When I joined the St. Paul staff eleven months ago as director of faith formation, I got a lot of quizzical looks. I often had to answer the question, what’s that?
The shortest way to answer is to say my job is about learning or Christian education. But there’s a reason we hear more about “faith formation” in church circles today. Speaking of faith formation reminds us that, in the church, we want to shape whole lives – minds, bodies, and hearts. But how does that happen? There’s a great story near the front of the Bible that gives us a clue.
In Genesis 32, Jacob is on the run, because he fears reprisal from his brother, Esau. You probably know the story, but’s let’s just say Jacob had good reason to fear his brother would want revenge. On the night before the two meet, when Jacob is filled with dread about facing the consequences of his earlier betrayal, he wrestles an unnamed opponent all night long. The closest we get to finding out who came to accost him in the darkness is this: the man says to Jacob, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Israel means “the one who strives with God.” Also, Jacob names the place Peniel, which means, “the face of God.” So Jacob apparently wrestles with God, but he doesn’t just get a new name as a souvenir of his struggle. He also gets a limp, because his hip was injured in the fight. He walked away with that limp as a reminder of his new identity.
I love this story, because it reminds us of where we so often meet God. We meet God, not in the midst of our grandest successes, but when we are struggling with life’s toughest realities and trying desperately to find a way forward. And, if we are tenacious enough, if we hold on to God tightly and continue to wrestle, we will learn not just what we’re made of, but, most importantly, who God really is. Life isn’t lived in the garden while the dew is still on the roses; more often it’s lived on the wrestling mat, so thank goodness God is there. Thanks be to God that God doesn’t just walk and talk with us, but is willing to wrestle as long as we are. And thanks be to God for limps and the cuts and scrapes we get from life’s rough edges, which remind us God is present and faithful well beyond happy times.
Now back to faith formation. In short, I wish we could find a way to ensure every person at St. Paul had one of these metaphorical limps. Since engineering existential crises for members of the congregation is probably not an ethical approach, we’ll just have to trust that life will bring its own troubles for most of us. Where the church comes in is in finding ways to encourage us all to hold on to God in the midst of our struggles. That doesn’t mean we offer classes or seminars designed to answer all our questions about life and faith. It does mean that we create and look for opportunities to ask questions together and forge relationships with others who find the journey of faith to be more than worth the struggle. It also means that we intentionally gather at least once each week to affirm our trust in God’s faithfulness and mercy no matter what the rest of the week holds.
The final lesson I think this story teaches us about faith formation is that God is the one who does the forming – we just have to hold on, unless we can’t, and then God will hold on to us.
– Ryan Bailey, director of faith formation