*Content Warning: Racism, Racist Slurs
“The Struggle Itself”
Genesis 32:22-30; Acts 2:1-4
By Rev. Don Ludwig, May 31, 2020
Wrestling with Zachariah Taylor in 1990
Many years ago, when I was substitute teaching in Sandpoint, Idaho, I was called in to teach Physical Education classes for sophomores and juniors. The teacher gave me strict instructions to have the students work on their weight lifting and not to go in the gymnastics room. So that is what I told the class. About halfway through the period, however, a half dozen students went into the gymnastics room. I proceeded to explain to them why they were not allowed to be in there. But then I decided to offer them a challenge: if anyone could beat me in a wrestling match, then the whole class could do whatever they desired. I had wrestled before, knew some secret moves, and appeared to be stronger than the students in the class.
Well, the class chose a student who was pretty scrawny-looking; I was about 10-15 pounds heavier than him. I was sure to win. I immediately took off my tie and started to get in a wrestling stance with the student. By now everyone in the class, including some from other classes, had come over to watch the wrestling match. We circled each other a few times, and then it happened. In less than 8 seconds I was flat on my back and this student had me in a half-nelson; from which I could not move. All of the spectators began counting to three. I was pinned! I was humiliated… until that is… I was told just whom I had been wrestling! Zachariah Taylor. A sophomore and the Idaho State wrestling champion for two years in a row. He had taken third in the National Competition and was preparing for the ’96 Olympics. Go figure!
Jacob Wrestles with God
In our Old Testament story today, we find a very nervous Jacob about to meet his estranged brother, Esau. He had been gone from his hometown for 14 years and he was worried that his brother had not forgiven him for cheating him out of his birthright. When he gets to the river where his brother is on the other side, Jacob starts scheming. He sends presents over to his brother. He then sends his wives and children
And there he sat alone… waiting — anguished by the silence. We share Jacob’s lonely retreat too often. For many of us today, this pandemic is a never-ending nightmare. We struggle with the unknown — with so many uncertainties and incompetent leaders and unsolvable problems. And we feel alone. But here’s the crazy thing: Jacob was not alone. Something moved in the shadows. Someone challenges him from the night. Someone even comes close to him, grabs hold of him and wrestles him to the ground. “Who are you?” shouts Jacob. But the stranger is silent. “Who are you?” we cry with Jacob. But in our heart of hearts, we know the answer. It is the Spirit of God, who refuses to let us go, who races after us when we are running away, who wrestles with us throughout the night. Jacob discovers that his problems with his brother did not really matter anymore. God wasn’t out to punish or take his life away from him. God was there to transform Jacob into something new—something more than he knew was possible. It was the struggle itself, not winning or losing, that gave him a sense of joy and a reason to continue.
Struggles are often long…
Sometimes we view transformation as an event instead of a process of perseverance. We want to win the struggle and be done with it. We want it to happen now. Especially in our “me” culture. And yet, so much of what we know to be true about life is grounded in seeing the big picture — the long game. So much of life requires us to have a tenacity — a determination — a stick-to-it-iveness that is only realized in a long struggle that seemingly has no end.
- Like this pandemic and the heartfelt concern we have for those who are most impacted with very little that you can do about it.
- Like caring for a parent or spouse or loved one, as they age, or caring for a child as they go through difficulties.
- Like working for peace and justice when it is one step forward and two steps back
- Like seeing the simplest act of caring by wearing a mask these days — being used to divide people into red and blue teams.
- Like yet another story of a black man, this time by the name of George Floyd, being murdered in plain daylight by police officers who falsely claim they were being threatened.
Take Sisyphus for example
For Jacob, and for all of us, the light at the end of the tunnel can be so dim. Transformation often requires us doing something despite its difficulty or despite delay in achieving success. I am reminded of Sisyphus — the character from Greek mythology who is condemned by the gods to roll a boulder up a mountain, only to watch the rock roll back down again… and to repeat that climb… over and over… forever. No finishing the task. No result. An eternity of meaningless effort and suffering.
Albert Camus, the famous existential philosopher, painted a different picture of Sisyphus. It is worth considering. Camus argues that, though it may confound our linear hope for progress and fly in the face of our urge to make a difference, Sisyphus was happy and fulfilled.
Now hear him out. Perhaps the climb up that mountain becomes more comfortable over time. Perhaps the muscles that once strained under the weight of the rock now easily control it. It could happen. Perhaps Sisyphus began to move the rock gracefully so that the act of pushing it became an art. Not suffering. “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a [person’s] heart,” writes Camus. “We must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
The struggle itself is a source of joy
The struggle itself can be a source of joy. That idea is a real challenge for me. I don’t want an endless task. I want to win the wrestling match and be done with it. I want this pandemic to be over as much as anyone. And I get frustrated by the slow pace of change and the setbacks.
When I was visiting a member of the church on FaceTime this past week, I was asked: “How do you do it, Don? How do you remain positive with all that is going on around us?” Well, truth be told, there are also times when I think about walking away from that boulder. There are times I want to give up and let myself be pinned to the mat. Just two days ago, I received an email from a Black student in my Social Justice class at Clark, it reads: “With everything going on in the country I don’t have the strength to write my final paper about racism anymore, as I am currently living in it right now. Last night while walking my dog I was called a N***** by a car driving by. Just another reminder of a racist country with a racist President. I am really struggling with the death of Mr. Floyd right now. Any inspiration is welcome.”
So many of us are feeling depleted. I told my student that although I have never experienced racism personally, my heart breaks with him. I told him that what helps me is the reminder that nothing worth a salt in this life comes easy. It is not easy remaining steadfast. Not easy in our personal lives. Not easy in our efforts for equity and fairness. Not easy when the needs are endless or when progress is slow and when setbacks far too many.
It helps me to be centered not only on success but, as Wendell Berry wrote, on “preserving qualities in one’s own heart… that would be destroyed by acquiescence.” It helps me to be inspired by a vision of the Beloved Community and a strong sense that, like Jacob, I am not alone. Knowing that the struggle itself can be a source of joy and peace.
I find myself reading a lot more Black literature lately. Something I did not know was that Maya Angelou had planned a big party for her 40th birthday on April 4th, 1968 — does that day ring a bell with any of you? — the day Dr. King was assassinated. She went into a deep depression which lasted weeks. She wrote: “The times were so solemn and the daily news so somber.” It would have been an easy choice for her to give up.
But then she focused on the people around her — the community she belonged to — and the history of how African Americans have experienced transformation in the past. She later wrote: “We survived slavery… you know how we survived? We put surviving into our poems and into our songs. We put it into our folk tales. We danced surviving… and put it in our pots when we cooked pinto beans. We knew, if we wanted to survive, we had better lift our own spirits. So we laughed whenever we got the chance.”
The Spirit of God is With Us
Nothing good in life comes easy, said Theodore Roosevelt. Actually his full quote is much more substantial. He said “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”
I can imagine Jacob that night being afraid — but ever so content that he was in the right place. I see him walking down to the river the next morning. He’s limping but we will not forget that night. He’ll always be reminded of the struggles that tore him apart, and the wrestling that put him back together. In the midst of the struggle, we come away as Jacob did, closer and deeper and with a greater strength for the journey than we ever had before.
And I see Sisyphus looking our way too — smiling — yes, smiling. Knowing that the boulders of our lives serve only to deepen our experience and ground us into the fortitude that is within us. In fact, that is what Pentecost is all about, don’t you think? In the midst of our struggles, we are accompanied by the Spirit that comes alongside us — giving us hope to continue and confidence to meet any challenge we face.
Years ago, it was a young, scrawny 14-year old kid from Sandpoint High School who pinned me down to a mat in 8 seconds, embarrassing me into the realization that my own strength was not sufficient. Eight seconds was like a lifetime. And so it has been for me. Throughout my life, I have experienced struggles with myself… my own limitations… my own imperfections. Currently, I struggle with helplessness in the face of so much need — and with our self-serving leaders that only care about their egos — and with a world that is becoming desensitized to death and racial bigotry. I struggle. The boulders in life seem to keep getting bigger and the mountains steeper.
But then I remember that transformation never happens quickly. I look to history and I am reminded that nothing good comes easy — and I recommit to this thing called life for the long haul. And Like Jacob, I realize that the Spirit of God is with me — and joy is ultimately discovered — in the struggle itself.