For those who want a change from the Gospel
Trinity 18 – Genesis 32:22-32 (Related)
Let me introduce you to a chap called Arnold van Gennep. He lived from 1873 to 1957, had a great moustache, and was a French folklorist (what a brilliant job!). He was responsible for the idea of ‘liminality’. Limen is apparently the Latin word for a door or doorway, and van Gennep suggested that all of us go through ‘doorways’ in life, where things change for us. That journey, he suggested, happens in three phases, the pre-liminal, where we’re preparing for change, the liminal, where we actually do change, and the post-liminal, which is about readjustment now that life is different. Last June our daughter got married, and we lived with her through that liminal experience. Pre-liminally she had to sort out a house to live in, get a wedding dress, organise cake and all the rest of it. The liminal part was the Wedding day: when the priest said ‘I now pronounce you husband and wife together’ everything changed. Now she’s living through the post-liminal phase, readjusting to married life. Other liminal experiences would include having a baby, starting a new job, moving house, and, or course, dying. All involve those three phases.
Poor old Jacob goes through a liminal experience in today’s reading. You’ll remember that he cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright, and they had been separated for years. But now Esau is coming to get him, with small army of 400 men. Jacob knows that this is going to be decisive, a liminal experience, where he will either end up reconciled or dead. So he enters the pre-liminal phase by preparing. He divides his family and possessions into two groups, so if Esau gets one lot, the others might escape. Then he prays, a prayer for survival (v.9-12), and then he gets practical again, preparing and sending gifts to pacify Esau, in the hope he might buy him off. And then it’s the fateful liminal night. He sends his wives and family and all his possessions away. He is alone by the River Jabbok. Whatever this night brings, he’s never going to be the same again.
Then he meets – who? A man who turns out to be God? Or maybe an angel? It’s hard to tell, but the result is that they spend all night wrestling. Jacob wants his name and his blessing. Instead he gets a new name, and a disability. Although he does feel blessed – to see God and still to be alive is about as blessed as it gets! But he is left physically different by the encounter, and he enters the post-liminal phase as the sun dawns on a new day.
This is such a rich story, with so much to say about the changes and chances of our lives, and those liminal experiences which leave us different. This story teaches us, I believe, about
Something for us to do
Something for us to pray, and
Something for us to understand.
1) Something for us to do
I love the balance between practical preparation and heartfelt prayer. If I can buy Esau off, O Lord, all well and good, but if not, can you save me? All liminal experiences require practical preparation in the pre-liminal stage, and Jacob shows us the relation between prayer and practice. There is stuff we can do – to just ‘leave it all in God’s hands’ sounds superspiritual but is ultimately a bit silly. Those bridesmaids’ dresses are not going to make themselves. And yet there’s fervent prayer too. Whatever we do without God’s blessing is not going to get very far.
2) Something for us to pray
But there’s something beyond a mere prayer for survival. Jacob wanted to know God’s name. He wanted to know God better, to be on more intimate terms with him. To give someone your name is a bit like giving them your mobile number nowadays. It puts you in new, closer relationship. How can we let the changes in our lives help us understand God better, and draw us closer to him?
3) Something for us to understand
Jacob was left different as a result of his liminal night of wrestling, and part of that was his limp. He becomes aware of his vulnerability, and has a physical visual aid to remind him. Post-liminally he has to learn to walk with that limp, as well as living in a new relationship with his brother, with whom there is reconciliation a few verses later. When we meet God in some life-changing ways, it isn’t the case that everything changes for the better, and we need to know that. Many would testify to some kind of a ‘limp’ after a profound encounter with God. The art is to understand that ‘limp’ as part and parcel of God’s blessing.