There have been very few people in my life who truly opened my mind to understand Scriptures. Walter Wink, who died May 10, 2012, was one of the best teachers who did just that. When I was 21, I went to my first 5-day intensive retreat with Walter as the teacher/facilitator at Kirkridge – a beautiful setting on top of a mountain in Pennsylvania. I entered the room where the group was meeting and discovered that the majority of the participants were over 40 and most of them were priests, pastors and professional church workers from different denominations. I was intimated and felt inadequate.
Walter immediately made me feel at ease. The gracious environment he created let me know that I was respected for who I was and what I could offer in the Bible-study sharing time. Having grown up as the youngest child in a Chinese family coupled with my immigrant experience, this experience of acceptance was new to me. I knew that in that room I could say whatever was on my mind and I would not be judged as inexperienced, too young, too naïve, too Chinese or stupid. By the third day, I felt such a high that there were springs in my feet as I skipped down the hill to breakfast praising God all the way. In my new-found blessedness, I made a commitment that I would dedicate my life to the ministry of inclusion. From now on, I would accept everyone, love everyone, and welcome everyone. Like most 21-year-olds, I was very idealistic.
That morning, Walter invited us to read the story of Jacob wrestling with a stranger (popularly known as an angel) until daybreak as he anticipated meeting his older brother Esau for the first time after he had stolen Esau’s birthright years ago. (Genesis 32:22-32) As a way of getting more in touch with the story, he invited us to find a partner. In our pair, one of us would role-play the “angel” and the other would play Jacob. The one who played Jacob was to ask the angel for a blessing by saying “Bless me!”, and the one who played the angel would resist giving the blessing for as long as possible. The one who played Jacob would persist in this request, and could use physical force if so desired.
I was sitting next to a man named Paul (I have changed the name to protect his identity unless he wants to be identified). He was in his 40s and had had polio at birth. I had seen him navigate the slopes and hills around the retreat center on crutches. I realized that morning that I had not had a real conversation with this man. In retrospect, I might have been unconsciously avoiding any real contact with him because of my being uncomfortable with his disability. I felt awkward and a little ashamed as Walter gave the instructions for this intriguing exercise. I did not know what to do with the dissonance between my new commitment to be inclusive and my uneasiness with him as a disabled person.
After Walter finished the instructions, Paul looked up at me and said, “I guess I’m your partner.” I smiled uneasily. “How on earth am I going to wrestle this guy?” I screamed silently.
“Why don’t you be the angel first?” he said, as he stood up with the help of his crutches and faced me.
“Okay,” I replied, without the slightest idea of what I was going to do. Now I was to bless this guy!
He looked at me in the eyes and threw his crutches away. With his arms outstretched in front, he started to fall toward me. “Bless me,” he said.
My hands instinctively moved up to catch his hands as I felt his weight pushing me. I pushed back saying, “No.”
“Bless me!” he said again with more force. I could not support his weight anymore, and we both fell on the carpeted floor. “NO!” I shouted as I fell.
I felt his calloused hands squeezing my fingers. His strong arms and shoulders worked together pushing me as he shouted, “Bless me!”
“NO!” I screamed without thinking what this exercise was about. I just needed to say “no.” I could not accept him with his disability. I was uncomfortable with being around him. I could not bless him.
We tussled on the floor for quite some time with him yelling “Bless me” and my replying “No!” many times. And finally, in exhaustion, I stopped pushing and he did the same and our bodies, like magnets, came together – I held him tight and he, me. I didn’t remember saying “I bless you” to him but I believed he got my message in our embrace. I did remember feeling blessed by him however. In our wrestling with each other, our roles reversed. I, who was playing the role of the one to give the blessing, ended up being the one who needed his blessing the most.
When we became aware of our surroundings again, the rest of the retreat participants were standing over us. They had finished their exercise a long time ago and were watching how we would resolve our wrestling on the floor. When we finally got up from the floor with their help, they applauded. (I first wrote down this experience in my book, The Word at the Crossings: Living the Good News in a Multi-contextual Community.)
In the crossing, when we think we are the one who is giving the blessing, or offering the healing or being helpful, we might discover that we are instead the one who is in need of healing, blessing, and help. At the beginning of the retreat, I felt like a powerless person. But through the acceptance of Walter and the other retreat-goers, I experienced the joy of empowerment and blessings. In my blessed state, I felt free and empowered, with the feeling that “I can do anything I want.” In my blessedness, I was shocked to discover that I was not living up to what I thought I should be – to be able to love and accept everyone. In my confusion at the crossing, I was not only wrestling physically with my disabled partner; I was wrestling with my own angel. It was as if there were two parts of myself — the part that knew I was good and blessed, and the other part that realized that I was fallen and in need of redemption. (Walter Wink in his later writings wrote about this idea of our angel who are blessed, fallen and in need of redemption at the same time.) As the two parts of myself wrestled — the fallen-me struggled to gain acceptance, while the blessed-me resisted blessing the fallen-me — my internal struggles were physically expressed through my wrestling with Paul. In spite of my imperfection, I was still accepted and loved. In that way I received a blessing through him. I recognized that this struggle between the blessed-me and the fallen-me would be a lifelong struggle. Like Jacob who went away limping because of a dislocated hip during the wrestling, I walked away from my wrestling with an acknowledged disability within myself – my inability to fully and faithfully follow God. This imperfection served as a daily reminder that to be faithful to God, I would need to wrestle with my own internal angel and the angels of our communities and institutions around me.
Thank you Walter for providing a place for me to wrestle, for creating processes that give me the hope of redemption in my struggle between what I am called to be and how I have fallen short to accomplish that, for opening the faithful way for me to be in the world but not belong to the world.
(In memory of Walter Wink 1935-2012, my friend and mentor.)
Invite members of your community to gather and explore their blessedness:
Reflection Questions for 7th Sunday of Easter (Year B)
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
1 John 5:9-13
Eric H. F. Law
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