Jacob really loved blessings. Earlier in the story about him in Genesis he received his father’s blessing because he tricked his father and stole his brother Esau’s blessing, And then in this story that Austin read for us today, he wrestles with the stranger and then won’t let him go until he receives a blessing.
This story is perplexing and captivating all at the same time for me. Jacob was alone, likely for the first time in a long time – his family and servants sent on ahead to meet Esau, perhaps to be killed in retaliation for the stolen blessing. I’m guessing Jacob had precious little time alone in his life – or at least that’s the story I’ve made up since he had wives, servants, children, animals … when would he have time all to himself?
And then a wrestling match with a stranger, all night long. There are precious few details about this wrestling match. Who is the adversary? Why were they wrestling? What is his name? Using our imagination, we could make up that the wrestling match was long and arduous since they wrestled until daybreak. They must have been sweaty and exhausted and there was no clear winner – even when the opponent broke Jacob’s hip – he still hung on. I’ve never broken a hip, thankfully, but I’ll tell you that those who have have told me that it is painful. How did he hang on?
And before he would let go, in that pain and determination, Jacob demanded and received a blessing. A new name. Israel - One who strives with God and humans and prevails. But wait, I thought there was no clear winner – what do you mean one who strives and prevails? Did he prevail simply because he was in the match and didn’t back away? Why did he ask for a blessing? Would it occur to you after wrestling all night long to ask for a blessing? I’m not sure I would have thought that.
And then Jacob names the place, to mark it, just as he did before in the story Julie preached about a couple of weeks ago. He names this place Peniel – The Face of God. Because he wrestled with God face to face and lived to tell about it. And so is Jacob saying he wrestled with God even though the adversary never said who he was?
So many questions. All the struggle, the exhaustion, the pain, the sweat, maybe some tears. And what came from it was a blessing. Perplexing.
I’m not sure what happens for you when you have time all to yourself in the midst of some trial. Usually in the middle of the night when everyone else is sleeping or when you find yourself alone. But me … I have had many sleepless nights in my life doing my own version of wrestling – with myself, with God, with some situation I’m trying to figure out how to handle. I can relate to Jacob and his wrestling match – feel the determination to “figure it out”, to make some sense of what’s going on. To hang on until I’m utterly exhausted and my tears cried out.
And then I find that poem, A new way of struggling. Susan Ruach suggests a different way to find the answers God has for us. To jump in, surrender any perceived control and allow God to lead and guide. And at the same time be in relationship with God to create and find the new answer and reality. And the trust that takes is pretty incredible and unlearning the way of holding on and not wrestling and hanging on so tightly is not easy.
To put this into context let me share a personal story.
I recently had my own wrestling match with God about a decision I needed to make. I lost sleep, tossed and turned, got up and paced the house, cried a ton. It was hard to let go of what was – it was known, it held a once meaningful relationship, it offered income – and at the same time it was no longer helpful to my well-being. So I wrestled and once exhausted, I made the decision to end a working relationship that no longer worked for me. It wasn’t very pretty. I was sure I made the right decision and at the same time I was full of doubt and fear. Oh the unknown.
And then I had an experience with a horse. Are you surprised? Horses live in the moment, invite us to be like them and feel the sensations and emotions held in our body and then see what thought that might be holding us or a message that needs to emerge. In this experience, I surrendered. I listened to my body. The sensation and emotions that were there spoke volumes – my shoulders were tight, my heart had a wall around it, I was holding my jaw, my breathing was fast & shallow. During this time, I had questions pop in to my mind. “What’s going to happen?” “What’s next?” “Did I make the right decision?” “What am I doing?” The questions swirled around my head and heart so fast I couldn’t keep up. While all this was happening for me the horse hardly looked up and wasn’t engaged though the ears kept flicking my way as if he was listening.
I kept listening to my body and watched that horse. Suddenly something in me shifted. My breathing slowed and was deeper. My heart started to slow and the wall started to crumble. That horse just stood. Ears perked. Breathing steady. Then a warmth came through my whole body and my jaw relaxed and my heart opened. The horse moved closer and stood. Steady, eyes soft. My heart started to expand, and my chest and gut felt full and powerful. The question shifted to “Now what?” and then the message as I looked at the horse so strong and steady – “How firm a foundation I’ve laid – trust it!” My breath deepened more, I noticed birds singing to the right of me, a sweet smell came through on the breeze. And then the horse looked straight at me and the next message came through – “I’m holding myself back. No movement doesn’t mean something hasn’t been growing and stewing. Great witnesses support me.”
I think that’s what Susan Ruach is talking about when she says
into the abyss
and find ourselves
slowly and gently
to the answers God has for us-
to watch the answers unfold
before our eyes and still
to be a part of the unfolding
The answers were there. The horse held space for me to explore and be open. It didn’t require worry, fretting, wrestling, exhaustion. I was part of the co-creative process and I knew that I made the right decision even if I don’t have all the answers about what the future will look like.
John O’Donohue is one of my favorite contemplative authors. His book To Bless the Space between Us was gifted to me several years ago and the pages are well worn. In the introduction he talks about how when we stand at a threshold in our life, we need help crossing into the unknown. He suggests that blessings can help with crossing into and through the threshold. He says, “A blessing is not a sentiment or a question; it is a gracious invocation where the human heart pleads with the divine heart.” A blessing can “open doors” and bring “healing and transfiguration.” He goes on to say that “The quiet eternal that dwells in our souls is silent and subtle; in the activity of blessing it emerges to embrace and nurture us.” (introduction xiii-xv)
Jacob wrestled while at a threshold in his life and won a blessing from God. I was at a threshold and wrestled and surrendered and was blessed with new answers and some peace.
And a different context relevant to our current times.
This week our country remembered, honored and buried a great patriot, John Lewis. He stood at many thresholds in his life, just as we do. He stood at the threshold of his youth watching racial injustice and voter suppression and was blessed by the words and work of Rev Dr Martin Luther King and stepped into non violent actions and helped make changes in laws. He stood at the threshold of death on that bridge in Selma and was blessed to be injured and live to continue to work he so strongly knew was just and right.
At the threshold of his death a few weeks ago, he wrote an essay published on the day of his funeral. “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation.” We can see it as a blessing as we stand at a new threshold in our country’s history and go forth to continue the work of racial justice in this country. An excerpt of his words from that essay.
“When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.
Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. …The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time. Continue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others. … I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring. … So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and power of everlasting love be your guide.” (Excerpts from “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation” published in New York Times 7-30-20)
And so, beloved of God, wrestle or jump off as you stand at this new threshold of your life. And as John Lewis said, “Let the spirit of peace and power of everlasting love be your guide!”