Genesis 32: 22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
Almost every morning around 4:30 AM I wake up. I have tried everything I know to stay asleep until dawn at least. Tylenol PM, even some things that are stronger, but nothing works. Like clockwork, at 4:30 AM I wake up.
I look over at my wife hoping that she is awake. But she never is. The soft, flannel sheet grace her beautiful freckled shoulders cashiering into my dark world the late moon light luminosity glimmering and dancing through our upstairs bedroom window. For 35 years I have awakened next to this woman and it still takes my breath away. “As winter strips the leaves from around us, so that we may see the distant regions they formerly concealed, so old age takes away our enjoyments only to enlarge the prospect of the coming eternity.” (Jean Paul)
The silence is surreal and disorienting. This is the silence of a winter country mountain farm. There is no hint of a sound.
Nonetheless, my heart is almost always nearly breaking and I there are screams in my soul that I cannot drown out.
I wistfully reach out and gently touch her shoulder. I dare now wake her up. God knows she works so hard. Loves me so much. Cares for me. I know I am a high maintenance husband. She needs all the sleep she can get. Especially that deep sleep that I know longer enjoy, that sleep between 2-6 AM, that deep nocturnal slumber that serendipitously visits so very rarely to my soul.
In high school I remember my high school teacher, Mr. Watson, asking, “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one hears it, is it sound?” The trees were falling in my forest and the sounds were deafening but I wondered if anyone was around to hear it. And if no one heard my trees fall, was it really sound?
The darkness spoke only silence to my soul. The shadows of trees moving in the wind were my only companions this early morning.
This is, I assure you, the darkest time of every day. The time when night is almost over but daylight has not come.
When I was a boy my dad would take us into the Devil Den swamps near Montrose, Arkansas, to ambush unwary green headed Mallard Ducks at daybreak. Like trolling mine sweepers, dragging our red ball hip books along through antediluvian mud, we would push through down tree limbs, avoiding jutting cypress knees. The swamp had the sweet smell of death. It was rumored that there was an old escaped slave den nearby, a place where runaway slaves would run and hide from cruel slave owners. More than once I thought I saw their shiny black bodies run from tree to tree through the swamp. It was so dark. It was even too dark to look at our compasses that probed into the frenzied quagmire that surrounding us and would have at least told us where North was if we could see it. But we could not.
“Mallard ducks were worth it, “ I kept telling myself, although truly, I never liked eating wild ducks. The meat was too rich and dark and perilous for this southern boy who liked anodyne, fried chicken, and domestication, cornbread.
It was so dark in the Devil’s Den. And on those mornings, most mornings now, when I awaken at 4:30 AM, alone in the silence, I remember the Den. The only light we enjoyed was the North Star on the tail of the Big Dipper full of radiant repartee and iridescent chatter.
Genesis 32: 27 The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered. 28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
Every morning I struggle. I struggle with what could have been. Other friends, in other places, even family members, are awakening in this darkness but their worlds are full of certainty, of jobs, and of pensions. They are tired, as I am, but not conflicted. They are at peace with their repertoire. They may not know the drama in which they play a role, but they know their role, and they play it well.
In these early, disquieting mornings, I know my role, but do not know the play in which I perform. I do not even know my next line. I feel lost.
John Barth, in his novel The Floating Opera compares life to a floating opera. This opera is being performed on a floating barge that is slowly moving up and down the Hudson River. Spectators are standing on the bank looking at the drama unfold. As long as the floating opera is in their sight, they grasp the meaning of the play. They may even join in a chorus or two. Life is unambiguous and consequential and full of beans. But then the barge moves on and the spectators are left in quiet uncertainty.
29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.
The barge returns again and leaves again and so forth.
To me, the barge is absent at 4:30 A.M. I am not sure what the story is. I don’t know what my place is in the drama unfolding. By 10AM I am regaining some élan. By 2PM I am completely confident; the play is right before me. By 10 PM I am asleep . . . but again, at 4:30 A. M., the struggle begins again.
30 So Jacob called the place Peniel,[g] saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
But it is 4:30 A. M. again. “James,” in Hebrew, is “Jacob,” “the deceiver,” “the one who struggles.” It is my Peniel. It is where I meet God face to face. It is a time when, again, I decide, “Whom will you serve today? If God is God serve Him! If Baal is God, serve him! (1 Kings 18:21)
4:30 AM lying next to my gray haired campaigner, is my Peniel, my time of struggle, but it is also my Mt. Carmel. Each day I go up to Mt. Carmel to challenge the gods of this age. With my pen, with my prayers, I dare the cacophonic sirens of this discordant land to challenge my God to a duel.
Mt. Moriah each morning and I meet again a God who loves me so, so much, but who has no hyperbole in His portfolio, who literally demands everything from me. Whether I see all the drama unfolding before me on the river or not, whether I fully understand what the outcome will be, God demands, in great love, in only the way a Savior can, that I give Him my all, my everything again. Especially at 4:30 AM.
It is 6:30 AM and my sugar plum, whose transcendent beautiful will soon belong to Clinique and Origin, but whose raw courage and fortitude is mine, and mine alone, for this new day, for this moment, for this new Genesis.
I see the wrinkles, the circles under her eyes, but I will not insult the ambiance, the chronicle, the time that I know put them there by pretending they are not. No there is no histrionics in my Karen and I will have none either. Not right now. Not for this moment when we kiss and bask in the dawn again. She is more beautiful than Cleopatra, more exotic Bathsheba, for surely Mark Antony and Solomon would feel cheated if they could have known my exquisite life companion.
31 The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.
“Hi, honey. What is for breakfast?”
And I limp again, down the stairs, to my country kitchen for my oatmeal . . . and then I battle the gods of the ages again . . .