June 9, 2013 – Thompson Memorial Chapel, Williams College
Reflections by Emily Rose (Martin) Proctor ’03
Genesis 32:3-6, 22-31
3 Jacob sent messengers before him to his brother Esau
in the land of Seir, the country of Edom, 4instructing them,
‘Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: Thus says your servant Jacob,
“I have lived with Laban as an alien, and stayed until now;
5and I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, male and female slaves;
and I have sent to tell my lord,
in order that I may find favor in your sight.” ’
6 The messengers returned to Jacob, saying,
‘We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you,
and four hundred men are with him.’
22 The same night he 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.
24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.
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.’
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.’
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. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’
31The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel,
limping because of his hip.
I have been looking forward to this, my 10-year reunion for a long time now. I couldn’t wait to return to this beautiful landscape, reconnect with old friends and maybe even make some new ones, and introduce my husband in a deeper way to this chapter of my life. When we found out earlier this spring that we’d be moving from Baltimore to Jacksonville…oh, last week… cancelling was not an option.
But reunions aren’t always happy occasions. They also have a reputation for stirring up all kinds of deep-seated anxieties, bitterness or regrets, or for tempting us to regress to our adolescent selves in ways that are less than becoming. Maybe no one knew this better than Jacob, on his way home for the first time for what you might call his 20th.
On Friday I had the pleasure of attending a discussion about the Supreme Court led by my classmate who is now a professor here at Williams, and I was struck by the familiar feeling that maybe I wasn’t smart enough to be here. I remember that feeling well from fourteen years ago—sitting in a lecture or looking over the assigned reading list and secretly wondering if I had been the recipient of an affirmative action policy for applicants from the state of Alabama.
But who wouldn’t be a little insecure when granted the privilege of sitting at the other end of the log with some of the best minds in the country?
None of us exactly received the blessing of this education because we deserved it but neither was it an accident that we had been admitted.
Jacob, on the other hand, basically plagiarized his way into to receiving his father’s blessing, and made a mortal enemy of his brother Esau in the process. You can bet that a reunion with his brother, even twenty years later, was not something Jacob was looking forward to.
He may have two wives, two maidservants, and eleven children to show off. He even made a pre-emptive gift of goats, sheep, camels, cows and donkeys that might have rivaled some of the donations made by the great classes of ‘88 and ’63. But as some of us may have already learned, the heart cannot be won nor old wounds healed in quite the same way that one wins recognition by the Williams College Society of Alumni.
You should know that the first time Jacob encountered the living God, he was leaving—no, fleeing his childhood home—perhaps like some of us did by coming here. Jacob with the help of what today might be called a helicopter parent had tried to secure his future and a blessing in the only way he thought was open to him, but it turned out to be more costly than either of them probably had anticipated.
And yet, in the midst of his flight, the Lord appears to him in a dream, and instead of chastising him for lying to his father and making an enemy of his brother, the Lord promises to be with him on his journeys, to bless all the families of the earth through him and his children, and to one day bring him back to the place that feels like home. Upon waking, the young Jacob’s response to this unexpected experience of blessing is, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!”
I don’t know how it was for you, but God was the last person this born-and-raised Presbyterian expected to encounter when I showed up to Williams fourteen years ago. I’d already begun weaning myself off Christianity at the Alabama School of Math and Science, and I thought I was prepared for the secular haven that Williams seemed to be. I mean, if you were smart enough to get into Williams, you were probably too smart to be too religious, right?
Thankfully some of my first friends at Williams were Jewish, and unlike me, they weren’t going to let a little doubt get in the way of a good practice. It wasn’t too long before I found myself in the Jewish Religious Center on a Friday evening, chopping garlic and onion before services. After a couple of times being assigned this eye-watering task, I jokingly asked, “Do you always make the goy chop the garlic and onion?”
“Yep,” someone said, and tossed me an onion.
Maybe I was in need of a good cry, because I kept coming back. The services and community at the JRC felt strangely like home. It wasn’t long before I learned my first bit of Hebrew (“Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu, melech ha-olam”)—little did I know then how that would come in handy the first few days of Introduction to Biblical Hebrew in seminary. And when they passed the challah around and the tiny cups of wine, I couldn’t help but feel part of the family. More than anything, I remember the welcome—the way I was invited again and again to meals and services, not as a potential convert, but simply as a friend. I look back now and it is so clear to me—surely the Lord, the God of my ancestors, was in that place, and I did not know it.
I didn’t know it until the summer between my first and second years. If you want to hear the long version, see me after the service, but suffice it to stay that I had a life-changing encounter with the-Jesus-I-didn’t-believe-in at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Long Beach, CA, that summer of 2000. Ironically, when I tell Presbyterians that I had a conversion experience at the General Assembly, they are as shocked as if I told you I had one in the Field House or the Mission Dining Hall. But as far as I was from either of those places, Williams was very much present in the person of the newly hired chaplain, Rick Spalding, who just also happened to be a Presbyterian minister commissioner from Boston.
If my first encounter with God at Williams went practically unrecognized by me at the time, the second was much more like being thrown unexpectedly into the ring with a stranger, who is either trying to bear hug you or put your hip out of joint—it was hard to tell. The Christ I met that summer said “whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me.” The Christ I met that summer said, “Here I am, OUTSIDE the church, what are you going to do about it?”
My experience at that General Assembly convinced me that I needed to look into the issue of sexuality, and what the Bible and my own faith tradition had to say about it, if I was going to make any sense of this Jesus character and what he had to do with real life.
And that was when I began to really appreciate the kind of place that Williams was—not a particularly Christian place maybe, but a pretty amazing place for wrestling with questions of identity, community, meaning and… well, as it turned out, God!
It was a place where you could sit down with your dining hall tray across the table from a professor, or in my case, the chaplain, to talk about the kinds of things that didn’t always make it into a classroom discussion—like for instance, the Presbyterian Book of Confessions, and no, not the sexy kind of confession. I’m talking about the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Theological Declaration of Barmen, the Scots Confession…I know, Rick couldn’t believe I wanted to read them either.
Williams was, and I think, still is a place where if you didn’t find what you were looking for, you were encouraged to be part of creating it, as some friends and I did with a progressive Christian group called “The Feast.” The winter study program encouraged the kind of independent learning that allowed me to explore something like the Sexuality and the Presbyterian Church, that while it didn’t do much for me as an English major, it laid the foundation for some of my most meaningful ministry encounters. The existence of create-your-own-experience opportunities like the BiGLATA Internship and the Watson Fellowship allowed me to explore my faith and my questions in uniquely incarnational ways and gave me my first real taste of ministry.
I didn’t go to the Friday Alumni seminar on “The Value of a Liberal Arts Education Today,” but I certainly have experienced it. I had no idea that when I signed up as a sophomore to give tours at the Williams College Museum of Art, that one day I would be using those skills to help South African kids affected by HIV talk about their experiences. Or that the experience of playing intramural soccer would better enable me to connect with local Salvadorans on a mission trip. Or that the mental illnesses I learned about in “abnormal psych” would soon have so many faces and stories attached to them from my congregation—
In fact I’ve since thought that class should be re-named because there’s nothing unusual or abnormal about mental illness—I don’t know any family that isn’t touched by it. Who knew that Professor Raab’s poetry writing classes would prove better preparation for preaching and writing liturgy than any I would take in seminary. Or that my African drumming classes would be the envy of my colleagues as our congregations try to live into the reality of a global church.
In hindsight, I think Williams, with its focus on the liberal arts, it’s incredible offering of extra-curricular opportunities, and its encouragement of creativity and the independent pursuit of knowledge, might have been the perfect training ground for encountering the God I have come to know in Jesus Christ. A God, whose very name is comprised of the most unpredictable Hebrew letters, and whose favorite thing might be a toss up between a good surprise and a wrestling match.
Over and over again, Williams and its professors taught me that a good idea was worth wrestling with. Over and over again, Williams taught me to grab hold of life, in all its strangeness, and demand a blessing. And that’s of course what Jacob does.
It’s interesting, though. All the translations agree that Jacob leaves his divine encounter limping, but the verse describing the divine stranger’s departure from Jacob can be translated two ways. The New Revised Standard Version translates it, “And there he blessed him.” The Jewish Publication Society’s Study Bible translates it, “And he took leave of him there.” So I guess it’s up to us to decide whether or not we’ve been blessed or just had our hip put out of joint.
After ten years, I am amazed to think back about how all I experienced here opened for me what was to come—and all I can say is “surely the Lord was in is this place!” I know that I have been blessed by this place, and by the holy strangers I encountered here, many of whom continue to bless me. Although no meaningful encounter is risk free, and no institution or person without it’s flaws, my hope is that we all have, in our own way, been blessed in our wrestling, and will continue to be for generations to come. Amen.