The Yin and Yang of Faith – Br. Mark Brown

Gen. 32:22-31                        Psalm 27:1-6                        John 20:26-31

And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. [1 Cor. 13:13]

We begin a three-part series this evening on these three things: faith, hope, love. My reflections now on faith are meant to begin a conversation that we hope will continue after the service downstairs, in the undercroft.  As an enticement we’re also offering a light supper.

Faith–is one of the great big words of the Bible. Faith is believing, trusting, having confidence. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” [Hebrews 11].  Believing, trusting, having confidence, assurance, conviction.  This is faith.

I’m going to talk first about my own current experience of faith.  This will be one person’s point of view, biased and idiosyncratic, but based on my experience, which may not be yours. And not a last word, but a conversation starter.

Faith, for me, is a trust in God that gives me courage to step into the ring.  The wrestling ring.  The scriptural icon for my current experience of faith is Jacob’s wrestling match (the story we heard a few minutes ago).  [By the way, for those of you who may have that “déjà vu all over again” feeling: yes, I drew on this same story recently in another sermon.  This evening I’ll take it in a different direction and develop it further.]

In the story Jacob is alone at night by a stream and wrestles with someone until dawn.  His hip is injured in the process, but he wrestles on anyway.  And, curiously, he demands a blessing: “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” He doesn’t get a blessing right away.  But he does get a new name: “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”  The wrestler refuses to divulge his name to Jacob, but does finally bless him.  And Jacob says, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

One icon of the life of faith. Life with God, engaging God in this life, can be a wrestling match.  Abraham, Moses and Jesus wrestled with God—at least verbally.  Jesus wrestled with God at Gethsemane. And on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  A quote from the Psalms—and there’s lots of wrestling with God in the Psalms.

Yes, Lord, the world you have created is magnificent—but why have you made us so vulnerable to disease, to natural disaster?  What do Alzheimer’s and cancer and birth defects have to do with your vision of things? What can it mean?  Yes, Lord, they say you have spoken in the past—but why are you so quiet now?  People are killing each other over what they think you’ve said. Can’t you do something to clear up this confusion?  Why are you hiding—isn’t it about time for a new revelation to straighten up this mess?  C’mon, God, let’s have some answers!  Let’s have some help! What’s going on here? By the way, God, have you been to a hospital lately?  Have you seen what goes on there?  Have you been to a nursing home? Have you seen what goes on there? Damn it!  If you are so good and so powerful, why is there so much suffering, so much misery? How about some answers, God!

In my wrestling fantasy I have God in a headlock until he comes through with some answers.  This is an adversarial stance, I admit, but it is grounded in trust. I think we can trust God deeply enough to be adversarial.   Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ [Romans 8]—I believe that. God is love and nothing can separate us from that love: this is bedrock of my faith.  The bedrock of faith gives us the platform to ask God the tough questions, to hold God accountable.  And, if there be any offense, I have faith in the forgiving love of God poured out at the cross.  “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

Now, I think this is really delicious: Jacob demands a blessing from his adversary.  “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”  What is life with God for if not for blessing?  I resonate deeply with Jacob’s demand.  I want blessing.  I need blessing.  I will not let you go, unless you bless me.  The bedrock of trust in the goodness of God gives us a place to stand to demand blessing. And, in the story, Jacob gets his blessing.

Another piece of the Jacob story is his new name, his new identity as Israel. We are changed when we engage the divine wrestler.  Whether we take another name or not, we are changed. Wrestling with God, we are changed.

One more thing about the wrestling match: Jacob wins!  You shall be called Israel, “for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.” Jacob prevails; Jacob wins! God lets him win—but he wins! Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.  God means for us to win. Heads we win, tails we win.

The Jacob story can be seen as an icon of one way to live out a faithful relationship with God.  It is a grounding in faith, in a trust in God that that makes even an adversarial stance possible. We might call this “Jacob faith.”

But something is lacking. There is another dimension of living faith that is missing from what I have described.  And that is faith as surrender, as submission to God.  A grounding in faith that makes submission to God possible.

“Behold the handmaiden of the Lord. Be it unto me according to thy will.” Mary is often seen as the icon of submission to the divine will. As is Jesus: “not my will, but thy will be done.” Jesus surrenders in his wrestling with God in the garden.  At least for the moment.
Submission to the divine will, surrender, is at the heart of much Christian spirituality down through the ages.

There is a polarity here: submission on the one hand, adversarial engagement on the other. These two opposites are complementary: yin and yang, to use an Eastern concept. Yin is feminine, yielding, inward, of the night. Yang is masculine, assertive, outward, of the day. Mary’s submission would be yin (mostly). Jacob’s wrestling would be yang (mostly).

In actual lived experience, our life of faith is both yin and yang. Our lived experience of faith partakes of both these qualities, ebbing and flowing between the two as life unfolds.  The living out of faith is not static, but fluid and dynamic.  According to life experiences.  According to personal temperament.  Sometimes putting God in a headlock—if only in our imagination.  Sometimes surrendering. Sometimes, with Mary: “Be it unto me according to your word.” Sometimes, with Jacob, wrestling all night long and demanding a blessing besides.  These are the complementary opposites of the life of faith.  Life ebbs and flows between them.

“And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” Nothing can separate us from love. Whether, in faith, we surrender to the divine will, or whether, in faith, we wrestle God to the ground until dawn. Either way: heads, we win; tails, we win. God is faithful and, either way, comes to us in love, blessing in hand.  So, maybe we have to twist his arm a little for it!

We’ll talk…

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  1. Calvin Dube on May 14, 2015 at 06:08

    As always, thank you for the inspiring words on Faith that beautifully remind me of the presence of God in the joys and struggle of life. Calvin Dube, Lewiston, Maine

  2. anders on May 13, 2015 at 10:51

    I like your invitation and analogy. I see my understanding and even identity (e.g. name) transformed by wrestling something greater than myself, whether it’s an abstract theological concept, angel or God. My experience of Christian spirituality vis-a-vis the church, however, is that the surrender should happen before any irreverent headlocks are placed. Surrender at the gates was carried out on me by shaming, which threw the assertive yang of the church and my submissive yin as faithful into an unhealthy imbalance. My personal wrestling with God may be 100% a personal battle, and I thank you for your light that God might consider not striking me down with lightning, but blessing me for it. It’s about showing up to genuinely live a life of faith as an outward and inward struggle and journey, fight and pasture, ripped and limping Jacob and meek and mild Mary, and it is good.

  3. Polly Chatfield on May 13, 2015 at 09:57

    It seems to me that Br. Mark and Tom each have the secret, for it by living through what feels like death that we arrive at newness of life.

  4. Tom Manche on October 10, 2011 at 04:56

    So often one hears another say “Why did God give my daughter cancer?” or “Why did God allow my son to die of a heart attack at 42? or “If God loves me, why did He allow my grandson to have birth defects?”

    My response is always the same. “God loves us and He does not give us bad things – only good things!” I go on to say that illness, death, war, natural disasters etc. are but a part of living as a human being. As such, we are subject to, and susceptible to, all the bad and harmful things of this earth. It is simply humanity. God, as Jesus Christ on this earth, allowed Himself to live life here as a human being. Therefore, He too was susceptible to the same as we. So much so that He was tortured and died on a cross so that we could have everlasting life with Him in Heaven.

    Sometimes, if one has even a small amount of faith, he can begin to look at the disaster in his life not as a curse from God, but simply as a part of the human condition. And with that human condition comes the overwhelming love of God. Once we accept that, our lives are transformed and we begin to see nothing but God’s love for us.

    Peace & Blessings!

    • Page on May 13, 2015 at 07:04

      Right on, Tom!

    • anders on May 13, 2015 at 11:00

      Thank you for your loving compassion. As the church and religion have been part of my equivalent of cancer, heart attack or birth defect, I’m not always sure of what’s the baby and the bathwater. Failing to comprehend the human condition medically or institutionally, I surrender it to have faith and be transformed. I will take your blessing gladly, Tom!

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