Faith has always been difficult for me.
In my middle and high school years, I had Sunday School teachers who were visibly relieved when a class went by without my hand shooting into the air. I have questions. There are passages of the Bible — an alarming number of them — that make little sense to me. I could list examples, but that’s not the point of this little talk we’re having and I could go on forever.
Despite my questions and doubts and outright rages, I am a Christian. I do not claim to be very good at it, but I keep showing up, even when I’m not sure why. I think that it ultimately comes to this: I have had a few experiences in my life — and I find this weird and embarrassing to admit — that I can only understand by accepting the presence of the divine. I resent this more than I can say.
It would be easier to throw the whole thing over and admit there is no God and Jesus seemed nice but he liked to poke the bear and get into trouble, and maybe he had some delusions of grandeur. It would be restful. I could be done with all the trying, and that would be great, because I am tired.
I think my Sunday School teachers believed that I was having fun asking all the questions. I can tell you now that I was not, and am not. If it was intimidating to face all the questions and doubts I brought with me for an hour on a Sunday morning, imagine what it is like to live inside my head. It is exhausting.
Even though I have tried, I cannot convince myself completely against the existence of God.
I read a few weeks ago that audiobooks are having a moment. More and more people are taking in literature and self-improvement and other books as spoken word. My mom was way ahead of this curve; when my siblings and I were growing up through the sixties, seventies, and eighties, she had a personal set of vinyl and cassette recordings that rivaled the local library’s collection. There was a little bit of everything, I think, but we were heavy on Newbery Medal winners and Bible stories, and we listened to the recordings over and over until we knew them cold. My brother Chris is a gifted mimic, and he can still send the remaining siblings into hysterical laughter at family dinners with a few well-placed words from one of stories we last heard forty years ago. One of the classics gets trotted out whenever a toddler is trying to escape an exasperated parent, and Chris says, in the voice of an Old Testament prophet, “Let me gooooo! For the day breaketh.”
I know. It’s not funny, but that’s only because you didn’t hear the dramatized story of Jacob wrestling the angel a thousand times in your formative years. Jacob, if it’s been awhile since you wandered through the old stories, is the grandson of Abraham, born to Isaac. Jacob cheated his older twin Esau out of the larger portion of the inheritance using a bowl of lentils when Esau was desperately hungry. Then he went off and worked seven years for a wife and got tricked into taking her sister. So he worked some more and then he was married to both women who, let’s remember, were sisters and had undoubtedly fought over the good tunic as tweens. And he was sleeping with both their maids.
You think you’ve got problems. If Jerry Springer had been on TV then, Jacob would have been one of his star guests.
For complicated reasons, Jacob decided to take the entire nuthouse, sister wives, sort-of-wives, kids, and all, on the road. They’re going along at the speed of a cranky toddler when they get the news that they’re going to run into Esau. And he’s still mad. It’s not a good day. But they have a stream to cross. Jacob gets everybody across and sets up camp and then goes back over for the last load of stuff nobody had a free hand to carry. While he’s over there, out of nowhere, somebody shows up and starts wrestling him. And the mysterious stranger will not let up. They wrestle all night until they are both spent, and Jacob must have been wondering what this guy’s deal was, because he won’t even tell Jacob his name. As the night wears on, Jacob starts to think the guy is not really human, because it is all Jacob can do to hang on.
There are streaks of light on the horizon, and the mystery man says (here it is, KJV English and all), “Let me go, for the day breaketh!” And Jacob says no.
Seriously, he’s been fighting this guy all night, and the guy wants to go, and now he says no? But Jacob has become convinced, as maddening as the whole situation is, and as exhausted as he has become, that this means something. That there’s something there. Because there isn’t any other explanation that makes any sense at all. So no. He won’t let go. Not until he gets a blessing from the angel, or maybe it’s a demon. The mystery man came here for a reason, and Jacob doesn’t know what it is, but he believes it is something.
So the stranger gives him a blessing. Jacob is going to be known as Israel, and all the tribes of God’s people will descend from him. Messed-up cheater Jacob with all the wives, and he’s the one God chooses. But as the stranger disappears into the growing light of the dawn, Jacob realizes he hasn’t come through unscathed. His hip is seriously injured, and he’ll never walk without a limp again.
This is what faith feels like to me, almost all of the time. A wretched struggle in the dark with a force that is close to overpowering me at every moment. I am tired, I am filthy, and I am hanging on by a toenail. But like Jacob, I cannot shake the belief that there’s a reason. I refuse to let go.
It is a long night, and I don’t know if the dawn of certainty will ever come. I have no illusions about bringing forth nations of God’s children. But I do believe that like Jacob — now Israel, now changed — if I ever do emerge from the struggle, it will not be without scars.
So something in me hangs on, gritty and tired and a touch incoherent. Stubborn and expectant, and insisting on my limping redemption.