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Lectionary Living

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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Laughter Lost

June 21: Genesis 21:8-21 and Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17  •  Jeremiah 20:7-13 and Psalm 69:7-10, (11-15), 16-18  •  Romans 6:1b-11  •  Matthew 10:24-39

    As today's Genesis reading begins, Sarah had just had a son, Isaac, which means he laughs. The bitter laughter of last week's reading, the nonsensical idea of having a child in her old age, was replaced by the true joy of a new baby. In those early months of Isaac's life, Abraham and Sarah would have been watching him closely, and laughing, as each small grin grew into a smile.

    And yet already, laughter is lost as intense worry creeps back into the story. Now, Sarah is upset that Abraham's son Ishmael might share in her son's inheritance. Never mind that Ishmael is the child she had arranged for her slave Hagar to have with her husband, and the child now playing with Isaac. It is to the eternal credit of the scriptures that these stories (in Genesis 16 and 21), casting both Sarah and Abraham in a negative light, were recorded for us to consider. What happens next is almost too difficult to contemplate. Sarah insists that Hagar and Ishmael be thrown out into the wilderness, an act meaning almost certain death for the child and his mother, alone in a harsh environment: a fact they all – Hagar, Sarah, and Abraham – must have understood.

    In the story, God intervenes, first reassuring Abraham, next speaking through an angel to Hagar, and then providing for her and Ishmael. Putting all this fancy footwork aside, though, let's return to the point where all three players understood what was at stake, and the choices that were about to be made. Although an extreme case, these decisions are not unusual in life. Often, family resources and attention are unequally distributed; spouses and children can be treated as expendable outcasts.

    Three questions come to my mind. First, what was Abraham thinking, casting out his first son? Second, what happened to Sarah, who – at least in her own narrative – was going to be happy, once she had the child she had longed for? And third, what happened to both of them, thinking that Isaac was better off without a brother?

    Taking the third question first: Playing together gives children lessons like how to stand up for themselves, how to share, and how to have fun. Big brothers, however, can be big teases, possibly upsetting to both the father and the first-time mother of a precious son of their old age. Next, they started worrying about Isaac having to share his inheritance with Ishmael someday. Pushing Hagar and Ishmael away – distancing and cutting off from them – probably calmed the parents down for a while, although the story's worried focus on their son would (spoiler alert!) continue. 

    Sarah, for her part, had woven quite a story for herself: if only I had a child, then I could be happy. What happened after the child was born was quite different – a continued anxious unhappiness, focused on the presence of another child she saw as threatening to her son. The if only narrative is the trap of helplessness and immaturity. Seeking maturity involves thinking about one's own purpose in life. For Sarah, many years earlier, her emotional desire for a child might have led her to a more mature intention of kindness towards all the children in her world, including the son of her slave.

    Abraham, for his part, also seems immature for his ripe old age, choosing to cut-off from Hagar and Ishmael rather than dealing with the emotional reactivity stirred by their presence. He simply could not think it through. If Abraham had a thoughtful principle that all his partners and progeny mattered, he might have found another solution besides banishing one set from the camp. For both Abraham and Sarah, maturity would involve seeing their responsibility to a branch of the family that they had, after all, arranged to create, and to live accordingly, respecting the dignity of every human being.

Reflections

Morning: What are my responsibilities for myself? To others? What are my own principles for living?

Evening: When did I distance or cut-off from another? How can I stay in touch while managing my own emotions? When was I at my most mature today? My least?

Psalm 69:14 Rescue me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters.

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Hope in harsh times

June 14: Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7) and Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19  •  Exodus 19:2-8a and Psalm 100  •  Romans 5:1-8  •  Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23)

    This week's Genesis story has an exotic air about it. The LORD appears by the beautiful oaks of Mamre, where Abraham is resting in the hot noonday hour. Next, three visitors show up (with some suggestion that one is the LORD of the opening vision). Abraham asks them to stay and refresh themselves – a custom in the Mideast, where the gracious, cooperative hosting of guests might mean the difference of life or death to travelers in the harsh climate. Next, he rushes around to prepare a feast for them. Next there is a surprise announcement from one of the men that Abraham and his wife Sarah – both way past the age for having children - would soon be conceiving a child.

    Their desire for a child – and God's previous promises along these lines – had long been a part of their life story. Over time, though, Sarah had lost any hope of bearing a child herself. Not only had she given up hope, she had actively made other plans, arranging for Abraham to sleep with her slave, Hagar. But during Hagar's pregnancy, tension between the two women had developed, and Sarah had treated Hagar harshly (Genesis 16). By the time of this story, when Sarah overhears the men talking about her having a child, she laughs.

    I don't think this was a happy laugh. At best, maybe a wry chuckle: yeah right. Maybe a snort: I haven't had a period in twenty years. Maybe with bitterness: I have hated my life, hated not getting what I most wanted. In that laugh, one can hear a pattern of disappointment mingled with anger yielding a toxic blend of frustration, helplessness, and hostility.
     What happens next – or actually, a couple of chapters later – is that Sarah does indeed conceive and bears a son. And they lived happily ever after? Well, not exactly, and next week's reading picks up there. For today, I want to take a closer look at Sarah's laugh.

    Rueful laughs and broken dreams are part of the landscape of COVID-19. Hopes, dreams, plans, goals, work: a lot is on the table now; a lot that seemed certain before is now uncertain or unlikely to happen. A person has little control over these events, although a person can still choose her response to them. Unfortunately, under stress – and who among us is not feeling it now? – a person has less ability to regulate herself. Hopelessness can begin to rule the day.

    If tempered by a reality-based view coupled with emotional reason, recognizing hopelessness can be a useful starting point. In Sarah's case, for instance, harnessing reality with emotional reason would begin here: I'm probably not going to have a child. That doesn't mean I can't have a good life. From there to emotional self-regulation would be a short step: I don't have to spend my days in bitterness. When it came to the tension between her and Hagar, she would find more options and principles available: I don't have to compare myself to Hagar. I won't be cruel to her. I will respect her, with the dignity owed to every human being. Hopelessness – and helplessness – do not have to rule the day.

    While the coronavirus can destroy a lot of plans, it cannot destroy the human ability to cooperate, as necessary today as it was in Biblical times. Continuing to think about the challenges with one's family and friends from the perspective of the resources available – assuring that all resources are understood and accessed – is a start. Staying connected with family and friends while maintaining one's own integrity can make a difference, setting one's course both now and in the years to come.

For reflection

Morning: How can I connect with family and friends about the challenges in our lives?

Evening: When did I feel helpless today? How can I start to engage the challenge?

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