August 6, 2017 – Hold On Tight

Text: Genesis 32:22-31


One of the things I like about living in Winnipeg is that there is an endless opportunity for continuing education. Since I came here, I have taken courses at different schools or retreat centre. I enjoyed all of them. This summer, I took a course at Canadian School of Peacebuilding, an Institute of Canadian Mennonite University. I heard good things about the program, and wanted to check things out over there. I thought I just needed some time away from my work. I was working hard, and wanted to give myself a special treat by taking a course. Subjects didn’t really matter to me, as my main goal was to get away from my daily routine. I registered for a course not knowing what it was really about. Even the name of the course was hard to understand: Expressive Trauma Integration: Caregiving and Conflict Transformation.

As it turned out, it was the most intensive course I’ve ever taken. It was deep and challenging as we used our bodies to express our feelings. It was painful and emotional as we had to revisit our traumatic experiences over and over again. I thought trauma was someone else’s problem, not mine, but in reality I have been through two of the three major traumatic experiences, a loss of loved one and immigration. The other major traumatic event for most people is divorce. I am not going to share the details of my traumatic experiences or what was happening at the class.

What I wanted to point out, however, is that everyone experiences trauma at some point in their lives. Pain is pain. We can’t say that my pain is bigger or smaller than yours. Everyone has to deal with it. My dictionary defines trauma as emotional shock following a stressful event or a physical injury, which may lead to long-term neurosis. Trauma is something happens to us, something we can’t control, and it leaves us changed forever. The good news is that we can integrate it into who we are. We can learn how to live with it. We can continue our journey of transformation not despite of but precisely through our experiences of trauma.

Jacob and Esau, both have trauma. Jacob gave lentil stew to Esau who was starving to death at the expense of his birthright. Conspiring with his mother, Jacob stole his father’s blessing which was supposed to be on his brother. We hear Esau cry, ‘Have you only one blessing, father? Bless me, me also, father!’ Esau lifted up his voice and wept only to hear a curse, ‘you shell serve your brother.’ Jacob escaped Esau’s fury, leaving everything behind, his family and homeland, and began a new life as a fugitive. Esau also began a new life as the one who lost his blessing.

Now twenty years later, Jacob is on his way to meet Esau. The Bible only tells stories from Jacob’s point of view, so we don’t really know what it was like for Esau to live with the loss of his blessing as well as his younger brother. Something must have happened to Esau. He doesn’t really need the long lineup of countless presents Jacob prepared. Esau is very gracious and forgiving. He is just happy to see his brother. He runs to meet him, embraces him and falls on his neck and kisses him, and they both weep.

Today’s story, Genesis 32:22-31 is just prior to this happy encounter of the two long separated family members. Jacob is not sure about how everything will turn out. He sent messengers with presents ahead of him, and he also sent his family and everything he had across the river while he is left alone. The safest place he has created ironically turns out to be the most dangerous place. Jacob spends the night wrestling with a mysterious one.

We don’t know what actually happened at the river on the night before the encounter. I don’t think Jacob’s family knew what was happening either even if they were able to hear a noise coming from the other side of the river. Jacob’s wrestling represents not just one night, but countless nights, all those times he was trying to figure out what his life was all about. After all, he’s got the birthright and the blessing, but his life doesn’t prove those blessings. Instead, he is kind of stuck in the cycle of deception. Jacob has been victimized by his uncle with the same method he used to gain what did not belong to him. Before he faces his brother, he must face himself. Before he reconciles with his brother, he must reconcile with himself. It is as hard as wrestling in the dark with the one unknown. The struggle Jacob has been through, however, is an integral part of who he is.

Jacob is given a new name, Israel, the one who strives with God. He is no longer a supplanter. He has now come to realize that there is no safe place created by his power or his skill of deception. He cannot escape the way of struggle, and that’s the only road he can be blessed and transformed. Here no other skills are required in order for him to prevail except persistence. And that is the secret ingredient for Jacob to integrate his trauma into his life. He was holding on tight.

A struggle is an integral part of who we are. That’s what makes us children of God. There is no easy way. We must hold on tight. Even if we are dealing with uncertainty, even if we are spending countless nights trying to figure out what it is all about, and even if our hearts are broken by the things happening to us that we can’t control. The good news is that nobody can wrestle alone. It takes two to wrestle. So rejoice, if you feel like your life is wrestling with the unknown more than resting. Soon the sun will rise upon you. And you will say, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”