Random and not so random musings from a 5th generation NE Missourian who became a 1st generation Episcopalian. Let the good times roll!

For some reason today, I was thinking about how Jacob wrestled with God in Genesis 32. Jacob wrestled all night with “a man” until his foe dislocated Jacob’s hip. The “man” turned out to be the face of God.

Of course for me, “wrestling” carries a slightly different perspective. Whether it is the present gaudy, slick TV wrestling entertainment of today, or the far campier and lower budget TV wrestling I used to watch as a child, another word pops up: Scripted.

I won’t use the word “fake” in this instance, because it negates the athleticism it takes to be in the wrestling entertainment world. But “scripted” is a great word for it.

When I was a kid, like most kids in NE Missouri, we were all hooked on “All Star Wrestling”, the TV show from the old Central States Wrestling circuit. It was great schmaltz. You had good guys like Handsome Harley Race, Omar Atlas, and Danny Littlebear. You had bad guys like Bulldog Bob Brown, The Interns, and Black Angus. You had stuff that would be terribly politically incorrect now, like Black Angus’ foppish manager Percival A. Friend (who would hit the opponents with his briefcase) and one of my favorites, Rufus R. Jones (a black wrestler whose trademark was a sledgehammer of a head butt…because in those days people didn’t think it was offensive to call attention to how hard a black man’s head allegedly was.)

No matter how much we enjoyed it or how much we rooted for our favorites, even as little kids we knew it was scripted. My dad, when he was laid off from laying brick in the winter, tended bar, and it happened to be the bar that all the wrestlers hung out in when they would come to put on matches in the Macon high school gym. I used to sneak in for their autographs. Mortal enemies were drinking beer together. It wasn’t rocket science to know these matches were already decided for the most part.

But back to my task at hand. When I think of Jacob and his wrestling match, I realize in a way, it too was “scripted.” You know from the onset that Jacob won’t possibly win. Jacob had to realize at least at the point he got his hip dislocated that this was a done deal. As the reader, you know God is going to eventually win even before that moment in the story.

Then the thought crossed my mind: Perhaps MY mental wrestling matches with God are scripted, too. God already knows He is going to win. I may return time and time again for the grudge match, the steel cage match or even a tag-team match, but in my heart at times I can feel God is going to win and I am “pinned”, then exhaustingly submit—but not until I’ve lived through a bunch of rounds in the ring first. The weird part is I don’t feel I’m “losing” when that happens. But I definitely feel myself “giving in”.

I have noticed when praying during times of turmoil, that in the beginning of my praying, I can feel that sense of “wrestling.” It is energy mixed with fight/flight/fright and confusion. It is only over time that I can feel my body and my mind “give” to the pressure of God’s will. It turns from this confusing sense of turmoil to a sense that my shoulder is chafing against the rough canvas and I am lying on my back, looking up, the weight of it all pressing upon me. When that happens, the energy alone is left—warm and radiant, and only then can I bring myself to accept that energy.

Now it would seem one of those “Duh” moments would be, “Why don’t I just accept this gift and go with it?” I think I have figured out why. The gift would make no sense if you don’t wrestle first.

To submit to it would simply be blind obedience, like a dog. To just accept from the get-go means you only get a tiny quick glimpse of the face of God. But the sheer act of wrestling prolongs the encounter. To wrestle with God means you can see Him from all sides, all angles, in many positions. You can feel His sweat soaking through you. If you resist, he presses harder. Jacob’s wrestling match not only got him a dislocated hip, it got him a blessing. He would not have gotten the blessing had he not bothered to wrestle.

One of the things I've learned about clergy over the years is the more you get to know them as people, the more interesting they are and the more you start to see inside their sermons. When I looked at the lectionary readings for this week, I thought, "Uh, oh. The Scripture topics basically center around 'sin'. Wallace doesn't like to do sin."

Wallace has told me many times that sin is his least favorite topic because it's hard to talk about without getting too evangelical if you go too far in one direction, and too academic and impersonal if you go too far in the other direction. I can understand the dilemma. It's hard to think about sin in myself without either thinking, "I'm a horribly flawed being, and I suck," or "Um, I'd rather think about everyone else's sins than mine."

I think when clergy often hit a wall, or hit a topic that they have trouble with, they tend to hide behind their "default sermon". Every minister has one. As one of our congregation once said, "Wallace's is 'Go to your quiet place and connect with God.' Carrol's is, "Jesus died for you. Go do something about it.'"

Well, he hit the money on a topic that I know personally makes him uncomfortable. He used the imagery of "shadows" for our unrecognized sins. I think that is a very accurate representation of his least favorite three letter religious word. Most of the time, I think, our sins are not really in your face. We don’t wake up in the morning and think, “You know, today would be a good time to screw someone out of their money.” “Hey, I think I’m going to belittle someone on purpose today just because I can.” “Today seems like a dandy day to beat my spouse.”

The vast majority of our sins are really little shadowy glimpses in our peripheral vision. If we are focusing on something in front of us, we might not even see them, it’s only when we’re using our wide field of vision that they even are perceptible...and even then, just in the corners of our vision. Then we go, “What was that?”

When I think of those shadows, I like to think of bats, because they are, on occasion, visitors to Trinity (and unwelcome ones at that.) All of Kirksville's "church row" has a bat problem. There are two large old buildings (abandoned school buildings) in the neighborhood that have to be Ground Zero for the bat infestation in that part of town. I'm sure they flock in those two buildings like droves, and terrorize all the neighbors. Especially the churches in that geographic area. Kirksville literally means "City of Churches" (Kirche=church) and if you cruised either Washington St. or Harrison St. you would see it is aptly named.

Trinity's bats have made some interesting appearances. Two of them decided to be the entertainment at Lessons & Carols one year. Sometimes they simply fly in, drop their calling card on the altar or the walls, and disappear. Sometimes they are seen trying to get in by the door. Oh, yeah, and there was the dead bat in the kitchen.

But back to sin.

Those shadows of our sins sort of flit across our vision once in a while like a bat, but I realized something significant--we only notice them if we are sitting in the light. If we’re sitting in the dark we can’t see them. In the light we can see them and take action against them; we know to ask forgiveness for them. When we wallow in our darkness of our self-flagellation and despair and when we choose to keep God at arms’ length, we can’t see those bats flying around and the next thing you know they’re swooping in where you can feel them right on top of you...and you are going to react to that situation differently than if you could see them coming.

I did a little reading on the symbolism of different animals in the times of the early Christians. Back then, bats were thought to be half mouse, half bird. They represented being "stuck" between the darkness and the light, between good and evil. Likewise, we better see those shadows in our peripheral vision if the room is well lit. It creates a situation where we are stuck between the world of pure light and total darkness.

However, this creates a real Catch-22. If we choose to stay in the darkness, we don't have to look at the shadows of our sins...but we will still be existing in a world of darkness. If we choose a path that keeps us in the light of God, we have enough light to see all of our painful dark shadowy figures flitting about. Probably a better choice but a painful one nonetheless. But even with all that pain, we are ultimately forgiven...and can move forward with new, clear eyes.

One of the things I love about our church building is its age. Our present church building was built in 1917. Although it's one of the smaller churches on "church row" in Kirksville, it is one of the more attractive ones, built in the style of an old English church. Outside, it shows its age. It definitely needs tuckpointing. But you can still tell there's something different about it. I've been told it was designed by an architect named Dunbar, who did several churches in Missouri and was one of the more noted architects of the time.

Inside, it's the classic old Anglican style, with the upside down boat shaped ceiling and the timbers running across the sides of the "boat." although the altar, pulpit, and rail are newer, the rest is pretty much what was put in at the time it was built.

Honestly, it's the wood in the church that fascinates me. There's something about wood that allows one to reflect upon life. I like to think about the wood in the pews, the floor, the beams. The pews certainly must have wood in them that are 40 or 50 years older than the church because people still used old growth forest in those days. The beams could be older. It's odd to think about wood in your church that was still around when Americans owned slaves. When those trees were alive, they were most certainly harvested with horse-drawn labor. The sense of connection with history just from the wooden parts of my church can sometimes be an overwhelming feeling.

I would love to see pictures of the construction of the church; I wonder if any exist. The foundation was certainly hand dug with laborers and pickaxes. Most of the workmen must have traveled to their job by wagon or horseback as very few people owned a car in 1916-17. WWI had not yet touched the United States but it was getting very close when they started construction on that church. Kirksville was not yet 20 years out from the devastating tornado that hit it in 1899. Probably very few trees of any size were on Harrison or Mulanix streets, the corner where Trinity sits.

I like to think of how the congregation felt, sitting in their brand new church for the first time, in 1917. It's funny to think about them using the 1892 Book of Common Prayer. (I can barely imagine even sitting through a service with the 1892 BCP and saying all those "thee's", "thou's," and "beeseeches"!) That grand old girl that is my church has seen a lot of change, for sure.

I think about her magic in a world where the fancy, auditorium sized megachurch is the hot ticket. Yet she is alive and well, not a dinosaur at all, in a world of churches made to make her feel like a dinosaur. God dwells in her in a way that may never happen in a lot of church buildings because people will be obsessed with new and shiny. Yet this was not by design. The congregation in 1917 had a shiny new church and they were probably very happy about the new and shiny parts of it. Then somehow, over time, the congregation sees the magic of being in something grand and old. This had to be an imperceptible change. Funny how things like that happen, isn't it?



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Kirksville, Missouri, United States
I'm a longtime area resident of that quirky and wonderful place called Kirksville, MO and am wondering what God has hiding round the next corner in my life.

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