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Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, Gustave Dore 1865

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel Gustave Dore 1865

Today’s first reading was from Genesis 32:22-31, in which Jacob wrestled with God. Our priest, Barbara, gave a fine sermon on the challenges we face in youth and in illness, when we too wrestle with God. And, well, it got me to thinking.

Yes, indeed, we wrestle with God over our self-identity as young adults, and even before that sometimes. We determine to be “just like” Dad, or not at all like uncle Bill, based on perceptions we have of them and those we discern that others have of them. In some respects, we wish as well to forge our own personality, and so determine that we will be “different” in ways we have yet to decide upon. We all have the urge to be unique, though we are, whether we wish to be or not. Failure surely follows the one who attempts to mold themselves in the fashion of some other person.

And true enough, severe calamities also often cause us to wrestle with God. We lament why this happened to me, have we displeased God, is God really there, does He care? Why has he not rescued us. A thousand questions, and sleepless nights ensue as we sort out how this relationship affects and is affected by the miseries that often befall us. No one is left unscathed in this, for misfortune strikes all sooner or later. It just falls on some harder than others sometimes. But who is to judge the breadth and depth of my agony versus yours. The loss of child, parent, illness, financial ruin, job loss, and a whole host of occurrences strike me differently in some respect than you.

But, are those the only occasions when we do or should be wrestling with our God? It strikes me that we are typically not doing enough of the down on the mat struggling as we should be.

Most people, I would suggest, have a set of principles they live by, or at least say they do. Some can tick them off as if from a list, and indeed, some folks undoubted do make such lists. Others have a general, less defined set that they basically “feel” right about. Like Potter Stewart, they may not be able to define them exactly but they know them when they see them. A general uncomfortableness may ensue when a line has been crossed, a sense that this isn’t right, even though we may be able to fully articulate it.

I’m not sure that is quite acceptable. Perhaps one day it was, perhaps life was simple enough at some distant moment when that was enough. But life is today much more complicated isn’t it? I mean just take the question: paper or plastic? How is one to know which is the better other than the obvious:  neither, bring your own canvas bags. One has to factor in so many things, the cost of production, the ease of renewing, the impact on the environment long term. So many things to evaluate.

Who to invest with? How many have a clue for the most part whether your investments are with companies who are environmentally progressive or not? How many are operating in countries where wages are not what they should be? Where safety is not what it should be? Where they are helping to prop up undemocratic governments?

You ask, what has this got to do with wrestling with God? Ahh, you see, you’re not doing it enough. If you were, you wouldn’t need to ask. Because you see,  many of our choices are made based on what is convenient, financially or otherwise for us. We may buy peaches out of season, because we like peaches, never thinking of where they come from and what are the consequences of that. And that is a compromise we make several times a day.

There are folks who don’t buy paper toweling, not any kind, even the recycled type. Why? Because cotton cloths work just as well. But they require washing each week, and they get stained and don’t look nice. That is wrestling with God. That is saying, I don’t like this inconvenience, but I’m prepared to go out of my way in this way because I think God prefers me to do my part for the environment. My desires have taken a back seat to what I determine to be God’s will.

We should be struggling daily with these choices. And of course, we would all go quite mad, given the complexity of society today if we did so. Nobody has the time to investigate all the ins and outs of every decision to make the morally correct one. How to balance all the variables is too mind boggling. If I devote five hours to determining whether I should choose to buy peaches in December, I’m missing five hours I might spend helping in the formation of my child’s sense of team work by attending to his or her soccer needs.

The point is not so much how we resolve the issues, I would hazard to say, but that we think about them at least. That we don’t automatically choose the convenient but at least put some brain matter to work thinking about the alternatives. Who knows, one might just pop out at us as a better alternative. God has a way of working with us that way. But we have to give Him a chance. God is gracious in case you forgot. He doesn’t intrude where he is not invited.

I’m wrestling with God today. I’ve been hard as stone when it comes to John McCain. I diametrically oppose his policies, don’t get me wrong. But, this goes beyond that. The more I learn about the man, the more afraid I become. Some of the stuff I learn about him seems horrible indeed. It has more to do with his personality, his motives, his honorableness as a human being than his policy. So I’m wrestling with this “stuff” that I have read, and whether it’s fair game to send around the internet; send around in my tiny little vehicle, read by usually under 100 folks a day. But I can’t avoid the issue, by claiming I’m a tiny little fry in the big ocean of public opinion.

The Contrarian has pointed it out to me more than once in the last few weeks. My anger, has crossed a bounds he believes. McCain is not a satanic force after all. He is a man driven to achieve what he wants. I suspect he is willing to cut a lot of corners to do that. But can’t that be said about most politicians?

So you see, I’m wrestling with God. Is it my own prideful arrogance that “I know John McCain” and you don’t? Or is he objectively that bad? I’m not sure. I do know that God led me to a new venue for celebrating liturgy, and that sermon was given, and it gave rise to this discussion. And I don’t plainly know the answer, yet. Maybe never. But I realized at least that I am not wrestling with God enough. I’ve been trying to save that for big issues, seldom employed except in emergencies. And I’m wrong to do that. Winging it on most of life’s daily ups, downs, ins, and outs, is not a good thing.

Thomas Merton said that he wasn’t always sure that he knew God’s will, but he figured God was pleased with his attempt to try to figure it out. And I think he was right. We would be highly presumptuous it seems to me, to assume we know God’s will.

Oh, plenty of folks will claim it’s easy. Just read and do what the “church” tells you to. That’s passing the buck it seems to me. While I have much to learn from those who came before, and two heads are better than one, I cannot avoid my personal responsibility by shrugging that it’s too much for me, and simply relying on others whom I’ve elevated to some superior knowledge platform.

Same for politics. Americans are simply wont to pass off their responsibility as citizens to become informed on the issues and candidates. They rely on party affiliation, newspaper endorsements, worse yet, highly political punditry opinions, or even worse, slimy ads which have little in the way of truth attached to them. That’s why the candidates have learned to tell lies so easily. Nobody much can tell the difference but those who are highly interested and they are small in numbers.

The truth is, we are each, as citizens, required and morally obligated to search our minds and hearts for what God wishes in this world. We are then obligated to learn what each candidate claims they would do, and spend some modicum of time reading responsible, highly regarded news sources to determine the truth of those claims. We are then called upon to vote accordingly. We aren’t asked to do this often, just every four years.

Similarly, we should be looking at all our activities and practices a bit more closely. Likely we will not always correctly discern God’s will all the time. I’m not sure God would always have a will on everything anyway. But we will be damn better humans if we ask the question a bit more, and come down on the side we perceive is the God side. That I think is a truth you can take to the bank.

It’s just what I was thinking about today. And hey, you could probably use the exercise!