Confrontation and struggle were a way of life for me in my first pastorate. In just the first six weeks of being in the church I faced every kind of sin imaginable, to the point that my mentor in the faith recommended I take some time off having not even been there for two months! Although that was a difficult time, the greatest struggle was with God himself and feeling like my prayers were doing nothing but bouncing off the ceiling. In fact, I spent several years of my life in an extended wrestling match with God. He touched me and crippled me by his grace, reminding me how much he is in control. Since that time, I lead with a limp that is not visible – a limp that reminds me that I am a different person who knows Jesus better and is much more at peace with life.
After I left that pastorate I needed to take some time off from ministry and I took a job in a factory believing that this was a brief sojourn of maybe a year before I would return to pastoral ministry. I ended up being in that factory for seven years laboring in obscurity wondering if God knew what he was doing. The short story to this is that I discovered that being a pastor was who I was, and not a position that I held. So, I began shepherding my factory flock – literally spending my working days doing more than supervising others and doing repetitive activity, but leading others to Jesus.
If we do not wrestle with God in the stressful times of our lives, we will not learn what genuine humility is, how much we need the Holy Spirit, and the grace that can be ours to face the rest of our lives. Nearly five hundred years ago Thomas a Kempis wrote to new priests entering ministry with this advice: “We should so firmly establish ourselves in God that we have no need to seek much human encouragement. It is when a man of good will is distressed or tempted, or afflicted with evil thoughts, that he best understands the overwhelming need he has for God, without whom he can do nothing. While enduring these afflictions he takes himself to prayer with sighs and groans; he grows tired of this life and wished to die so that he could be undone in order to live with Christ. It is in such times of trial that he realizes that perfect security and full peace are not to be found in this world.”
In the Old Testament, the patriarch Jacob was worried and stressed. He knew he had deceived his brother Esau many years earlier to gain their father’s blessing. Now Jacob is about to meet Esau after all these years, and he is downright afraid for himself and his now large family. So, he divided them up into two groups, thinking that if Esau was going to attack, the other group could escape. The night before the big stressful meeting, Jacob sent his wives and family across a tributary of the Jordan River, the Jabbok, and spent the night alone wrestling with God. Jacob came away from that encounter with a permanent limp that forever changed his life (Genesis 32:22-32).
God will put us in positions of life that create encounters with him so that we will walk away changed. Those encounters usually come in the form of engaging God with all the questions and difficulties of a very stressful situation. The inner change that occurs comes in the form of a new identity, a new limp, and a renewed understanding of God’s grace that through disability and weakness we are able to lead. Leadership is not so much about being strong and having all the answers; instead, it is shepherding in weakness; it is being mindful of our limitations; it is being comfortable with mystery; and, it is leading from the invisible places that no one sees.
Has God left a permanent mark on you? Do you carry a limp from him? What is your name? How does God identify you? Our great need is not in being more clever, or smart, or working harder; it is God’s grace that we all need. As a kid, when my parents left the house, my brother and I would rearrange the furniture so that we could have a good-solid-knock-down-drag-out wrestling match. Since my brother was older, it usually ended badly for me with a pile-driver that left me incapacitated. It is seriously a miracle that I am still alive after being dropped on my head so many times.
Whenever we come to the Table, we are reminded of the Son who wrestled with the Father in prayer in the garden of Gethsemane and came away confident of facing a cruel cross so that we might have life. The Lord Jesus carries with him even now the reminders of his suffering – the marks on his hands and his feet from a crucifixion that accomplished deliverance from sin on our behalf. The elements of bread and cup are deeply symbolic reminders of what Jesus did as the cost for our salvation. And they are further reminders that just as we eat the bread and drink the cup we will drink again with Jesus at the end of the age. It is faith in Jesus alone that creates and secures for us a transformed life so that we can share in a crippling grace from him forever.