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Friday, September 17, 2021

Not Loved

      Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel had a lovely figure and was beautiful. Jacob was in love with Rachel and said, “I’ll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel.”

     Laban said, “It’s better that I give her to you than to some other man. Stay here with me.” So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her.   

-Genesis 29:16-20 (NIV)


Rachel and Leah, by Abel Pain

It’s a painful thing to be not wanted.

     It’s something we start to experience at a young age. If you’ve ever been the last one chosen for a team, or if you’ve been the kid the other kids didn’t want to play with, you know what it feels like. Romantic rejection is such a part of the landscape of our lives as teenagers and young adults that every popular song, every movie, every standup comic in every comedy club in every city and town deals with it. We even have a TV franchise, The Bachelor and all its spinoffs, to allow us to feel better about our own rejections by watching others get rejected. 

     Of course, every time someone gets a job or a promotion, someone else doesn’t. Every time someone gets into a prestigious university, someone else goes to their fallback school. Husbands reject wives and vice versa. Engagements end. Even in families and churches, sadly, people find themselves rejected.

     You’ve probably suffered rejection a time or two in your life. Maybe you’re feeling its sting right now. If so, then you need to be introduced — or re-introduced — to Leah.

     Leah was the first wife of Jacob, but he didn’t want her to be. He had it bad for her younger sister, Rachel, who “had a lovely figure and was beautiful.” Leah — well, it’s hard to know what to make of Leah’s description. Literally, the text says she had “weak” or “soft” eyes, but we don’t really know what that means. Probably, that Leah had pretty eyes. Nice enough but, up against Rachel’s description, it sort of feels like a backhanded compliment, something similar to “she has a good personality.” 

     So Jacob was really, really into Rachel. Rachel’s and Leah’s father, Laban, agreed to marry Rachel off to him. But the morning after the marriage celebration, Jacob wakes up, looks over, and finds that it’s Leah in bed with him. When he asks, understandably, for an explanation — after all, he’s worked for his new father-in-law for free for seven years to earn the privilege of marrying Rachel — Laban brushes him off by saying, “Around here, we don’t marry off the younger sister before the older.” Laban arranged it this way, you see. A heavily-veiled bride, a rowdy celebration, some wine, a darkened bedroom — presto-chango, Jacob is married to the other sister. 

     Laban suggests that, if Jacob still wants Rachel, he could work another seven years — and Laban will even marry her off to him in advance. Good arrangement for Laban. For Jacob, at least the situation is resolved.

     Not so good for Leah.

     So, a week after being foisted off on Jacob — which doesn’t say a lot for her father’s confidence that she could find her own husband — she’s now a co-wife of Jacob with her younger sister. (If you get irritated with your younger sister borrowing your stuff or tagging along with you and your friends — umm, it could be worse.)

     All of this is actually in the Bible, by the way. Genesis chapters 29 and 30. Next time you feel like watching The Bachelor, you might consider reading this story instead.

     These events all kicks off what a Sunday school teacher of mine when I was a kid called “The Great Baby Race.” Leah leaps out ahead with a flurry of little ones. She names the first three Reuben, Simeon, and Levi. There’s some sadness, though: the text says that God had something to do with making Leah the early leader in the race because he “saw that Leah was not loved.” 

     That’s the first thing to take away from this story: rejection by other people — however much their acceptance might mean to you — is not the same as rejection by God. To be “not loved” by other people is in some way or another to be especially loved by God. He sees Leah’s pain and offers a sign of his grace and acceptance to her. He notices and cares when we feel rejected as well, and if we’re open to it maybe we’ll see the signs of his care in those moments.

     Leah, admittedly, has some trouble with that. The names she chooses sound like the Hebrew words for look, hearing, and joined, and the explanations she gives all revolve around her hopes that God has seen and heard her rejection and that Jacob will love her and be joined to her because of these children. She’s harboring hope that maybe God’s plan for her will involve a husband who cares for her and dotes on her the way she sees Jacob doting on her little sister. 

     By the fourth son, though, look at the difference; she names him Judah — he will be praised — and explains her choice by saying, “This time I will praise the LORD.” It’s as though she finally accepts how things are, but also recognizes that she can still praise God even though her husband doesn’t love her and will never love her like he loves her sister, not even if she gives him a thousand sons. 

     Rejection by people, whoever they are, doesn’t negate the good God has done in your life. Sometimes we get stuck on winning the approval of that one person or those specific people who never gave it to us. We hope this accomplishment or that new circumstance will make it happen, finally. But maybe instead we should know that we can’t control whether or not people approve of us or reject us. At some point we have to come to the place where we can say, “I’ll praise the Lord. I’ll praise him for all the blessings he’s poured out on me, and I’ll stop looking for approval that might never come from someone who might not even be able to give it.” 

     One other thing. For this, you’ll have to go to the other end of your Bible. To the book of Matthew. Matthew begins his Gospel, his telling of the good news of Jesus, with these words: 

This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham: Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers…”

     Look, Jacob had eight more sons, two of them through Rachel. But he brings the Messiah, the Savior, the one who embodies the good news of God’s love, grace, compassion, and redemption, into the world through one of Leah’s sons. I kind of think of that as a final nod of approval for Leah, the wife who wasn’t loved. 

     Maybe to you this story seems hopelessly tangled up in outdated notions of what makes a woman successful. I get that. But I hope you can see that, whether you’re a man or a woman and whatever the nature of the rejection you might be feeling, God doesn’t reject you. Look for the signs of his love and approval all around you. I hope you can let go of the need for that approval you’ve never received and thank him for his blessings — especially the gift of his Son, Jesus. And I hope you’ll let your imagination run away with you as you think about the amazing things he will do in your life and the lives of those touched by you, down through generations.

     If you’ve ever been “not loved,” then be comforted in the deep and faithful love God has for you.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Heroes

 Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who draws strength from mere flesh and whose heart turns away from the LORD. That person will be like a bush in the wastelands; they will not see prosperity when it comes. They will dwell in the parched places  of the desert, in a salt  land where no one lives.

     But blessed  is the one who trusts  in the LORD, whose confidence is in him. They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought  and never fails to bear fruit.”   

-Jeremiah 17:5-8 (NIV)




Growing up in a southern city near three Civil War battlefields, I lived with Confederate monuments all around. I remember vividly when I was a kid climbing on the cannons that (I guess?) marked gun emplacements on Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, and Chickamauga battlefield. I recall statues too, though I didn’t pay nearly as much attention to those as a kid and couldn’t really tell you who they memorialized. (After I moved to Illinois, I did notice on a visit back to Chattanooga a monument honoring a company of Federal troops from Illinois that had served in Chattanooga, so maybe not all of the statues honored Confederate personnel.) There was a museum on Lookout Mountain that contained huge dioramas of the battles fought there; the museum was called The Confederama (the name has mercifully been changed to The Battles for Chattanooga Museum). I think my grandfather or someone once bought some imitation Confederate money and a gray military cap for me there.

     I also grew up hearing the set of myths called “The Lost Cause” that did their best to redeem those fighting for the Confederacy. In this telling, the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery, but states’ rights. (I still remember my junior year history teacher, Miss Hodges, who was an amazing lady and usually on-the-money historian, insisting that slavery was just “the horse they rode into battle.”) Of course, the Lost Cause proponents never point out that of the states that seceded, exactly none of them listed any “states’ rights” issues other than slavery as their reason.

     I read books from my school library about the great heroism and character of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and, especially, Robert E. Lee. Lee — or at least the character named Robert E. Lee portrayed in those books — was something of a hero of mine for a while, even. I’ve since learned, of course, that admiring Lee requires a person to ignore or explain away all kind of unsavory details about his life. He refused to honor his father-in-law’s wish that his slaves be released upon his death. He finally released them when forced to by the courts. He wrote that slavery in America, while not ideal, was better for Black people than their homes on the African continent had been and necessary for their improvement as a race.  And, in spite of his stated belief that Blacks were better off in slavery, he allowed and even encouraged — and may have committed himself — atrocities against them as a General and as a slaveowner.  

    For many reading this, of course — most, I would hope — the idea that we shouldn't honor a man or a group of people who fought against our nation for the stated purpose of opposing the institution of slavery will not seem too revolutionary. 

     Still — the impulse to honor our heroes is compelling, isn’t it? 

     Then it’s all the more horrifying when our heroes turn out to be, well, human. And sometimes, pretty awful humans.

     How many movie and TV stars have we had to “cancel” in the last few years as we discover more about the mistakes they’ve made and the people they’ve been? And would that have been half as traumatic if we hadn’t glorified them for being attractive and entertaining in the first place?

     Political figures get the hero treatment, too, though we’ve seen over and over where that can lead us.What if we could see our elected officials as just that — people we’ve chosen to work on our behalf? What if we stopped putting them on pedestals, literally and figuratively? Maybe we could see their successes and their mistakes with more perspective.

     Sometimes church leaders undeservedly get the blame for our anger and disappointment, but just as often (at least) they unfairly get credit for a growing church or a thriving ministry. One after the other in recent years, we’ve seen booming churches led by outsized personalities come crashing down in scandal and corruption. But what if we could let go of the idea that our faith and the church’s health depends on any human being? 

      How many statues will we have to take down, how many names will we have to take off buildings, before we get it?

     Jeremiah reminds us that when we trust in human beings — any human being — we have to live under the “curse” of spiritual malnutrition. Treating people — any person — unreservedly as a hero is asking to exist in a parched and barren world. The people we put on our pedestals, that we build memorials for and name buildings and highways after, are just people, after all. They will disappoint us sometimes. They will fail us. They will do wrong, and hero-worship will make us blind to the fact that they are fallible and that they aren’t always heroic, any more than we are. We’ll be left defending and excusing horrific behavior. It’s time to let go of the adolescent idolizing of celebrities, politicians, athletes, business leaders, and church leaders that’s rampant in our society.

      The prophet reminds us that we already have someone in whom we can trust, and that he will never fail us. We’ll never be disappointed by his sins. He’ll never overlook us or ignore us. When we trust in him we’ll never be without nourishment. What we’re looking for when we turn wrongly to our “heroes,” God will give us generously and fully. We won’t have to fear the things that cause even our heroes to wilt and dry up. 

     As Christians, we have a hero who never sinned, who never failed, who never brutalized anyone and never used power to control and manipulate. In fact, he sacrificed his life for us. He’s the one in whom we ought to trust. He should replace all our other heroes on the pedestals we’ve erected for them. 

      That will free us up also to not hate our heroes when they do let us down. We’ll see that we all have feet of clay, that there are ways in which we all need to learn and grow, and that none of us get out of this world without wreaking some havoc. We’ll be able to forgive those who let us down, and hope and pray for recovery and repentance and redemption for them.  

     As Richmond, Virginia, removes a huge statue of Robert E. Lee that’s witnessed to the persistence of the Lost Cause myths for over a century, maybe we can all learn to tap the brakes on building monuments to human beings — on our streets, in our parks, on our mountainsides, and especially in our hearts. May the only monument we raise be the cross. May our hero be Jesus. May the world see only him when they look at us. May they hear only his name on our lips. 

     If he’s our hero, we will never fail to flourish.

Friday, September 3, 2021

Curious, Not Judgmental

 Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. 

     Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.  

-Matthew 7:1-5 (NIV)




Lately, I’ve been watching the TV show Ted Lasso. Now, let me tell you up front that the language is rough. With a capital R-O-U-G-H. Very salty, to the extent that I hesitate to recommend the show to anyone. Having said that, it’s maybe my favorite show to watch right now. 

     Ted is an American football coach hired by Rebecca, the vindictive owner of an English Premier League football team, to get back at her horrible minority-owner ex-husband by running the team he loves into the ground. In a scene late in season one, Ted is playing darts in a pub with said ex-husband, Rupert. If Rupert wins, he can set the starting lineup for the team’s upcoming game. If Ted wins, Rupert isn’t to go anywhere near the owner’s box when Rebecca is there.

     With Rupert ahead, they come to Ted’s final turn, and he asks the pub owner what he needs to win. “Two triple-20s and a bull’s-eye,” comes the answer — three incredibly difficult shots. As Ted lines up his first toss, he says this:  

"You know, Rupert, guys have underestimated me my entire life and for years I never understood why. It used to really bother me. But then one day I was driving my little boy to school and I saw a quote by Walt Whitman. It was painted on the wall, and it said, 'Be curious, not judgmental.' I like that.”

Ted throws a triple-20.

"So I get back in my car and I'm driving to work and all of a sudden it hits me. All them fellas that used to belittle me, not a single one of them was curious. You know, they thought they had everything figured out, so they judged everything and they judged everyone. And I realized that their underestimating me -- who I was had nothing to do with it. Because if they were curious, they would have asked questions. Questions like, 'Have you played a lot of darts, Ted?’"

Ted throws another triple-20.

"To which I would have answered, 'Yes, sir. Every Sunday afternoon at a sports bar with my father from age 10 until I was 16 when he passed away.’"

Ted then stares at the board for a second and, of course, throws a perfect bull's-eye to win.

     You know, all my life I’ve known that Jesus said we shouldn’t judge or we’d be judged. I’ve thought about that text a lot. Wrestled with it. I’ve gotten frustrated at the way church people ignore those words, and then realized that of course in getting frustrated I might be guilty of ignoring those words myself. I’ve struggled with how to call out evil for what it is — as Jesus did — without getting into the judging business. 

     What I’ve never considered, in all this time, is what I just learned from Ted Lasso (and Walt Whitman) — that the opposite of judgment is curiosity.

     That episode made me go back to the Gospels to check on how many of Jesus’ words end with question marks. Not counting rhetorical questions, here’s a partial list:

Who do you say that I am?

Do you believe?

Do you want to get well?
Why are you so afraid?

Are you going to leave?

What is written in the Law? How do you read it?

Who touched me?

Do you love me?

     Maybe you can come up with others. Now, you might argue that Jesus already knew everything he needed to know, that the questions he asked were just set pieces designed to elicit a response. I don’t know that I agree with that — there are certainly at least a few events in the Gospels that seem to surprise him. But even if that’s so, two other things are as well. One: He still asked questions.

     And, two: You and I aren’t Jesus.

     Because we aren’t, we need to ask questions. To people who haven’t come to the point of belief in Jesus, we need to ask who they think he is — and really be interested in the answer. Not so we can dismantle it and “prove” to them why they’re wrong to not believe, but so that we can understand where they are, and why. Maybe we need to ask if they believe, because maybe they do and we just haven’t seen it.

     To a sister or brother in Christ who disagrees with us about something the Bible says, let’s remember that question, “How do you read it?” Again, not so we can slam them as heretics, but so we can begin to see their point of view and understand how they got there. Maybe we’ll learn from them. Maybe they’ll learn from us. Likely both. But neither can happen if we’re so set in our judgment that we lose our curiosity.

     “Why are you afraid?” “Do you want to get well?” Those are questions that get to a person’s motivations and deepest hidden feelings. They’re much to be preferred over statements like “You can’t live in fear” or “Do what I tell you.” You ask those questions because you want to know why a person is where they are in their lives, what’s got them frozen or stumbling in the dark. Questions like those invite conversations and help us get to know one another better.

     “Who touched me?” Questions like that one help us to uncover the people in our lives who brush up against us in the crowd — people we might easily overlook or pay little attention to. We need to be willing to look with curiosity into the eyes of the people around us, wondering who they really are, what makes them tick, and why they do and value and prioritize the things they do. Much of the time, what you’ll probably find is that they aren’t as strange or repulsive or evil or unpleasant as you may have thought at first glance. You might even begin to understand them and even, as Jesus did, to like them. 

     Oh, not always. But you won’t know if you aren’t curious, genuinely curious about them. One thing’s for sure: if you’re curious about them, you’ll begin to see them as people God loves. And who knows what might happen then?

     Be curious, not judgmental. The next time you have an impulse to make a pronouncement, ask a question instead. It just might help you to see the speck in your brother’s eye and the plank in yours with greater clarity.