October 23, 2017

One of God’s Better Stories

Monhegan Island Maine East Coast 2014

I have to admit, I loved being a part of the story I posted yesterday. It was a great privilege to know Lenny and Frances, and their lives inspire me.

I got a sense from the comments that we all feel admiration for people like them — folks who seem to model Jesus’ teachings about forgiveness and turning the other cheek, who suffer without complaining and endure life’s intimidating challenges with a sense of grace and humor and simple faithfulness.

They should be admired. From all I know of them, their lives were exemplary. Their children and grandchildren rise up and call them blessed. Their priest sings their praises. Their story speaks for itself.

I have no problem recommending people like Lenny and Frances as models for us all to follow.

But I know one thing.

Their story is their story and your story is yours and mine is mine. And whether or not we ever come to earn the kind of respect those two simple saints gained, God still loves us and is at work in our stories too.

As I was driving today, I thought about the difference, for example, between Lenny and Frances and the patriarch Jacob. Or, “that rascal,” as I like to call him. From birth, Jacob was never anything but a piece of work. His entire life was one giant con. Born trying to supplant his brother’s place, Jacob lived as a schemer to the end.

As a youngster, his infamous career began when he tricked his brother out of both birthright and blessing. The fallout was so severe it forced the young scoundrel to flee home.

Then the living God met him on the road in an dream encounter that we sometimes speak of as Jacob’s “conversion” at Beth-el, the house of God. However, if it was a conversion, it didn’t appear to change Jacob very much. He emerged from the vision and immediately began bargaining with God and setting his own terms for their relationship:

“If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you” (Genesis 28:20-22).

What a deal for God.

Moving down the road, Jacob’s conniving ways were about to advance exponentially. His fugitive journey led him to a school of treachery as he went to live with his uncle Laban, a double dealer who almost proved to be a match for Jacob in treachery. The story of their many years together is a tale of two tricksters continually trying to outdo each other.

And Jacob had more on his plate than duking it out with Laban. In his own tent he had to deal with two scrappy wives who scratched and clawed to gain an advantage in the family like prizefighters.

Ultimately, Jacob won the showdown with his shyster uncle Laban, packed up his contentious clan, and hit the road with a pile of booty.

Having left that frying pan, he turned to travel back home toward the fire that was his brother Esau, who had held grudges ever since Jacob left. Jacob shook in his sandals at the prospect of meeting the brute and getting the beating he deserved.

One night, while camping en route, a man (an angel? God himself?) ambushed the patriarch in the darkness and they wrestled through the night until Jacob emerged a crippled “victor” with a new name — Israel.

I guess you could call that transformation. I call it a busted hip and the knowledge that the only hope he had was in hanging on to God for dear life.

For the rest of Jacob’s days, he and the family dealt with the consequences and ongoing patterns of his lifetime of deception. The character traits engraved on Jacob’s face and visible in his constant limp flowed through the rest of the household, and until the day he died, Jacob worried and struggled to keep faith, hope, and love alive in a clan full of connivers.

The last story about Jacob before his death brings a smile. Son Joseph presents his two sons to their grandfather for his blessing. Manasseh, the firstborn, should be blessed with Jacob’s right hand. Instead the patriarch crosses his arms and places it on the head of the younger, Ephraim. Manasseh, the elder and rightful heir, gets the left hand — second best.

Joseph has a hissy fit and objects. He thinks the old man made a mistake because of his failing eyesight. This is the ultimate faux pas; it will scar his boys for life.

But Jacob insists. Here at the culmination of all his journeys, he wants to pass on what he’s learned about the only thing that really matters: It’s all about God’s choice, God’s blessing, God’s grace, God’s relentless promises. Maybe God is the ultimate Trickster.

I can just see that rascally twinkle in Jacob’s eye, as he puts one over on his own son and grandsons.

And I can hear Jacob chuckle a little at Joseph’s indignation. We chuckle with him. Joseph, who knew all about his dad and the ways of his family, probably broke down and cracked a smile himself. Perhaps a saint is nothing more than an old scoundrel we can’t help but smile at.

Fact is, Jacob was endlessly persistent in trying to get his own way and gaining advantage over others. But he was not nearly as persistent as the God who stuck with him and blessed him in spite of himself.

And I’d be willing to bet that if you asked God, he’d say, “One of my better stories.”

Unlike Lenny and Frances, Jacob was not someone any right thinking person would admire. Deceiver, con artist, trickster, conniver, swindler, rascal and rogue. From the day he was born to the day he died.

And yet — “Jacob have I loved,” says the Lord.

Now there’s a story.

Comments

  1. This made me smile, and reminded me of something that happened in seminary. Our church history prof had assigned us a biography of St. Jerome. The book was sympathetic, but also made no attempt to hide Jerome’s (considerable) flaws. One of my fellow students shared these insights with his wife as he read, and eventually she started asking him before their talk, “Well? Is he a Saint yet?” 😉

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I heard Jerome’s superiors tasked him with translating the Bible into Latin to keep him out of trouble. That the guy was so abrasive a personality he could antagonize everyone in a room just by walking in the door.

      • Dana Ames says:

        … but we know he had deep friendships with some few of women, at least one of whom helped him with his translation tasks, and he gave credit to her for it. That has redeemed St Jerome for me 🙂

        Dana

  2. I had already started this morning on the wrong foot, still meditating on the story you told of Lenny and Frances, frustrated with my own failures and seeming inability to live a life anywhere near approaching the grace they modeled. Praying for Jesus to still the storm raging within me.

    Thank you, CM, for bringing some peace today. What a story, indeed.

  3. “Maybe God is the ultimate Trickster.” Reminiscent of some world views of their gods. The Norse, the Greeks etc. I think we have a plain Jane ordinary vanilla view of God generally. The ultimate rule follower and thus very predictable. He can and will do such and such and would never do the other. I think that stems from a combination of fear and the desire for control. I’m not sure if that was a throwaway line or you were really serious but is certainly worth keeping in mind that while God is the same yesterday,today and forever His name and His image change from our perspective as we go through life. Yahweh, El Shaddai, El Elyon, etc. all represent a different way of relating leaving a clear path for Him to pull a quick one on us, which He clearly does on occasion, in a very Jacob like way. Growth is often the shattering of one image, which is very unsettling, making room for the new image to emerge. That can feel like He has turned the tables completely until some resolution occurs. Trickster? Yes I think so.

    • No Chris, that wasn’t a throwaway line, but a fresh insight gained through meditating on this story yesterday. One thing I think we Christians miss when reading the Hebrew Bible is the humor, the “wink” that is often infused into these stories. There is a certain playfulness to God as the Jews portray him, a flexibility to God’s persona that finds him “adapting” as it were to each character and his/her quirks. God is not the static Unmoved Mover that we so often assume. Jacob could only be blessed by the ultimate Trickster.

      • I used to take great offense at the idea that Greek philosophical and theological ideas had too much sway in Western Christian theology. I’m beginning to understand that I may have been wrong there, as I was on so much else.

      • Chuckle, chuckle, smile.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        The only god-figure I’ve seen in recent pop culture who is Benevolent, Approachable, and actually Playful is Princess Celestia from the current version of My Little Pony. No wonder she has such a fan following.
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KRlpZKJ0Elc

        • And female. Let’s not forget El Shaddai is the big breasted God of Abraham. Perhaps that image is returning to our era.
          “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
          How many times we have read that and been blind to the AND FEMALE of His image.

          • After looking at the clip I’m guessing you may have been joking. Nonetheless, seen from a psychological point of view even trends in viewing amongst children and adults are telling signs of what society at large is seeking.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            On a Q&A panel at Pacific Pony Con three weeks ago in San Diego, Princess Celestia’s voice actress said her initial briefing for the voice was “the Ultimate Mother Figure”. (In the kid’s track, she did some readings of pony storybooks to the kids in Celestia’s voice.)

            The character has always come across to me as a small-g mother goddess figure as well as a sun goddess. Fan-created Extended Universe often has her as a mother figure to all her little ponies, ruling and protecting them and leading them into Harmony while they often tremble in awe of her (if not fear coming short of her example).

    • Christiane says:

      “Growth is often the shattering of one image, which is very unsettling, making room for the new image to emerge. That can feel like He has turned the tables completely until some resolution occurs. ”

      I’d say God finds the only possible ways for us to get over ourselves. He open our eyes.

      “The everlasting God has in His wisdom foreseen from eternity the cross that He now presents to you as a gift from His inmost heart. This cross He now sends you He has considered with His all-knowing eyes, understood with His divine mind, tested with His wise justice, warmed with loving arms and weighed with His own hands to see that it be not one inch too large and not one ounce too heavy for you. He has blessed it with His holy Name, anointed it with His consolation, taken one last glance at you and your courage, and then sent it to you from heaven, a special greeting from God to you, an alms of the all-merciful love of God.”
      ( St. Francis de Sales)

    • God as Trickster? I’m pretty sure back in my early, formative Christian years I would’ve bristled at the thought. Now…not so much. (Oh…and I’m pretty sure my writing/creative side helps me see God as Trickster. As I write/create, I’m constantly surprising my characters, as THEY go ME! Conversely, I’m not so sure a right-brain thinker would be able to grasp this concept of God. Any right-brain/engineer types here care to comment?)

      • It wasn’t until I (as forced by the Hand of God) abandoned my Reformed systematic theological sandcastle building, and not really until I started GMing Dungeons and Dragons again, that this concept of God began to make sense to me. Yeah, right-brainers aren’t going to take to this easily.

  4. I am walking with God right now on a semi-Jonah-like mission, feeling led by the Spirit to deliver messages of His love to a couple of people I have absolutely no idea how to deliver the message to, and it’s such a completely nutty mission that I’m laughing at the different angles God might play it out. All I know is God is really creative and might end up blowing me away (in a fun, good sense) with how it gets accomplished. As I told someone the other day, I wouldn’t be surprised if one day one of these people walks up to me out of the blue and says, “Are you Rick? I heard you’ve been praying for me. Thanks.”

    God is much bigger than the box we put Him in. This post kinda gets at that, I think.

    • Yes! There is humor everywhere:

      “Do you want to know what goes on in the heart of the Trinity?
      I will tell you.
      In the heart of the Trinity the Father laughs and gives birth to the Son.
      The Son laughs back at the Father and gives birth to the Spirit>
      The whole Trinity laughs and gives birth to us.”. Meister

      HAFIZ
      What is the difference between your experience of Existence and that of a saint?
      The saint knows that the spiritual path is a sublime chess game with God
      And that the Beloved has just made such a Fantastic Move
      That the saint is now continually tripping over Joy and Bursting out in Laughter
      And saying, “I Surrender!”

      Whereas, my dear, I am afraid you still think you have a thousand serious moves.

      Hafiz tells us that the Beloved’s nature is pure Joy.
      The closer we come to Him, the more we are able to hear and feel God’s Laughter.
      The rhythm of His Laughter is the music of the dance of life.
      That music is the essence of Love and it is the radiant core of every song of Hafiz.

      • The line that cracks me up:
        “Whereas, my dear, I am afraid you still think you have a thousand serious moves.”

  5. Hmmmm. I have a different take on this and I admit it’s not as positive as everyone else.
    I agree that God is bigger than we know, and his love for the unlovable among us is boundless, and that he gets the job done in spite of us. But, when I look at that last bit that says “Unlike Lenny and Frances, Jacob was not someone any right thinking person would admire. Deceiver, con artist, trickster, conniver, swindler, rascal and rogue. From the day he was born to the day he died”, I think it’s a dangerously short walk to think its perfectly OK to turn a blind eye to someone in authority who is all those things because, hey, God loves him or her, too, and we don’t know His purposes, and the results are positive. For example, a prosperity gospel preacher who does unethical or immoral things but, hey! The butts are in the pews and money is flowing so what the heck?! Just look at all the people who are hearing God’s word!
    I’m not trying to be contrary here, really, I am not. Maybe it’s the string of gray, damp skies and the sour political climate and the mired & nasty web of church politics that is giving me a sour view of humanity right now.

    • I’m pretty sure if Jacob had been a pastor, that I would not have attended or recommended his church to others.

      • Wow….now there’s something to ponder.

      • It reminds me of the local married Congressman, family values guy all the way, touting his allegiance to God at every opportunity, who was caught in a compromising position on a park’s boat ramp with a woman who was not his wife (she was also married). She had helped him make abstainence videos to encourage young people to, well, you know, abstain from sex outside of marriage. He resigned from his Congressional seat but the upside, he stated, was that the abstinence videos got thousands of hits on YouTube. Think of the people who saw those videos that wouldn’t have otherwise!! Isn’t God great?
        I just don’t think that’s how It’s supposed to work.

    • Christiane says:

      go ahead and ‘vent’ …… it’s good for you ……..

      as far as God loving the unlovable, maybe He sees us the way I see my puppy, when I left him in the house and went to run an errand;
      on my return, I found the little guy had got up on top of my dining room table, chewed up and partially devoured a fifty dollar roll of stamps, spilled a vase, there was a little steamy pile of puppypoo on the floor . . . . and all I could do upon seeing the devastation was to pick the little furball up and love him 🙂

      maybe God is the Source of long-suffering and patience . . . . and of love, afterall ?

  6. Ronald Avra says:

    The story of Jacob and his family is worth revisiting many times. Wealthy and disfunctional clan they were.

  7. Heather Angus says:

    I dunno. I had a teacher of Comparative Religion who suggested that these stories, and others like them in the OT, were stories written by Hebrews, perhaps inspired by God but not necessarily BY God. The Hebrews 3,000 years ago, not unlike today, scorned their (Arab) idol-worshiping neighbors. So it gave the writers a mischievous delight to “put down” Esau, the supposed patriarch of the Arab nations.

    Same as in the story of Lot, whose daughters got their father drunk and had relations with him, and (Genesis 19) “That’s how Lot’s two daughters had their children. 37 The older daughter named her son Moab,[e] and he is the ancestor of the Moabites. 38 The younger daughter named her son Benammi,[f] and he is the ancestor of the Ammonites.’

    Same with the story of Hagar, the SLAVE mother of Ishmael, who was the founder of the “desert tribes” around the Hebrews. (The Moslems have the story of Abraham and Ishmael in their writings, but Hagar is NOT a slave there.)

    If one believes that the God who acts in the OT is actually THE God, the creator of the world and the universe, then God does indeed seems like a trickster, and pretty vicious besides (see the Amalekites in I Samuel 15: “Go and attack the Amalekites! Destroy them and all their possessions. Don’t have any pity. Kill their men, women, children, and even their babies. Slaughter their cattle, sheep, camels, and donkeys.”)

    I can only read the OT in the light of Jesus’ words and acts in the NT.

    Sorry — I really got going on this!

    • I agree, Heather. For me, the New Testament Jesus injects necessary humanity and love into the OT picture of God. Without that injection, I’m not sure I could recognize a consistent image of a loving God in the total OT depiction. I mean this as no insult to the Jewish religion; Judaism also injects humanity and love into that picture by means of its Oral Law and authoritative interpretative traditions.

      • Heather, I struggle with some parts of the OT, but the story of Jacob? I find it delightfully rascally, funny, and inspiring. Even Esau doesn’t come off so bad in the end.

        And Robert, I don’t think it’s just the interpretive tradition that “humanizes” God but rather the delightful quirks of the literature itself.

        • There certainly are moments and chapters of humanity (which at its deepest and most loving I take to be totally at one with divinity, most emphatically in the Incarnation) in the OT literature depicting God, but I find it impossible to hold those adumbrations together in a compelling picture of a loving God until I get to the NT witness to Jesus. Glimmers are there, yes, but no picture like the one rendered in Jesus.

          • I don’t have a complete answer for you here, Robert, but I think it helps to remember the purpose of the Hebrew Bible. It’s not a timeless book of theological affirmations, but a history of Israel designed to help the exiles understand their past and find hope for their future. As such it contains a tremendous mixed bag of material. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I am not enough of an expert in the Hebrew Bible to know how all those parts contribute to the whole, especially the disturbing sections about genocide, etc., but I have faith in the big picture.

  8. No Jacob, no Israel.
    No Israel, no Jesus.
    No Jesus, no iMonk.

    His basic purpose in life seems to have been to have twelve sons, which he did. If he was a jerk, he also paid a lot along the way. I come from two grandfathers who were considered jerks. I’m trying to remember if Jesus ever mentioned Jacob and coming up blank.