Wrestling with God
During the Epiphany season at Church of the Pilgrims, members and staff shared their own stories of revelation and inspiration with the congregation. Here is my epiphany story:
Text: Genesis 32:22-32
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.
A little over a year ago, I found myself sitting outside a church on the cold, damp bench of a picnic table, dropping the F-bomb on God.
I was halfway into a two week intercultural immersion with our unhoused, hungry, mentally ill, and abused neighbors on the Route 1 corridor of Fairfax County. We were meeting some of the most vulnerable people in society, hidden and invisible amidst the million dollar mansions of one of the richest counties in the country. I was astonished at what I saw.
We had met folks like Billie, Mary, Johnny, Irena, Sandra, Niko, Angel, and Ed, who faced incredible struggles each day. We learned their stories as we worshiped with them in daily prayer services and sat at table together afterwards. We visited the many social services in the area and volunteered at the emergency hypothermia shelter at the church.
It was staying at the shelter overnight that was perhaps one of the most revealing experiences for me. After we served a hot dinner, we rolled out 25 sleeping mats (which were thinner than a yoga mat) onto the linoleum tile floor of a room about the size of the Bird Room.
Each guest would claim their sleeping bag from the night before, which smelled to varying degrees depending on their hygiene habits and how close laundry day was that week. Throughout the night, we counted the restless, sleeping bodies and answered the door for anyone else seeking to come in.
One night, the hypothermia shelter was full, so we had to turn two people away. That meant that they would have to trek four miles down Route 1 to the Kennedy Shelter. With no car, no bus service that late, no fare for a taxi, and no sidewalks on a dangerous stretch of the road, this was a risky proposition in the cold hours of the night. Fortunately, we had enough volunteers and vehicles that we were able to give a ride to these two neighbors. But what about other nights when the resources aren’t there. What were they to do?
In the morning, we would pass out breakfast bags and help guests return their bedding. I remember one woman who was so heavily medicated, she could barely put on her socks without help. I tried to help her after she reached out, but she was so out of it and so unable to communicate, the most I could really do was hold her hand and let her know I saw her. And yet, she had to leave each day at 7am to face life on the streets with her sole bag of belongings, the zipper already ripped, only to return to the shelter at 7 that night.
Suddenly our air mattresses on the floor of the other church where we were sleeping didn’t seem so bad.
On another night, I went on a ride-along with a county police officer, which turned out to be one of the most interesting nights of my life. At one point, after receiving a tip about a small party with drugs present, we joined other officers in searching a room of an infamous motel on Route 1. When the room was deemed safe by the officers, I looked in to see 5 or 6 men, half of whom were passed out on the beds, some with their pants clearly unbuttoned and unzipped, and one woman, shaking as she stood ill dressed in a robe, trying to speak to the officers in spanish.
She was so nervous that she wet herself. The officers standing outside, waiting for their colleagues to finish searching the room, laughed at her. My heart broke.
I know this isn’t a simple situation and that it’s not black and white. I don’t think it’s excusable or professional, especially with me standing there watching, but I get it, these officers see things we can’t imagine each night and there’s a point where you have to laugh or you’re going to cry. Even officers who want to serve the community become trapped in the systems that degrade it.
But in that moment, I wondered, who would stand with this woman? I don’t know her story, but I would guess that it really wasn’t her preference to be in that room that night, that she probably felt she had no choice, beyond desperate for a host of reasons.
So by the time I was sitting on that bench by the church, I was at my breaking point. Day after day, we were faced with stories and encounters of brokenness. It wears on you. There are signs of hope as you meet people working to make a difference. But it can be overwhelming. Story after story. Long days. Emotional days. No alone space for this introvert. Minimal time to process.
I was also dealing with suffering in my own family. Just 8 months before the trip, my dad had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. I was then 26 and beginning to lose my dad. As anyone who has been touched by a chronic, debilitating, or terminal illness like this knows, family dynamics change and roles shift as the stress of caregiving collides with the pain of grief, all while life continues.
I was angry. Why were these amazing people I met each day suffering? How could our society be this broken? How could I serve a God who allowed it? Why was my dad suffering from this horrible, horrible disease? Why did he have to get sick in the middle of my time at seminary - a process that is in itself unsettling and life-changing enough? I was bitter and angry, and really I still am.
So, I cursed out God that night. It was about the only thing I could do besides cry, and I’m sure I was doing that too.
I had shared with the immersion group that I came on the trip looking for Jesus. I told them that in the months since the diagnosis, I had felt so alone, so helpless, so empty, and so doubtful, that I needed something to change, some sign, and that I hoped this trip would be whatever it was I needed it to be.
On our last night of the trip, we had a time of sharing during which a fellow student brought up the story of Jacob wrestling God. He talked about how Jacob struggled with God, but came away with both a limp and a blessing, and that I would to. The blessing part was hard to believe at the time.
This past fall, I explored more of Jacob’s story as I created a devotional art piece for a class. Jacob is perhaps best known for his trickery in stealing his brother Esau’s birth right and blessing from their father, Isaac. Fearing for his life, Jacob runs away from Isaac’s house and seeks safety with his uncle Laban. Jacob makes it to Laban’s and works for him so that he can marry his daughters, Leah and Rachel. Years later, Jacob and his family leave Laban and journey to meet Esau to make reconciliation. It is on this road that Jacob wrestles the Holy One.
I imagine Jacob is pretty terrified. He gets up in the night to cross the river, probably because he can’t sleep. He has already made plans for the best and worst case scenarios, sending gifts ahead for his brother while also separating his caravan into two sections, so that at least one can escape if the other is attacked.
Like Jacob, I have trouble sleeping. I don’t know what the future holds for my family and I am scared. I’ve tried to prepare, to find resources for support. And I wonder, how will we accept the coming changes - with stubbornness and frustration, or with grace and thanksgiving?
For Jacob, the struggle happens in the dark. It seems never ending until the sun rises. Only in the moment when God’s face may be revealed in the coming light does the struggle end. There is a mystery - God’s ways are never fully known.
Art allows me to explore the mysteries of God. Only as I embodied Jacob’s struggle by painting, ripping, scraping, and sanding my piece for class could I really process the struggle in my own life.
The change, the limp, from my own struggle with God and with Alzheimer’s is obvious to me, it’s easy to see. The blessing is harder. But I keep looking, for the holy moments with my parents, for lessons I’m learning as a daughter and caregiver that will guide me in ministry.
I have come to terms with the fact that some days the only way I can help my dad is to hold his hand or pick up the phone, so that he knows he is not alone. And that is no small thing.
I believe our God does the same thing. I’m still not sure why God doesn’t directly intervene in situations of pain or oppression, but I know God is present with those who suffer. Even when it feels like an endless struggle or a rant against an absent God, I believe God is there. God is there in the struggle, and there in the conversation. God has shown up. I am grateful that our God is big enough and compassionate enough to take my cursing. Really, I think God was sitting with me on that bench cursing too.
God calls us to stand in solidarity with the hurting, even when that means simply holding someone’s hand. I know now, that I want to serve a church where it is important to stand in solidarity with the vulnerable. I want to serve a church where it’s ok to talk about the moments of tension, doubt, and struggle. I want to serve a church where we show up anyway, because most of the time, showing up is the most important part.
Now, I invite you to enter into the struggle. Think about a struggle with God in your own life. Envision the struggle in your mind or lift up in prayer those who you know are suffering. This is your time to finish the sermon.
© 2014 Jessica Fisher