I recall reading somewhere that summer reunions are the bread and butter for many working therapists. Much of the pain we inflict upon each other occurs within the human family. In more than 30 years as a parish pastor, the majority of families I encountered included members who’d stopped speaking to one another.

Reconciliation is an important biblical word, but it’s yet to be realized in many painful instances, several of which I suspect now swim into your imagination while reading these words.

***

Genesis 32 describes the backdrop to one of the all-time great reconciliation stories in the Bible. If you’re approaching a family reunion this summer with a bit of fear and trepidation, prowl around in this chapter for courage and even comic relief.

Jacob could easily land a starring role in a Lunesta ad. Things didn’t end well with Esau the last time they were together. Jacob stole a birthright and blessing with the deceitful help of his mother, who never hid her partiality. (A dysfunctional family before we knew that word.) Livid Esau vows revenge.

Twenty years pass. Jacob learns that Esau is galloping toward him with 400 men. He fearfully offers an honest foxhole prayer: “Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother … for I’m afraid of him; he may come and kill us all” (32:11).

The estrangement may be dated with decades, but it’s also as fresh as yesterday. Jacob sends a peace offering to Esau (32:14- 15). Unable to sleep, he fearfully awakens his family of 15, sends the groggy entourage safely across the river and returns alone to the original campsite—at least for a while.

Delightful ambiguity exists concerning the identity of Jacob’s wrestling partner that night, with a divided tradition—some say an angel (or God) and others claim that even Esau jumped into the fray. Perhaps a combination of all three, tag-teaming. Isn’t this how a division awaiting reconciliation often feels? Our anxieties on earth can never be fully separated and hidden away from God in heaven. “You have striven with God and with humans, [Jacob]” (32:28). An accurate assessment; always both.

***

For authentic reconciliation to occur, we must go through our past, however painful, rather than pretend it never happened. Please recall that Jesus shows his scars to the community, even after his resurrection.

This is often why people come to church in the first place: to seek absolution and insight from past events, some still keeping us awake at night. Collectively, any congregation hauls in a lot of emotional baggage each Sunday—during the confession and again at the altar for communion. We proclaim gospel truths aloud, but the silences also reveal our common past estrangement, awaiting reconciliation.

The whole enterprise of church (if authentic) will therefore at times feel more like a wrestling match than a sweet walk in the park. Sometimes a real encounter with God can leave us blessed and certainly loved, but also limping.

***

Jacob couldn’t sleep. After relocating his family at a safe distance, he found a place beside the river to lie down and rest. Or so he thought.

A river runs through our worship spaces. The grace of God overflows the baptismal font, dampens the pews, and meanders purposefully out into your town and the homes of your community. It’s a good place to rest a weary, anxious head— beside this old river.

But the whole baptismal enterprise may not be entirely safe. God may very well jump us in the night beside these waters and wrestle us all to the ground.

Don’t be afraid of wrestling with your past. It’s the key to a good night’s sleep and maybe an eventual reunion featuring reconciliation.

Sometimes life leaves us limping. And the best we can do is limp into church and up to the table of grace, never letting go until blessed.

Frank G. Honeycutt

Author of 10 books, Frank Honeycutt is an ELCA pastor living in Walhalla, S.C. His collection of fictional short stories, God’s Scorekeeper, will be released this fall by Cascade Books.

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