Whom Do You Serve?


And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled…

Then the man said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” And the man said, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.

Then Jacob asked him, “Tell me, I pray, your name.” But the man said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And then he blessed him.

Jacob called [out] …“For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed …limping because of his hip.


The morning brought such a lashing rain
I decided I might as well stay inside
And tackle those jobs that had multiplied
Like an old man’s minor aches and pains.
I found a screw for the strikerplate,
Tightened the handle on the bathroom door,
Cleared the drain in the basement floor,
And straightened the hinge for the backyard gate.
Each task had been a nagging distraction,
An itch in the mind, a dangling thread;
Knocking a tiny brass brad on the head,
I felt an insane sense of satisfaction.
Then I heard a great crash in the yard.
The maple had fallen and smashed our car.

– Barton Sutter

I wrestle most days to get the little details right. Sometimes when I am feeling overwhelmed, it helps to focus on small things that can be fixed. I feel satisfied when I can see what I have straightened out. AH, those papers are all organized now. The pictures are hanging level on the wall. The organizational chart is clear and accurate and flowing in my mind…

The chaos is pushed aside for a moment.

Some days, often on stormy days or when it is drizzling outside, I realize that life has left me, left most of us, with our assorted pains, our “limps”. Wounds that have become scars, places out of joint or stiff from wrestling. Terrors.

Nagging, little pains. Perhaps we can take another pill, or stretch out and ease the old wounds…maybe a trip to the massage therapist will help…

Then the tree falls. Or some other potentially life changing loss hits…

It is those moments, when “the maple falls and smashes the car”, when we realize to what or to whom our life is “all bound up…”

I was at my home in Jacksonville some years ago. It was a spring or maybe it was summer. We had received lots and lots of rain, day after day. On this particular day, it was just drizzling…the windows were open and it was smelling sweet like spring does…when suddenly there was an earth-shaking THUD. I was in one side of the house, when the deafening sound and the shudder of a huge tree falling and smashing something started and then only seconds later came to a stop. I was convinced that the kitchen on the other side of the house was gone. I was sure some terrible damage had been done to the roof, to the room that was no more, damage that would inconvenience me for weeks.

With trepidation, running to the kitchen, I saw out the window that one HUGE live oak branch had fallen in the back yard. It was resting un-easily on what was left of the carport roof. Under the carport were all the tropical birds that my girlfriend and I had not long ago housed there.

We had built an outdoor aviary, where they could be messy and loud and would be plenty warm enough for the late spring and for summer. I was panicked. I was sure that tree limb was not finished falling all the way down to the ground…When it did, which it surely would, the birds would be either smashed or their cage ripped open and them set free..

I could hear the neighbors gathering in the street. I was irritated that not one ventured to our front door to ask if we were ok. I was relieved that no crowd appeared in the back yard to watch me hurry to rescue the birds. Dutiful that ONE day, they were all amazing easy to capture. Their little hearts beating way faster than they already did every day, they agreed to all be hurriedly shoved into one cage, crammed together predators and victims, all answering to a higher call to survive..

In the house, they were separated once again. With the tree guys and the insurance people called and all having done their jobs…life went on. Life went on… Forever, I knew what too much rain can do.

The writer Anne Dillard thinks a church should be a dangerous place, a zone of risk, a place of new birth and new life, where we confront ourselves with who we truly are and who we are being called to become. She says a church ought to be a place where you need a hard hat.

Luckily, I have one.

Given to me years ago by a congregational president…during a particularly difficult transition in the church’s forward progress. I plan to put it in my office here. I may need it. You may need to borrow it.

I may need it when we aren’t sure what the future is going to bring. I may need it as a charm to wear when what feels like life-threatening harm has come to call, when you and I venture forth into dangerous areas. When there is an earth-shaking THUD. Or when I wrestle with all night as Jacob did. Or you do.

In the story Jacob, he asks for a blessing. He gets a new name and he receives a blessing. Yet he walks away from the hard night with a limp.

He asked for a blessing, he asked to be honored as special, as chosen, yet he left the encounter with a wound…a hip out of joint. He will have to live with that injury the rest of his life…

His name no longer Jacob, but Israel…

He went into the danger zone and came out wounded, yet transformed…

There is always pain in holy work. If there is no pain, if it is all easy and smooth and obsessively attending to the details is satisfying cause it keeps the chaos at bay…then one is likely standing at some distance, intellectualizing, observing, perhaps cataloging…. Taking a sampling taste of various religious traditions, perhaps casually visiting faith communities… testing the waters, but never really diving in… never wrestling…with meaning and purpose and ultimacy…

Who do you serve? To whom or for what are you in service? Is it fear?… or something else?

Engagement with the sacred, doing the kind of holy work that changes us into who we can be, who we ought to be, are meant to be ….is painful and often terrifying…It can, and often does, leave us wounded, yet transformed…broken and blessed. Yet, we know who we serve. We who go into the danger zone again and again,…into the holy place where there is brokenness and blessing…don’t need names.

Story after story in every religious tradition talks about this… what it is like to encounter the holy.

Reading about it, listening to other people’s stories is not good enough.

Debating the names of the holy is missing the point.

I have taught Bible courses to UU’s many times. I have said many times that I love studying the books about the Bible way more than studying the Bible itself.

I could say the same thing about the Bhagavad Gita. I love reading books about Hinduism, yet I have never traveled to India…for I am afraid.

I am a “study it from a distance” kind of learner, most of the time…

But not all the time.

If there is a life at stake, I will do my best to be fully present, engaged in doing what needs to be done….

If there is a congregation at risk, losing its way, forgetting who they are and why they exist and to whom they are in service….I will do my best to partner them back to right relationship with the holy.

In the story from Genesis, Jacob asks for a blessing, which he receives…and he receives a new name…

But he has yet to understand who or what he serves…

The man said to Jacob, why is it that you ask my name?

One wouldn’t have to ask, “who are you” if one was really in it…If one was living engaged with the divine, one would not ask, one would know.


Who or what calls out to you? With whom or with what do you wrestle? Who or what leaves you blessed and broken? …transformed?

Straightening the books on the shelf, staying in the office getting the flow chart just right, is not the kind of learning, engaging, wrestling with life’s meaning and purpose that real spiritual maturity demands.

One has to open the book, read the stories….hear your own story in the stories…learn to let life’s little nagging pains not worry you so much, not give straightening little things give you an insane sense of satisfaction, when SANITY and wholeness comes from doing the hard, deep, engagement with what calls you beyond pettiness and futility to LIFE…to solidarity with those who work for justice…into the love that creates true community, where risk and trust go together…

Sometimes you need a hardhat…

You can borrow mine…

– Rev. Ann Marie Alderman


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