If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Godwrestler

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.
When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck
him in the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he
wrestled with him. Then he said, ''Let me go, for the day is breaking. "
But Jacob said, "1will not let you go unless you bless me. " So, he said
to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob:" 'Then the man
said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have
striven with God and with humans and have prevailed."
Genesis 32:22-32

The ancient story of Jacob is rugged and powerful. It is not a simple, edifying story with an uplifting moral lesson. To read it is to see it's teeth gleam and it's sweating muscles bulge. The story is similar to other ancient stories of gods and demons who leap upon humans at night and engage them in combat near riverbanks. The thought of wrestling with a god is as frightening as the thought of Pee Wee Herman wrestling Hulk Hogan. If we are to wrestle a blessing from this story, it will only be after we have grappled with it for some time. And' we may come away from this story limping, wounded by the struggle. But, as the story goes, we may then be ready to receive our new name. Because in our wrestling with the text, and how it speaks to us, we may walk away having seen reflected in the mirror of this story, not only our own faces, but the face of God.

It is night. The darkness is filled with sounds that terrify. A solitary man fretfully waits by the gurgling Jabbok river. Alone. In the distance he can hear the muffled sounds of a caravan with camel bells jingling. His loving family, herds, and all he possesses have crossed over the river. They bear gifts to appease an angry adversary on the other side of the dark river. It's as if Jacob is at the point of no return. When the sun rises he must go across and face his brother Esau. Beads of sweat form on his furrowed brow and glistened on his beard. His insides are churning like the water hitting the nearby rocks. He dare not sleep. The silent air is thick with an ominous foreboding.

Then suddenly from out of the bowels of the darkness leaps a faceless and nameless stranger and throws Jacob to the ground. The cold flesh of the night stranger presses hard against Jacob. His foul breath is hot in Jacob's face. Their bodies intertwined like snakes in a deadly dance. Twisting. Turning. Grunting. Panting. Scissor holds. Half-Nelsons. Body slams. The wrestling seems endless.

What or who is he wrestling with in the dark of night? The god of the river? Esau? Himself? His own fears? His past? His destiny? Some inner demon? God? Maybe it's all of those things twisted together that Jacob wrestles into the night. Those of us who have experienced such inner struggles cannot easily distinguish what or who it is we are wrestling. Our battling relationships or our struggles with self-identity may be, at the same time, struggles with God. Jacob is probably no different. What is it that has Jacob in a headlock? With what or whom is he struggling beside the riverbank?

To better understand Jacob's struggle we might look back at Jacob's life and think of him as a professional wrestler, who has been sitting in the comer of a ring waiting to combat an opponent. The announcer comes to the center of the ring. His voice echoes through the PA system. Ladies and Gentlemen ...men...men. In this corner...comer...corner ...is Jacob ...Jacob ...Jacob. Then the announcer proceeds to describe the contestant. What we hear is not his weight or the color of his trunks, but the unfolding of his life up to this point. We see flashbacks of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham, whose life seems to have been a constant struggle.

The first flashback is a scene in a maternity ward. More correctly, a goat-skin tent. Inside, a sweaty woman, Rebekah, groans to give birth. Within her womb are twins wrestling to see who can make it out first. It's almost as if, prenatal, they knew that the firstborn child would eventually receive their father's special blessing. So, they struggle with each other, even in the womb. Suddenly there is a deep moan. Out from the womb comes a hairy, red headed baby, who they name Esau. Not to be outdone, the second child comes out, named Jacob, gripping onto his brother with a wrestler's grip.

The second flashback is a scene in a kitchen. The steam rises from a bubbling pot. The vapor of smell from lentil stew floats through the air and caresses the nose of Esau and pulls him forward almost floating, like a scene from a cartoon. Esau has come in tired, gritty, and famished from a long day of hard work in the fields. "Give me some of that red stuff, I'm starving", growls Esau. Jacob stands there with his apron on stirring the pot. "First," responds Jacob cunningly, "sell me your birthright." Beans for a birthright. Quite a bargain. Here is a cheater and conniver at work Jacob is being true to his name.

The third flashback is a scene of a bedroom. A man, named Isaac, lies in a bed inside a tent. The sun is going down over the red hills and the oil lamp inside the tent makes it glow. Isaac's eyes are tombs wrapped in wrinkles. A fly buzzes through the air and lands. He calls out to his firstborn, his favorite son Esau, to come into the tent to receive his due blessing. Not a mere formal blessing like, "God bless you". But a blessing which is a transfer of the power of the one who blesses to the one being blessed.

The doting mother of Jacob overhears the conversation with Esau, from outside the tent. While Esau is Isaac's favored son, Jacob is her's. She has spoiled this boy rotten. It doesn't take a family therapist to recognize that there is favoritism and rivalry within this family. The parents of these twins are having their own wrestling match. But we, who know about parental favoritism and playing one child over against the other, are aware of the results that such pitting of child against child can bring into the lives of children as they grow older. Children who have grown up in such dysfunctional families go limping through life with hidden wounds.

The mother has a few tricks up her sleeve. Her scheme is to have her son disguise himself as Esau and finagle his blind father out of the blessing. Later, rustling feet enter Isaac's tent bringing the smell of Esau. The hairy arm feels like Esau. But Isaac's blind eyes cannot see that it is the trickster Jacob who finally gets the father's blessing. The scene closes with a loud moan coming from the tent. We recognize the angry scream. It's Esau. Boiling over with hatred.

Other scenes from the past of our wrestler, quickly flash before our eyes. One is of the con man being conned. The scene is an informal wedding. It is taking place in the land where Jacob has fled from the red-hot anger of Esau. The canopy hangs over the lucky couple. But it doesn't look like luck Jacob has been conned into marrying Leah, the oldest daughter of Laban, in order to get the younger daughter, Rachel, as his wife. Not only that, but Laban got seven years of labor out of Jacob from the deal. The trickster has been tricked. Jacob will soon turn the tables and use his conniving skills to benefit himself But for now, he sweats under the wedding canopy. A veil hide the face of the women at the altar. But there is no veil to hide Laban's half-smile. He has duped Jacob.

Another scene flashes into the mind of the godwrestler. The scene is of bleating sheep being herded away by Jacob. His family and possessions make a cloud of dust as they leave the country of Laban. They did not part the best of friends. Laban pursues Jacob and his caravan of ill-gotten-gain. But a covenant at Mizpah keeps them from going at each others throats in the future. Jacob heads back home. Angels refresh his journey. He's going to need a few angels to travel with him. He is headed toward his red, hot brother, Esau.

In this corner ...corner ...corner ... is Jacob ...acob ...acob.
The announcers voice brings us back to the riverside. Jacob comes to his senses. He has been a pampered pup. A momma's boy. A trickster, cheater, conniver. He is no worthy opponent. He run's away from his problems. Not this time. The bell has already rung and Jacob .has been in the ring wrestling with his faceless adversary all night long. Who, in this world or the next, is this shadow wrestler?

His adversary is stronger than any man. But the once-resigned and cowardly Jacob puts up quite a fight. From somewhere courage springs up within the defeated Jacob. And it's not just an-adrenaline rush. Blow for blow he doesn't give up or give in. Jacob is now literally wrestling for his life.

Relentless. They go at it until the sun begins to peak .over the mountain's crest. He's becoming quite a wrestler! And as the dawn begins to break, it appears that Jacob is now winning! He has the stranger in an vise-grip headlock. The faceless wrestler cries out to Jacob, "Let me go before the sun rises". Jacob's hunch that this was no ordinary man is confirmed. Maybe it's a trick. He tightens his grip.

Then the stranger simply touches the hollow of Jacob's thigh. Jacob is suddenly lying crippled, with a thigh muscle pulled. It's as if the stranger could have pinned his shoulders for a ten count at any time during the all-night fight. Still, Jacob holds on for dear life, even though his adversary could probably pin him with his little finger.

When the wrestling is over and done Jacob will realize that he did not wrestle an ordinary man. He will realize that when he looked into the face of the stranger, what he saw was in reality the face of God. It was as if God was the one who had been trying to wrestle something out of Jacob.

You know what I mean. It's like when God wrestles a new character or future out of your own Iife when you struggle through difficult relationships, decisions, or problem situations. You try to running away from the problem, what's ahead of you, a broken relationship, or your own inner conflicts and contradictions. But alone at night, it pounces upon you. And you have to wrestle with it. What am I supposed to do? Which way am I supposed to go? Why do I always seem to act this way? Why am I having to go through this? Where is God in my life? What is God doing with me? You wrestle with a faceless opponent. Or maybe your opponent has many faces. You can't tell whether it's the face of that friend you have been at odds with, the darker side of your own self, or the hidden face of God. And your adversary is stronger than you. But hopefully you can hang in there through the fight. Those who hold their grip through such spiritual struggles until they wrestle some meaning from them are wrestlers on par with Jacob. They come out of such struggles different persons.

"I will not let you go until you bless me," groans Jacob. Jacob has recognized that his opponent is more than a mere human. "What is your name?" grunts the stranger. "Jacob", he responds. He admits who he is. His name is his character. Jacob confesses. I am a trickster, a cheat, a conniver. Only by confessing his name, who he really is, can he become who he is supposed to be. Only as we admit that we have been cheaters, liars, manipulators, cowards, and complainers will we become who we are supposed to be. First, we have to own up to our name, who we, in all honesty, really are. For if we don't our shadow self may just leap out at us some night while we are all alone and wrestle us to the ground.

Because Jacob overcomes through the struggle, he receives a new name. No longer will his name or his character be Jacob, the trickster. His name, and his character, will be Israel, Godwrestler. The transformation of his character is the blessing which he sought. Jacob has wrestled with himself, with his past, with his future, with his relationships, and with God. That old life of conniving and running that haunted him in his dreams leaves with the rising of the sun.

The new day will even see Jacob's fears of Esau blow away like a puff of smoke. Jacob and Esau on the other side of the river and end up in a bear hug. Not in a wrestling match, but with Esau embracing Jacob and showering him with tears, kisses, forgiveness, and blessings. Was this the one he thought to be the faceless adversary the last evening? No. And yes. It was Esau that Jacob wrestled. It was himself that he wrestled. But more than himself and Esau. For as Jacob looked into Esau's forgiving face Jacob said that it was like looking directly into the face of God.

Jacob limps away from the ring with one arm around Esau. He has fought the good fight. He has kept the faith. And he carries with him a battle wound. It is the mark that anyone who has encountered God as deeply as Jacob carries in themselves. It is the painful memory of struggles with ourselves and our relationships. Or the scars from our battles with God. When we make it through such personal and spiritual struggles or come through such dramatic turning points in life, we walk away wounded, limping. As Jesus limped out of the tomb on Easter, bearing in his body the scars of his great struggle and victory. And we can never go back to being that person we used to be. We have a new name, a new character, a new destiny. God, our beloved adversary, has wrestled it out of us. And our wound is a reminder to us of
how weak is our strength in the face of God's awesome power.

We know the place where Jacob wrestled. We repeat his story, again and again. Somewhere wrestlers are grappling in the dark. Someone is struggling with a shadowy figure. A defeat .is turned into a victory by God's hand. A new name is given. And a lone figure limps away as the sun dawns on a new day.

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