Limping in the Dawn

AColyte

August 28, 2020

A Journal of Faith, Doubt, and Other Things

at Austin College

Limping in the Dawn

AColyte

A Journal of Faith, Doubt, and Other Things at Austin College

Rev. John Williams, Ph.D., Editor

900 N. Grand Ave.

Suite 61647

Sherman, TX 75090

903.813.2220

jwilliams@austincollege.edu

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WHAT IS THE AColyte

AND WHY DO I HAVE ONE?

Welcome to the first edition of the AColyte for the 2020-21 school year. 

This journal is intended to provide a forum for the Austin College community to discuss theological issues and keep up with what’s going on in our various Religious Life programs. 

We operate with a fairly broad definition of theology around here.  As far as we’re concerned, anybody who spends time thinking about which things matter more than other things is a theologian. 

That probably even includes you.

The use of the term “AColyte” for our title is based on our hope that, like an acolyte who lights candles in a worship service, we can also be “bringers of light,” or “bringers of flame,” or instruments to help “lighten things up.”  If nothing else, we can promise to provide ample opportunities to practice the virtues of patience and forgiveness.

Feel free to reply if you have questions or comments or corrections.

TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN…

Wynne Chapel

Starting my 28th Year

With a mask within reach

Same as it ever was.

–David Byrne

Everything is different now.

–Don Henley

I woke up at 5:00am on January 17. 

I was in Inverness, Scotland with 18 Austin College students and (AC A Cappella Choir Director) Wayne Crannell.  I had to come home early to get ready for the Grace Presbytery Senior High Youth Connection—a big Presbyterian Youth Conference that takes place on our campus every year between Jan Term and the Spring semester.

So I caught a 7:00am flight from Inverness to London.  When I got to London, I took a plane to Philadelphia, laid over for a couple hours, and then took another plane from Philadelphia to DFW.  Then I drove from DFW Airport back home to Sherman.

That was a long day.

Twenty-three hours—by myself and among strangers at the same time. 

Twenty-three hours from the time I woke up in Inverness until I got to my own bed in Sherman.

I read a lot.

I listened to a lot of music.

I completed about 100 levels on Wordscapes—a Crossword puzzle game on my phone.

And I spent a lot of that airplane time dreaming and imagining and thinking about some things that were coming up in 2020 that I was really looking forward to.

Last Fall, Austin College completely renovated Wynne Chapel and I was excited about dedicating and using the Grum Sanctuary and the Sallie Majors Chapel in all kinds of old and new ways with our students and our community in the Spring semester.

This year (2020) also marks the 25th Anniversary of the founding of the Austin College ACtivators program.  Over the last quarter century that program has involved hundreds of Austin College students who have done all sorts of ministry all over the country.  We had some great services and parties organized to celebrate that anniversary by lifting up and celebrating those students.

And on a purely personal and trivial note, The Tone Deaf Cowboys—a group of college friends who I have been playing music with for over 35 years—were set to release a CD and take a little vacation tour to New Mexico and Colorado this summer and play some shows.  That was gonna be so cool.

I had a lot to be excited about as I flew all day on January 17.

Now here we are on August 28, and none of that has happened. 

None of it (well, almost none of it—we do have CDs for sale now).

I kind of feel like I got ambushed.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few weeks processing all that and trying to get my head around how to go forward. 

And—as I’ve done that—I keep thinking about this story from the Book of Genesis  in the Bible: Genesis 32:22-31.

It’s a story makes me think about the difference between how I thought the world was on January 17 and what it has actually been in the last six months.

It’s a complicated story about unexpected struggle.

After a couple introductory verses, verse 24 says, kind of matter-of-factly,

24Jacob was left alone;

and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.

There’s no warning. 

All of a sudden this wrestling match just breaks out.

I think I know what that feels like.  Our individual lives and our common life in 2020 are like Jacob’s story—they are complicated stories about unexpected struggle.

Coronavirus and the COVID-19 pandemic have involved a myriad of different struggles for all of us as we face real and serious concerns about our own health, the health of our loved ones, the health of our most vulnerable neighbors, and the prospect of continuing life at Austin College in safe and meaningful ways.

There are struggles and discord and disagreement within our society—and on this campus—about how we can live responsibly and lovingly together in the face of this pandemic.

This summer, there have also been real and serious conversations in our culture—and on this campus—about Black Lives Matter and social issues related to institutional racism.

These are essential and appropriate conversations for us all.

And they’re hard.

And all of these conversations are taking place in the context of unprecedented and largely unexpected struggles.

I can definitely identify with Jacob—I think we all can. 

We didn’t necessarily expect this much struggle right now.  We had other things on our minds. 

But here we are.

As we face the individual and common struggles that are part of our lives today, I invite you to look at this moment in our life together through the lens of the story of Jacob wrestling with whomever it is that he wrestles in Genesis 32.

I think there are 3 relevant lessons for us in this story—three things in there that can help us find meaning and make sense of our own season of struggle.

The First Lesson is that this struggle—these struggles—will mark us.

The story begins with these verses.

22The same night [Jacob] got up and took his two wives,

his two maids,

and his eleven children,

and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.

23He took them and sent them across the stream,

and likewise everything that he had.

Earlier in Genesis 32, Jacob prepares to meet his estranged brother Esau.  He’s got his whole family with him, but he sends them across the river to safety.

24Jacob was left alone;

and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.

To be honest, that’s pretty weird.

There’s no context for this.

It’s entirely unexpected.

In the middle of this ongoing drama about how Jacob might be able to reconcile with the brother whose birthright he stole, we suddenly get this Hulk Hogan moment where some man shows up and wrestles with Jacob all night.

Nobody expected that.

Did you expect COVID?

Did you expect George Floyd to be murdered?

Did you expect to know about it?

Did you expect that we’d still be dealing with COVID in August?

Did you expect the outpouring of rage, hope, protest, engagement, and positive change that have arisen in the wake of George Floyd’s death?

Do you ever wake up at night thinking about these things? 

Do you wrestle with how to live faithfully and responsibly amidst these unexpected struggles?

Do you occasionally lie awake worrying about issues and questions that we can’t simply ignore and walk away from?

I sure do.

At least to me, this story from Genesis 32 doesn’t just feel like some irrelevant tale from a long time ago and a long way from here.

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25When 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 with him.

Jacob gets hurt as he wrestles.

We know from the ending of the story that he will limp from now on. 

Jacob’s experience wrestling the man will mark him forever.  He never completely goes back to the way he was before.       

And that’s true about all of us.

I pray to God that this COVID moment will end soon. 

My prayers go out for all who have suffered or lost loved ones to this terrible disease. 

And we lift prayers of gratitude for all who care for COVID patients and for all who are earnestly working to develop treatments and a vaccine.

But, even as those prayers are answered and the threat of this disease is minimized or eliminated, we can never go back to “normal.”

There is no normal to go back to.

We shouldn’t want to go back to “normal” if “normal” is what led to these struggles in the first place.

We can’t—and we shouldn’t—pretend that we don’t know the things that we’ve learned about ourselves and each other in the last few months.

Like Jacob, we all will be forever marked by this struggle.

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As we go further into the story, there’s another relevant lesson for us in Jacob’s experience.

25When 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 with him.

26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.”

Now, all of a sudden, the man who was wrestling Jacob is ready to quit.

But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”

Jacob doesn’t want to quit.

He wants a blessing.

27So he said to him, “What is your name?”

And he said, “Jacob.”

28Then the man said,

“You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,

for you have striven with God and with humans,

and have prevailed.”

29Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.”

But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?”

And there he blessed him.

We’re gonna talk about Jacob’s new name in a minute, but first we need to look at this “blessing” business.

It’s not clear at all what that blessing is, or what it means.

It’s a blessing that Jacob asks for in verse 26 and receives in verse 29.  But what difference does that blessing make in Jacob’s life or in his story?

I wonder if he might be asking for help, and sustenance, and energy, as he contemplates his life beyond that struggle on the riverbank.

When the man asks to be released, Jacob says, essentially, “not until you promise to help me.”

It seems as though Jacob recognizes that he can’t survive the struggle by himself.  He’s looking for all the help he can get.

If there’s a blessing for us in this story, I think it’s the similar recognition that we can’t do what we need to do by ourselves.  We also need help—we need each other—as we strive together to live faithfully in the midst of the struggle.

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And that’s why it’s a big deal that Jacob gets a new name in this story.

26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.”

But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”

27So he said to him, “What is your name?”

And he said, “Jacob.”

28Then the man said,

“You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,

for you have striven with God and with humans,

and have prevailed.”

The text tells us that Jacob gets his new name, “Israel,” because he has “striven with God and with humans and … prevailed.”

So “Israel” might mean, “the one who wrestles against God and humans and has prevailed.”  But it can also be interpreted to mean “the one who wrestles—or struggles—alongside God.”

Similarly, although “prevailing” might mean that Jacob won the wrestling match, I don’t see how that’s particularly helpful or consistent with the rest of the Bible.  There are no other biblical stories about God losing battles or contests to people.

It would also be appropriate to interpret Jacob’s new name, “Israel” to mean something like “the one who strives alongside God and persists.”

That makes a lot more sense in this context and certainly feels more relevant to our own lives.

Understood in that way, we can see that that,

  • just as Jacob is marked by his struggle with the man on the riverbank, and
  • just as he is blessed and helped and empowered and nourished in this struggle,
  • Jacob is also recognized and endorsed as a partner who strives alongside God.

I think that’s a good way for us to think about this story in the context of our life together right here and right now.

Like Jacob, we can all expect to be permanently marked and affected by the unexpected struggles in which we currently find ourselves.

Like him, we should seek and expect help and blessing and nourishment as we strive to live faithfully together in this particular context.

And, also like Jacob, we should realize that our story is not over.  It is just beginning.

This story from Genesis is not the end of Israel’s story, it is the beginning of a new chapter; a new era.

The last verse of this story from Genesis says

31The sun rose upon [Jacob] as he passed Penuel,

limping because of his hip.

Jacob’s—Israel’s—story with God does not end when the wrestling match is over . . . when the struggle subsides.  It’s only just beginning.

And that’s how it is with us.

We will be marked by our current struggles.

We will be blessed and helped and nourished as we strive to live faithfully together and do the work that we have committed to do.

And our story is not nearing its end.  It is only just beginning.

We will never be the same.

We will never go back.

We don’t have to do it by ourselves.

Our story continues.

Our common call and opportunity in this moment of struggle is to go limping together into the dawn of a new academic year—a new season where we can learn together how to serve this troubled and struggling world.

It is important and sacred work.

We can’t do it by ourselves.

But this is our time.

Let’s get after it.

Until Next Time, I remain,

Just Another Cowboy Preacher,

Glad to have Found a Biblical Warrant for Limping,

JOHN WILLIAMS

Chaplain

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