Friday, July 29, 2005

Wrestling at the Jabbok

In a recent – much argued about – book, New York Times columnist David Brooks coins the term ‘Achievatron’ to describe what makes American society tick.  The Achievatron, Brooks suggests, the engine that drives American culture, is basically the idea that we can all be Superman.  Or Superwoman.  You can have it all, and in fact you should have it all.  There’s something wrong with you if you don’t.  Right from the very beginning of life, Brooks observes, American children are groomed for success – the hyper-competitive Little League is just the beginning, then comes competition for school grades, getting into the right college and the right career, having a big enough house, a big enough 4WD.  Brooks points out a basic contradiction in American society that I think rings just as true here in Australia – that we celebrate wealth, power, strength, bravado, confidence, prestige and victory even though our everyday reality is a mixture of partial success and downright failure, even though deep down we are riddled with self-doubt – even though realistically we know that a whole lot of the time normal life is about feeling vulnerable, being afraid, and knowing that we’re not quite as confident as we’d like to pretend.  This is maybe what gives rise to the cult of celebrity – the almost worship of iconic figures in sport or business – the sense almost of ownership in the way we talk about people like Ian Thorpe or Dick Smith.  We really are that successful, we really are that fast in the water, Thorpie’s doing it for us.  But Brooks is suggesting that the Achievatron is like living in a bubble that sooner or later is going to burst, that the myth of universal success is a fantasy that does more harm than good.  The tall poppy syndrome – cutting down to size yesterday’s heroes who turn out to be not quite so perfect as the hype made them out to be – is maybe the less attractive side of the Achievatron.

A few weeks ago I was intrigued to read that politicians from both sides were starting to seriously woo Sydney churchgoers.  Not a very influential crowd, I would have thought.  And there were Peter Costello and Bob Carr – at different times – addressing this massive congregation at the mega-church that is Hillsong – almost 12,000 people in a huge auditorium.  Apparently politicians of both sides have discovered that the secular gospel of material aspiration strikes a particular chord in some Christian churches – that there is a Christian equivalent to the Achievatron and it goes, if you love Jesus - if you’re really a Christian - then God wants you to be successful and happy and upwardly mobile – and the risk is that our faith becomes shallow, if the only stories we tell ourselves are good news ones then we are in retreat from reality.  In retreat from reality and in retreat from the gospel.

Jacob brings us back to reality with a jolt.  The parables of Jesus that we have been reading over the last few weeks have reminded us in a profound way that God works not just through the wholesome parts of human nature but also through the unwholesome aspects, that God’s in the weeds as well as the wheat.  And right alongside, we’ve been reading through the cycle of stories from the Old Testament that tell how God makes a covenant with a family that becomes a nation, these mythic-sounding stories of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob which, like the ancient mythology of Greece, describe human personality almost in depth-psychological terms, warts and all, the dangerous desires, the love and the lies of being human.  And the Jacob saga has been reminding us, just like Jesus’ stories, that God works in the shadows of human life just as much as in the light, that God blesses ratbags and that God’s blessings come to fruition in and around the conniving of cheats.  Both disturbing and comforting, if you know what I mean. In spite of Hillsong, God’s blessings aren’t dependent on whether we deserve them, and sometimes they don’t come in the way we think they should.

So, here’s the story to date.  Jacob – whose name means ‘heel catcher’ – the one who takes what belongs to his brother Esau by trickery and who defrauds his father into giving him the inheritance rights and the blessing that should have belonged to his older brother – Jacob is on the run out of town and has a dream in which God appears to him and makes him a remarkable promise.  The God of Abraham and the God of Isaac promises to be the God of Jacob too, even though strictly it isn’t fair.  And doesn’t Jacob know it.  Jacob’s long stopover in Haran with his cunning uncle Laban must have rubbed it in.  What goes around, comes around.  The branch of the family that stayed in the old country turns out to be just as sharp and conniving as the immigrant branch in Canaan, and here Jacob finds himself on the receiving end for a while.  Only for a while, because ultimately Jacob turns out to be the better conman, and at the end of 20 years skips town under slightly forced circumstances to head back home with more wives, concubines, livestock and children than he could ever have dreamed of.  He’s got the Achievatron jackpot, Jacob is now a nomadic lord in his own right. 

But Canaan is where Esau lives.  Going home means running the risk that Esau would still like to get even for that original con that Jacob had been trying to put out of his mind these last 20 years.  And as he gets nearer, Jacob sends out his spies who report back, Esau is coming to meet you with a military force, 400 men.  The old Jacob rises to meet the challenge, first dividing his own caravan into two so if Esau attacks one group the other might get away  Then he starts sending presents, small groups of slaves with sheep, goats, camels, all up over 500 animals, and he instructs the slaves to say, ‘oh, just another small gift from Jacob’.  With any luck, Esau is going to think Jacob is a whole lot more powerful and well-connected than he really is.

But then comes the moment in the middle of the night, when Jacob is all alone.  Even the women and children have been sent across the river towards Esau and an uncertain reception, but for some reason Jacob stays behind by himself.  Could it be that he is afraid?  At any rate, he is clearly dreading the encounter with his brother, and he is preparing himself for the worst.  Have you ever had a night like that, when all your chickens have come home to roost?  Jacob can’t stop thinking about what he did all those years ago – and then, the narrator tells us, a man came to him and fought with him all night.  A matter of fact report, we only gradually become aware that it is God himself who struggles against him.  Is it supposed to be metaphoric, just a symbolic way of saying Jacob is having a sleepless night?  I don’t think so, I think the story is telling us something real, that God is with us at the lowest point, but also that when we struggle, when in the dark places of our own soul we struggle against ourselves we are struggling with the God who takes our struggles seriously, the God who risks something in the outcome of our struggles.  But God never wrestles without a purpose, and for Jacob – as it usually is for us - the issue of the wrestling is his shame, his guilt and his fear.  In her book, ‘Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope’, Benedictine nun Joan Chittister sees Jacob’s struggle as a symbol of the spiritual struggle we all have to endure to become who God intends us to be.  We all need to endure change, isolation, darkness, fear, powerlessness, vulnerability and exhaustion.  We all need to struggle in order to be transformed.

It’s a struggle in which, remarkably, God can’t win, even though God’s human partner is wounded and will always afterwards walk with a limp.  You can’t struggle with God and expect to come out unscathed.  Jacob, who seems to have superhuman strength, can’t get the better of God, and surprisingly, God can’t get the better of Jacob either.  Jacob the heel catcher is good at hanging on, and insists on a blessing before he lets go.  Wouldn’t you think he’s had enough blessings already?  But according to Joan Chittister, Jacob does what all of us have to do to become whole.  Jacob knows the blessing he needs, because he has confronted in himself what is wounding him, and the blessing God gives him is a new name – Jacob the heel catcher becomes Israel, the one who contends with God.

This new Jacob is physically crippled, but he’s finally grown up.  He’s no longer damaged.  That’s something the Achievatron doesn’t tell you, isn’t it?  That the wounds you get in life are what transform you, or as St Paul puts it, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness’.  The place where you are broken is the place where you are in contact with God, that part of your life that maybe only you know about, that old failure you’ve spent years overcompensating for, that old grief you can’t forget – turns out to be where you go to wrestle with God.  And it’s a place of blessing.  Where you are wounded is where you go to find the blessing that only you can give.