Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Reflections from The Hill – Limping

You may have gathered by now that I have a bit of a leaning toward the Old Testament, particularly when it comes to the Isaac, Jacob and Joseph sagas.

For an amateur wordsmith like me, these yarns are lively examples of God’s dealing with some of the world’s rogues, cheats and ne’er-do-wells, many of whom could easily have been members of my own family.

Move over Underbelly and Power Without Glory. Nothing, and I mean nothing, compares to the Readings we’re hearing in Church currently. Don’t ever let anyone ever tell you that Church is boring.

That’s not the way our society tells it. Out there in society-land, Church is boring and God is portrayed as everyone’s friend, as the giver of all good things, is always on the look out to bless us in abundance and would never harm a fly.

This view makes the current episode about Jacob a bit disturbing. In fact, when one looks at all of this week’s Readings, you’d have to say that anguish is at the heart each of them, a far cry from the God-as-wooss view.

This part of Jacob’s story is unsettling, to say the least. Not only does the story lack clarity, there is the presence of this shadowy, dark, figure with whom Jacob wrestles all night. All night? No ‘best of three falls’ in this match here, obviously.

Jacob’s trying to get home to patch up things with his brother, the hairy Esau, whom he swindled out of an inheritance. As an aside, maybe Jacob was the one who started the saying “Where’s there’s a will there’s a relative”. Whatever; Jake is about to square things off with his big bro and, as he goes, is fast becoming a candidate for Valium, such is his anxiety.

In the dead of night, Jacob is set upon by a shadowy stranger who engages him in a fight that exceeds anything you’ll ever see on Smackdown. What a match.

I suspect the stranger was either a politician, a lawyer or a journo: he made no comment and neither confirmed nor denied who he was. Jacob becomes convinced that Mr No-Name is, in fact, God himself. With a history of looking to get an advantage, Jacob wasn’t going to let Him go without being paid back for the sand in his eyes.

“If this is God whom I’m wrestling, the least he can do is give me a blessing,” says Jake. But, here’s the scary bit: God gives him a blessing, but dislocates Jacob’s hip in the process.

“Some God you’ve got there, old boy,” we say. “I thought He cared for people …” It’s literally a low blow but, in the end, Jacob gets both a blessing and a limp for his troubles: “blessed but crippled” as someone has put it.

Personally speaking, I wouldn’t’ be making this story the centrepiece of an evangelistic crusade or an advertising campaign for Back To Church Sunday, but that’s only my view.

At an experiential level, however, there is something familiar about this story because many of us can identify with Jacob: assaulted by God, assaulted by the Church, by our family, by the world, by everything.

For many, a relationship with God is a real wrestle, often through long night-watches. It often happens when we’re on a journey to put something right, when we’re really working at drawing near to God and becoming the person God wants us to be and all we get is a shadowy, elusive and uncooperative presence in return and a pile of grief that leaves us limping for life.

Of course, I can be, and have been, grateful for the blessings that have reshaped my life and have borne fruits of gratitude from deep within that might otherwise not have come. Often I can recognise the unmistakeable fingerprints of God all over the wrestle. But that’s hindsight, where 20/20 vision reigns.

Often, when one’s actually in the fight, it would be nice to know there might have been another, gentler, way, a way that didn’t leave a scar that still causes us to limp, a cup of suffering that we didn’t have to drink.

Many have walked away from wrestling at this point, sans dislocation and sans blessing. It all gets too hard and we wonder which is the best option: stay and get injured or walk away in freedom. It’s a helluva choice.

Perhaps I’m a dreamer and there is no other way. It’s an odd comfort that tells me Jesus didn’t find that way, either, if there was one. He wrestled with God and copped wounds that have never been healed, either. So we hang in there.

If God is the central character in all of these sagas, then one would have to say that He’s got a funny way of showing His love for us. Clearly, He wants only the best for his people but wrestling to the point of injury? Come on.

He’s obviously no namby-pamby God who faints at the sight of blood nor wimps out on making the cuts that will reconstruct us into the Imago Christi, the likeness of Jesus.

This is a God whose love is tough enough to wound us when it is the only alternative to bring us into the blessings that have been made possible for us by our wounded saviour.

Furthermore, this is a God who has the tough courage to be wounded by us, and crucified by us over and over again, rather than let us walk off unscarred, unsure whether we have got what it takes to face the fears of tomorrow.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Reflections from The Hill - Custody of the Eyes

Reflections from the Hill – Custody of the Eyes

Sometimes our eyes deceive us; sometimes it’s easier to get a new set of specs than fall into a mess of sin; sometimes we need to exercise custody of the eyes, unlike that manipulating, self-serving liar called Jacob.

He’s a big man in the Biblical story, and quite significant, as we’ve heard over the past couple of weeks – and we’re about to hear a doozie of a story this week – but the truth is, I am constantly amazed at how God uses someone like him.

It’s almost as if being a miscreant and living in immorality are prerequisites for holiness. If they are, then I’m afraid that I’ve missed it.

Let’s set the scene: Jacob’s on an eastward trek looking to obtain a wife from his mum’s brother, the crafty old Laban, and comes across a group of blokes watering their sheep.

While the pleasantries are taking place, Jacob spies a young lady coming in his direction. She’s a stunner – and rich. In a scene that might have come direct from any Townsville nightclub on a Friday night, Jacob falls in love with her straight away.

He takes her by the hand and, like the gentleman he is (not), plants a big smoochie on her. Emotions run high, hearts race, stars cross – and Jacob goes all dewy-eyed. Loudly.

Rachel’s knees give way under the weight of the hormones and, because she’s really a good girl, she takes off for home lickety-split to tell the old man what has happened. The old bloke, Laban, is overjoyed: “I like this guy’s style.”

The family reunion continues for days, even weeks; there’s a lot of hugging and kissing, but Laban listens carefully as Jacob tells him the whole bag of tricks, including the bit about Esau, and figures that Jacob is on the make.

“Surely you are bone of my bone,” says Laban with a vast amount of cynicism and fawning approbation, “Welcome to the family. Now, what do you really want?”

“Want? Me? Well, if you insist – how about your daughter Rachel?”

You could have knocked Laban over with a feather. He was planning for Leah to get married. Leah, his eldest, the one who had the soft, doe-like eyes and may not have been all that bright, was twiddling her thumbs and waiting for a man to turn up; any man.

So Jacob and Laban cut a deal: Jacob will work for 7 years for Rachel. That’s all. High fives all round with a handshake and the deal is done. (Sometimes I dream of weddings at St James’ Cathedral being as simple).

When the 7 years were up, and it seemed but a few days for our lover-boy, Jacob went to collect his pay. “Ok, Laban, I’ve done the time, now give me Rachel so we may commence with the consummating …”

”Not so quick, young fella, there’s a whole celebration to organise here. We’re going to need the caterers, for starters.” So Laban makes the arrangements but you can tell that he has another plan in mind.

During the wedding ceremony, the bride came heavily veiled, and after the reading of the marriage contract, the groom wrapped his bride in the cloak he wore, and then took her into their version of the honeymoon suite, the marriage tent, where they spend their first night together.

Maybe it was dark, maybe she really was heavily veiled, maybe he was drunk, but the morning after … Jacob, submerged in that warm and fuzzy honeymoon fog, rolled over to kiss Rachel, his new wife, only to find Leah lying next to him, all curled up and smiling.

Jacob’s been caught in a sting of the first order. What goes around, comes around, they say, and the crafty old Laban’s snapped another one.

Jacob runs to Laban “What have you done? This isn’t what I agreed to: I wanted Rachel; I worked for Rachel; and I’m in love with Rachel. You pulled the switch, and now I’m saddled with this … this … other one.”

Funny, isn’t it, that a person’s birthright was the reason for the switch? The one who played that card a little while before has been trumped at his own game.

Uncle Laban doesn’t stop there, though. He reaches into his storehouse of monkey-tricks and pulls out yet another deal: “Stay with Leah through the week and you’ll get Rachel. What’s more, for you I can do this for the special, low, low price of seven years.”

Laban’s got Jacob over a barrel; Laban played on Jacob’s love for Rachel, unloaded both daughters and got fourteen years of free labour out of the boy. By the end of the week, however, Jacob had Rachel too. It’s like something out of The Hustler or The Sting.

Let’s stay with Jacob. He got swept away when he saw something he wanted; and he worked for it, and is patient until the day he gets it. And then, the morning after, he wakes up with the other sister. Talk about custody of the eyes.

Who among us hasn’t had that experience? Who among us, after wanting something so badly that we would do anything to get it, hasn’t woken up one day and realises, “This isn’t what I bargained for.”

How many married men have sat at the breakfast table and said to themselves “Really? I married her? … This isn’t the one I married; my wife was beautiful …”

Or wives, the first time they discover him sleeping on the couch with chips all over his tee-shirt, snoring away with the TV blaring and the remote still in his hand, thinks, "Seriously?

Jacob learned that God’s plans are bigger than his eyes made provision for. He learned, too, that God has a longer vision: He knows the end from the beginning.

By waiting the extra week for Rachel, God raised up Joseph (of Technicolour Dream-Coat fame) and His story was able to roll on.

When things go awry, it’s easy to get mad, retreat to the desert and allow our eyes to call the tune. Maybe it’s better to take the long view “Wait it out the week, and at the end, you’ll get Rachel too.”