I heard a most useful sermon today, based on Acts 27:1-26, on how the path God has for us is less a straight line than a winding mountain path, full of digressions, resting places, and places where the path divides in different directions, yet still leading to the summit. God does not put us on rail tracks, he lets us find our own way, even when we wander off the path, get lost, double back or stop too long somewhere that was meant only to be a resting place.
God also sometimes sends us on other, unexpected routes, maybe placing obstacles in our paths, maybe using our own mistakes to take is in new directions.
My own Lenten journey has gone through an unexpected digression this last week. I had set out with my own idea of the journey, with a plan of prayer, fasting and study. Maybe I was a bit arrogant, too confident in myself, thinking I could self-discipline my way into God's presence, maybe feeling a couple of fasts and some prayer time each week would bring me in to a right relationship with God. Such attitudes can afflict us all when seeking to draw closer to God in times of self-examination and self-denial, and they leave little room for God's grace.
But barely two weeks in I was thrown an unexpected curve ball – a diagnosis of diabetes! Having been well and showing none of the usual symptom of diabetes this was a surprise (to put it mildly). My fasting plan went out of the window as I sought to make sure I was eating properly (interesting how fasting and following a strict diet can affect ones relationship to food in similar ways – it is no longer a simple pleasure and rapidly can become a focus of obsession). My cycle of prayers was disrupted by appointments with my GP and at the hospital, and my inner confidence that I could seek out God on my own terms went way out of the window. My sense of self control, of my body being under my will, was completely shattered.
I also felt a sense of shame and embarrassment – I knew the risks (family history of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus, carrying 2-3 stone more weight than I should, fat stomach, sedentary job, etc, etc.) yet had not taken them seriously enough to make lifestyle changes before the damage was done. I had had no warning shots across the bow – from feeling fine and well, I suddenly found that my body had gone wrong, and that youthful sense of immortality finally got shattered.
God is loving and works the best for His people, but Scripture and everyday experience gives us scant reason to expect that this will always be worked out in happy, cuddly and safe ways.
On Sunday evening, still mulling over the sermon I had heard that morning, I read the story of Jacob wrestling the Angel of God at the ford of Jabbok in Genesis 32:22-32. Jacob, the swindler and scoundrel, charismatic, living of his wits, self reliant. Here he was about to confront the brother he had swindled of his birthright, about to confront all the demons of his past, and once again was using his wit and charm to try and get out of a potentially lethal confrontation. Then a stranger turns up, wrestles with him all night, and finally, as dawn breaks, dislocates Jacob's hip to end the fight and get away. Only Jacob realising this is no ordinary mortal he has been fighting so long and hard, demands a blessing before he will release him from his wrestler's embrace, and so gets the name by which he and his descendants will be known – Israel – "wrestles with God". Jacob would forever be marked by that encounter, limping the rest of his life from a damaged hip. But more deeply he learnt that all his struggles had ultimately been with God, not men, and through them God was turning this supremely self reliant and flawed man into a leader who relied on God first and foremost, and on his native wit only secondarily.
The lesson for me has been similar. As Paul was given a thorn in the flesh, and Jacob a dislocated hip, God has given me more than a reminder of my own mortality – this diagnosis has been an opportunity to stop being so self reliant, and rely on God, and other people (my family, my doctor, and friends, have all been a huge source of support and encouragement already).
Even more, it was a reminder that God meets us on His terms, not ours. We cannot twist His arm; rather we can but receive His Grace as it is poured out in unexpected, and sometimes unasked for ways. And this diagnosis is but the start of a new and unexpected journey for me – not one I fear (although it would be a lie to say I have no anxieties), nor one that I would have sought out, but one I am learning to embrace.
I reflected earlier in Lent how we find God at the most unexpected junctures. Little did I realise how this was to work out. But then, none of us ever do.