction.

I will carry with me all my life the loss of a young woman who took her own life, now many years ago. We just do not know why these things happen. Some of the wisest and most sensitive people we finally lose to themselves. This summer, a paragraph from Vaclav Havel arrested me: "I have never been able to condemn suicides. I tend to respect them, not only for the undoubted courage needed to commit suicide, but also because, in a certain sense, suicides place the worth of life very high; they think that life is too precious a thing to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily, without meaning, without love, without hope. Sometimes I wonder if suicides are not in fact sad guardians of the meaning of life." She has received a new name - one who struggles with God—through hopelessness. Yet her family marches on, struggling with a lasting and unchangeable condition. They do so with courage. They have received a new name - one who struggles with God - through loss.

No one understands anyone else's marriage. Each is its own continent, language, culture, and sovereignty. Sometimes marriages do not make it, and they end either in form or in content. But every so often you can see hints of struggle that goes on, over against what is largely unchangeable - personality, temperament, history, psychology. You can think of times when you were witness to couples at daggers drawn, and all seemed lost. A Saturday night argument. A tearful session after church. Something overheard at the other end of the phone. What a courageous love one perceives there. Over many years, dusk to dawn as one grapples with another, they receive a new name - those who struggle with God - through matrimony and acrimony.

Which angel is it, with whom you wrestle all night long?

I will wonder my whole life why such struggles beset the people of faith. But I am a Christian because I have seen that the faith of Christ empowers men and women to struggle on until dawn, and so to be clothed in a new name - one who struggles - with God.

If you have come this morning, or some morning, having wrestled all night long, or all decade long with a chronic condition that will not change, receive in Jacob's story a good word:

We are in earshot this morning of ancient promise. The promise is that in our struggles we will learn our true names.

We are in earshot this morning of good news. The good news is that through struggle, you may be given a new identity.

We are in earshot this morning of a whispered blessing, that within struggle there is quite possibly the birth of a new person.

We are in earshot this morning of the voice of Christ, in whose incarnation God has grappled with our chronic, implacable contests.