The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Sometimes we feel like the widow in that story, don’t we? We knock on God’s door again and again, making ourselves a pest. Please God, give me a job, someone to love, a sense of direction in my life. Please God, help my favorite candidate get elected in two weeks, help the poor, and bring peace to the Middle East. Please God, heal my friend, my daughter, my marriage.
Every day, we knock on God’s door, doing what Jesus recommends – being persistent in prayer. We hope that God, like the judge, will finally answer us, as Jesus promised - Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.
And yet it’s not so easy, is it? Sometimes we ask ourselves, where is the justice, the healing, the clarity of direction? I’ve been praying. I’ve been doing my part. Why is God so slow, so obscure, so unresponsive?
But there’s a problem here, a trap we fall into. We tend to think about our faith and God’s grace in a linear, cause-and-effect way: if we have the right kind of faith, if we pray in the right way with enough certainty, the kind of answer we’re looking for will come, and we’ll get what we want, as a result of our efforts. It’s as if we have the power to control God’s grace. Publishers make a lot of money on this: 10 Habits of Highly Spiritual People! 5 Powerful Prayers that Get Results!
This morning’s story from the Hebrew scriptures offers a different way of looking at the relationship between our faith and God’s grace. It is a story, not a formula. It is about a relationship, not techniques. It doesn’t give us answers; instead, it leads us into an archetypal space that is filled with both human effort and divine grace. New life comes, but we don’t know how.
Jacob, that dreamer and that trickster, was on a journey with his entourage, and they came to a shallow place in the stream. He sent his family and the animals and all their baggage across to the other side. He was left alone, standing in the stream.
A stranger then appeared, and Jacob wrestled with him all night. In the course of the match he was wounded, but he held his own.
In the morning, the stranger cried “Uncle,” but Jacob wouldn’t let go. He demanded that the stranger reveal his name to Jacob, and give him a blessing. No name was offered, for it was, in fact, God, the One whom the Jews refused to name. And as a blessing, the stranger gave Jacob a limp. Finally, the sun rose, and Jacob walked away with a new name.
Now, what does all this have to do with the relationship between our faith and God’s grace?
First of all, Jacob’s journey brings him to a ford, a crossing point in the water. He is alone, without any companionship, without his baggage. He is naked, vulnerable, in a transitional place.
Think for a moment about those times in your life journey when you came to a crossing place. Was it when you realized that your marriage or partnership wasn’t going to work, or when you knew you had to change what you do for a living, or when because of your age, you could no longer live the way you’d always lived? Was it when you faced your addiction, or was it when you knew you really needed God, but didn’t know how to connect? Perhaps you’re standing at that ford in the river right now.
We tend to emphasize the importance and availability of support systems and relationships when we get to those difficult transitions, and rightly so. All of us need help. But there come times when, like Jacob, we stand alone at the crossing, without anyone else, without our usual props. You must walk that lonesome valley; you got to walk it by yourself; Oh nobody else can walk it for you; you got to walk it by yourself. There are times when it all comes down to you, and what you’re going to do.
Addicts find that solitary place when they hit bottom. In a less dramatic way, retreats can put us in there. So can private prayer, walks in the woods, a day off with no plans, anything that opens up a space where we can feel ourselves again. It’s understandable that we avoid this, preferring to fill up all the spaces so this won’t happen. But it is when we are alone, naked, without any of our props, that an encounter with God can happen.
This encounter is often a struggle, not a comfort. And it is usually an unfamiliar thing to us, even unrecognizable. Jacob wrestled a stranger, at night. When a change in identity happens because we stay home from work to raise a child, or because we lose our job - or because we go on sabbatical - we wrestle with new and unfamiliar forces, in the darkness. Who are we now? When we lose someone dear to us, everything we thought we knew now looks foreign to us. When we stop using control to deal with our anxiety, we don’t know how to respond to life’s uncertainties in a different way. Struggling with new and unfamiliar forces is like being blindfolded, in a boxing match.
But the stranger that Jacob wrestled turned out to be God. When we wrestle with a change in identity, a loss, a shift in how we relate to life, in some sense we are in a wrestling match with God, who is trying to overcome our resistance, our defenses, so that we can move forward. The divine force of grace that wants to transform us, to redeem us, is wrestling with our human force that either wants to remain as we are, or that is confused and unaware. This wrestling match may take a long time.
In our story, Jacob persists, refusing to give up. He holds on tight, demanding that God bless him by revealing himself, by naming who he is and what he is about. But God does no such thing. God remains a mystery, an unnamed stranger. Instead, the blessing God gives Jacob is a wound. He must now limp through life.
I don’t know about you, but when I wrestle with God and try to live into a new way of being, when I’m dealing with unfamiliar changes in my life, I want the blessing of clarity and strength. I don’t want another wound. And I want God to reveal himself, to name the way. I want a definitive answer, a straight path before me.
But instead, I go forth from my wrestling with God with a wound that is a kind of blessing; I have come to realize my limitations once again, my inability to save myself. And this is a blessing. For it is only in vulnerability and powerlessness that I know my need of God. And I am left with a God who remains unnamed, shrouded in shadows and mystery, whose ways are still unknown to me.
Our story ends as Jacob limps forward into the light. He hasn’t wrestled any clear or easy answers out of his mysterious encounter in the night. Instead, it only says that “the sun rose upon him” as he went.
In spite of our limp, in spite of God’s mystery, we step into the dawn of new days. Life after divorce isn’t the disaster we feared. Unemployed, we still hear music and we still love. As our old familiar sins keep re-emerging, at least we are aware of them and less likely to be controlled by them.
We learn that our limp is a doorway to grace, rather than the enemy we thought it was. O felix culpa, O happy fault! We come to see that our walk in the lonesome valley is safe, because while we may have to do it ourselves, we are never alone. We discover that the blindfolded boxing match is a kind of game, like the piñata, for nothing ultimate is at stake – we are always in the arms of God. And we understand that it is good for God to remain shrouded in fog; for without mystery, how could we ever fall down in humility, silenced by awe and wonder?
Prayer and faith may not “work” the way we want it to, but grace abounds in surprising ways. However, it only abounds if we knock, seek, and ask. There is a relationship – it may not be linear, but it is a relationship nonetheless - between our faith and God’s grace. We do what we do, and God does what God does, and good things seem to happen.
In the life of faith, then, there is no magic formula. There is only the solitary wrestling in the night, the strangeness, the pestering for a blessing, the wound, the eternal mystery of God, and the dawn of new days.