Blessings Emerging from Struggles
I would like to share three stories with you as we begin this morning.
In spring of 1997, runner and triathlon competitor Bob Molsberry was riding his bicycle as part of his training for the summer racing season. Struck from behind by a hit-and-run driver, he was left in a coma for six weeks. He neither saw nor heard the vehicle that nearly killed him and that made him a paraplegic. And Bob acknowledges that recovery was not an easy journey—for he had to wrestle spiritually and emotionally and “attempt to regenerate the pieces of my life, to find meaning in the new me who emerges, and discover insights along the way.”
On March 23, 2001, John Alex Lowell (an IT specialist with two undergraduate degrees from UC Berkeley) was jogging on a sidewalk in San Francisco, toward an intersection, thinking of anything but religion, when a minivan ran a red light and struck him, sending him twenty feet into the air. Trauma surgeons told Lowell’s parents that the damage to his skull was so severe that if he survived, he likely would remain in a persistent vegetative state. Not only did he survive, he underwent strenuous and lengthy mental and physical rehabilitation.
Nancy Eiesland was born into a North Dakota farm family, with a congenital bone defect in her hips that necessitated a full set of leg braces and crutches by the time she was seven. She once wrote that her father observed—as she emerged from the prosthetics workshop of the Crippled Children’s School in Jamestown, North Dakota—that she would need a job that kept her off her feet, ruling out work as a checkout clerk. Later in life she would share “The poise I learned in telling my story…often came at substantial personal cost as my body became the lesson, and the words I was schooled to say were uncomfortable beliefs about me.”
In each of those three stories, each person knew themselves in a certain way, wrestled with their identity and emerged with a new understanding of who they were and how they were empowered.
In the text we heard today, Jacob is on his way to meet his brother. In the dark of the night, he encounters another being—perhaps God, perhaps an angel, perhaps another person—who takes him by surprise. So Jacob engages in a wrestling match. As Claus Westermann writes in his commentary on the passage: This wrestling “is meant to suggest a surprise attack…we are not dealing with a wrestling match agreed to by both parties.”
And while we could spend time debating whether it was God or a person with whom Jacob wrestles, I wonder if another approach might be helpful. Elie Wiesel, in his commentary on the story from a Jewish perspective, contends that Jacob wrestled with himself, the other Jacob, hidden from view: weak, vulnerable, and dependent… He met and wrestled with the one who felt unworthy of everything he was and had…Jacob wrestled with a lifetime in one night.
The outcome is that Jacob perseveres in the struggle with the “dreaded stranger in the night” and emerges stronger because of it. The attacker has lost his power. In other words, that which besieged Jacob and left him with a disability no longer has power over him. In a twist, the wrestling match empowers Jacob. It is a turning point in Jacob’s life and something happens in this transaction that is irreversible, a new being has been called forth. The encounter will not permit a neat summary of roles. While Jacob will spend the remainder of his days with a disability, he emerges from this struggle in the dark night with a new self-understanding and a new identity with new possibilities before him!
Though we find it hard to perceive a whole community of people within the story of the patriarch Jacob, this is the implication of the narrative. From this turning point in Jacob’s life springs forth the Israelites, the community of the people of God. And I think this is important, because when we hear the Jacob walked with a limp the remainder of his days, it may also illustrate that people with disabilities have always been included in the community of the people of God.
As the sun was rising after that fateful evening, Jacob was asked “What is your name?” And Jacob tells him. But, in responding, Jacob not just saying his name, but stating everything he knows to be true about himself… Stating his name is an act of confession. And he is at once- free to take on everything God has destined for him to become.
And as an acknowledgment of the new identity to come, Jacob is given a new name… “From now on your name is no longer Jacob- but Israel…” No longer will Jacob identify himself in a way that is anything other than his new identity—a member of the family of God! Can you imagine doing that in your own life—unable to identify yourself or talk about yourself in a way that was anything other than a child of God? How empowering would that be?
So many times we hang on to the names and perceptions of who we are that are given to us by our parents or our peers. We hear of the handicapped or disabled person—where identity is interwoven with disability. As a society- we get so caught up in our identity; in what we call ourselves, or are called by others, or the bad ways we act or think, or the things we have done… that we miss the fact that God has already given us a new identity- a new name… Through Christ we leave our “Jacob” identity behind and have been given a new identity in Christ. In claiming our new identity we live out our lives as the people of God—gathered no longer as the children of Israel but as the body of Christ, the Church.
I started this morning with three stories of persons who had to wrestle with their self-understanding and identity. As Paul Harvey used to say, here’s the rest of the story.
Bob Molsberry went on to write of his experience in his book titled Blindsided by Grace: Entering the World of Disability and has served the United Church of Christ as a pastor and as our Ohio Conference Minister. Speaking of his book, he offered “I offer it hoping that it will be useful to others facing catastrophic change. If it’s valuable at all the value should transfer to anyone who is adjusting to new imposed limitations, including those who grieve losses in their lives and those who are aging….”
John Alex Lowell has gone on to found the Differently Abled Student Union at the Pacific School of Religion seminary, become a United Church of Christ Minister, and provide leadership with UCC Disabilities Ministries. Nancy Eisland went on to become a seminary professor, publishing the book The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability, which invited the church to think about persons with disabilities in a different way.
The question remains—who are those among us who have had to wrestle with their self-esteem, vulnerability and understanding of self, through the dark night, and emerged with a new identity, new self-understanding, a new name and new possibilities? How have those persons been blessed and what blessings do they bring to us?
As the church, we are a people of struggles and blessings. We have been called to be the place where pain, difficulties and weaknesses can be revealed and wrestled with, and where someone who uses a scooter, wheelchair, walker or cane can feel empowered to find a new identity. And we have wrestled with this calling through the years. But our new identity as the people of God will be found when we can recognize that image of God which lies within every person. When we find that identity, we will no longer live in the past, but will emerge into our new day of possibilities.
Brueggemann, W. (1982). Genesis: Interpretation Commentary Series. Atlanta, Georgia: John Knox Press.
Pinsky, M. (2012). Amazing Gifts: Stories of Faith, Disability, and Inclusion. Herndon, VA: Alban.
Rad, G. V. (1962). Old Testament Theology Vol I. New York: Harper and Row.
Westermann, C. (1987). Genesis: A Practical Commentary. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock.
 (Pinsky, 2012, p. 192)
 (Pinsky, 2012, p. 207)
 (Westermann, 1987, p. 229)
 Elie Wiesel, Messengers of God (New York: Random House, 1976), pp. 123-124
 (Brueggemann, 1982, p. 266)
 (Westermann, 1987, p. 230)
 (Brueggemann, 1982, pp. 268-9)