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Lectionary Living

A long night

August 2: Genesis 32:22-31 and Psalm 17:1-7, 15  •  Isaiah 55:1-5 and Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21  •  Romans 9:1-5  •  Matthew 14:13-21

 

    Between last week's Genesis reading – where Jacob's father-in-law Laban tricks him into marrying the older sister of his chosen bride – and today's reading, where Jacob is wrestling all night, a lot has happened. Jacob has gotten rich, outwitting Laban through an elaborate scheme for breeding sheep. He has fathered eleven children through wives Rachel and Leah, and their slaves. He has left Laban's household with flocks, family members, and much wealth, to return to his father Isaac's home.

    As you might expect from this saga, the leaving itself was not without its own deceitful dramas. Jacob sneaks away without telling Laban his plans; Rachel steals the household gods. When Laban catches up to them, he complains that he didn't even get to say good-bye to his kids. He searches for the household gods, but Rachel successfully hides them from him. They have one last night together, and Laban bids them farewell, demanding that Jacob promise to treat his daughters kindly and setting a clear boundary between their lands.

    Once Laban is gone though, the story shifts. Jacob faces a different problem; his brother Esau is on his way, with 400 men, enough to destroy Jacob's entire family and take all the wealth. Jacob splits them into two groups, thinking that if Esau finds one, he may destroy it and not look for the other. Then Jacob prays, and in that prayer, he freely admits that he is afraid of Esau. He comes up with a plan, sending Esau a bunch of gifts of sheep in advance. He gets his wives and eleven kids to the safest spot he can find. And then he finds himself alone – where today's Genesis reading begins.

    It was a sleepless night, a night spent wrestling with a mysterious figure, first identified in verse 24 as a man, although in verse 30, Jacob says he had seen God face to face. Eventually Jacob is injured. The figure asks him for his name; then he changes it from Jacob to Israel, meaning one who has striven with God and people, and prevailed. He blesses Jacob and departs.   

    Although the story has elements of mystery, much seems familiar. Sleepless nights spent worrying about a family member, anxiety and fears escalating, are not uncommon. Tossing and turning through the night as one imagines the possible outcomes can seem like a wrestling match almost, although seldom causing physical injury. A bad conclusion to the night is when one gets up, still afraid, and with no clarity about who one is nor what one will do. A good conclusion is when one gets up, still afraid, but having gotten a little clearer about oneself and decided what one will do and not do.

    Jacob seems to have been blessed with a good conclusion. When he meets his brother (just a few verses ahead), he is a different person. Deceit is replaced by humility. He restores, to the best of his ability, all that he has taken from his brother, all that the stealing of his brother's blessing had involved. It is not merely property that he seeks to restore – it is a recognition of place, calling his brother "Lord," as the blessing intended for his brother would have involved. He comes without an apology or rehashing of past wrongs, but with a decision to approach his brother differently, with respect, going forward.

    Who knows how far back the enmity between the two brothers went, or what had happened between them? Esau was his dad's favorite; Jacob was his mom's; they had never learned how to relate to each other outside of those parental shadows. Their parents had selected each of them as favorites without thought, but automatically, based on patterns they had grown up with. Their family had no framework for thinking together about how to go forward with the resource needs and responsibilities of each of its members in mind. In Jacob's struggle, though, as he finds a way out of automatic emotional processes to a more intentional way of living, the entire family unit can begin to mature.  

 

Reflections:

Morning: How do I think about my family's resources and responsibilities to one another?

Evening: What anxieties and worries do I have at the end of the day? What do I need to get clear on?

Psalm 17:5 My steps have held fast to your paths; my feet have not slipped.

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Deceit Motif

July 26: Genesis 29:15-28 and Psalm 105:1-11, 45b or Psalm 128  •  1 Kings 3:5-12 and Psalm 119:129-136  •  Romans 8:26-39  •  Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

 

Today's Genesis reading reminds me of the expression turn about is fair play, or even better, two can play that game. Laban lies to Jacob – essentially tricking him into marrying not Rachel, whom he had bargained and worked seven years for, but instead her older sister, Leah. Talk about getting his comeuppance for the tricks he'd pulled on his brother and father! Now he must bargain for Rachel's hand a second time, marrying her a week later in return for seven more years of working for Laban. In practice, the bargain may have made little difference to Jacob, who was at that point not prepared to leave Laban's household. As the story unfolds in the next chapters, Jacob carries out an elaborate plan to outwit Laban so that he, Jacob, may acquire considerable wealth before going.

 

In a sense, you have to admire Jacob. He was a hard-worker, willing to put his energy into getting what he wanted. He was patient, too, willing to take whatever time was needed to marry his favorite and to build his fortune. The trouble with him was the lying, the deception, the trickery that went with him. It is as though he is afraid to be himself.

Another person afraid to be herself in this story is Leah – the older sister, the less attractive, the one who was always envying her younger sister Rachel. What was it like for her, to participate with her father in deceiving Jacob? How much of her life had been spent in focusing on her younger sister and how to outwit her, rather than in a focus on her own self and what she could do with her life?

 

Leah's story unfolds in the next pages with her giving her sons names that would be sure to grate on the (so far infertile) Rachel's nerves – naming the first one Reuben, meaning See, a son. Jacob, for his part, gets busy with breeding the sheep so that his own flocks get stronger while Laban's get weaker. For Leah, seeing her sister as the favored one, the one she had to beat somehow, was a lifelong pattern keeping her from discovering within herself the person she might become. For Jacob, seeing Laban as the latest person to be deceived in order to get his way was a lifelong pattern keeping him from discovering within himself the person he might become. For both Leah and Jacob, these old patterns kept them from becoming their authentic selves.

 

In the Matthew reading, Jesus seems to be talking about just this dilemma in the story of the trader looking for fine pearls. Picture the trader, picking up each pearl, examining it carefully and seeing its beauty. Reading scripture is itself a way of looking for fine pearls – a way of searching for what matters. In the gospel story, the trader saw what he was looking for and gave up everything else for it: all in one sweeping moment. In life, though, it's a constant challenge. Working to discover and express one's best, authentic, genuine self is an ongoing effort. On a daily basis, the process involves both finding and using that most mature self to connect with others and then letting the rest go.

 

Facing one's own self-deceit is part of the process of choosing the pearl of great price. An awareness of one's own complicity in one's problems, for example, rather than the blaming of others, is part of being honest. A knowledge of the bigger picture of what is actually happening, rather than staying so distant from others that one lacks the facts, is part of being responsible to others. An understanding of how one's own actions are impacting others, rather than a sole focus on one's own course, is part of being aware – a part of stopping the self-deceit. In the end, there is a lot to be said for staying grounded in reality.

 

Reflections

Morning: What is my contribution to the problems I will face today?

Evening: Where did I distance today? When did I lose sight of the bigger picture?

Psalm 105:3b Let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice.

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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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