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Competition

October 14, 2010

It would seem that The Hardest Question is a hard habit to break.  Though our church is setting the Lectionary aside this week, I can’t help but look at the passages and try to see the thread that runs through them.  Which raises the question of why Rev. Russell has passed by the very passage that gives mandate to the very website he curates?  Curious, indeed.

Genesis 32:22-31
The same night Jacob 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.

Over the past several years, this has become one of my very favorite passages in the Bible, and a kind of anchor through some stormy parts of my life.   For those who follow in the legacy of the Abrahamic faiths, it offers a license to ask questions, to be honest, and to struggle with our various conceptions of God.  Moreover, it offers a kind of mandate to wrestle with God himself.   There is a wonderful freedom in knowing that it’s normal to wrestle and struggle with God, and to in fact know that part of the legacy of Israel is to be a people who will constantly question and  wrestle with God.

And yet, and yet.  Struggling with God is an exciting adventure, but it is damned exhausting.  One can struggle with God, but you’ll be lucky to escape without a limp.  So why this sense of competition, this adversarial stance?  Why this gradual, mysterious, sweaty, prideful, pain-wracked revelation of exactly who Jacob is wrestling with?  We can admire Jacob for his scrappy determination, or we can wonder why he fights all night.  We can wonder why this mysterious man/God/God-man doesn’t just give up the good stuff before the dawn.  Why so stingy with the blessing?  Why does Jacob need to go through so much agony– and suffer such permanent injury– in order to get his new name and mission?

Analogies with parenthood are fraught with peril, but I can’t help but think about my relationship with my three daughters (I’ve already been writing about my dead son).  As a parent, I try not to set myself in an adversarial relationship with my kids.  I try not to foster feelings of competition with them.  I try not to lead them to believe that they need to work for my love or my blessing.  Viewing this– or any– love relationship as a zero-sum game can only lead to tragic results.  When a newborn is screaming at 2am, the idea that she’s opposed to me– rather than simply uncomfortable– leads to all kinds of escalating aggravation for us both.  And I’m fearful enough of adolescence that I’ve already started my reading, where I’ve learned that a sense of collaboration is even more important then.

My hardest question: Much as I love this passage, I wonder why everything needs to be so hard.  Why does our releationship with God need to be so adversarial and agonizing?

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