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  • pastor4pocket

I is for Israel

My husband died in July. You know the thing you miss the most when you lose the love of your life or the person you've been married to? It’s that unconditional love. It didn't matter what I said or what I did. I could call [him] any name. I knew he’d still love me. I could storm out of the house, but when I came home, he still loved me. So, what do you do when you don't have him?

After you lose your husband, you're trying to find out who you are. For my whole life, I had been his wife and my children’s mama. Now I'm finding out who I am. After you lose your spouse, you don't know who you are because you've been lost in this family. And now you have to become who you are. Who am I?

In October, I went for a regular mammogram. The doctor called me back and wanted to do an ultrasound. He showed me what looked like little scratches on the X ray. And then from there, we went on to a biopsy.

I was waiting for my results.

What do I do now? Why? You know, why? Why now? I'm by myself. And God, you can't take me because my children don't have anybody else.

And how do I do this by myself? Now my children are grown. They have their own families. My daughter just found out she's pregnant.

I was going to the Presbyterian Pilgrimage, [a weekend spiritual retreat]. When I went to the Pilgrimage, that was the first time I ever stood up in front of anybody and told who I was and that I was a widow. I was waiting for my results. And I was about to lose it.

My friend from church came up and she hugged me. And she held on to me while I introduced myself. It was a powerful weekend, but it was also an awakening weekend. It was a weekend of uncertainty. And it was even more powerful because I was waiting for my results. That was the weekend I needed. God was with me and I'm by myself.

I had breast cancer. I went by myself to the doctor. The day that I went to the oncologist, I had to take a tranquilizer because I was crying so hard. I don't know that I would have remembered what he told me.

I knew I had to grow. My husband always told me, “you're gonna have to stand on your feet. You're gonna have to do this by yourself one day.” I could hear his words. He taught me so much about having faith.

I grew stronger, and stronger and stronger. I knew I could do more than I ever thought I could.

Do you know how many miles I walked between the church and my house? I walked sometimes two or three times a day. I would cry. And I would pray. And I would think. I could walk to church, I could go to the cemetery. Everything I knew was right there. Pocket was there. I knew that people at Pocket were always there for me. Pocket is a stability for me.

We went on to a lumpectomy. And then we went on to radiation, no chemo. Everything turned out good.

That’s what got me through that first year- having something else to wrestle with beyond just grief. That's how I survived the year after my husband died.

Jacob, the great patriarch of Israel, father to the Twelve Tribes, was God’s chosen one. He was the recipient of God’s favor. And, Jacob was born in struggle for struggle. His whole, long story, chronicled in chapters 25-50 of Genesis, provides the record. He was a twin and even in their mother’s womb, the two boys fought. At birth, Jacob wrestled to come out first, but he was unsuccessful- he came out grasping at his brother’s heel. Thus, his name- Jacob means supplanter, grabber. As the boys aged, Jacob tricked his brother, Esau, into trading his rights as first-born son for a pot of stew. He later tricked his father into giving him his brother’s blessing. Jacob then flees to his uncle’s home far away in order to escape Esau’s wrath.

And there, at his uncle Laban’s home, the trickster meets a trickster. He also falls in love. Laban manipulates Jacob into many years of service and then Jacob manipulates Laban’s flocks to ensure he develops wealth of his own. Jacob eventually leaves Laban’s home in a dramatic scene with his wives, children, and property he has amassed. Jacob is headed back towards home. Back towards the brother whom he had so thoroughly wronged. For the first time, he cries out to God for help. Through the constant drama of his life, Jacob was beloved by God, marked as special. But as he faces the consequences of his wrongdoing, he is afraid and so he sends up ahead of him gifts for his brothers, along with his wives and children, so that Esau might soften up a bit. And all alone on the banks of the Jabbok River, is where we find Jacob at the beginning of our text for today.

Historically, in professional wrestling there are two types of wrestlers, two characters, if you will. There’s the Face- the handsome, likable hero who the crowd loves and roots for, and the Heel- the arrogant, rude, antagonist who forces the Face to act. The crowd’s hatred of the Heel and love of the Face is what creates the drama of the match. Most wrestlers, historically, would fall into one camp or the other. But a few could transcend the categories. One of those notable few was The Nature Boy Ric Flair. He was both a golden boy and “the dirtiest player in the game.” He was the worst Face or the best Heel. Beloved by fans but quick to cheat, to poke someone in the eye, to pretend to pass out only to come up swinging. Ric Flair, whose catchphrase was “to be the man, you gotta beat the man.” I think Jacob was a Ric Flair. A beloved Heel, whose life began with him grasping at his brother’s heel. An antihero. And despite everything we would assume or guess, despite our modern sensibilities of honor, truth, and integrity, he was God’s pick in every match.

Jacob has been playing the game, beating the man so he might become the man his whole life. But something changes that night on the riverbank. Alone in his camp, a man, a…something, wrestles with Jacob. It is entirely unclear who Jacob contends with. The Hebrew word used is clearly “man,” but after it is over, the man refuses to give Jacob his name and Jacob says, “I have seen God face to face.” In some form, this is a brush with mysterious divinity. They wrestle all night, and as dawn begins to extend its bright fingers into the sky, the mysterious wrestler performs what some would call an illegal move; apparently he’ll fight dirty too. He whacks Jacob on the hip socket, dislocating his hip. “Let me go, for the day is breaking,” says the man. Jacob says no, not until you give me a blessing. “What is your name?” asks the man. “Jacob.” “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.” All of that wrestling and striving was not for nothing.

After giving the blessing, the man seems to have disappeared. Jacob names the place Peniel, which means “The face of God.” The sun rises on Jacob, and he leaves that place blessed, but walking with a limp.

Many of us have known the wrestling. We too have wrestled and fought. We’ve learned that faith is a struggle. Probably you haven’t experienced Ric Flair’s kind of wrestling (although if you have, I want to hear about it) and it’s unlikely that you’ve wrestled God on the banks of a river (again, let’s talk if I’m being hasty with my assumptions), but I bet most of us have wrestled with questions, with “why,” with “God, where are you? Why aren’t you fixing this?”

Faith is a struggle. And that is okay. If you’re utterly certain, if you have all knowledge and understand completely, well, that isn’t faith anymore. Faith, by definition, requires a component of doubt. So, it’s a choice. We choose to push forward, to keep asking our questions, to not give up. What would have happened if Jacob had simply walked away from the wrestling man, I wonder? Would he have continued his life as the trickster who comes out on top? Would he have gone on to Esau as expected? I think it matters that Jacob chose to stay in the fight. I think it matters that he continued to wrestle, far beyond the time when exhaustion would compel anyone to stop. Faith is staying in the fight, as hard and painful as it may be. It’s okay to be mad at God, to be disappointed, frustrated, sad. Had Jacob walked away, he would have missed out on the blessing. Had he given up, lost faith, disengaged with the struggle, he would not have become Israel. It was never about winning, it was always about staying faithful to the fight.

The pastor Ralph Milton writes that in the struggle of faith, there are no losers. “If God wins, we win. But always, if we have wrestled honestly and hard, we find ourselves, like Jacob, limping into our future.” It’s never simple or easy. The pain and grief that brought us into the struggle still ache. We limp because our hearts are still broken. And yet we also receive the blessing of having survived. Of moving forward. Our faith may be deeper. Our sense of God’s presence surrounds us. The blessing is in becoming a new, wiser, stronger version of ourselves.

Friends, faith is not easy. It’s not knowing or understanding. It’s not perfect or clear. It isn’t lovely and instagrammable. It isn’t pithy, bumper sticker platitudes. It’s not giving up. It’s not giving up on God. The poet William Stafford’s poem “The Way It Is” helps me understand.

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among

things that change. But it doesn’t change.

People wonder about what you are pursuing.

You have to explain about the thread.

But it is hard for others to see.

While you hold it you can’t get lost.

Tragedies happen; people get hurt

or die; and you suffer and get old.

Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.

You don’t ever let go of the thread.[1]

Jacob’s life isn’t perfect or lovely after he sees God face to face on the banks of the Jabbok. Terrible things happen to him and to his family. He makes some of the same mistakes that his parents did. His family is torn apart and it is not the same when it gets put back together. And yet… he doesn’t let go of the thread. He wrestles always. And two other times he reports God’s blessing to him. As he lay dying, surrounded by his sons and grandsons he says, “The God before whom my ancestors Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the angel who has redeemed me from all harm, bless the boys…”[2] and “the blessings of your father are stronger than the blessings of the eternal mountains, the bounties of the everlasting hills.”

May our faith be tenacious though it will not be easy. And may we claim the blessing that accompanies the limp. Amen.

[2] Genesis 48:15-16

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