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Staying with the struggle

By Trisha Elliott

It's the kind of story that might be told around a campfire in the dark, with smoke rising, embers flickering orange and blue.

The story might be told like this.

On the scarred limestone cliffs of the valley, where desert winds moan, a solitary man pitched his tent on the bank of the Jabbok river. He went about his task quietly, his hands moving across the leather as though the bones and tendons themselves held memory.

He wasn't hungry. He was too nervous. It wasn't the fact that he had sent his livestock and family across the river, and he was now alone; nor was it the dark descent of desert night that ate at his insides.

Something much more serious bound Jacob's heart. Someone was trying to kill him. It was someone not nearly as smart or as crafty as Jacob, but twice as burly, with a thick mat of chest hair that made him look more animal than human, someone with a score to settle. His own brother, Esau.

Jacob tossed this way and that, but felt every pebble beneath him. His memories raced: the slosh of the wine as he poured more and more into Esau's chalice, the drunken, hungry way his brother ate his porridge, oblivious to the fact that he had just relinquished his inheritance. The sweat beneath the animal skins, heavy and itchy on Jacob's arms, the ache of his knees as he knelt by his dying father's bed and wrenched from him his brother's blessing.

Jacob turned the sights and sounds of those days over in his mind, editing his recollections. Was it really as he remembered it? Would Esau remember it the same way? Would the sight of Jacob's livestock and family soften the edges of his brother's memory?

The night wore on.

And just when it seemed it couldn't get any darker, the door of his tent ripped open. Before Jacob knew what was happening, someone's massive hands were gripping his calf, pressing his shoulder, clutching his throat. It was so dark he couldn't see the man, but he could smell his sweat, hear his breath. Jacob twisted and turned, heaving his body. The fight went on and on.

Finally, Jacob dug his knee into the man's chest, wrapped his arms tightly around his right leg, and yanked it across his body. A fire of pain shot up through Jacob's hip, pain so fierce that it snaked up his back and bounced off his shoulders. Still, Jacob hung on and kept the man pinned, so that the two were motionless in a knot of flesh.

Then the man spoke. "Let me go, for it is daybreak."

And Jacob responded, "I will not let you go unless you bless me."

The man asked, "What's your name?"

"Jacob," he answered.

Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have wrestled with God and with men and have overcome."

And then, on that strangest of nights, his hip aching, the true identity of his assailant struck Jacob as a powerful blow sucks out a person's breath. "I have just wrestled with God!"

Later, as the sun rose, Jacob started for the river, on his way to talk to his brother Esau for the first time in 21 years.

Thirsty, he knelt down, cupped his hand and withdrew several gulps of the cold water.

Just to look at him, kneeling there, you wouldn't suspect anything more than missed sleep. He was dishevelled; and if you got up close, you'd see the redness in his eyes. Only when he stood up to walk would you see it, the mark of God on his body. A pronounced limp that would accompany him forever like a travelling companion, not likeable but knowing the territory and speaking the language.

And to this very day, the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip because it was in that exact spot that God touched Jacob for life.

Two thousand years later, we are still wrestling with God.

We lose our jobs and we wrestle. Our partner leaves us and we wrestle. The family secret breaks and we wrestle. We get a cancer diagnosis and we wrestle. A tsunami wipes out 175,000 people in Southeast Asia, leaving children without parents, parents without children, families without homes or a place to build one and we wrestle, wrestle, wrestle.

We struggle so much with our faith that we wonder if God has left us. We wonder, do faithful people have to struggle this much to believe? Do faithful people stare at the ceiling at three in the morning, or walk about the house in a depressed fog? And then we get to thinking that maybe we aren't faithful at all, that maybe there is no God. We are tempted to quit. What's the point of even trying to come to grips with God?

But here's the thing about wrestling. You can't do it without getting close. You get very well-acquainted in a wrestling match. It's a muscle-to-muscle, sweat-to-sweat kind of thing. In fact, it's one of the most tangible ways of getting to know God. It takes faith to cling to God, to wrap your Spirit around God's, to continue to struggle rather than walk away or allow yourself to get pinned. It takes courage to hold to the struggle when you feel most broken by it.

Many of us take spiritual questioning or even brokenness to be a sign of a personal failure to understand, to accept, to believe; or of God's failure to act, to care, to exist. Then we need to limp back to the bank of the Jabbok River and listen to a part of the story God desperately wants us to hear.

When Jacob and God are tied in a knot from which neither can move or breathe, God asks Jacob to let go, "because it's almost daybreak."

Now, every Israelite knows that if you see God face-to- face in the light of day, you'll die. The Hebrew scriptures are thick with stories of faithful people shielding their eyes from God.

God didn't ask Jacob to let go out of exhaustion, or boredom, or pity, but to prevent Jacob from seeing God's face, to preserve Jacob's life. When Jacob stubbornly holds on, God abruptly ends the match. With a mere touch of his hip, God blows the socket out of joint.

Jacob's limp wasn't a sign of God's failure or his own, no more than our spiritual limpings are indicative of ours. Jacob's limp was a permanent reminder of a successful wrestling match with God, successful because Jacob lived and emerged blessed with a new name, a new purpose for his life, and an intimate awareness of God's grace.

When our relationship with God staggers along, when none of our questions bring forth satisfying answers and we find ourselves wrestling with God in the dark night of the soul, perhaps it is then that we are most authentically, most successfully Christian. Ironically, it is in those exhausting, bewildering moments that God's deep blessing penetrates our grief.

Sometimes we make the mistake of assuming that when our spirit has been injured, and we are in conflict with God as a result, we lack faith. The reality is that spiritual wrestling testifies to deep faith. It is a sign of a genuine relationship with a God who hasn't caused our struggle, but cares enough to enter it; and baptizes and blesses us with God's own holy sweat through it.

This is Good News for us who wrestle with our faith in these strange and disturbing times; Good News for us who need no directions to the murky place where the tent still stands on the bank of the Jabbok River, because we've been there countless times before.

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