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Daily Encouragement - May 26

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.  He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 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 on 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, “I will 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.”  Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.  So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”  The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.  Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.

                                              Genesis 32:22-32

For as long as I can remember, my favorite story from the Old Testament has been the tale of Jacob wrestling, all night long, with an angel (or with a man; or with God, depending on which version of the Bible you’re reading).  Why it fascinates me, I cannot tell you with certainty, but fascinate, it does; perhaps because of all that it doesn’t tell you. The Hebrew storytellers are such good storytellers precisely because of this: they don’t tell it all; they leave bits and pieces out here and there, so that we’re enticed ever further into the story as we try to fill in the gaps for ourselves. But the story goes beyond fascination for me; it grabs “aholt” of me, as we say in the South, and it will not release me. It has become for me The Story That Will Not let Me Go. Maybe that’s appropriate, since in Hebrew the name Jacob means “grabber”: this Old Testament patriarch emerged from his mother’s womb grabbing onto the heel of his twin brother Esau, and he went on grabbing onto whatever belonged to his big brother for as long as there was anything left to grab. But something tells me that the hold this story has over me is more than words or names. The truth is that Jacob’s lifelong wrestle with the grace of God reminds me, in some ways, of my own. Trusting God enough to sing a chorus of “I Surrender All” seems to come easily to some Christians; but if you’ve been blessed/cursed with a Never Give Up personality, surrendering your little plans to God’s great will can become a daily tussle.  Maybe that’s why the story of Jacob, in his nocturnal wrestling match with the Lord, has gotten under my skin.  This was a man for whom life itself was one big contest; there was a lot of struggle for Jacob - and for anyone who got close to him.

Of course, he brought it on himself, sort of; though given the family he had, one might say he had a lot of help bringing it on himself. His family was, at best, complicated. (If you’ve ever come across an uncomplicated family, please make sure to let me know; in almost 4 decades of ministry, I never met one.) As the Scriptures so succinctly put it, “Isaac loved Esau; but Rebekah loved Jacob” - the family systems recipe for the perfect storm. Esau was what you might call a wee tad simpleminded, but he was a skillful hunter, a true strong man; while Jacob much preferred to stay close to home and help out with the domestic duties, a real Mama’s Boy. So it was child’s play for Jacob to steal Esau’s birthright for a mere bowl of lentil soup (or, as the KJV calls it, “a mess of pottage”); but that’s not where the stealing stopped. When the time came for a dying Isaac to give his final blessing to his firstborn son, Jacob took his Mama’s advice (this where it gets really awful) and tricked his Dad into thinking he was Esau, thereby grabbing what never should have been his. This time, Esau is enraged - who can blame him? - and Jacob flees for his life.  He winds up staying with his Uncle Laban, who was the original Grabber Galore, and who taught young Jacob a thing or two about taking what isn’t yours.  In other words, what goes around comes around, and Jacob gets the full boomerang effect when Laban tricks him into thinking he’s marrying his beloved Rachel - for whom he’s worked for Laban for seven years - when in truth, Laban has substituted his other daughter Leah. (You just can’t beat the KJV on this one: “But behold,” it reads, “in the morning, it was Leah.”  It makes me want to cringe.) So Jacob has to work seven more years for Rachel; we can only hope he thought she was worth it. Time passes; Jacob grows to be a very wealthy man, some say by appropriating what was rightfully Laban’s...but who can tell? It takes a grabber to beat a grabber. When all is said and done, Jacob discerns that he has become persona non grata in Laban Land, and tells his wives to pack their bags; it’s time to head for home. Home, where Esau is. 

Home is the place where they have to let you in - that is, if they don’t kill you first, which is exactly what Jacob fears will happen. He employs his natural strategizing skills here, sending on ahead of him his crew bosses, along with his various flocks and herds, instructing his front runners to mollify Esau with the message that all of these goodies are gifts for him, so that Jacob might find favor in his sight.  But even the best of briberies pale in comparison to news that gets back to Jacob: Esau is coming out to meet him, with 400 of his men, in a state of mind yet to be determined. So Jacob sends his two wives (at least he had the sense to stop at two), his two maids, and his eleven children across the stream of the Jabbok; and when they’ve forded the river, Jacob is left all alone.  None of his wealth can shield him. Even his Mama can’t help him now.  Into the silence and the solitude, God shows up, in the form of a human (or angelic) wrestler. Jacob has met his match at last. All night long they wrestle on the banks of the river. When dawn breaks, and the Opponent sees that he can not prevail over Jacob (???), he knocks his hip out of joint, just to leave a permanent mark on him, and then politely asks to be let go. You’d think Jacob would have been more than willing to comply; but no, he insists that he won’t be letting go until he’s been blessed. What’s your name? the Wrestler asks - blessings almost always begin with the name of the recipient - and Jacob tells him, but can’t resist returning the question. The Opponent never tells Jacob his name; but there, in the riverbank dawn, he blesses Jacob with a new name: “You’re not Jacob anymore,” he declares,”from now on you’re Israel (“Strives with God”), because have striven with God and with man, and have prevailed.”  Jacob limps away from the encounter, naming the place Peniel (“Face of God”), since, he says, “I have seen the face of God, and yet my life is preserved.” Clearly, Jacob has reached his own conclusions about the identity of his Opponent; he might have called his Wrestler a man or an angel in the heat of the fighting moment, but now he knows it was really God all along. 

The story isn’t a short one, I know. But let’s face it, folks; families aren’t short stories. Families are novels, at the very least, and more often sagas. This family story leaves us with as at least as many questions as answers. Why does the Divine Opponent allow this march to end in a tie? Maybe because the Lord was more interested in strengthening Jacob through the struggle than in who got declared the winner. Maybe because God’s point was to transform Jacob in the trial; after all, his many faults notwithstanding, Jacob is the Chosen One for bearing the blessing forward, and only those touched and transformed can do that. Or, as Frederick Buechner once wrote, “There is no renaming without laming.” All transformation comes at a cost. Being “Touched by an Angel” isn’t always sweetness and light. God’s reforming grace is sometimes painful and always pricey. One thing is for certain: into each life, some laming moments must come. Suffering is real, as the Buddhists say. That being the case, why waste a time of struggle? Why fritter away a perfectly good crisis?  Why not pray for a blessing to come out of it all?  The last few months have been a struggle of one sort or another for all of us; whether financial, or emotional, or spiritual in nature, the Time of Coronavirus has left a mark on us all. As a spiritual director once said to me, so now I say to you: Do not let this time of struggle go until it has blessed you.  Ask to be shown your blessing. You’ll find it right there next to where your wounds are. 

There’s no prayer better than “Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown,” so I’ll leave you with that. There are actually 14 stanzas written by Charles Wesley (as shown at #387), but what you see below are the four stanzas chosen for #386. Pray it as you say it... or sing it.

Come, O thou Traveler unknown,

whom still I hold, but cannot see!

My company before is gone,

and I am left alone with thee.

With thee all night I mean to stay,

and wrestle till the break of day;

with thee all night I mean to stay,

and wrestle till the break of day.

I need not tell thee who I am,

my misery and sin declare,

thyself hast called me by my name,

look on thy hands and read it there.

But who, I ask thee, who are thou?

Tell me thy name, and tell me now.

But who, I ask thee, who art thou?

Tell me thy name, and tell me now.

Yield to me now, for I am weak,

but confident in self despair!

Speak to my heart, in blessing speak,

be conquered by my instant prayer.

Speak, or thou never hence shalt move,

and tell me if thy name of Love.

Speak, or thou never hence shalt move,

and tell me if thy name is Love.

Tis Love! tis Love! Thou didst for me,

I hear thy whisper in my heart.

The morning breaks, the shadows flee,

pure, Universal Love thou art.

To me, to all, thy mercies move;

thy nature and thy name is Love.

To me, to all, thy mercies move;

thy nature and thy name is Love.

Pastor Susan Pate Greenwood 

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