July 31: Wrestling for Blessing

Click here to read Genesis 32:22-32.

I wish I could call the flower by name. Maybe you can imagine the variety of which I speak: strong, muscular green stalks rise up nearly three feet, crowned by large buds. A whole patch of these flowers were planted along the outside of the chapel at Claremont School of Theology. I had never seen them before, and to be honest, I didn’t think they were much to look at upon first glance. Not delicate like the ground-covering jasmine, not majestic like the Easter lilies blooming nearby. But each day as I passed by on the way to class, I noticed the struggle unfolding among those hefty green bulbs. Inside of each one a whole spray of purple blossoms grappled to emerge into the light. The struggle went on for days; at first, one particularly brazen blossom forced its way through the wall of the bulb. Day after day, I would check on the progress of the bulbs. At first it seemed like the teardrop-shaped buds would prevail; the petals were just so soft and young compared to the tough and weathered skin. But the blossoms persisted, and within a week the buds broke open completely to reveal flawless purple bouquets.

We Christians thrive on this kind of imagery. The impossible journey from death into new life is our favorite story. The seed is buried and matures into a magnolia tree. The recipient of baptism is immersed into water and reborn into new life in Christ. The body of Jesus is put into a tomb and resurrected on Easter morning. Whatever else we are, whatever else we do: the Christian Church is called first and foremost to be a witness to the unlikely miracle of regeneration, rebirth, resurrection. We are bound to practice faith where there is cynicism, hope where there is despair, and love where there is fear, because we have been gifted with God’s good blessing of new life through Christ Jesus.

Some folks receive the blessings of faith, the gift of new life, with openness and grace. I think David, the king and psalmist, was one of these open vessels for God’s blessing. Don’t get me wrong: David was a mess according to human standards, using his power in conniving and dishonest ways. But oh, those psalms! The ease with which David pours forth his thanksgivings and lamentations has always undone me. The words of the psalms bear witness to a speaker who knows the deep and abiding presence of a loving & merciful God.

There is another category of believers, though, for whom faith does not take a straightforward path. Some of us receive the blessing of faith and new life kicking and screaming, terrified for what it really means to allow ourselves to know and be known by God. And yes, you may note that here I speak in the first person, for I attest that I am definitely in this second category of believer. Just as the purple blossoms struggled mightily to breach the green bud cloaking them from daylight, many Christians fight their way to faith. Like Jacob, we find ourselves on a dark night of the soul wrestling with a stranger we only later recognize as God.

The story of Jacob’s encounter with God at the place called Peniel is a weird and wonderful tale, the kind that is full of details even the most learned biblical scholars and historians can’t quite figure out. There’s the mysterious man who turns up in the night. There’s the strange twist of events in which Jacob’s hip is intentionally injured. There’s the unusual power the man has to bless Jacob with a new name, Israel. And then there is the most unexpected development of all: we realize with Jacob that the man is actually God, inexplicably making a midnight appearance as a wrestling opponent for our wayward hero.

This is the kind of story that embodies the beauty of the Holy Bible: it is clearly the product of another place and time, dense with elements rooted in a worldview vastly different from our own. And yet this foreign tale manages to accurately depict the timeless human struggle to encounter God.

My own wrestling match with God started when I was very young. I grew up in a good church, surrounded by good people. But I always felt confused about my relationship with God. I wondered why I could not feel God’s presence. It seemed to me that if all these people were getting up every Sunday morning and making the pilgrimage to worship, they must be having some tangible experience of God. I felt awkward while praying, unsure of how my monologues were different than talking to an imaginary friend.

When I was eight, my best friend confided to me that she and her family prayed every night that I would be saved. This shocked and terrified me. I thought I was okay—confused, perhaps, but otherwise okay. She explained that the faith practiced by my family wasn’t enough—that I needed to invite Jesus into my heart personally.

So I did. I invited Jesus to come into my heart. And I was dismayed to realize that I felt much the same. God was no less of a figment of my imagination. And so the next time someone invited me to accept Jesus, I did. By the time I completed middle school, I had marched down the stadium aisles at a Christian rock concert and a Billy Graham Crusade. Each time felt like I was trying to wrestle Jesus into a headlock and force him to take up residence in my heart. It just didn’t work.

I finally gave up. I decided to join the masses of people who proclaim a spiritual life without the fetters of a religious commitment. I was frustrated, perhaps even angry, with Christianity.

However did I end up here, cloaked in robe & stole, proclaiming the Good News of Christ Jesus?

I went back to church. I went back to church even when I did not believe, even when anger still burned within me. I went to Quaker meetings, Episcopal Eucharist, Roman Catholic Mass. And after time, I realized that even though I had given up on God, God had not given up on me. God had not released me from our wrestling match, not until I was ready to receive the blessing I longed for.

All those years I tried to coerce Jesus into my own heart, and what I truly needed was to enter into the heart of the Body of Christ. Within the space of faithful congregations, I surrendered to the presence of a real and living God, a God who is no more imaginary than the Pacific Ocean.

Through my striving with God, I have been blessed with a mustard seed of faith. And like Jacob, I have been given a new name, a name that bears witness to my covenant with a community of faithful brothers and sisters. God called Jacob to be Israel. And God called me to be a Disciple of Christ, to live out my decision to follow the way of Jesus within the covenant of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). This has been clear to me ever since I first made the good confession of faith at Ledgewood Christian Church in Ohio, and the events and fellowship that unfolded at General Assembly in Portland were a joyful reminder that this expression of Christ’s church is truly my home. We at South Bay Christian Church are part of a vibrant and prophetic Christian body, committed to a vision of deep Christian spirituality, true community, and a passion for justice. And, in the words of Sharon Watkins, our newly elected General Minister and President, we are a church whose time has come.

This, friends, is testimony: a story that begins with thrashing in the night, alone but for the God who seeks us out and wrestles us into blessing. A story that does not end but is transformed into a greater story, a story full of light and faith and a new identity forged of hope and covenant.

I have shared part of my story of faith with you. But it does not matter so much that it is my story. If Jacob had wrestled with an ordinary man, we wouldn’t still be reading of his strange encounter in the night. What matters is that we wrestle with God, and God wrestles back. God meets us in our suffering, encounters us in our floundering, and matches our strength until we give in and receive the transforming blessing of faith and covenant. Doubt is converted to faith. Shadows are cast out by light. Isolation is redeemed by community. Death is overcome by resurrection. And what seemed like a wrestling match that would never end becomes a dance.

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