So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.
Have you ever fasted before? I mean really done it, not just giving up something for Lent or doing a “30 hour famine” with your youth group, but fasting because you really want to get closer to God? If you haven’t, I hope that this article will encourage you to explore the possibility. Disclaimer: I don’t suggest you take fasting lightly, or attempt it without prayer and discernment. Fasting can be done in many ways and for a myriad of reasons so do your homework first, okay? Talk to a Pastor, friend or spiritual mentor to make an informed decision about how and when to do it. Also, please take into account any special health or diet limitations you might have. Whew! Okay, now I’m ready to tell you my story…
The famous Blue Collar Comedian Bill Engvall has a popular shtick called, “Here’s your sign.” His point to the routine is simple; human beings often ignore the obvious. Well now THAT’S obvious, right? You would think so, but as imperfect people we’re painfully aware of our inability to see the forest for the trees. What happened to this Christian is something I’m sure we have all experienced during our faith walk and it’s called complacency. Now, I’m not talking about the run of the mill stuff here, I’m talking about somewhat of a faith crisis. Some would call it burn out; I just call it being stuck. I don’t believe someone who has truly said “yes” to Jesus can get ‘burned out.’ What I do believe is that the human condition cries for growth because it’s the way God made us. Discipleship is not a garment you get tired of wearing, or a ‘feel good’ philosophy panhandled to you by a talk show host, it is a real and intimate relationship with the God of the universe! As a Wesleyan, I believe one can CHOOSE to walk away from this relationship, but even then God is wooing us with His unstoppable grace! So what’s the big deal? It’s the sin of complacency. You heard me right, I said sin. You see, as believers and disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, we all have an awesome responsibility and call to ministry. This is not new information, but we are thick headed and forgetful, we are human.
What it used to be like-
About 6 months ago I said goodbye to my position as youth director in an urban United Methodist church. The church is strategically positioned in the center of possibly the worst neighborhood in the city where I live. The ministry there often made me harken back to the old Peace Corps slogan: “The toughest job you’ll ever love.” The fact is I did love the job even though it didn’t pay (at all) and it was very stressful at times. Although a stressful and often thankless situation, I KNEW God was at work! It was as invigorating as it was soul crushing, but it was always fulfilling. What I didn’t realize was that during my last few months serving there, I had begun taking stock of my own awesomeness. I was putting notches in my ministry utility belt as I was taking credit for God’s good work. Not a good place to be… [Insert appropriate Biblical story here] We had great success with growing and establishing a flourishing youth ministry without any budget or precedent. In essence we had built a ministry from the ground up and things were going pretty well. Then I started to feel restless. We had as a church, explored the possibility of launching a community youth outreach center. The church had purchased some land at a bargain price and a group of people had worked diligently to acquire non-profit status with the IRS for an urban outreach organization. The application was approved and the future looked bright!
The fire started to fizzle. People had begun to realize what a monumental capital campaign would be needed in order to build this structure, form and regulate a board of directors and staff an endeavor like this. Reality had doused the holy fire of inspiration. So here I stood, holding a wet torch in my hand wondering what to do next. Apathy and frustration had taken the place of inspiration and hope. We had worked tirelessly with the district to bring in an intern to help pick up students in the neighborhoods, organize and set up for events and help with the ministry duties. Both my intern and I soon realized that pastoral support was gone. The interest of the congregation was gone and volunteer support was getting hard to come by. A few short months later I had all but lost my joy for ministry… I had enough. I quit!
What it’s like now-
If you’ve ever quit a youth ministry job on frustrating terms, then you know that there is a grieving process involved. People don’t always act right, even in the church. We all have a different idea of what God’s call on our life looks like, and often times this can be a source of great conflict within the church. So now what? More schooling so I can finally get that elusive degree? Settle down and work my day job? Be satisfied as a supporting member of a congregation and quit youth ministry altogether? There were so many questions that I didn’t have ready answers for. I really felt I needed a burning bush or a golden fleece, or something! After attending Theology classes at PSOYM in January, I knew that I loved youth ministry period. So I decided it was time to go job hunting… Little did I know how God was going to use this experience to humble me and get me back down to a usable size once again. Remember when I said I had taken great pride in my own awesomeness? Well, several interviews and 6 months later with no youth ministry job, God gave me what I needed NOT what I wanted. He didn’t give me a burning bush; instead He gave me a dessert. Although six months job hunting is a far cry from 40 years in the wilderness of Palestine, it was just what I needed. The best of intentions for serving the Kingdom can be wrapped snugly in a warm blanket of pride. God hates pride… Read the Bible Vini, it’s full of stories about how God will not use prideful people for His good work. Even the good guys like King David got handed a fat slice of humble pie from time to time!
All of these things we experience in life are a part of the tapestry of God’s will. Whether it’s God’s moral will which is for us to have abundance and joy in Him, or whether it’s God’s decreed will which serves up a heaping plate of consequences, God
will have the last say. Being a Wesleyan does not mean that I believe God is not sovereign. He is just and irrefutably sovereign, which brings me to my point. After failure, fear, regret and self-will had run their course I finally decided to LISTEN. The Holy Spirit had been leaning on me to do a fast for some time and it was getting hard to ignore the nudge, so I decided to do a good Jewish-style fast. It’s a 3 day fast from sun-up to sun-down, with a piece of fish and tandoori bread at days end. I turned off the TV, Radio and the computer. I prayed without ceasing (1 Thes 5:17) and I listened. It was so peaceful and serene without the clamor of the world shouting at the top of its lungs drowning out that ‘still small voice.’ And then it happened. I did get my burning bush um, I mean sign.
The second night of the fast I had an overwhelming craving for dark chocolate. I rationalized and justified that chocolate; “It’s just one piece! I’ll still be hungry…It’s still fasting!” But I didn’t cave. I went to bed, stomach growling and went to sleep. On day three I woke up to my normal morning routine and headed to work. After a 30 minute commute I arrived at my first appointment – in the wrong city! I chalked it up to a snickers commercial moment; ‘You’re not the same when you’re hungry…’ I called my clients and apologized and began the commute back home. I was laughing at myself; perhaps I was giddy from hunger, who knows? I tuned into a sermon podcast to listen to on the ride back home. About 20 minutes into the drive I was passing through a small town when the pastor said; “You don’t come to the battle for victory, you come FROM victory!” At that precise moment I saw the sign VICTORY PLAZA to my right. The small strip mall banner was complete with an Ichthus and a Cross. I laughed out loud again. Then the podcast sermon shouted; “We are VICTORS in Christ!” as I passed the small, almost unperceivable street sign VICTORY lane. I almost had to pull over I was laughing so hard! Then the still small voice after the whirlwind said; ‘You almost gave this up for a piece of chocolate.” At that moment all of the past 6 months came clear in an instant. Esau sold his eternal birthright to Jacob for a bowl of stew (Gen 25:29). I had been ready to give up on my ministry and my God given call to love on young people because my immediate need of personal satisfaction hadn’t been met. Isn’t this the lesson that the Bible teaches us? All of God’s children have a permanent place of victory in Christ, and an eternal birthright in his Kingdom if we only accept it? My answers were already residing inside of me. I had been looking for external, temporal motivators to replace the joy I already received in Christ. It was only at the end of a long wrestling match with God that I received the blessing… And God said; “HERE’S YOUR SIGN!”