wrestle until you’re blessed

From Genesis 32:24-30

24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 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.  26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So the man said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”  28 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.” 29 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.  30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face…”

This is one of the most memorable stories in Genesis.   It’s also one of the most interpreted.

Who is the man Jacob wrestling with?  Is it God?  An angel?  His own conscience?  A thief?  A demon?  And, what is the

struggle over?   Is it preparation for reunion with his brother Esau?  Is Jacob wrestling for his life?  For a blessing?

The passage is also about naming.   When spoken, Jacob’s name resembles the Hebrew word “to wrestle.”   The man asks Jacob his name, but he renames him Israel, which means “God strives” or “‘the one who strives with God.”   Jacob also asks the man his name.  But, no name is given.  We are only told that Jacob is blessed.   Then, Jacob names the place he wrestled a name that means “the face of God.”

When I was at a week of church meetings a couple of weeks ago, I was struggling.   The meetings I was a part of were very institutional.  They dealt with administration, policies, funds and fund raising.   The meetings were important from an institutional perspective.  But, the meetings also went 8-10 hours a day for three days.  They were so large that there wasn’t an opportunity to disagree, question, or participate in the decisions being made.  Though, an invitation for feedback was made.    I was around friends I loved and respected, but I felt very alone.  A depressing question kept haunting me, “Is this life with Jesus?”   Despite all the opportunities afforded me through church, I wondered again if there was really a place for me?   This seems to be an ongoing spiritual struggle.  At a low point, I remembered the  story of Jacob wrestling.  It was as if the Holy Spirit befriended me and slipped me a note.  “Wrestle until you’re blessed,” were the words I heard.  These words came to me in a way that I knew they should define my entire relationship with church.  “Wrestle until your blessed.”  Do it at every service, every meeting, each week, each day.

I’ve had similar struggles when I am in local congregations.   On the one hand, I’m lucky.  I enjoy many different kinds of worship.  I enjoyed mass for four years in Catholic school and fell in love with the tradition.  I spent years going to church with my Dutch grandparents at a traditional Reformed service.   I spent four years attending high Methodist liturgy in seminary, another 6 years at lively congregationalist services at another.   I’m comfortable around people whoopin’ or being slain in the Spirit.

But, I also am in an age group  that really never claimed church or recreated it in its own image.   The examples are sparse.  Compared to generations before me, most of my peers abandoned church or at least denominational committment and congregational life.  By in large, they have not stayed around to create churches that reflect GenX skepticism, spirituality, or sense of relationships.  I’m very much in touch with that part of myself, too.   This explains why I’m never fully at home even in congregational life and worship services.  Like everyone else, I’m looking for my place.

Most of us have a complicated relationship with church, if we have a relationship with it at all.   As a professional minister, theological-type, and aspiring disciple of Jesus, I even do.  As I struggle to feel at home or find space for myself in denominational life or congregational settings, this ancient story of Jacob wrestling brings meaning to it all for me.

Wrestle until you’re blessed.  Even if you get kicked in the groin (see Gen 32:25 above), stay with the struggle.  Expect to be blessed.

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12 responses to “wrestle until you’re blessed

  1. Good stuff. We think wrestling with God means we’ll come out blessed, happy, whole and ready to change the world when its over. Too often, much to our surprise, we come out with a limp we can’t really explain, but with an understanding the compels us to share His love. It’s rather grand, don you think?

    Blessings,

    Jim

  2. Thank you for sharing your “struggle” Matt. This helps the rest of us deal with our own struggles. I also like Jim’s comment. Jacob (Isreal) came out limping so why should we not also from time to time? I think that anyone who spends any amount of time “in church” or “in church ministry”, sometimes feels that struggle. We want to really know God, not just go through the motions of “church”. Love you Matt ~

  3. Thank you for sharing your struggle and having an understanding that we all struggle with our relationship with church, each other and God. Matt, it is my belief that if we would be open to the wisdom and knowledge given to all God Centred religions we would be rich indeed, and be able to have a closer and a more ntimate relationship with the God of all creation. Maybe then woulg truely be able to see with Christ like eyes as he weeps in passionate struggle over all of his loved ones.

  4. I have been in Community of Christ all my 67 years. Most of that time it was the RLDS. My brain and my heart are still back there somewhere in the recent past with my friends and relatives. The church has changed so much over the years I do struggle with it right now. I don’t fit in. At least I feel like an outsider. I look at the leadership and realize I don’t know these people. I feel like an outsider. I hear rumors and feel like an outsider. I see God leading us in an unpopular direction and wonder how it will play out over the years ahead. I have a friend outside this church who’s fond of saying, “Beware of a church that is constantly asking for money.” My church is constantly doing just that. But I tell myself, “This is different.” Is it? I used to be very confident of this institution- its direction, focus, vision, mission and so forth. Today I am not confident at all. I feel misplaced perhaps or just left behind. Many of my peers left the church years ago. Yet I persist. Why? I’m unsure.

    • Gary, You are not alone in your struggle, as you know. It is an ironic tragedy that there are those who feel abandoned as the church morphs in new directions and those who feel abandoned because it morphs so little. My testimony is that God is deeply embedded in the new directions of the church, but I also know that these new directions are neither perfect or free from sin. “The church” remains incomplete, sometimes rutterless it seems, and as lost as the rest of us. You are not left behind. I’m glad you’re in it with the rest of us. Please persist for no other reason that it is a blessing to me. Peace & Hope, Matt

  5. Matt, you will always have a place in my heart. Thanks for openly sharing your struggle and insight.

    I’m reminded of a Greek myth and the traditions it inspired by which men followed in suit after Zeus, with wounds to their leg. Zeus gave birth to a son through a gash in his thigh, and older men often walked with a limp from receiving a similar traditional wound.

    peace,
    bb

  6. It seems that struggle is necessary. What if we don’t struggle? Without it, it becomes too easy to fall into complacency and either simply accept what’s going on and do nothing or to fall away and lose interest.
    That applies to both our personal journey and that of the institution. If one becomes complacent in their own spiritual adventure, or becomes too confident in their current interpretations, then the deeper truths and purposes will never be discovered.
    Similarly, when the institution becomes rigid and unable to delve deeper into contemporary issues or it follows the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mentality, its journey and purpose has turned inward and it has abandoned those who it is to serve and the Christ.

  7. “Wrestle until you’re blessed. Even if you get kicked in the groin (see Gen 32:25 above), stay with the struggle.”

    First of all, Matt: That’s a whole lot better theology than the “Prosperity Gospel”! Granted, it’s not the most attractive recruitment slogan, and maybe that’s why it often appears that church and Christianity are falling down the priority list for so many folks, particularly younger ones, these days. In the long run it’s a good path to follow, but people increasingly want a quicker fix, so to speak. That may help explain the current U.S. political situation, just as it does a certain segment of the Community of Christ. Unfortunately, what makes for a good, well-run institution can also make for a pretty lousy movement–and vice versa. And nobody gets caught in the tension between those two “organizations” more than people who are employed by the church. If it’s any consolation, wrestling with an angel/God/? didn’t magically transform Jacob into a perfect person even with his new “blessing.” His character still fit in well with the rest of his family, but it does show God uses imperfect people as a means for greater blessings. In Jacob’s case, those blessings have lasted somewhere around three millennia (give or take a few generations).

    Hang in there. I for one am grateful that at least one person sitting through those marathon meetings at IHQ has the question in his/her mind: What does any of this have to do with Jesus?

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