Born in Washington D.C., Eric James Laurilla was the eldest of three. Reared in the northern Virginia suburbs, his veins coursed with Finnish blood and alcoholic genes. By day, he was a street baller; by night, a protective big brother; in between, a restless wanderer most at home in the wilds of creation.
When Eric wasn’t slack-jawed beneath a cloud formation, practicing awe by decelerating life, he was studying. A savant, he could pontificate on the clandestine patrols of Project Delta during the Vietnam War, debate Ancient Near East occultism, and explain how algorithm bits manipulate digital currencies. On the inside cover of his notebook, he wrote down the call-in number for C-SPAN.
At his worst, when Eric’s technicolor brilliance and blackout-angry addiction devolved into narcissism, he humbled himself at the altar, clinging to a story bigger than his brain or his brokenness. Along with serving on the Haywood St. board, attending Wilderness Trail, and being a dish room disciple, he was most engaged during the participatory sermons, trying to organize himself around redemptive truth.
Posthumously, I learned one of Eric’s favorite scriptures was Jacob wrestling with God. Jacob- least likely to be nominated Father of the Twelve Tribes- is evading Esau’s wrath and nearing the end of his double-dealing days. Before entering the Promised Land, he sends his family and possessions across, left alone at the water’s edge. As the light fades, God steps out from behind the sunset wearing a spandex singlet, the challenger provoking a grudge match. After Jacob gets thrown into the ring, the two go nose-to-nose, arms and legs in a tangle of flesh, each forcing the other to the mat of submission, until one prevails and the other blesses.
In today’s text, that Eric assigned to us from the grave, what’s the Good News?
Genesis 32:22-31 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. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When 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. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
God could have pinned Jacob but didn’t.
Sometimes wholeness requires an injury.
Jacob wasn’t passive, engaged his faith and God.
Robert Frost is America’s most celebrated bard. He was nominated for the Noble Prize in Literature thirty one times and won the Pulitzer four times. With a backdrop of rural New England, his poetry provided commentary on society’s ills in ways intelligible to the working class. Yet, for all the memorized stanzas in school and the buildings named in his honor, most readers are unaware of the protracted suffering that informed his writing. At age eleven, his dad died of Tuberculosis, leaving the family with eight dollars. Five years later, his mother died of cancer. Of his six children, only two outlived their father. He involuntarily committed his sister and daughter to the psychiatric asylum. And his wife Elinor was often stricken with melancholy, just as he was with the despair of depression. Years later, he died of a pulmonary embolism. Buried in Bennington, Vermont, his headstone reads,
Robert Lee Frost
“I had a lovers quarrel with the world.”
Dodging the scrapes Frost found himself in daily, the Church- through flat readings, rote rituals, and uninspired liturgies- has repeatedly committed one of the Institution’s worst offenses: keeping the sanctuary safe. The minister is held responsible for making certain spirit and body go unencountered, that the people in the pews remain well hidden from the holy. With worship as the weekly activity where “…we get just enough religion to protect ourselves from God.” 1
But not with Jacob. Rather than a stiff arm, when the heavenly adversary engages, he engages full tilt. Body blow after body blow, head locks and figure fours, the two opponents go at each other as if faith is nothing less than an embodied contact sport, every bit as devout as bowing to pray or standing up for justice. The Good News is that Christian conflict is an essential part of the spiritual life. Believing that we fight with the One we love the most, our text normalizes the skirmish, giving us permission to enter the fray and put our hands on God.
Eric was a skilled athlete who valiantly grappled- with mental illness and the corner store, with a calling to ministry and a leaning towards the monastery, with the belonging of family and the threat of domestication, with a God who refused to let go of his waist. How the last round of the match ended, those of us in the bleachers aren’t sure. Only that Eric James Laurilla, the “Prince of Pritchard Park,” hobbled crutch underarm, finally and fully, into the land of Canaan.
As the late William Sloan Coffin said, “The beauty about wrestling with God is that nobody loses.”2
1 J. Ellsworth Kalas, Parables from the Backside; Bible Stories with a Twist (Nashville: Abingdon, 1992), 64.
2 William Sloan Coffin, The Collected Sermons of William Sloan Coffin: the Riverside Years, Volume 1 (Louisville, Westminster John Knox, 2008), 175.