When I was young, a favourite character in one of the children’s comics I used to read was Limp Along Leslie – a character who originally emerged in The Wizard from 1951-1955. His real name was Leslie Tomson, and he was a lame sheep farming footballer – who spent his time running Low Dyke Farm, a sheep-farm in the Peak District for his widowed aunt – with a lame dog who won International Sheep Dog Trials and led his team Darbury Rangers to Wembley in successive seasons. Due to a childhood car accident, in which both his parents were killed, his left leg was shorter than his right, and he walked with a slight limp, hence the nickname. Leslie could not move as fast as other players, but what he lacked in speed he more than make up for in skill and craft. Amongst his skills was an amazing ability to bend the ball, something which in those days was largely limited to foreign players. Despite his handicap Limp Along Leslie learned to walk with a limp!
This story in The Wizard reminds me of another story in the Bible – the story of Jacob wrestling with God and ending up with a severe limp as a result (Genesis 32:22-32). Almost a quarter of the Book of Genesis is devoted to the biography of Jacob, the father of God’s chosen people. Jacob lived around 1750 BC. His given name literally means ‘to clutch by the heel’ or ‘to overtake’ because he was born clutching the heel of his elder twin brother, Esau (Genesis 25:26). Jacob was a pretty rum sort right from birth because he went on to live up to his name – ‘to clutch by the heel’ is also a Hebrew idiom for ‘he deceives’ – by first conning his elder brother out of his birthright (Genesis 25:29-24), and then his father out of the blessing traditionally bestowed on the elder (Genesis 27). Nevertheless Jacob is eventually turned around, through various significant encounters with God, and he goes on to become a key figure in the plan and purpose of God both for the nation of Israel and ultimately for the whole world. One such significant encounter was the occasion mentioned above where Jacob had the audacity to wrestle with God!
We already have a hint here – in the fact that God chose to use Jacob, and even made use of his deceitful ways to get him where God wanted him – that God doesn’t always do things the way we think he should?! Indeed God is clearly a ‘non-conformist’ when it comes to ‘respectability’. No wonder then that God himself tells us, ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways … as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’ (Isaiah 55:8,9). Somehow Jacob’s ‘inappropriate behaviour’ is not only contained within the permissive will of God, but absorbed into the perfect will of God. Jacob, of course, is not the only example of God choosing and using ‘the wrong people’?! King David was an adulterer and a murderer (1 Kings 11), and Saul of Tarsus (who became the Apostle Paul) was an arch-enemy of the infant Church and a murderer to boot (Acts 7:54-8:1; 9:1,2). And there are many more examples of God choosing ‘unsuitable people’ in Scripture that we could quote! Of course, King David had to repent of his evil, and Saul of Tarsus had to have a ‘Damascus Road’ encounter with Christ, and Jacob had to find God in a new way … but in each case their past failures did not prove to be insurmountable barriers to being used by God in a significant way. It is only we Christians sadly, who all too often see past failure in others as an insurmountable barrier to them being used by God!?
For Jacob, the key encounter that changed his life right around occurred when he stopped for the night at a place called Bethel (Genesis 28:10-22). Suddenly aware of the gravity of cheating both his brother and his father, Jacob ‘does a runner’ and flees in fear of his life from his family home in Beersheba and heads for Harran. When night falls Jacob finally feels safe enough to snatch a few hours sleep. As he sleeps he has a dream which shakes him to the core. He sees a stairway leading to heaven, with angels ascending and descending, and God himself standing at the top of the stairway. Although Jacob is still the same Jacob – the deceitful user of other people – God reveals himself, and his plans and purposes for Jacob. This encounter marks the beginning of Jacob’s transformation. ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it’ he says, ‘how awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven’ (Genesis 28:16,17). There and then Jacob vows to follow God for the rest of his life!
This is by no means the end of the story for Jacob … indeed it just the end of the beginning!? There is still a lot of ‘fight’ left in Jacob – the wrong sort of ‘fight’ that needs to be knocked out of him. We pick up the story several years later. Jacob has settled down, gained a couple of wives and several children in the process, but is still the same old Jacob at heart despite his professed faith in God. After various ‘dodgy deals’ involving his father-in-law (who proves to be just as deceitful as Jacob), Jacob comes to the conclusion that it is time to return home and sort things out with his father and particularly his brother Esau. He knew how violent his brother could be and this anxiety possibly triggered a second key encounter with God – perhaps a more significant encounter even – which led to Jacob becoming the person God always wanted him to be (Genesis 32:22-32)!
On the journey home Jacob arrives at a crossing place on the River Jabbok. He sends his family and servants on ahead of him and remains behind alone. We are not sure why Jacob stops behind – perhaps he is in a reflective mood, or perhaps he has a premonition that something significant is about to happen!? Whatever the reason, the Bible tells us that there on the banks of the Jabbok ‘[God] wrestled with [Jacob] till daybreak’ (Genesis 32:24). Although the narrative says it was ‘a man’ who wrestled with Jacob it is made clear that the ‘man’ in question is in fact God. Later in the story Jacob renames the place ‘Peniel’ – which means ‘face of God’ – because ‘I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared’ (Genesis 32:30). Whether this was a literal wrestling match, or simply a mental battle, we cannot be certain? In many ways it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that in this place, and at that time, Jacob wrestled with God … and there was a significant, life-changing outcome as a result!
There is so much within this story that is beneficial for us – not least the fact that we see God taking the initiative here. It is God who suddenly comes out of nowhere to meet Jacob at a completely unexpected place and time! It is God who initiates the wrestling match! It is as though, having patiently watched over Jacob all these years and not seen much change in him, that God finally says, ‘Enough is enough! Time to sort yourself out Jacob!’ And so it can be with us. For no apparent reason God suddenly comes to us with a new initiative and takes us into a better, if sometimes a costly, place! We also see that in wrestling with God, Jacob almost prevails! Jacob certainly gains a new name and a new blessing as a result even if he doesn’t actually win the fight! He is given a new name – Your name will no longer be Jacob (deceiver) but Israel (strong one)’ (Genesis 32:28). He also receives God’s personal blessing – ‘[God] blessed him there’ (Genesis 32:29) – not just God’s proxy blessing that he had previously received through his father! Perhaps those commentators, who find here in this story support for importance of prevailing with God in prayer, are not entirely wrong … especially if it leads to us becoming stronger Christians moving in the blessing and anointing of God!
The thing that really strikes me about this story, however – the thing that I believe is the real key to the transformation of Jacob’s life, and therefore the most important lesson that we learn here – is that in order to ‘overpower’ Jacob, God ‘touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched [out of joint]’ (Genesis 32:25)! The thought here (clearer in the Hebrew than in English) is that ‘God prevails’ over Jacob (rather than defeat him with ‘a low blow’ as some suggest). Another possible meaning of the new name of ‘Israel’ that Jacob receives in defeat is ‘God rules’ and this supports this idea. The secret of being used by God, and the vital lesson Jacob needed to learn, is that God has to rule over our lives, full stop! In some ways it is good to be a fighter, and Jacob was a fighter by nature, but not when we fight against God. This was a painful lesson for Jacob to learn … and from that moment on he carried this lesson with him because for the rest of his life ‘he was limping because of his hip’ (Genesis 32:31).
Both the story of Limp Along Leslie, and particularly the story of Jacob, remind me of a couple of things I read recently. The first was from Rick Warren, the influential American Pastor of Saddleback Church in Orange County, California. He is a man who has known heart break in his own life, not least the recent tragic suicide of his youngest son. Writing around this time Warren shared that ‘I only hire staff who’ve been hurt deeply. People who’ve never suffered tend to be shallow and smug about other’s pain.’ And then I came across a fascinating quote from John Wimber in Ray Simpson’s wonderful little book Church of the Isles: A Prophetic Strategy for Renewal Simpson quotes Wimber as saying, ‘Never trust a leader who walks without a limp!’ Many of us ‘walk with a limp’. It may be the result of a moral failure in the past, a broken marriage or relationship, an ongoing physical illness or mental condition such as depression, a hurtful experience that has permanently scarred us, and so on. Some things are of our own making, such as moral failure, and need to be repented of. Many of these things, however, are simply because ‘stuff happens’ (as Confucius suggests). The important thing is to see that ‘having a limp’ is not an insurmountable barrier to becoming the person God wants you to be, or to being used by God in a productive way. What we need to do is learn to walk with a limp!
As so many characters in comics have to have a second life, if only to vary the plot and to produce situations of conflict, so Limp Along Leslie finds himself eventually faced with a difficult choice. Leslie’s brilliant hat-trick had put the Rangers into the semi-finals of the FA Cup and two England selectors have been watching the game. As a result Leslie is in line for an international Cap against Scotland at Hampden Park! But the Hampden Park match is on the same day as the National Sheep Dog Trial that Leslie has already entered?! Leslie’s late father, had won an International Sheep Dog Trial, and he had also been captain of the Rangers and an England international. Leslie wants to follow in his footsteps but now it looks as if Leslie might have to sacrifice one ambition for the sake of the other?! Accepting that we actually have a limp and determining to learn to walk with a limp will be a difficult choice for us to make as well. Sadly there will always be those who tell us that because we have a ‘limp’ we are therefore ‘unfit for service’. Once again we are faced with a difficult choice? Do we receive this negativity, or rightly refuse to listen to such negative voices even if our ‘limp’ is of our own making? Remember that, because of all that Jesus has done for us, ‘there is therefore no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 8:1)! Learning to walk with a limp may well be difficult but, to quote Rick Warren once again, ‘I’d rather limp through life depending on God’s Spirit than run on my own strength!’ To do so, however, may well result in us (like Limp Along Leslie) winning God’s equivalent of an international cap and a sheep dog trial, or even better (like Jacob) find ourselves somehow playing a significant part in God’s great scheme of things!