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Lectionary Living

Not-so-Social Distancing

July 19: Genesis 28:10-19a and Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24  •  Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19 or Isaiah 44:6-8 and Psalm 86:11-17  •  Romans 8:12-25  •  Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

   

    In last week's Genesis reading, Jacob and Esau were young men, still living at home, fighting over a birthright and a bowl of stew. In the next three chapters before today's reading, a lot happens. A famine causes the family to move several times. Esau marries two local Hittite women who make life unpleasant for Isaac and Rebekah. To top it off, Rebekah works with Jacob to trick Isaac, whose vision is failing him in his old age, into blessing Jacob instead of Esau. This is not a minor have-a-good-day type of blessing, but the inheritance blessing itself, conveying power to Jacob as the words were spoken.

    Between the continued hostility with the Hittite in-laws, the increased antagonism between Esau and Jacob, and Isaac's frustration over losing the chance to bless his favorite son, tension within the family is growing. Rebekah once again takes matters into her own hands. Distancing, a common way of managing the stress in a relationship system, is put to use as she asks Isaac to send Jacob away, with the excuse that a wife from her branch of the family would be better than another Hittite daughter-in law. To be fair, perhaps Jacob's new position as the heir to the family fortune has made it important for him to find a wife from their own tribe. Instead of coming back with a bride though, Jacob himself would choose to distance for years and then decades. The family would be less without him.

    As this week's scripture opens, Jacob is journeying to the household of Bethuel, Rebekah's father, to find a wife there. It's the first night of the trip, and Jacob has stopped at sunset, finding a rock to prop up his head while he sleeps. The scripture does not tell us what Jacob was thinking about that night. He was a young adult; this was his first night on this trip away from home; and he was completely on his own. There was going to be no mother to think for him, no brother to do the hunting, and no father to worry about. He was at that place where choices had been made, the past left behind, and the future not yet clear. It was dark, and there would be no going any further until morning.

    That night, Jacob dreams a fabulous dream about angels going up and down a staircase to heaven, and God standing beside him. He has a vision of land, and children, and blessings. In the morning, he remembers his dream, setting stones up to remember the place where it happened.

    It is a remarkable vision for a young man to have – and a more remarkable vision for a person of any age to believe in or seek to fulfill. It is one thing to dream dreams. It is another thing to work towards them. Stubbornly clinging to a vision – playing it over and over in one's own mind, working out each detail, modifying it as needed – yields fruit. It also brings mistakes – so many mistakes! – along the way. How else, though, does one learn and grow up? As the narrative will show, Jacob is already becoming aware of his own contribution to his family's problems. It seems to come as little surprise to him when another (spoiler alert!) is deceitful to him. Jacob seems to have a capacity, perhaps born out of his own family background, to keep trying in the midst of difficult circumstances.

    If Jacob and Esau could have understood their family's story and their places in it, (maybe with an advance copy of Genesis ?!), it might have made a difference. Instead of arguing, they might have talked together about what each of them wanted in life, and how to make that happen. Maybe they have would have seen their parents with a more reality-based view, and along with that, found less need for parental approval and more freedom to be themselves within their relationships. This is the opportunity offered to anyone willing to explore their family roots. Instead, when distancing is over-used in managing the emotional field of the family, the results cascade down through the generations.

Reflections

Morning: How can I reconnect with those I have distanced myself from?

Evening: How did I use distancing to manage myself today?

Psalm 139:23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.

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Fortunate Son?

Genesis 25:19-34 and Psalm 119:105-112  •  Isaiah 55:10-13 and Psalm 65:(1-8), 9-13  •  Romans 8:1-11  •  Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

    In the Genesis reading, Isaac's wife Rebekah has had twin boys, a situation where birthright has a specific usage: the particular right or privilege of the fortunate first-born son, in this case Esau, who would have a large inheritance coming to him. Esau, a guy with lots of red hair who loved the out-of-doors, was his dad's favorite. Jacob, the younger of the twins and a quieter sort who preferred staying in the camp, was his mother's favorite. The birthright was on younger brother Jacob's mind, as he brings it up in a conversation with Esau, who only wants some lunch! 

    Once again, the Genesis story brings the reader into the common patterns of human families. Esau could see that their mother was closer to Jacob; Jacob could see that their father was closer to Esau. In more mature families, parents make every child a favorite child, finding a unique relationship with each one. Not so for this bunch! The immaturity of past generations is passed down to the next with efficiency. Isaac, himself a focused-on first-born, perhaps felt a deep connection to the oldest son, who, after all, chose neither his position nor its obligations. Genesis recorded less about Rebekah; in my imagination I wonder who the red-headed offspring might have reminded her of, in her own family. But that's speculation. What's known is that Rebekah, far from her own family, was strongly connected to the son who stayed close instead of going hunting.  As time went on, Rebekah taught Jacob about thinking things through – a capacity lacking in her pampered husband Isaac, and now her other son, Esau. When Esau traded his birthright for a bowl of stew, he is in effect saying that he is not interested in spending his life worrying about all that his birthright would bring to him.

    In a democracy, freedom is a birthright. Knowing one's family, though, is the most basic birthright. A person's kin, the people one came from, are a part of oneself in ways that pass understanding. I saw this a few years ago at a funeral, attended by friends, colleagues, and family members from near and far. When it was all over, it was the family who were still there, together. Even family who had been distant for many years were welcomed into this inner circle. The instinctive capacity of the family to come together to bind its wounds was almost palpable.

    When people in one generation quit talking to each other (spoiler alert! All does not go well for Jacob and Esau), the next generation loses the basic birthright of connection to extended family. Even when families are connected, descendants can lose track of the family's history, and their own place within that history. Often, the family history has spiritual themes, emerging in one place and then another, over time. All this can be lost, to the detriment of the family unit and each of its members.

    When family members distance from each other, more than family history gets lost. In Matthew 13, a set of verses called the parable of the sower describe a reality Jesus must have seen a lot: people with good intentions who fall away. It's dangerous times so he's talking surreptitiously, about seeds that fall on rocky ground without much soil, which grow at first but are without deep enough roots to last in the heat of the day. As I see it, the seed thrown on rocky soil is the person without enough knowledge of – or connection to – her family to root herself in. The person who lacks understanding of her place in her family, how it shaped her, and how her family has faced challenges over time, has little chance to grow herself up. To take root, to grow a self that will last, one must do the hard work of preparing one's own soil, staying in relationship with others in the family while staying calm within oneself. On the way, a person becomes more able to hear the word and understand it, creating a chance to bear much fruit.

Reflections

Morning: What parts of my family history do I know more about? How can I begin to learn more?

Evening: Where was my own reactivity most clear today? 

Psalm 139:9-10 If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.

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Jackpot!

July 5: Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67 and Psalm 45:10-17 or Song of Solomon 2:8-13  •  Zechariah 9:9-12 and Psalm 145:8-14  •  Romans 7:15-25a  •  Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

 

    In Genesis 24, the story of how Isaac gets a wife is told twice – first, in the story itself and second, when the servant – the oldest and presumably wisest of Abraham's servants, who remains nameless throughout the scripture reading –  explains to the family of the bride why he has made this journey and wants to take their daughter away. The bride's family, by the way, is related: Isaac's father Abraham and Rebekah's paternal grandfather Nahor were brothers. Perhaps the family tie served to allay any anxieties among Rebekah's kin. After all, she wasn't marrying just any rich guy, sight unseen, but someone of their own tribe.  

    The servant – whom tradition has later named Eliezer, and whose function was more or less a chief staff person – had found Rebekah at a well. Eliezer was accompanied by ten camels laden with gifts including golden bracelets for the bride-to-be, supplies, and his own crew. What happens at the well (Genesis 24: 15-21) – a detail left out of the re-telling – is critical. Eliezer shows up in the evening, a strategic move allowing him to observe all the eligible women, who would have been getting water for the night ahead. The young woman who stands out, Rebekah, is both good-looking and a hard worker, drawing water not only for the servant and his crew but also for the ten camels. How much can a camel drink? According to Wikipedia, 53 gallons in three minutes.

    One can only imagine the delight Eliezer must have felt at this moment. I mean, jackpot! Earlier in the story, when Abraham had given him the mission of finding a wife for Isaac, Eliezer must have wondered how he was going to find the right person for Isaac. Isaac had been depressed since the recent death of his mother Sarah, who had always put Isaac first, doing everything in her power to protect him. How could he find just the right woman for Isaac, the person everyone knew had to be treated as special? What would be the consequences if he brought back someone Isaac disliked? 

    Eliezer had asked Abraham what he should do if the woman he found did not want to come. It was an astute question. Abraham answered that if she didn't want to come, he was not to force her, adding that Eliezer would not be responsible for her choice in this matter. It seems that Abraham thought that his son's life partner, critical to the success of his family, would need to have her own agency. Abraham was also clear that a wife for Isaac was needed to build up his own fledgling group, for he added that under no circumstance was Isaac to go to live with her family.

    A couple of things stand out here. First, Abraham and servant are doing all the thinking for Isaac, who is doing none for himself. Second, Rebekah was the perfect mate to continue the pattern of over-functioning for Isaac. Her display of hard-working eagerness to please in the camel-watering scene was made to order for a husband who was brought up to expect others to do all the work and all the thinking. His pampered boyhood had weakened Isaac, as the whole system made allowances for him.

    Eliezer understood perfectly what his boss had asked him to do. The following morning, Rebekah's family resists her leaving immediately, asking that she be allowed to stay home for several days first. Eliezer politely declines to wait; when brought in and asked, Rebekah, who could not have failed to realize that she would be marrying the sole heir of an elderly man of considerable wealth, says that she will leave with him right away.  Everyone, it seems, is in on the deal except Isaac, who does his part by immediately falling for Rebekah.

    All of us, over our lifetime, continue to play out roles learned early in life. All of us are more or less astonished when the world does not respond favorably nor see things our way. Getting free of the automatic patterns we grew up with is hard. Isaac could blame Rebekah for doing all the work so well that he need not bother to try; she could blame him for never helping. And so it goes, until one person is willing to step back or step up, in spite of the resistance to change. The resistance is surprising. Everyone in the system – from Abraham to Eliezer to the staff to the children – is stuck in whatever functional place each is used to filling. The patterns were handed down from their parents, and to them from their parents. A change in one part of the system upsets everyone, even if it is a positive change!   

    Let's say Isaac for some reason tries to step up his functioning. Rebekah would resist this, as it makes her less important. Not only that, but other people in the system, even Abraham himself, would want the old Isaac back, the one he could focus his worries and attention on. Most of us – whether in an arranged marriage such as Isaac and Rebekah or based in our own choice – find ourselves somehow with exactly the life partner who fits with whatever patterns we bring to the relationship. The advantage – the jackpot, really – comes when one stops trying to change one's partner and instead sees the patterns one is stuck in, finding one's own contribution to the problems. Seeing what is possible to change within oneself is a good start. Getting to know one's own family story helps.

 

Daily Reflections

Morning: What stories or people in my family would I like to know more about? Who could I reach out to?

Evening: What did I notice about my part in family patterns today?

Psalm 145:14 The LORD upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down.

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Conversations

June 28: Genesis 22:1-14 and Psalm 13  •  Jeremiah 28:5-9 and Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18  •  Romans 6:12-23  •  Matthew 10:40-42

   

    This week's Genesis reading begins with God's strange command to Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac as a burnt offering. Stranger still is Abraham's response, going along wordlessly with every detail of God's instructions. Just a few chapters ago, in Genesis 18, in a conversation where God had told Abraham of his plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham responded very differently. Abraham asked for wiggle room, so to speak, if righteous people were found in those towns, politely bargaining God down from 50 to 45 to 40 to 30 to 20 to only 10 righteous people needed to save them all.

    This time, though, Abraham is asking no questions, and seems to be no longer in conversation with God at all. He seems similar to many parents, who are so busy with the baby that they have little time for spiritual conversation. When people get too busy for prayer, too distracted for contemplation, and too worried for reflection, they begin to lose self-understanding and their own inner compass. Often, people seem to avoid inner reflection precisely when they are worried, ramping up their anxiety more, while at the same time, reducing their capacity for emotional self-regulation.

    The mention of Isaac as his 'only son' (in v. 2) might have hit a raw nerve with Abraham, who had recently banished his other son, Ishmael. Trying not to think about it - using distance to manage his emotions – may have been his strategy. One question his mind is refusing to address is clear: Does this kid Isaac, this one you are so close to, come first, before everything, before God? After all, (see last week's post), there was little that he and his wife Sarah would not do for Isaac.

    A lot of families find ways to sacrifice a child. The process can take many forms. Sometimes it is a family favorite, the star, the child who can do no wrong. Sometimes it is a family's black sheep, the one who can do only wrong. Sometimes there's both! But whenever there is family discord, attention can be diverted to the latest achievement of the star or infraction of the black sheep, thus bringing peace to all others at the expense of the focused-on child. 

    Abraham and Sarah had focused on Isaac, who for his part, was showing all the signs of the focused-on child: interested in pleasing others and without enough self to run away from his 100+ year-old father when he's about to be sacrificed. In a sense, both son and father are bound to the same family yoke. The emotional sacrifice of Isaac had been happening from his life's beginning, as his over-protective parents had shielded him from the challenges that help a person to grow up. Perhaps all of us who, as parents, sometimes get confused about being responsible for rather than to our children as they grow towards adulthood can take some solace here. The patriarch of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam made the same error!

     During that three-day walk to the place where the burnt offering was to occur, Abraham had time to reflect on how he had made his son Isaac into a god. At some point, a conversation with God began, signified by an angel who revised the instructions for the offering. In my view, conversation with God – also known as prayer, contemplation, and reflection – can work to move a person towards more mature functioning. It takes time. It takes calm. Last, it takes courage to reflect on emotions, noticing the anxiousness as well as the energy, sifting the wheat from the chaff, and gradually increasing one's ability to consider feelings without being overwhelmed by them.

    Although this story is often understood to mean that Abraham was rewarded for his blind, child-like obedience, I think it was the opposite. When Abraham took adult responsibility for himself, re-ordering his life according to his true priorities, child sacrifice was no longer a consideration. It was a difficult journey before he got there. Many of us, I'm guessing, can look back over our lives and difficult journeys that led to growth. With that growth comes some freedom to stop trying to please others, instead becoming more of a person in one's own right, one who can be genuinely interested in others.

 

Reflections

Morning:  What are my responsibilities for myself today? When might I get focused on others instead?

Evening: What emotions did I distance from today?  

Psalm 13:2 How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

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