Wrestling with 2020
October 6, 2020 by Rev. Dr. John Cleghorn
“The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping ….” Genesis 32:31
If, as in the Old Testament, we were to stack stones to mark our passage through the wilderness of the year 2020, what would our monument look like? If we were to name this strange “place” in our life’s journey, as Jacob did at Peniel, what name would we choose?
For surely, as with Jacob, we have wrestled here in 2020.
Out of nowhere, this pandemic leapt onto our back, changing everything about how we live and work. It disrupted all of our church norms. Pastors and their congregations have had to rethink and rebuild virtually every aspect of church life, a challenge for which none of us was trained. As long as the pandemic lingers, we must wrestle with it, adapt to it, wriggle out of its holds and not shrink from the bout.
But not just that. Our nation has wrestled, too, and us with it as people of faith. We’ve wrestled like never before with America’s original sin of racism, each in our own context. This opponent that lives within us, our systems and institutions demands a response, a reckoning, a change in our identity once and for all. As was demanded of Jacob, we must acknowledge our deceit against God and neighbor, repent of it, repair its damages and, then and only then, seek reconciliation.
This old story of Jacob wrestling all night with a mystery “man” speaks to us over and over again. The text says it is a man, but we know better. Jacob wrestled with God that night. After a lifetime of stumbling faith in God mingled with repeated deceit against humanity, Jacob had this reckoning coming.
Jacob also wrestled with himself and his identity as God’s servant leader. When the sun came up, the wrestling came to an end and Jacob was changed forever. God gave Jacob a new name, Israel, and Jacob walked with a limp afterward as a reminder that he would never get one over on the Lord.
As with Jacob, 2020 will not leave us the same. Its effects will linger. Yet, as with Jacob, we will go forward. This pandemic will leave us both humbled and reminded of what we, as the church, can overcome if we are flexible and don’t give up. With God’s help and our obedience, this reckoning with racial justice will change how we walk in all of the days to come, as it should.
On the morning after that long night, Jacob-turned-Israel walked with a limp, but Genesis 32:31 also tells us “the sun rose above him.”
On the morning after this long and trying year, what shall we name this place, this year, when we have struggled so long and yet walk toward God’s face in a rising sun?
Rev. Dr. John Cleghorn is pastor and head of staff at Caldwell Presbyterian Church, Charlotte, N.C. His book, Resurrection Church, will be released by Fortress Press in March 2021.