Friday, May 23, 2014

Jacob the Wrestler

“I was alone, I’d just sent everyone on ahead of me.  It was still dark, and I saw a figure approaching.  Not knowing whether this was an enemy or foe, my heart started to race.

Then he raced at me.  Catching me off-guard, he tackled me around the middle and hurled me on my back.  Instantly I could tell he was wiry guy and might be tough, but he wasn’t a natural fighter.  I’d fought before. 

I kneed him in the leg. His body shifted and I bit down hard.  I’d felt the iron taste of blood. 

Ripping off my robe we fought for the next half-hour, no weapons to grab, just me and this stranger.  I knew I was stronger but he fought with resolve.  So did I. 

Then it happened, he touched my hip, and my whole body exploded in pain.”  
- Jacob

 [A fictional recounting of Jacob wrestling God in Genesis 32]                                                                                                               
I saw the sun-light through the shades.  They were flipped so I could see the ferns, maples and evergreens stretching into the marsh.  I wake many mornings to this stunning sight, living in west Orlando.

The light pulled at me, reminding me of God’s touch, his love and creativity in and over the world outside. 

I rolled over.  I wanted inside.  My heart felt like lead in my chest.  My fears were too much today.  Too much for me to get out of bed and face. 

Now 37 and a writer with Cru, I’ve wrestled with anxiety and depression most of my life.  It’s made me extremely aware of my limitations and given me an intense desire to run from fears in my past and to control fears in my future.

Much like Jacob in the early morning dusk, I lay awake and wrestle with God. 

My go-to crutches for life are competency, praise and respect.  Fears subside if I know that people like me, like my writing, if my wife calls me a good husband and father, if I’m pleased with an accomplishment – you get the picture.  So most of the time, without even knowing it consciously, I want my life ordered by me.

This morning, it’s not working.  Why God?

Why am I alone and shaking under the covers?   Why can’t I get up and face my day?  Why is my heart so filled with dread.  I’m so afraid.  I am a coward.

Just before wrestling the stranger Jacob sent his children, wives and cattle and on infront of him to meet his brother Esau.  On the coward front, Jacob wins.

Jacob’s life was one of wrestling with God.  Always grasping his way.  Seeking his own good.  But God was going to bless him.

On days I get really depressed and stay in bed because I’m too tired, to anxious and too fearful to face what the day may bring, I too wrestle.  It’s painful.  I feel like a total loser.  I hate God.  Why has he made me this way?  Why am I so enslaved by my fears?

As I twist in the sheets, cursing God and wanting to die, God sees me.  He sees his very own child, his little wrestler.

But time passes and I’m better.  I go to work and I feel competent, happy and even whole.  But thoughts linger:  thoughts of why do I plummet so quick and fast into depression?  How come I am still trying so hard, working so hard, playing so hard?  I don’t want to rest, to stop.  If I do, I’m afraid I’ll slide again.

Jacob realized he’d been wrestling with God as soon as the stranger touched his hip.  Who lays their hand and seperates a hip?  It’s a medical fact today that the hip is the most difficult joint in the body to separate.   Almost impossible to dislocate in the Ancient Near Eastern world Jacob would have been writing in sheer misery, but he heald on.  Perhaps white-knuckling this man who he now knew was God.

God hasn’t allowed me to struggle with anxiety and depression, he has made me struggle with anxiety and depression.  While he’s a suffering God, and hurts with me, he is a big God who knows that to drive me towards his blessing, his comfort, His life of real life, the pain and wrestling is exactly what I need.

I don’t know.   There are inexplicable things about evil and pain and the world around me everyday.  We choose to battle God.  Fists clinched and raised we scream at this so-called King who allows a world break down around us.

But in our screaming, or at least in mine, and my own even small (compared to many) pain, God meets, God blesses.

“Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”

Did God just bless Jacob?  Why?  He hated God.  His name meant deceiver.  His whole life up to this with God was riddled with lies, inconsistencies and the absolute self-reliance.  God knew that Jacob needed to win.

Jacob and I need to win, in order to lose and win again.  I know that sounds super-confusing. 

But this God Jacob wrestled with is the same God that Jacob’s descendants would help put on the cross, thereby winning.  This God is the same God who I helped crucify, my sins holding him to that cross.  God lost profoundly for Jacob and God loses profoundly for me.

Sometimes when I recognize in my day to day that God’s grace is fuller, more powerful and kinder than anything I’ve every known, and that that grace is no-where more clear than the God who lost at the cross, my desires to control may fade.  Usually not. 

Usually it takes deep emotional, physical or psychological pain, like Jacob’s ripped socket, for me to cling to my God.  Yet does this make God capricious?  A cruel God who inflicts pain?

No, he knows just how much pain I need, not only for me to receive God-life and intimacy but for me to live courageously.  He knows like a father wrestling with his child, that he can show his love best by losing.  And that in laying down and tickling and playing and laughing and grunting, and perhaps growning when the child kicks his gut, he’s laying a foundation.  So when the father tells his child “No!”  His desire is not to inflict suffering, his desire is to protect, foster intimacy and grow his child.  He wants his child to flourish, to taste the fullest life.  He stops his child so he can live.  So the child can hear his “Yes!” and rejoice.

This does not minimize our suffering.  In fact it gives it a deeper meaning.  And it’s only half the truth.  The other half is we have a God who suffers with us as we suffer. 

Like with Jacob the deceiver, God wanted to give him a new name.  With Philip the controller, the people pleaser and the fearful one, God wants to give me a new name.  What will it be?  I know it will be good, and I’m finding out.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Real Dreams

I'm reading Ann Voskamp's 1,000 Gifts this morning, just so desparately trying to see God in my mess.  This line hit home: "I believe in the power of the pit."
Anger, stress, bitterness, rage, pride, offense, accusation, murder, hate, lies, and then the pit is ever so deepening within me some days.  I used to be a prisoner to it.  I knew the prince well.  I guess I still do.
Jesus my friend wants me to lay aside old powers and cling to him.  Will he not be enough?  Is he not enough?  He feels distant on cold Tuesdays with deadlines missed and old names like "failure, wretch, slacker, messy, disorganized, hopeless, weak" whispered into this frail human mind.
I need to taste God.  I need his peace to overwhelm me.  That he is generous towards me is so very hard to believe.  I'm his delight, that's crazy right?  But that he sees not just potential in me but his very own son.  I am perfect to him, his perfect delight.  That his heart that bled for me still bleeds with deep emotion towards me seems audacious, sacrilege.  To good to really be true.
Who is this God of the half-hearted, the lazy, the tired, the weary, the worried, the anxious, the prideful, the boasting, the mean, the bitter, the cold, the resentful and the unforgiving?  Is he not?  Or dare I say he is, the great I AM.  The presence, who by very solid as rock truth, defies all odds and lies, giving truth for lies, Christ for sin, love for loss, acceptance for rejection, peace for rebellion, and loves me, Philip.  Truths so good they seem like lies.
He says my name.  Oh do I dare believe he says it.  I come running.  My name means "lover of horses."  I proclaim my hatred for horses and God laughs.  He loves my jokes.  He loves me.  He rubs his hand through my rough unwashed hair. He stoops low, sniffing my head - relishing the smell of me.  He whispers in my ears words of his joy over me, of his crazed attitude of righteousness covering all, his tears rolling down my cheeks as he kisses, tears that speak deeper to my pain than any I have ever wept.
That he can be this close seems far off.  A pipe dream.  But if he's not, I'll take these dreams over life.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Day 2, In God's Image

Flecks of sawdust spun up and around my face, gently pricking my cheeks and occasionally catching the corner of my eye (protective glasses absently on my head).  I eased the spinning saw again into the wood, watching as the blade made grain give way to air.  Watching the wood disapear to blade gives me great joy, just the simplicity of a straight line and obedient wood (or at least semi-straight and semi-obedient).

My friends came over today with their families to help me build my tree-house.  Actually it’s for the kids, but since they hardly ever go up there and I’ve been slaving away at it for over a year, it’s sort of mine.  And I guess it’s “slaving away” if I consider all the time I spend just thinking about doing it and procrastinating.  And then if I factor in all the should and ought-to feelings that generally rule my life as a chronic procrastinator then yes, I’ve been slaving. 

But as I worked today, with friends beside me, watching wood obey the drill. my hammer (every other swing) and my hands I felt satisfaction.  I also felt anxiety.  Leading friends in a work project is hardly my field of expertise.  I doubt my leadership qualities all the time.  But I am dubious, indubitably dubious and prone to second guess everything – it’s the writer in me.  

Yet these friends were kind enough to listen when I told them I felt anxiety leading them, and they didn’t run away.  I need friends like that, friends that won’t run away when they see my neediness.  Friends that don't run from you are good.  One even waved to the tree-house, trying to open my eyes to help me celebrate, “Phil, you made all that.  It is amazing!”

And well, I’m not being prideful when I agree it is amazing.  The tree-house stands eight feet off the ground, is attached to big evergreens and is like a wood castle in our firn covered swamp/yard.  I’ve lined the actual house with wood from a friend’s old deck.  Rotting and black with mold, he was going to chuck it.  But I took it, ran my saw along it and saw bright reddish pine (I think) underneath.  Propping the boards on their edge and running my saw along the wood’s surface I’ve pretty much ruined my saw, but the woods rough look on the house makes me happy, it looks so rugged.  And I feel that the wood is worth more anyway.  Salvaging is good for my soul.  So yeah, it is amazing.  My tree-house is amazing.  And with a little help, I’ve made it.  Almost.

In Genesis I’m told that I’m made, perhaps carved, in the actual image of God.  It’s a little crazy to actually believe it.  That I bear the actual stamp of God.  But that’s not enough, I don’t just have God’s creative stamp I’m made in his actual image.  Making a tree-house is fine work, work that fulfills and that I enjoy.  Imagine making a human being.  Imagine pouring yourself into that creature.  Imagine the joy you would have at seeing it come to be.  To exist.  And to have it reflect you.  Made in your image.  There’s something profound going on there.  And I can’t figure it out.  And I’m not even sure I want to I like it so much. 

Friday, January 3, 2014

God Spoke

God spoke: “Light!”

For the month of January I've taken on a free-write challenge from Jeff Goins to get my blog going again and to begin walking through my questions on scripture as well as other random thoughts.  So if stuff is rough, sorry, I'm going to try and keep the editing to a minimum.

God spoke: “Light!”And light appeared.
God saw that light was good
and separated light from dark.
God named the light Day,
he named the dark Night.

 It was evening, it was morning—
    Day One.

God spoke.  Is that really all it took?  I wonder.

My 5-hr-old David, prayed over breakfast this morning and I asked him if he'd like to thank God for anything else.  He said, "Thank you God for nature."  That's my boy.

He loves lizards, catapillars, is scared by snakes yet fascinated.  He cares for goldfish in distress.  He's seen many a burial and cried over his loses.  David, God's beloved, reflects his creator.  

In nature I see so much detail.  It's so carefully orchestrated.  It works so well.  I need green.  My cubicle at work is covered in it.  It's why I love the Pacific Northwest so much.  It was there that I first began to really taste and see that God is good in his creation.

So when I hear "God spoke" and boom there was "plants of all kinds" say, I think I have heard it wrong for a long time.  I see God hovering above the waters in sort of a spirit cloud thing and pronouncing on high his words.  He has a huge white beard, flowing robes and just says stuff and it happens.

But if I look at what happens, the result, I'm in awe.  This God who I know the Bible says hovered over the waters, created such intimate detail.  His nature speaks of such care and design.  I can't think that Moses had anything like the trumped up Platonic, gnostic version of God who doesn't get fingers dirty when he wrote "God spoke."

Maybe there's something in words that conveys intimacy and power.  I think that's a better take.  John says Jesus was there in the beginning, creating as the word.  The mysterious here would give me migraines.  But if Jesus was present, and the Spirit, hey-ho, we've got the Trinity doing there thing, making a world. 

And if I know the theme of scripture, I know that what they make is good.  And what they make, they make carefully.  With power yes, but with great care as well.  

Monday, May 20, 2013


When I was a kid, BMX or bicycle motocross was on the rise.  It was the eighties, and these stunt bikers, their helmets, and the crazy colors of their uniforms were calling to me.  I wanted a bike.  And I got it.  I still remember its sleek chrome lines, its rubber smell, its black and white checkered grips.  I remember imagining jumping it and all the tricks I was going to learn.  I learned how to stand on my seat.  

Sure I spent a ton of time thinking and lusting over my buddies super-awesome blue bike, but mine was pretty sweet too.  Oh and I learned to do a stoppie, which is where you slam the front brake and go into a sort of front-wheel wheelie.  Man I was so cool on that bike.  Or at least I was going to be cool when I grew up.

But we moved from that land of BMX to a new land, the land of suburbs and team sports, a land of conformity and video games.  Sure I still rode my bike and stuff, but it wasn’t the same and I felt a little saddened by the fact that I never learned to actually jump a bike, regardless hop off a curb.  As a boy turning into a man, I felt like something in me had chickened out.  I just had never jumped my bike.

Years go by.  I’m 25, and we’ve moved to a new land.  I’m walking with my wife, holding hands and I see a kid setting a board against a fence about 4 feet off the ground.  “Oh boy I think, he’s going to jump his bike off that.  Awesome!”  The little boy in me was about to jump out of my old boy skin.  “Me want to do!”  I thought. 

To make a long story short, “Me did” even getting to know that kid and hang with his bike gang.  And at 36 I still do.  I can really ride a bike now.  There’s super-sweet-awesome candy colors, wheelies, and jumping, lots of it.  Even as I write I’m about to go ride.  There will be colors, there will be tricks, there will be speed.  And even maybe a front wheel wheelie at the end. 

I don’t think we ever grow up.  Our bodies just slowly retire.  So here’s to that boy in me.  He likes the color of my sweet gloves, he likes my bike, he marvels at what a suspension fork is and most of all he thinks, I can see him walking around my bike and saying, “This is so totally rad.”  You got to love impressing kids, even if that kid is yourself.  


Echoes, footsteps, hushed voices.  Candles, choirs, eerie melody.  Dark and blackened wood and shadows.  Heavy stone carved and stacked past my minds comprehension.  So many shapes, curves and forms.  Too many to grasp.  So I gape. 

And light as I’ve never seen it.  A playful dance between sun and glass - red, blue, green and all the in-betweens, mixing, colliding and rolling in rays and patterns, lighting the dust.   Here is the real magic. 

This place, this sacred place, is made to hold the weight of time.  Filled with awe I stand, surrounded by history.  Noble bones lie beneath my feet.  I walk, gaze and wonder.  Who were these people?  How did they create all this?  Were they flesh and bone like me?  Surely not.

Look at the bigness and the robustness of it all!  And then the minuteness and the attention to detail.  Have we grown as people, with our cars, cameras, tv sets and computers, or have we shrunk?  I stare at statue after statue, saints with fingers poised in blessing and knights entombed in honor, hands crossed on swords with loyal and lean dogs at their feet.

I walk past legends, both the traitorous and the courageous, past all the laughter and tears.  Life of threshold, throng, market and all the busy life of the in-between were swallowed up in here.  They must have needed this place.  The sacred stillness and astonishing grandeur helped them make sense.  But even for them time moved forward, putting them in their place.  But they left this and it is spectacular.

What will they think?  Those who walk the halls of our times.  It’s depressing to wonder.   Our sophistication seems paltry in comparison to this.  How can an iphone compare to thousand-ton chiseled rock and carved oak that has withstood wars, famines, disease and all the mess of humanity? 

The wood is carved, stained, varnished, and aged with years of use, aged by oils from hands as frail as mine.  I suspect the wood is even more solid now, even more weighty. Then there is the fine smell of dust and incense, the robes and colors and stuff of the divine, and all my senses are coming undone. 

The answer to the mystery lies in these halls.  These halls that were crafted to take the breath and house those who no longer breathe.  These mortals may no longer speak but they echo louder than our generation ever will, regardless of all our noise and perhaps because of it.  Through history they speak to something larger, a time when God was bigger.   A life that was closer to real, and to a right sense that more in life was sacred. 

These halls were made to shrink us, to make us feel the weight of our insignificance but also to woo and woe us, to pull us out of ourselves and our trivialities.  They were made precisely to reflect the God who inspired them.  And as I realize they are a shadowy reflection, I run my hand along the smoothed stone and whisper  “Woe am I, for I live among a people of unclean lips and damned iphones.”