Wrestling With the Angel

I realized this week that it’s been quite a while since I’ve read the entire bible. Instantly, I have horrible visions once again of wading through Leviticus and Numbers and snoozing my way through 1 Chronicles, but it had been so long since I’d done it, I wanted to refresh my memory about some oft-cited passages. Reading the bible this morning, I found this passage in Genesis:

The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his 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 has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, 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 name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh.
(Gen 32:22-32)

Now, I’ve always liked this story. I always thought it odd especially because of the euphemism about the “thigh” being out of joint. Kind of sums it up nicely.

So contemplating this passage in light of recent events in my life, I thought it also summed up my spiritual journey nicely. In a sense every one of us–atheist, agnostic, christian, buddhist, whatever–all wrestle with God or the concept of God. All of us feel the need to come to a point in which we acknowledge a Higher Being or we don’t. I have been wrestling with this notion since the 80s. Before that, I always assumed a God existed, but that it didn’t have much to do with me especially since the worst of circumstances was occurring without spiritual help of any kind. Later on, when I was a young, married mother and facing the prospect of how to raise children, I turned to a coordinated, all-encompassing religion like Christianity to provide boundaries. I take that back, I never found the institution first. I found Jesus, but I turned to Christianity because I thought it was the next step I had to take in a faith journey. I’m not sure I should have done that, but I wanted to be with other believers; to learn from them.

And I have. Down through the years we’ve met some lifelong friends, some not-so-nice people, and some extremely prideful pastors. We’ve also met some very devoted and loving pastors, who genuinely wanted to see us along our journey in the best possible way. It was unfortunate that some of us experience Christianity through fundamentalism first; Protestant or Catholic. I often wonder how things would have turned out if I hadn’t gone through the indoctrination of that kind. Yet, for all that, I am grateful for it as well. You can’t really understand something unless you’ve been steeped in it for so many years. And in a bizarre twist, it is precisely this “steeping” process that keeps me from totally pulling away from it. The steeping of being immersed in the bible, in the Christian culture is what permeates your soul just as God permeated my soul way back in 1983.

You see, despite what’s on the internet or in the mainstream media, not all Christians believe the same things or in the same way. For every hateful Rev. Wright church out there, there is a loving black church that worships God and loves Jesus and their neighbor regardless of skin color. For every Christian “Zionist,” Rev. Hagee church out there, there is a church that provides balance in scripture interpretation and offers differing views about territorial rights and “end time” scenarios. For every hateful Christian, there is a loving one offering food to the hungry or comfort to the hurting. For every polygamous child molester out there, there is a loving man who cares for the children he fathers. For every gossipy, “Church Lady” who maligns your clothes or tells stories behind your back, there is a woman who prays with you and sees that your needs are met when you are home recovering from surgery. I could go on, but you get the idea. This is how we wrestle with God or our idea of God anyway. We fight like Jacob until we are weary. We want to KNOW who or what God is. Some of us give up and say it’s not worth the fight. Some, like Jacob, fight until God is forced to bless us. Maybe we aren’t blessed in material goods or health, but we are blessed with peace of mind and spiritual communion. These blessings are when the wrestling part becomes worth it.

In the story, Jacob asks the angel his name and the angel counters with, “Why is it that you ask my name?” Why indeed? Names are important. Names are powerful. In pagan circles and in the practice of magick, knowing someone’s name in full gives you the power to manipulate or to bless that person. It is the one “talisman” you have that is your own. Naming God is kind of an attempt on Jacob’s part to take control over the situation. God blesses Jacob with a new name, but Jacob doesn’t get the same privilege in reverse. We are not allowed to name the unnameable. And maybe that’s why I believe and have faith in spite of all the “evidence” to the contrary. There comes a point past which science cannot go. There comes a time, when even scientists should not name the unnameable. In our hubris we imagine that we have that power and that right, but we are really insignificant in the face of a storm or tornado or earthquake or any other thing far more powerful than we are. It’s not the idea that God is in that storm or tornado, it’s realizing that we cannot control such a thing even though we think we can. At some point we all have to acknowledge our limits and our boundaries.

I’ve come up against an ideological boundary past which I choose not to go; past which I realize will come my point of no return. I can imagine going past it, I can write about going past it, and I can even take a step toward it, but to do so would be a bad thing for me. There are and should be limits. Not recognizing them and not honoring them in your life leaves one without anchor or stability. My limits and boundaries are not your limits and boundaries, nor should they be. The problem comes when we think everyone has to be where we are; that everyone’s journey should perfectly mirror our own. Or the problem arises when someone thinks their path is a better path than your path. I think we should all tend to our own paths and stop trying to clear the weeds from another’s path. One person’s weed is another’s flower after all.

My path is and always will be wrestling with the angel.

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Everyone Needs an Ark, But Not All Are in the Same Boat

I’ve mentioned before that I work in a large church. When I tell people this they usually look skeptical and wonder what it is I DO all day! After all, the church must sit empty 6 days a week right? Well, that’s what I thought when I signed on 7 years ago, but I’m here to tell you, I earn my not too insubstantial pay. We are open 8-5 every day, Mon-Fri. The phones ring all day long and outside groups meet here every day of the week. We have weddings, funerals, and other life marking events. We have homeless people coming in for money and we have workmen going about the daily business of repairing the roof, the air conditioning, the water damage from the leaks. You name it, someone’s repairing it. I kind of like the thought that we are here for people to stop by and chat after a meeting or ladies group. I know some of these people better than those at my own church where I live. It’s sad when they die and it’s joyful when they marry.

Just today, one of the pastors was discussing this Sunday’s reading about Noah and the ark with me. He said that he learned an old joke in seminary. With all of the animals and all the people on the ark, there must have been quite a smell going on. He said, the joke was, “If it weren’t for the storm without, they couldn’t have withstood the stench within.” Funny as that is, he said, the church is like that as well. I had to laugh because it is sooooo true. Most people who find no shelter from the storms in their lives find a good port in the church, regardless of the “stink.” I think I’m beginning to realize this is true. Despite what we have to put up with in church; the hypocrisy, the gossip, the petty arguments about buildings and meetings, etc., it’s still better than being in the world outside, which practices the same things only on a more vicious scale. I’m not saying we sanction abuse or that we ignore abuse. I’m not saying that we put up with mega-maniacal pastors and pastors that suck the congregation dry of resources. Clearly this is not what Jesus meant by community. But there are pockets of sanity out there. I happen to work in one and if it weren’t for these people, I would have given up on it long ago.

God knows I’ve tried to. I’ve been angry. I’ve yelled. I’ve thrown tantrums and berated others. I’ve not been a good friend. I’ve used people and I’ve not followed through on my promises. I’ve come to realize that being a Christian and going to church is VERY MUCH like being married. My marriage analogy on another web site seemed to be a particularly good fit and was effortless to write at the time because it rang so true. But also like a marriage, someone always gives up first. True, it always has to be us that does it in Christian circles. Rarely, do both parties work on the marriage at the same time and save all concerned from a divorce. In fact, the “church” is notorious for its love it or leave it attitude. The problem is always the individual never the system. That’s how you smell true bureaucracy. But, where I work, I see reconciliation going on all the time. Where I work, I see love and a whole lot of wisdom being dispensed by pastors who genuinely care. We have such a great time here, that I wonder why all churches can’t function this way. And it’s also the number one reason why I can’t give up on the church I attended in my home town. If it happens here, there’s hope for it.

We’ll see how it turns out. I’m not rushing back into church or anything, but I’ve gotten little signs that perhaps I should take a look. I’m wiser now. I’m not so naive. And, I’m hopeful. It’s a port in my storm. Sure, it stinks sometimes, but I’m not strong enough to ally with those in the world who claim they have your best interests at heart but are really only in it for the ideology or the identity politics involved. In some ways that’s how the church and the “world” are alike. But in a lot of other ways, they couldn’t be more different. I think I really do need my ark.