Quincy Brown: At the Crossing

I played football in high school. I was a starter for the varsity team, but I wasn’t very good. I knew all the plays on offense and defense. I was strong, fast, and loved the game. But there was something that prohibited me from excelling on the gridiron.

During most of my playing time, I was laughed at by my teammates for assignments that I missed. And by the time we entered the regional playoffs, I was benched. This happened every year during playoff time in October. And during my senior year, I secretly hoped that we would lose games, thinking that this would be the end of things and that I’d never have to return to this experience again. But we went undefeated that year and went to the playoffs again. And, like the previous years that I played, we lost our first playoff game. And finally, it was over. The laughing chapter of my life was over and buried underneath the 50-yard line, or at least I thought it was.

Fast forward to 35 years later when I received an invitation to attend a surprise celebration honoring my high school football coach, and I was transported back to the 50-yard line, where my high school football career was exhumed. I was faced with reliving the unearthed memories of the laughter from my teammates. I was at a crossing moment, the in-between place of what used to be and what could be. But I couldn’t see what could be because I was struggling with what used to be, reliving everything I thought I had left behind.

It took me a couple of days, and eventually I sent in my reservation to attend. But secretly I was wrestling with going back. I was afraid of what I would face when my old teammates got back together again. Would they laugh at me? Would they return to memory lane with stories of my failures on the field? I was struggling with emptying the old memories that shaped me. I was stuck at crossing my own Jabbok River, facing my greatest fear.

In our Bible lesson for today, we find Jacob, the trickster grabbing at heels to deceive, stuck at his crossing moment at the Jabbok River. Twenty years earlier, he ran away from home after bribing his older brother Esau out of his inheritance and blessing. And Esau held a grudge against Jacob and vowed to kill him. Now Jacob wants to return home. He stands at a crossing moment. He is struggling with facing a vengeful Esau again.

Always trying to get the upper hand, Jacob sends messengers with gifts to pave the way. The messengers return and report that Esau is coming towards Jacob with four hundred men. Jacob cannot scheme his way out this time. He is stuck. In front of him is his greatest fear; behind him is his past that haunted him: the lies, the deception, and the stolen blessing. Jacob is alone. He has emptied himself of things that protected him. He sent all of his wealth, possessions, and family to meet Esau. And now he struggles with emptying himself of the old fears that haunted him, standing at the Jabbok, the river whose name means “to empty itself.”

Facing our fears always brings us to the edge of the Jabbok: the emptying of ourselves, our identity, security, possessions, and positions. We each have our own Jabbok that we must cross alone. Jacob is alone and wrestles with God until daybreak. When God saw that Jacob would not give up, God dislocated Jacob’s hip and blessed him.

Jacob had to empty himself at the Jabbok and wrestle with God, and God didn’t seem to mind going to the mat with Jacob for several hours to bring him to his knees. And as hard as it is for me to admit, I wouldn’t say I like that God doesn’t mind wrestling with us and going to the mat to bring us to our knees. I wouldn’t say I like being pinned to the mat and having to surrender. I would much rather that God declares me the winner and blesses me without the struggle. That is, until I realize that “to wrestle” in Hebrew means “to get dusty and dirty.”

So, like Jacob, we wrestle with a God willing to “become dirty” to lift us out of the dirty messes of life that we create. During our muddy wrestling matches, we are blessed and wounded with a name change and a limp when daybreak comes. We see God face to face, and we receive a blessing.

Jacob’s name is no longer the deceiver, the heel-catcher. He is renamed and reborn. He is now Israel, who struggles with and prevails against God. We no longer must be independent agents, the GOAT (the Greatest Of All Time), Superman, or Wonder Woman, who endure through our strength. But we become Peniel, people who wrestle with God face to face and receive new life. Like Jacob, we cannot defeat God, but we can endure. We can stay in the struggle until a new day and receive the blessing.

In the middle of wrestling, the pain of being wounded and walking with a limp, it’s hard to see or trust the presence of a blessing. It’s too dark to see and, like Jacob, we may not know that God is present, wrestling with us, encouraging us to empty ourselves and depend on him so that our Jabbok will soon give way to Peniel. A new day is dawning, and there is a blessing for you. It doesn’t mean that things will end happily ever after, but it does mean that God is faithful. And it means that God doesn’t mind getting dirty to lift us out of the mud and dirt of life’s difficulties so that we can cross over to a new identity.

I experienced this firsthand with my old high school football team when we met that Saturday in October. I was surprised to see some 50 former players who had played for the coach over his 20 years of coaching. Instead of laughing at me, my former teammates accepted me as one of the team. We surprised Coach with a long line of former players. Coach greeted me when it was my time, saying, “Rev. Quincy Brown, I’ve followed your entire career and am so proud of you.”

Now that I’m on the other side, it seems silly to worry about what someone would bring up about me that happened over 30 years ago. But at the time, it didn’t seem silly; I was stuck. When we get stuck at a crossing, wrestling with what used to be, it isn’t easy to see what might be. We’re stuck in the dirt and mud of our Jabbok and desperately holding on to any hope of a blessing or relief to our struggle.

Before with our coach, I wrestled with which teammates would attend. I anticipated how I might be triggered by a story that would eventually come around to me missing an assignment and other teammates laughing at me. I emptied myself to hold on to God’s promise of being with me. My Jabbok gave way to Peniel, and I was no longer the butt of my teammates’ jokes and laughter, but was given a new identity as a valuable teammate. I was blessed and emerged with a limp from my encounter. My limp wasn’t a physical one, but a spiritual and emotional one where I had to be dropped to my knees to depend on God’s strength and power to face what could’ve been a humiliating experience.

During all my conversations with teammates, I whispered this prayer: “God, I trust you. Please show me the way through.” Long after that experience, I still walk with a spiritual limp, and I must depend on God for future Jabbok crossing moments. I wrestle with God to empty myself and be brought to the ground to pray, “God, I trust you. Please show me the way through.”