Sunday, October 17, 2010

Wrestling with God

The film The Last Station deals with the last few months of the life of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. Late in his life Tolstoy had a powerful religious experience. He came to believe that he should practice a form of radical obedience to the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, and so he became a pacifist. He also began to give away his wealth, and he was a very wealthy man. Tolstoy was not only a successful novelist; he was also an aristocrat who owned valuable estates. The only problem was that his wife Sofia did not share Tolstoy’s religious views. The film depicts their relationship as contentious and stormy but also deeply loving. One moment they are yelling and cursing at each other and the next they are holding each other and calling each other silly, endearing names.

I suspect that is the way it is with a lot of our most important relationships. Whether it is a parent, a sibling, a child, or a friend, our closest relationships are often the stormiest. Someone once said that it is easy for our parents to push our buttons because they installed them.

The story of Jacob in Genesis is a great example of this truth. He was a man who was involved in a series of stormy relationships, and the storms were usually of his own making. Jacob’s character was a mixture of weakness and strength. While still in the womb, Jacob struggled with his brother Esau. God explained the struggle to Rebecca by telling her that “two nations” were in her womb. “The one shall be stronger than the other and the older shall serve the younger.”

Genesis says that Jacob came into the world holding on to the heel of his brother Esau. Thus, he was given the name “Jacob” which is usually defined as the “supplanter” but another way to translate the Hebrew name Jacob is the “deceiver.” From the beginning to the end of his life, Jacob would catch the heel of others to hold them back so he could get ahead, to trip them up so he could get the advantage.

The author of Genesis compares Jacob and Esau, telling us that Jacob was a homebody and Esau was an outdoorsman and hunter. But Jacob appears to be intellectually stronger than Esau. Catching Esau at a weak moment when he is famished, Jacob drives a hard bargain, forcing Esau to relinquish his blessing in return for a bowl of food. But when Jacob disguises himself as Esau and goes into their nearly blind father Isaac, lying to him in order to receive the laying on of Isaac’s hands that actually confers the blessing, Jacob appears to be morally and spiritually weak.

The tables are turned on Jacob when he works for his uncle Laban. Jacob the deceiver becomes Jacob the deceived when Laban tricks him into marrying his older and less attractive daughter Leah, then makes him work seven more years to marry his younger and prettier daughter Rachel whom Jacob really desires.

So what are we to make of this story of Jacob wrestling with a mysterious stranger through the night until day breaks? I believe this story tells us something profoundly true about ourselves.

First, we are told that Jacob is alone. It is often when we are alone that significant people enter our lives. There is something about solitude that opens us up. When a relationship ends, whether through divorce or the death of a loved one or when someone simply walks away, we feel dead, we feel that we will never love again. And then someone new comes into our life. We live again. We love again. And we live and love in new and unexpected ways, ways we did not know we could live and love.

Alternatively, in the solitude that follows the end of a relationship we may discover ourselves anew, we may find new and undiscovered aspects of ourselves.

Secondly, note that it was dark when the stranger wrestled with Jacob. Often it is when we are in deepest darkness that new insights come to us. The darkness may be actual night when we simply cannot sleep. It may be the darkness of doubt and uncertainty. When the old certainties flee away, we may learn that we can live with uncertainty and doubt.

Thirdly, the mysterious stranger dislocates Jacob’s hip so that he is permanently marked and forever after walks with a limp. We must not think that we will be as good as new when a relationship ends, when a loved one dies, when we lose our job, when we can no longer believe in the old certainties. Things are never the way they were, the way they used to be. Things are always different. We are always different. We do not come to the end of our lives without collecting a few scars along the way, but the scars can be a source of strength. They can open us up to new love, new life. They can open us up to God, to each other, and to new parts of ourselves.

Former U.S. senator and cabinet member Max Cleland lost an arm and both legs in Vietnam. His autobiography is entitled “Strong at the broken places.” Our broken places can be our greatest sources of strength.

Novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder once wrote, “In love’s army only the wounded may serve.” Do not let your wounds make you bitter; let them open you up. Look around you at your fellow soldiers in love’s army. Each of them bears some wound as proudly as a Congressional medal of honor.

Finally, Jacob received a new name. “You shall no longer be called Jacob the Deceiver but Israel – the one who has wrestled with God and prevailed.” We are not only named at birth or at baptism, and it is not only our parents who name us. We are always being named or perhaps we are always discovering what our names are.

One of C.S. Lewis’ least known and most unusual books is Till We Have Faces. The title comes from an enigmatic quotation: “How can we see the gods until we have faces?” Each of us has a face we show to the world. The problem is that the face we show to the world may not be our real face, our real self. We may not even know what our true face is. Life is a process of discovering what our real face is, what our real name is, who we really are.

We learn our real self, our real face, our real name through struggle. We learn who we are in those solitary moments when we must fall back on our own resources, when God comes to us in both struggle and loving embrace. We learn who we are in the darkness when the familiar certainties have fled. We learn who we are when life has beaten us up and left us bruised and bloody. We learn who we are when the mysterious voice speaks out of the silence, the solitude, the darkness and tells us that we are no longer the person we thought we were, when the voice speaks the new name that we never heard before but which we immediately know to be right the first time we hear it.

I want to conclude with a story you may have heard me tell before. An eminent rabbi died and came to the gates of heaven. He walked confidently up to the angel who maintains the book of life and said, “I am Rabbi So and so, please let me enter.” The angel said, “I’m sorry but you’ll to wait until I call your name.” So the rabbi waited and waited and waited as people he knew or complete strangers entered. He waited as the great and the unknown entered ahead of him. He waited as great saints and even great sinners entered the kingdom of God. Finally, the angel stopped calling names and closed the book. Tearfully, the rabbi said, “You never called my name!” The angel replied, “Ah, but I did. The problem is, you do not know your name.” Life is a process of learning who we are, what our real name is. And we only learn our names, our identities if we struggle alone, through the darkness with the One who knows us and calls us by name.