* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Wrestling with God, Fear, and Ourselves: A rigged match that could have a big payoff

Once matters are settled with Laban, Jacob turns his focus to settling matters with his brother in Genesis 32-33.  Fear of Esau's anger was one of the driving forces behind Jacob's departure two decades earlier, since Jacob had tricked Esau, his elder brother, out of his birthright and their father's blessing.  So, Jacob approached expecting hostility.  He was prepared to offer great gifts of livestock in exchange for his brother's tolerance.  He never really considers apologizing or asking his brother for forgiveness, but the bribe seems to be a sort of supplication in itself.  Basically, Jacob has invented a scenario in his mind about how things are going to go and he plans for the events his imagination has concocted.

Before he and Esau are reunited, there is an interesting night in which Jacob wrestles with a stranger until daybreak.  In the story, the stranger suggests that he is God, and he changes Jacob's name to Israel.  Of course, he wrenches Jacob's hip out of socket first.  Now, there were no witnesses to this incident, and it seems like a fanciful bit of folklore.  Setting aside the question of whether the story is accurate, though, there is certainly something true about the lesson embedded in it.  It's common to hear talk of people "wrestling with themselves" about an issue, or being "of two minds" on a subject.  Neurologists have even been able to watch the physiological indicators of a mind struggling to reach a conclusion about a complex matter.  While we may not all have the experience of literally wrestling with a god, we can certainly relate to the feeling of wrestling within ourselves.

What if the two experiences were actually the same thing, though?  What if wresting with ourselves was actually wrestling with the divine by a different name?  While there may not be an external divine being to wrestle with, people certainly possess the characteristics of the divine within themselves.  We don't always recognize the truth, beauty, and creativity within ourselves, and we are often conflicted when expectations and actions don't line up with that deep sense of truth.  Whether it's our own expectations and actions, or the expectations and actions of other people or society as a whole, life can be pretty messy.  It can be a real wrestling match to come to terms with how we are going to be in the face of conflicting expectations and beliefs.  We can hope that the divine within us will win out, that the deep truth, beauty, and creativity will be stronger than misguided beliefs that foster fear and violence.  When we are really in tune with the character of the divine within us, the fearful and violent reactions might even seem silly.  Other times, the fear wins.

Like in the case of Jacob when Esau came to greet as a brother.  Esau didn't seem to hold any grudges.  He wanted to do everything in his power to make his brother's homecoming easy.  Esau had his own prosperity.  He wasn't suffering.  And he wasn't angry.  Still, Jacob just can't quite embrace that reality.  Whether it's out of shame or suspicion, he keeps his brother at arm's length.  We do the same thing when people or circumstances surprise us.  Sure, if something seems to be too good to be true, it probably is.  But sometimes we decide that something is too good to be true simply because it doesn't lock into the fears we've cultivated.  In those moments, the divine within us has lost the wrestling match.

The good news is that we are capable of changing how we see things, if we want to.  When we find ourselves wrestling within, we can hone in on the invented fears and imagined dangers we've been believing and wrench them out of socket.  We can let the divine -- that deep sense of truth, beauty, and creativity -- win the wrestling match.  We can ask for forgiveness without bribing someone into accepting our apology.  It isn't weakness to acknowledge when we've made a mistake.  We can receive the gifts that others offer graciously without trying to figure out what their angle is, or what's going to be expected in return.  Suspicion smothers beauty (although we can be very creative when we let our suspicions runs free).  We will most likely never find ourselves literally and physically wrestling with a god next to a stream until daybreak, but when we wrestle with ourselves -- when our fears and doubts wrestle with our divine character -- we choose which side wins.   

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