The Blessing of Struggle

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost—PR 24—Year C; Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 121; II Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8.  video

So many themes swirling around today—struggle, wrestling, prevailing, persisting, persevering—this is the gritty stuff of life; this is where the rubber meets the road; this is where life will take us, whether we want to go or not; and this is where we are made.

The story of Jacob. Context is important here. He is on his way back to meet his brother Esau. It has been years, and they did not part on good terms. After cheating Esau of his rightful blessing as the elder son, Jacob fled for his life. Jacob has since had a knock or two in his own right, but he has persevered and has come to the place in his life where he wants to go home, and even more, he wants to reconcile with his brother.

He comes to the ford of the Jabbok.  He sends his two wives, and two maids, and eleven children, and all that he has across the river, and he then he returns to the other side. Jacob has some unfinished business to take care of before he moves forward, and that unfinished business is with himself. Who knows if Jacob intentionally set out to wrestle that whole night long, but when he went back across that river and found himself alone, the stage was set.  You see, Jacob’s first act of courage was to allow himself to be alone. He could have stayed amidst all his family and worldly goods; he could have distracted himself until daybreak. But something in him knew he needed to enter this space, alone, and wrestle with whatever would emerge.

And emerge it did. Hear the story again. 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 [the man] 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.

We don’t know the exact nature of the wrestling that Jacob had to do—was it with his fear of meeting his brother, was it a sense of failure for having run away, was it the shadow side of his personality that had caused the rift in the first place, was it a total sense of displacement and not knowing what the future would hold—we don’t know. All we know is that he wrestled all night long. All we know is that that wrestling left him with a limp that would be with him for the rest of his life. All we know is that he gets a new name out of it—“Israel.” Jacob doesn’t get all his questions answered—“the man” never does reveal his name—but when Jacob receives the blessing of the wrestling, the unanswered question of “the man’s” name no longer matters—Jacob knows he has seen God face to face; Jacob knows his lifethe fullness of his life—has been preserved; Jacob knows this place is holy, and he has to give this place a new name, because he knows that he goes forth from this place changed forever.

No one ever wants to cross back over the river and sit with one’s own self, alone. But you and I know that there are struggles that come our way that place us exactly in that lonely place. The nature of our struggles come in all shapes and sizes, specific to the contour of our lives, but no one escapes them. Close your eyes. Let your soul settle into stillness. Now let something that you’ve been struggling with rise—some loss, some baffling rift, some stuck place, some unresolved conflict—it could be big; it could be small; the size doesn’t matter, only that it is a place of wrestling for you. Do you have it fixed in your heart? Hold on to that and open your eyes.

This summer, a book was recommended to me by Joan Chittister called Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope. It’s not very long, just a little over a hundred pages, but oh, does she pack a lot in those pages. She maps out, with exquisite detail, the geography of struggle, all the while framing it in this story from Genesis about Jacob’s wrestling.

So, with our own particular struggles fixed in our hearts, I want us to sit at the feet of Joan Chittister for a bit this morning because she says some things we need to hear if we’re going to navigate this spiritual territory of struggle. And one of the trickiest and hardest pieces of the journey we have to navigate is the stretch called “surrender.”

Chittister writes: “Surrender does not mean that I quit grieving what I do not have. It means that I surrender to new meanings and new circumstances, that I begin to think differently and to live somewhere that is totally elsewhere. I surrender to meanings I never cared to hear—or heard, maybe, but was not willing to understand…They do not want me. What I want is not possible. And, hardest to bear of all, all the arguments to the contrary are useless. I surrender to the fact that what I lived for without thought of leaving, I have now lost…

“Surrender is the crossover point of life. It distinguishes who I was from who I have become…What is left is the spiritual obligation to accept reality so that the spiritual life can really happen in me. Surrender is the moment in which we realize that it is time to become someone new. Surrender is not about giving up—it is about moving on…”

This is the process of relinquishing what has been and what you hoped would be and embracing what is so that you, like Jacob, can receive the blessing of your new name.

Chittister drills down deep as she describes the nature of struggle itself: “Struggle is the great crossover moment of life. It never leaves us neutral. It demands that we make a choice: either we dig down into the wellspring that is our innermost selves and go beyond where we were…or we simply give up, stop in our tracks rooted to the spot, up to our ankles in bitterness and despair, satisfied to be less than all our personal gifts indicate that we are being called to be…

“Struggle tempers the steel of the soul. It straightens the backbone and purifies the heart. It makes demands on us that change us forever and makes us new. It shows us who we are. Then we make choices, maybe for the first time in life, that determine not only what we’ll do in life but what kind of person we will be for the rest of it…”

She continues: “Jacob does what we all must do, if in the end, we, too, are to become true. He confronts in himself the things that are wounding him, admits his limitations, accepts his situation, rejoins his world, and goes on. It’s not easy, of course, but it is the confrontation with the self that gives both depth and texture to life…[Jacob] walks into the struggle but he limps out of it, permanently marked, forever changed, ever limited by the experience. But scarring as struggle may be, we also know deep down that it vitalizes another whole part of us. Our sensibilities reach a higher tone. We become a fuller self.

Chittister is telling us that it isn’t what we achieve or don’t achieve that makes us who we are; it isn’t what we gain or lose, but it is the very process of struggle that shapes us and changes us forever.

I’ve had a bit of experience with this recently, and I will tell you that everything she says is true. It is within the struggles we have, it is within our wrestling with meaning when life goes off the rails and heads down a path that wasn’t in our plan, it is in that very territory that we have the chance to discover the depths of who we are, of who God has made us to be, of who God is inviting us to be.

This is a journey not to be missed. When life brings you struggle, know that within all the pain, within all confusion, within all the grief, there is a new name waiting for you, if you can be faithful to the wrestling.

And that “if” is a big one—you can’t get to the new name if you aren’t willing to cross back over the river and be alone with yourself and with your struggle and with God. And the new name will leave you with a limp—our struggles scar us, they just do.  But just as with Jesus, those scars can absolutely reveal to us the magnitude of resurrection life. Jesus’ wounds were radiant with that life—Thomas saw them and fell down on his knees. That new life awaits us, too; new life that is soft and wise and holy and so deep and so strong.

So, I don’t wish you a life without struggle because you can’t know the depths of who you are and the riches of God’s grace without it. Besides, life is going to bring it to you whether you want it or not.

No, I pray that you be filled with courage to cross back over the river where there is nothing but you, and God, and the struggle at hand. Wrestle with it, whatever it is. Wrestle it until the break of dawn. Let the struggle leave you with a limp, but even more, be attentive, be attentive with every fiber of your being for the new name that God is longing to give you. Then, name that place of struggle as the holy place that it is, Peniel, that place where you have seen God face to face and have lived. And then, be on your way, moving back out into the world, walking with a limp, but walking tall, new name in hand, full of grace, full of power, full of life, knowing beyond measure that you are blessed. Amen.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

October 16, 2016