Wrestling with God – Br. Curtis Almquist
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Jacob was a rather shrewd scoundrel. His latest coup was to trick his father. Jacob knew it was the father’s prerogative and power to bestow a blessing upon his eldest son, such a blessing, highly significant and irrevocable. By means of deception, Jacob himself co-opts the blessing intended for his brother, Esau. Jacob receives the blessing, but it comes at a near-crippling cost because he does not have the stature to carry the blessing.
Where the story picks up in our Genesis reading this evening, Jacob is traveling to meet up with his estranged and cheated brother, something which Jacob would surely dread. The difficult reunion is delayed because of this wrestling match Jacob undergoes in the middle of the night by the river Jabbok, as we’ve just read.i Jacob is fighting as if his life depends upon it… which it does. Is this a thief who accosts Jacob in the night? No, we eventually learn that Jacob is actually battling with God. Jacob comes into the light of daybreak with two costly things: a wound and yet another blessing, a real blessing. Both the wound and the blessing nearly cost him his life… and yet something amazing happens: he finds his life. You may be able to relate to this.
You probably have not deserved your life. Life is not fair, often in two ways: the blessings and the wounds. You have likely been the recipient of countless blessings, and from your earliest days. If you consider what we read daily on the front pages of the newspaper – the suffering and trauma that so many people of the world know, and, for some, a state of injustice into which they have been caste since their birth – you can likely recognize in bold relief so much goodness in your own life. If your life in any way parallels mine, you can lay claim on many blessings in life, far beyond what you could have asked for or deserved. You may even identify in some way with Jacob, who was a real operator. You may have a chapter in your past where your life was a little shadowy, or where you broke a rule or violated a virtue. This may be on public record; it may be a secret you hold in your heart. Because of what you did or said, did not do or did not say, you got away with something, perhaps something twisted, maybe even shameful, clearly not right… and you pulled it off.You may have the experience of your broken past not only being forgiven but in some way redeemed. It’s actually being put to good use, and to God’s glory. Your insight, care, or sensitivity, or compassion, or generosity, or humility which may be so evident to other people has come out of your broken past. If they only knew what you know. God knows. Jesus has promised to seek and save the lost, which may apply to some part of your own past, where you were lost and are now found. ii And that is a wonderful thing.
If you still have something dark in your past that is sealed up in the dungeon of your memory, then risk opening up the prison door. Of course, it’s not this piece of your history that is walled off; it’s you who are walled in, not free, not fully alive. You might even need some help from someone to open up what is sealed shut from a dark chapter of your past, but it’s worth it. You’re worth it. The most amazing thing happens when that door of shame is opened. Light comes in! It’s no longer a dark secret; it’s actually the secret of your life that is first your breaking and then your making. Your past, whatever it is, will provide the firm foundation for your life. Even if there’s rubble, the rubble will be reformed into an edifice far stronger and more beautiful than you could have ever imagined. This is your life. And, of course, this was the story of Jacob’s life. Which was such a mess. Not outwardly. He had the world by the tail, every blessing one could hope for… except for one thing: his own sense of worthiness and integrity. Without that strength, he could not bear the blessings he had so generously received in life. Coming out of this wrestling match in the night, he was relieved of life’s stains, and he was left with life’s scars. Scar tissue is very strong, and the most amazing, wondrous things happened hereafter in Jacob’s life.
A blessing in life is something that everyone wants. A blessing is the assurance of wellbeing, a promise of provision, your sense of being “the apple of God’s eye,” of having a place in God’s heart. This understanding of blessing lies far back in the ancient religions of Middle East, and is connected to the fertility of animals and crops and human beings. Therefore, a sure sign of blessing is that there is more: more in substance, more in promise, more in goodness. Prosperity, in every form, becomes the sign of God’s blessing in the Old Testament. When a blessing is spoken, those words channel a power that cannot be changed or reversed. What has been named will come to be, which, in Jacob’s past, seems so terribly unfair and yet, a blessing once spoken is irrevocable.
In the New Testament, in the light and life of Jesus, this changes. Now it is adversity that becomes the touchstone for blessing. Jesus says to his disciples, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven…” iii
What Jesus is saying here is unbelievable unless this has been your experience: to know blessing coming out of adversity and suffering. And surely this has something to do with the cross of Christ which Jesus invites us to take up.iv Jesus promises that God’s favor, God’s care, God’s provision, God’s love, God’s blessing can be known in the best of times and in the worst of times… which you can probably best understand if you’ve been there. If you have been to brink of death, if you, in your own words, have cried out to God like Jesus did from the cross, “Why O why have you forsaken me?” and then miraculously lived to tell the story, then you probably know something about mystery of blessing that can come out of the greatest of adversities. What was undeniably and perhaps unexplainably bad has in some miraculous way been redeemed as a channel of God’s light and life and love. And that is the paradox of God’s blessing, where you can neither deny the bad – when you’ve been weeping or hungry or in some other way tormented – nor can you deny the blessed good that has somehow come out of the bad. Maybe even the one has prepared the way for the other.
The whole of life is to be blessed. Look for it, ask God for it in your past, in your present, in your future. Blessing is of the essence of God, who longs to be in relationship with you and everyone else in sight. Whether you have a shadowy past (like Jacob) or are as vulnerable as a dove – many of us are probably a bit of both – God knows, God loves, God calls you by name. God longs to bless you, and bless others through you. It’s of God’s essence; it’s of your essence, you who have been created in the image of God. Bless you.
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Br. Curtis, thanks for this good message. We have all had our moments of wrestling with God. But, we can and have come out of it victorious. The scriptures are filled with examples of healing, overcoming evil, being filled with His Spirit despite nights of struggle and crying out for His presence. We know not why Christ chose to heal certain ones. Could it not be that He responded to those who asked, who sought for his touch? I have experienced a miraculous instantaneous healing twice, certain that it came about because I asked Jesus to come and others interceded for me. But, at least on one occasion, I begged for his healing on another’s behalf, and it did not happen. Why? I do not know. I know God’s thoughts are higher than we can imagine. We just know we must accept and give thanks for all things, the scripture tells us.
Cynthia, I am sorry for the loss of your dad but thankful for the love experienced by your family in that difficult time.
Jesus taught time and again that we are to avoid judging others. In the one extreme example, he halted the stoning of an adulterous woman by telling the stoners that the one without sin should cast the first stone. When I take His admonition to its logical conclusion, I have to acknowledge that I can know and understand (judge) only that which has happened in my own personal experience. And thus, I can feel blessed for those special times I am given. But in that moment I also know in the deepest possible way the hard things that have and are continuing to occur in my life.
This life we have been given is hard. After 74 years of what many would call a blessed life, I am convinced that it is hard for every one of us. No one escapes tragedy and heartbreak. We just recognize the extreme cases. Only I have experienced my life and know the struggles I deal with. And only I can truly appreciate the blessings the Lord has given me; including some that ultimately came from the most hurtful experiences in my life. And it is the same for each of us.
And this is why pat answers and explanations do not work. In God’s magical world, He has given each of us an individual identity and experience. And none are the same or can be fully understood by any others. I pray for those experiencing tragedy in their lives and pray for the faith to trust that God’s love will care for those who are suffering so.
I am thankful for the blessing of this life. I pray that you find peace in the living water Jesus promised for each of us.
God bless, Rick
Blessing is a word I do not understand BECAUSE it implies that God is giving something to someone and not giving to so many others. I suppose I’m a religious socialist, and to make proclamations that some particular thing is a blessing when so many other holy innocents don’t receive the blessing of having their most basic needs met is really troubling to me. I welcome conversation about this – but please know that I will question responses that are pat or too easy.
Nothing in God’s world can be pat or easy for us. It does take a bit of faith to accept that our creator knows and loves each of us just as we are, and that this life is but a way station in our journey to Him. There are two words I have stricken from my vocabulary, fair and deserve. Life, as we can see it, will never seem to be fair and there will always be victims, sometimes ourselves, who do not deserve the life they have been given.
Jesus chose to be around those who society had rejected; those denied a fair shake and who did not deserve the life they were living. Why was He there? What did He leave them with? He gave them the grace to experience hope. He did not usually change the circumstances of their lives. He showed them love and through that love they were enabled to see and then to give love. And from love comes hope.
Jesus loves you and me and all of our brothers and sisters. He loves us as we are, warts and all.
God bless, Rick
Thank you Rick for your reply. I agree with you that nothing in God’s world can be pat or easy for us, but there are many who would disagree with you, and I am daily surrounded by those folks. I try to not let their words get under my skin or form a barrier between them and me but it is a difficult thing to experience.
I – and I am sure there are others – who also struggle with the idea of blessing. Often, when something bad happens, a person will ask, “Why me?” I think we should also ask when something good happens, “Why me?” Why do I have the blessing of healing, resources, comfort, whatever, when so many do not? Should I be thankful that I am blessed? I also struggle with what I should call myself at this stage of my journey. I suppose I am a Christian humanist.
Spot-on, Virginia. Thank you! I’ve used Christian humanist also. I’d not stumbled into the idea of socialist (and I admit that I don’t have a thorough understanding of that word) until recently. In the last month, we discovered my father had a terminal illness and he has died. It has been a sacred and protected time within our family. He’d had memory problems for at least 6 years (not Alzheimer’s) and when it was discovered that he had pancreatic tumor, he and we chose hospice over any attempts towards treatment. We are all so grateful that his body quit before his mind did. We are all so grateful that he had a week to say his good-byes to family and friends. We are all so grateful we could keep him at home to the very end and comfortable. He died surrounded by his wife and kids. In the days before his death, I was contacted by my vet that there was a dog available for my mom, who had been on a waiting list for a small rescue. Mom now has a middle-aged one-eyed Shih Tzu who was probably used in a puppy mill as a companion. Mom says both she and the dog are broken and need each other….and we are all so grateful that Molly has joined our family. I am grateful that all of this happened during July; I am a teacher so I was free to be available to my family without massive amounts of juggling by many people. If Dad, my family, and I had written a script for how he would die, we couldn’t have written it one whit better than it ended up being. Many people refer to all of these goods as blessings. I hear the word blessing as “gift given by God.” I cringe at that because these sorts of gifts-by-God don’t appear in many other parts of the world. How many innocent people will die by starvation today and yet God decided to get actively involved in orchestrating one family’s grief in July? So I’m struggling to find the way to reflect on my experience with language that rings true for others outside of my experience; if my theological reflection is only true for me and not applicable for others, then I think my theological reflection is only self-serving and not in the image of Christ at all. That said, my heart is full of gratitude for the way my dad was able to leave, and the peace that comes with that helps counterbalance the ache of his leaving.
What you say rings true – and it does not ring true only for you. It is certainly applicable to me, and I feel sure I am not the only other person on the planet who has had similar experiences and who asks similar questions. Fourteen years ago I was diagnosed with cancer. As my then-husband was unable to deal with my serious illness, I found myself undergoing not only surgery and chemotherapy, but divorce as well. I moved into a guest room in an Episcopal women’s convent, where I lived happily for two years in spite of what I was going through. The Sisters, whom I loved, described themselves as “powerful pray-ers,” and they prayed regularly for me, as well as so many others, especially individuals posted on their intercessory prayer board. I deeply appreciated the Sisters’ caring, but I found I was uncomfortable being prayed for – being singled out in this special way. What would it mean if I were healed because I was receiving intercessory prayer? What of others who were not? Although it can’t be proven what advantage being the recipient of intercessory prayer conveys, there is another advantage that I had. As a “first world” person, I had ready access to health care (and as an American citizen with health insurance, I had access to the best health care in the world). My cancer went into complete remission in six months, with no hint of any reoccurrence in the following years. I guess I am blessed. But why me? I think as thoughtful 21st century Christians, these are among the questions we need to ask, going beyond “pat answers” and platitudes.
I give thanks for Br. Curtis message as well as for the comments above. God sees everything. Guilt can be a call to change. Shame is how we keep ourselves and others un-changed, shackled to our feelings of unworthiness. God wants to set us free and give us a real life in Him. When I finally realized how dearly Christ paid for my selfishness it rocked my world and knocked me to my knees. “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, the punishment for our sins he took upon himself and by His stripes we are (i am ) healed. ” Such great love!
Shows us what faith is this teaching.
Reading this I remembered with gratitude our time together at Kanuga in 1993. The unconditional love and acceptance I received from you helped me to allow God to use my wounds and my sins to bless me and others. God has used me in ways I could never have asked or imagined, primarily through my weakness and my wounds and the healing I received through you. I’m printing this out to keep so I can read it again and again. Thank you for all you have meant in my life.
Recently, my wife and I gave the Marrige Rollo during a Cursillo that we attended. I let be known that some 25 years ago I committed the Sin of Adultery. This act has hung over me for all those years. My wife has long ago forgiven me and I believe God has forgiven me. But it is hard for me to forgive myself for this shameful act. I will say my “spilling the beans” to my Cursillo friends has given me some relief to my soul. I owned up to what I did back then and have taken responsiblity for my actions which has opened my soul.
Something of Brother Curtis’ words reach deep into my being. The shame and the shadowly past have felt all too real to me at times and still have the power to haunt me even today. While I understand and to some degree know blessings can come from adversity, I still struggle with self forgiveness. This feeling of unworthiness permeates far to much of my life and I allow it to sap energy that I could be using to help others and to help myself.
That is, doing it every day without God.
The words of the hymn “Blessed Assurance” have been with me all week, as I struggle with making life -long decisions re changes, wondering if I am able to make a major transition, yet knowing that it is inevitable. I don ‘t know if I can rely on God, but I know that I cannot not rely on God . . . . What a leap of faith to jump off into the unknown. . . . Yet, we actually do it everyday.
I’m glad that you focused the meditation on “shame” and not guilt, such a wonderful difference!
‘There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.’ Leonard Cohen
N, Thank you for that profound insight.
Amen and Amen! God has given back to me all that I lost, through carelessness and the failure to care at all. Out of my rubble He has made beauty, and I hope with the rest of my life to witness to that, and to its potential for everyone. Thank you for reaching into my heart; even today I realized another gift on my road back, obscure to me til now, just as all the rest required looking back with eyes newly open.
Your words are right on, and I need to be reminded of the truth of your message over and over. I love a quote from John Vanier in “The Broken Body”: “Our brokenness is the wound through which the full power of God can penetrate our being and transfigure us in him . . . . Yes, through our wounds the power of God can penetrate us and become like rivers of living water to irrigate the arid earth within us. Thus we may irrigate the arid earth of others, so that hope and love is reborn.”
If blessing comes out of adversity adversity and suffering, I can relate to it. If God longs to bless me, and bless others through me, I am left scratching my head a bit. Do I offer automatic and spontaneous blessings, ready for any sneeze of life? Is life a market of blessings, a lucky roll of dice with an occasional “get out of jail free” card in a blessings game of Monopoly? Does it take magical powers or qualifications such as a Priest and Blesser in Chief? Or does it have something to do with transforming my own woundedness into a gift for others?
I struggle with the church, I struggle with the decades of shame it has brought on my life, and the centuries of abuse and brokenness it has left in its wake on lives and even nations. To all those people wounded by the institutions acting in the name of Christ, I nod with heart-felt empathy as a fellow limper and scarbearer. Is this the channel for me to bless others? Can I rise to the occasion in community with others? Perhaps as a church we must first see ourselves as others may see as us, founded or unfounded, as the great wounder in a world calling for healing.