Saturday, November 28, 2015

On Stairways and Mandrakes and Worshiping God

I started this week's reading back at Harran, on the border of modern day Turkey and Syria. This little strip of land has a habit of making history, doesn't it? Here Jacob laid down to rest on his flight from his homeland to his uncle's place (and his mom's hometown).

I think of Joseph as the dreamer of dreams, but it seems his dad had dreams of his own. The image of Jacob's ladder, of a stairway leading to heaven with angels going up and down it, rings in our collective consciousness. Jacob's ladder--it's been used to describe the beams of light slicing through the clouds, a child's toy of blocks and ribbons, electrical rods with a spark dancing between them, and a torturous exercise machine

In that place, in that time, a common monument was the ziggurat, a huge rectangular structure with stairs leading up its face toward heaven. At the top of the ziggurat was probably a shrine, dedicated to the worship of the moon goddess. The parallel wouldn't be lost on Jacob, who saw a ladder that went much higher than a building, the a place much safer than a shrine.

The symbol also was not lost on Jesus, who told Nathaniel, "You will see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the son of Man." There are so many layers to this story of Jacob as the father of nations, dreaming of Jesus, the savior of nations...of the Lord standing at the top of the staircase making promises to Jacob, and of Jesus being the staircase that leads Jacob and his people to heaven... Jacob knew when he woke up that he was in a special place, so special, he took the stone he'd used as a pillow (ouch), turned it on end, and left it as a pillar, a witness that what had happened there.

Jacob wasn't the only one dreaming in this story, either. Laban had his own dreams. Lest I think dreams are a revelation from God to his faithful followers, I keep reading to see that Laban practiced divination and worshiped his own gods. Besides, he was a greedy sneak and a liar, to put it mildly.

Jacob's marital relations with his two wives and their servants read like a soap opera. It was a household of jealousy and intrigue, laced with moments of triumph and vengeance.

Here's a story that popped out to me, one I never heard in Sunday school--the story of the mandrakes.

These are not the gnarly little plants that you have to get potted while they're babies so they don't kill you when they attack you. They're an herbal medicine and they're meant to cure infertility. Leah's son Levi found some and brought them to his mother like a good son would do. I can just hear it.

LEVI: "Here, Mommy. I brought you some roots that will help you have another baby."
LEAH: "Thank you, darling. I'll brew them up right away."
RACHEL: (tapping on door) "Did I hear someone say they've got mandrakes? I've been dying for some mandrake tea. Can I have some?"
LEAH: "Well, I don't know..."
RACHEL: "I'll let Jacob spend the night with you."
LEAH to LEVI: "You heard her. Give her the mandrakes."

I guess in a way, the mandrakes did help Leah get pregnant.

The story goes on to tell of how Jacob controlled the color the sheep and goats he bred would be based on what color sticks they looked at while drinking water, how Rachel stole the family idols and said she was on her period so she wouldn't have to get off her camel and reveal the stolen idols. It's a complicated story. There's lying, trickery, idols, hard work and dedication, true love, rivalry, jockeying for power, and more intrigue than an adventure movie.

With all the themes it dances around, the one I keep coming back to is the fact that Jacob somehow worshiped the one true God while everyone around him had the whole pantheon as a backup plan. When we lived in Africa, I wrestled with how to treat the voodoo priestess who sold me sugar, the men in the voodoo market who called out to me as I walked between their stalls of dried animal parts and amulets, the Christian friend who consulted the witchdoctor when her child was sick. But I never wanted to take part in any of their rituals or to pay homage to their gods.

Now, back in suburban American, the thought of having other gods is much more subtle. We don't typically bow down to or feed actual idols, though we do have our own gods set up on TV stands in a prominent place in our living rooms or tucked into our wallets. Lately, though, I actually found myself bowing down in front of a statue of Buddha in a yoga class. I had to struggle through whether to keep going to class if Buddha was going to be sitting in front of me. My teacher has graciously agreed to leave Buddha tucked in his closet on the mornings I am there, though I'm sure she doesn't understand my objection. The last thing I want to do is close a door on relationships because I am too judgy. On the other hand, I have to live with myself and doing the child's pose in front of sitting Buddha is too reminiscent of the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to be comfortable.

What else do I bow down in front of without thinking about it? What else consumes my thoughts, my dreams, my time? I have my list, some parts of which are easy to identify, others of which I'd rather not acknowledge to myself much less in public. Like Rachel sitting on her camel, using her time of the month as an excuse, I justify my habits and vices as normal expressions of my culture. And, for some reason, I'm resistant to even name them much less work on them.

God convicts at the most inconvenient times. Thanks a lot, God. Thanks a lot.

This Week's Torah Portion:
Genesis 32:3-36:43
Hosea 11:7-12:12; Obadiah 1:1-21
John 1:19-21

Photo credit: Giorgio Samorini via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Sunday, November 22, 2015


It amazes me how different aspects of life layer on top of each other, intersecting, overlapping, events and ideas being colored by other events and ideas. I wrote about Isaac yesterday, about how his story is an in between story. Then I sat in Bible class and then church this morning and heard the story of Isaac in a completely different light.

If you were at my church, you probably didn't hear anything about Isaac this morning. The texts came out of Nehemiah and Philippians, not Genesis. And if you sat by me (Andrea), I'm sorry I was so squirmy, but I had synapses firing on so many levels, my mind was abuzz.

What I missed in the story of Isaac was the laughter.

His mother laughed when she heard the promise he would be born, but that doesn't explain why Isaac was named "He Laughs." If he was named for his mother's lack of trust, he would have been named "She Laughs" or "She Didn't Believe." But Isaac's name was Laughter.

In Nehemiah this morning, we looked at a people so serious about restoring their relationship with God that they spent weeks in confession, study of scripture, and public mourning. Their mourning did not end in shame or sadness, though, but in celebration and joy. I invite you read my friend's blogpost about joy in the face of mercy here. As Kristy says, "Grace is accepting the consequences and then releasing them to the wind."

For the sermon, we turned to Philippians 4. The subject was giving--do we use our money for happiness or for joy? What I heard was that joy--capital JOY--always happens in relation to others, whether the people we are with or the God we serve.

That's what was missing in the story I told yesterday, the story bubbling beneath the story. Isaac's entire story is told in relation to his parents, his children, his wife, his neighbors. It is told, especially, in relation to his God. In his story, we catch glimpses of the story of his life. He went to a field to meditate. He received God's promise. His neighbors noticed that God was on his side. He sought peace.

Underneath the story of the sacrificial child, the father of twins, the foolish old man, runs a story of laughter and joy.

In this week that is all about giving thanks to God for his bountiful blessings, I pray you will seek connections with people and with God and that you will find JOY and LAUGHTER, no matter what your circumstances. I will be aiming for the same in myself.

Photo credit: Arnett Gill via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Sandwich Generation

Reading the Torah portion this week on the life of Isaac, I couldn't help thinking how different his story is than that of his father and his son. Abraham was specially chosen to be the father of nations, the one through whom God's chosen people--and, eventually, God's own son--would come. Abraham received the promise and took part in the covenant. Jacob (as we'll see next week) had his own adventures. But Isaac? Isaac is the middle child of the patriachs, All the stories we have of him tell about him in relation to someone else. He's one in the list, but what do we know about him, really?


The story of Isaac's birth is really the story of his parents. But isn't that how it is with all of us? Isaac's birth is a tale of faith and doubt, of laughter and tears, of Abraham and Sarah. Isaac, the promised child, is incidental in the narrative, more a chess piece in a strategy game than a character in his own right.


In the very disturbing story in which Isaac is laid out on an altar to be sacrificed at God's request, he only gets one line. The boy (or is he a young man?) asks his dad why they didn't bring a lamb to sacrifice. That's it. If I was writing the story, I would be tempted to tell it from Isaac's point of view. After all, didn't he have the most to lose? But we don't even get to see him squirming on the altar or jumping down in relief when his dad untied him, or huffing off in anger at a god who would jeopardize his life for the sake of testing his dad.


The story of "Isaac and Rebekah" takes up 6 columns in my Bible. Guess how many columns Isaac gets? An incidental little mention at the end, that he went into a field to meditate and that he took Rebekah into his mother's tent for the wedding night. He got his name in the heading, but this is not really the story of Isaac. One the surface, it's the story of a servant, an uncle, and a woman brave enough to run off and marry a total stranger. Yet there's another story bubbling underneath


Jacob and Esau. What can I say? They steal the show. How different they are as twins, even from birth. How they struggle and fight against each other all their growing up years. How Rebekah loved Jacob so much more than the older brother. Where is Isaac in the story of his children?

Old Age

Now the boys are grown and Isaac is old. Here we get the fullest description of this man who has remained, for the most part, a two dimensional character. And the look we get is not all that flattering. His sight has gone. He comes across a bit doddering while his wife plots behind his back (with the help of Jacob) to steal the blessing of the firstborn. He knows something's wrong when Jacob comes to him, but he falls for the trick and gives his blessing to the wrong son. Then, when Esau comes for the blessing, Isaac is powerless to give him one. The best he could say was, "Eventaully, you'll get made enough to escape slavery. Isaac comes across and stupid and impotent in this story. The foolishness of his actions overshadows the eloquence of his blessing.


I almost didn't mention Isaac's death. It's sort of buried (sorry!) in the middle of someone else's story, several chapters after he must have already been gone. He lived. He died.

He was the son of someone important. He was the father of someone important.

The end.

Only not quite. In telling the life of Isaac, I skipped one little story, one that stood out to me as weird and interesting. It starts with Isaac passing off his wife as his sister, a little ploy his dad used more than once. When Abimelek finds out Rebekah is his wife, he institutes a hands-off policy which allows Isaac to plant crops. His fields were super successful, so much that he was asked to leave because he had become too rich and powerful. He moved away for the sake of peace. That night, God appeared to him, promising him the same things he'd promised Abraham, but this time the promise was to Isaac.

And Isaac built an altar and called on the name of the Lord. And the people around saw clearly that the Lord was with him and came to make peace with him. And he dug a well and found water and called that place Beersheba.

I feel like it's taken me a long time to get here, but as I read through the stories of Isaac, frustrated by the fact that he is not featured in his own stories, I'm reminded that none of our stories are our own.

I was with my aunt recently, who is not much older than I am. She is truly in the sandwich generation, caring for both her children and her parents. She doing an amazing job, juggling work and family, watching after elderly parents in two searate care facilities.She's overworked and exhausted. She's also got to feel invisible, like she only exists to care for those older and younger than she is.  I wonder if Isaac ever felt that way?

Or did he feel more like the middle child, not the obedient older child who did everything right (Abraham) or the youngest scamp, always getting into trouble and demanding attention (Jacob).

Or did he, like most of us, feel like he was the key player in the story of the world? Did he think he was the star or was he content to be an extra?

What I've processed this week has been more observational than confessional. Except it makes me think that for those of us who live a quiet life, there seems to be value in holding the generations together, in bridging the time between the superstars, in waiting for the next promise to be fulfilled. And for us middle children out there, isn't the stuff inside the sandwich at least as important and interesting as the bread it's squeezed between?

This week's Torah Portion:
Genesis 28:10-32:3
Hosea 12:13-14:10
Matthew 3:13-4:11

Photo via Visual Hunt

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Jehovah Jirah

 This morning, as my newsfeed lights up red, white and blue in mourning and empathy for the people of France, I wonder what the story of the birth of Isaac has to do with all the pain raining down on the world today.

And then I see it, the gem of hope. Among this week's stories about the long awaited birth of the promised son, the search for his wife, and the death of his parents Abraham and Sarah, we find the name of God.

Jehovah Jirah.

The Lord Will Provide.

He provided a sacrifice in place of Isaac. Won't he provide for the people of Paris as well? The song, linked above, was sung in the tunnels of Paris. Listen to the heart of the words from Isaiah 54:10.

Quand les montagnes s'elloigneraient
Quand les collines chancelleraient
Quand les montagnes s'elloigneraient
Dieu fera tout comme il promet.

Son amour, oui, son amour,
ne s'elloignera point de toi.

"Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed ," says the Lord, who has compassion on you.

Today, we lift Paris up in prayer, that the people of this beautiful city will seek solace in the empty cathedrals and that they will find a God who is faithful and whose compassion and unfailing love do not change even when the world around them is in shambles.

This week's Torah Portion:
Genesis 25:19-28:9
Malachi 1:1-2:7
Luke 3:1-18

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Forgetting to Breathe

I've been on the run this week...all week...and all good. But, as I struggled with early in this year of intentionally paying attention to Old Testament spiritual rhythms, just because something is good does not mean it is best.

What that translates to is I allowed old habits to take over and forgot to carve out any moments to sit still. I've guarded my Saturday mornings to be able to contemplate the text for the week, but this morning I have no time for contemplation. I've filled my day with work, activities, friendship, family, and music. I'm looking forward to almost everything on my list, but I am finding myself missing the quiet morning moments to breathe in the story of God's people.

A frend of mine recently introduced me to yoga. It has been a great alternative exercise during a season when I am not able to run or hike because of an ankle injury. I love the deep stretches and slow movements of the hour we spend working out the kinks in backs, hips, and necks. I often find, though, that until our guide reminds me that I should be breathing out or breathing in with a particular stretch, I have forgotten to breathe at all. When I fill my lungs with air, hold it for a few seconds and breathe it all out, I feel the tension loosen in whatever muscle I am working on. When I hold my breath, I'm a giant ball of knotted tension.

That's how I feel this morning, like I'm holding a stretch and I've forgotten to breathe.

This week, I must remember to breathe. I have a wonderful opportunity for it as I go on a journey with God's people, a retreat with a bunch of church planters. I can't tell you how excited I am to sit with people who live on the front lines of God's advancing kingdom. I anticipate their presence and energy will force me into deeper stretches of my soul.

Have a good week. And don't forget to exhale.

This Week's Torah portion:
Genesis 23:1-25:18
Malachi 1:1-2:7
Luke 3:1-18

Photo via Visual Hunt