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Thermocline of Grace

August 1, 2011

“Thermocline of Grace” Genesis 32:22-32 Ordinary 18A © 7.31.11 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

I started working with college students in 1982, but it was not until 2004 that a scholar found an accurate way to describe men and women between 18 and 25. He called them “emerging adults,” not children or adolescents, but not exactly full-fledged adults either. Of course, the rock singer Alice Cooper nailed the issue pretty well all the way back in 1972: “I’m not a boy, I’m not a man; I’m eighteen.”

Another group of young people could also be described as “emerging,” though not into adulthood. They’ve become known as “tweens.” The term refers to a child between middle childhood and adolescence, usually between 9 and 12 years old. They have issues much different from college students, but both tweens and collegians have this one thing in common: they are becoming something else.

Not this, but not yet that either. In between. Those are two ways of saying someone is on the boundary. Some other ways of putting it: living on the edge. In limbo. On the border. On the margins. Walking a fine line. Neither here nor there. Between two worlds. On the fence. Not quite at home. At the beginning. At the end. Undecided. Unsure.

Not an easy place. Not anywhere anybody would want to be or choose to be.


It was at such a difficult point in his life that Jacob now found himself. Camped at a natural boundary, the banks of a river, he was also on the boundary between what lay behind and what loomed ahead. In the fairly recent past he had outwitted his uncle Laban by some selective breeding of the flock. Way back when, 20 years before, he had stolen the birthright from his brother Esau and later cheated him out of his father’s blessing. It’s no wonder Esau had sworn to kill Jacob. Esau’s on the other side of the river now, and Jacob has no guarantee Esau won’t carry out the threat from long ago.

All his life Jacob had lived by his wits, cheating, swindling, outsmarting, in order to get rich and make his life easier. But now all that is gone for awhile. He’s sent his family and all his possessions across at the ford of the river. Jacob is left alone now, without all those supports on which he had relied. No money or animals. No wives or children. No servants. Just Jacob and the darkness.

A stranger sneaks up on him and starts wrestling with Jacob. We don’t know who the man is, but there’s something mysterious about him. Maybe he’s not human at all.

They go at it all night, with neither one winning. When daybreak comes, the man wants to get away, but Jacob won’t let him go unless the stranger blesses him. Has he begun to have a clue about who the man really is?

Indeed the man turns out to be none other than God himself. Rather than give a blessing, though, the Lord asks Jacob his name. In saying his name, does Jacob give away more than information? Does he reveal the state of his heart, maybe some regret? Is he confessing that in fact he has lived up to or down to the meaning of his name: heel, trickster, opportunist, someone skilled in one-upmanship. Is there the unspoken desire finally to be more than that, somehow to change his destiny?

Whatever Jacob was thinking and whatever he actually wanted, what he got was a new name from God. From now on, he’ll be “Israel,” which means “God protects” or “God preserves.” Being called something else means he’s gotten a fresh start and a new character. As the apostle Paul would later put it, Jacob has become a “new creation.” The old had gone; everything had become fresh and new because of what God had done.

But the gift is not without its downside. Jacob comes away wounded, limping, forever marked. God is at the same time adversary and benefactor. When he touches Jacob’s thigh, it’s put of out of joint and never quite heals properly. The new creation doesn’t replace the old without pain and hurt and agony. Jacob has seen God and lived, which is pretty amazing. But he will never be the same, and neither can anyone who has ever had an encounter with God. As the scholar Walter Brueggemann once put it: “There are no untroubled victories with this Holy One.”

One more thing. Jacob may have wrestled a blessing out of God, but he could not control him. He wanted to. He asked his opponent’s name. Knowing someone’s name in the ancient world gave you power over them. That’s not so hard to understand. Today if you know a name, address, and Social Security number or you’ve gotten a password and an account number, you could possibly steal someone’s identity. And there are the “name droppers,” who mention the name of some famous person in a familiar way in business or a social setting, gaining prestige for themselves.

But the stranger refuses to give his name. So Jacob could not gain power over him. The mystery of God is preserved; he’s still hidden, revealing only what he chooses to reveal. Jacob has to trust God to lead the way into a new destiny without knowing all the answers, all the secrets, right here and now.

Israel’s descendants found themselves in this story. They saw the tale of their own struggle to be faithful to God, especially at times when they were frightened or alone. They noticed that they, too, had stopped from time to time along the journey, found themselves at a crossroads or a place in-between this and that. And they discovered that at such times and places, God was there. Unbidden and unexpected. To bless and to challenge. To wound and to heal. They had seen God and lived. But the sight had changed their lives, giving and even imposing obligations and privileges.

This isn’t some old story from long ago. It’s as fresh and relevant as the choices and challenges you and I face every day. Jacob was on the run for his life when he camped at the riverside, so none of us I hope is literally in his place. But every day, every moment is a boundary between what was and was will be. Even the smallest of decisions can make a big difference in the course of our lives and those of others.

What I’m after this morning, though, is how God works with us and through us when crossing a boundary isn’t just like going through a door in our home from one room to the next, something familiar and safe. I’m interested this morning in what God wants to do when crossing the boundary is more like stepping over a national border into a country we know little about. When it’s like getting a new identity, like Jacob did. When we genuinely don’t know what’s ahead or we do know, and we’re afraid.

Let’s consider some common new frontiers. Birthdays are definitely boundaries, especially the big decade ones, plus 65, and those in younger life that mark significant transitions in identity, status and privilege: 13, 16, 18, 21. We could think also of anniversaries, whether of marriage for a couple or some event in the life of a community. Then there are those occasions when a big decision is before us: Do I take the job? Should I go ahead with the surgery? Do we sell our home and downsize now that the kids are gone? Should I grant someone power of attorney over my affairs, now that I feel my mind slipping away? How will I prepare for my death, surely the biggest boundary of all?

Because we are people of faith, we seek God at such times. But he may also come to us unexpectedly when we think we have things figured out, when we believe we’re doing fine. He comes to shake us up a little or a lot, to challenge us to think a different way, to see with new eyes, to take on a new call. God may impose a struggle on us when we feel settled and everything appears to be clear. In church-speak, we may say God laid something on our hearts. Or maybe we talk about being pricked in conscience. Or there’s a thought that keeps coming up that won’t let us go. A poet long ago spoke of being “hounded” by God. And, of course, in the image of the text, we wrestle with what God wants us to do.

The key is to be open to God, to tell him our names. In these days of heightened security, fear about everything, it’s not easy to let down our guard. We don’t like to be vulnerable, to give away secrets. We keep our hearts locked up and locked down tight, password protected, tripled encrypted. We have our space, our boundaries, that no one may invade. But God invites us, urges us, calls us to let go of all that and trust him.

So it can be pretty scary to be on the boundary. But remember that being in-between is an experience full of possibility. Jeffrey Arnett has described emerging adulthood, that time between 18 and 25, as follows: an age of identity exploration; an age of instability; the most self-focused age; an age of feeling in-between; and an age of possibilities. Of that final phrase, he says he has found emerging adults feel it’s a time “when hopes flourish, and there is unparalleled opportunity to transform their lives.”

The times of decision and choice, the marker events that lead us from one time in life to another, can also be full of hope and can indeed transform our lives. In the early 1980s, Chris Gardner was certainly on the boundary with a choice to make. He was a failing salesman of an emerging product—a bone density scanner. He had sunk his life savings into an inventory of these machines, which were portable but bulky and only a little better than an X-ray at twice the cost. Bills began to mount up. His wife became frustrated and left him and their four-year old son. Eventually Gardner was evicted from his apartment and even from a hotel. He and Chris, Jr. had to spend the night in a subway bathroom before finally finding shelter and food at a Methodist church.

Gardner heard of an unpaid internship with an investment firm. The program was very competitive, and only one candidate would get a job at the end of six months. Should he take it and try to turn his life into something better? Or keep on doing what he was doing? After some hesitation, he did take the internship, even as he continued to sell the scanners on the weekend. The whole venture was full of risk for himself and his son. But he was determined that his son would know his father and be cared for.

Chris did get the job, and proved to be a top earner. In 1987, he left to form his own firm, Gardner Rich. He became a multimillionaire.

Everything turned out great, but Gardner came away from his boundary experience wounded. The pain and struggle of those days is evident in his voice in an interview with him on the set of The Pursuit of Happyness, the movie that tells his story. The blessing came, but not without hurt.

Because boundary times are so complex, they are of necessity occasions for prayer. Hard, sustained, holding onto God prayer. Jacob said “I will not let you go until you bless me.” What do we say?

In December 2006, it was my turn to offer the invocation at MSU graduation. As I thought about the task, I finally realized the real-life stories of graduating students I had spoken with were the raw material for the prayer. For them, graduation is a mixture of gladness and grief. Yes, they go on to more education or a career, but leaving face-to-face contact with friends is hard. They’re also expected to be on their own, responsible for car and insurance payments, rent, food, whatever; and that’s pretty scary. Graduation is definitely a boundary time.

Looking for a creative way to express that, I remembered that somewhere or other I had heard of thermoclines. Probably some sci-fi or adventure TV show. I knew a thermocline was a sort of boundary in the ocean. When I looked up the term on the Internet, I found that the thermocline is the “separation zone” where the mixed layer of water above—“much influenced by atmospheric fluxes”—meets the deep, uniformly cold water below.

“Perfect!” I thought. Water: baptismal imagery. Surface meeting depth, transitioning from one to the other. Surely a picture of growth in faith. Graduation, though a “secular” occasion, could be and is a grace-full time used by God to move us from one stage of life to another.

So, here is my prayer: “God, what a great and joyous night this is. It’s graduation, marker of success in college, the commencement of a new era in life. Let’s get out of here! God, what a lousy and sad night this is. It’s graduation, and we’ll never pass this way again; it feels like something is dying inside. Why do we have to leave?

What do we do now? And what are you going to do? We’re on this boundary between now and not yet, and we need help to sort out the feelings, the what ifs and the why nots, the grief and the giddiness. Lead us then into the mystery of this time and help us embrace it; teach us the power of this thin place where heaven and earth meet and in the passing of the old something new is being created. Make this night a thermocline of grace and amazement, where surface gives way to depth, and we know what you might do in and among us. Go with us, God, when we leave this place. Go with us: goad us into tomorrow, guide us when we’re lost, grab us with your strong hand when we’re about to fall off the precipice of wrong choice, and grant us your peace so we may go confidently on this ‘footsore and sacred journey’ (Frederick Buechner) of our lives.

Glory to you in heaven and on earth. Amen.”

I think of that prayer now as a kind of model for the kind of language we can address to God at any of our boundary times, whatever our age, whatever our situation. We simply say genuinely how we feel, what we’re scared of, what we’re hoping for. And trust God to go with us when we step across the frontier into our tomorrow.


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