I’m feeling Jacob this morning. In between the two most stressful moments of his life, he’s looking for answers. He’s looking for something in which he can have confidence.
God told him to leave Laban and he wanted to leave Laban. He knew it would be difficult but he trusted that God would protect him. And God did.
But now Esau is coming out with 400 men. This doesn’t sound like a welcoming party. The dread of Esau is upon him. He prepares his camp so that when the attack comes, at least some may escape.
Like a modern man preparing for bankruptcy, Jacob positioned his assets to minimize the loss – but the loss was coming. He is desperate.
Why God, have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from my prayers?
A day – Some days; anxiety surrounds everything like a cloud.
Jacob begins building wealth through a process of selective breeding.
Laban and his sons are frustrated as they see Jacob increase. The wisdom they lack dooms them. Yet, no one seeks the wisdom in order to replicate the success. Envy drives the clan toward what appears to be an inevitable separation. Thus, Laban and his sons will likely be denied both the wealth they perceive should be theirs, and the wisdom by which they could achieve it for themselves.
Wealth follows wisdom.
Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all these things will be added.
What caught my attention was Rebekah’s capacity for the present. In about the same amount of time that it took for angels to visit Lot at Sodom, Abraham’s servant visited Rebekah and her family.
Both women were visited by mysterious travelers. Both gave hospitality. Both were suddenly called to leave everything.
Lot’s wife was called to leave everything in order to preserve her family. Unfortunately she allowed those things that had been, along with her expectations of what should be, to force her out of the present. In that moment she looked back into the past and the possibilities of her life ended.
Rebekah’s call was to leave everything in order to become Isaac’s wife. It was decided – she decided. She agreed to this and she never looked back. She declined the opportunity for ten days of nostalgia. She entered into her future by remaining in the present.
How Mary-like is this disposition. To be ready for the unexpected from God and to respond willingly and entirely.
Be ready and be present.
How many times have I read this passage. Certainly more than a thousand. I still struggle getting inside the moment. Imagining myself in Abraham. Imagining myself in Isaac. What would I be thinking if this was my life, my calling.
I remember marveling in my mind at Abraham’s extraordinary faith – “that I could have faith like Abraham.” I said that. Yet I hear the voice of a dear friend saying, “I could never follow any God who would cruelly test Abraham by asking him to choose between Him and his son.”
It was simpler before I had children.
Sure there is context. The religious practices of the people living around Abraham included child sacrifice.
Yet, I can’t imagine seeing my own son as the person I know him to be and willing this. I love him – almost desperately. Anachronistically, I would fail this test. I would sooner go to hell.
But God is God. A declaration of atheism doesn’t really relieve this burden. Following God is optional. A decision.
Existence is not. His existence is not. I exist. The ground of my being cannot be denied.
Isaac bound and lying on the altar. What does this mean?
Abraham had objectified his son. This child was not just any child. He was the hope of future progeny, the vehicle of promises fulfilled, the means to a great and glorious end. In other words, a useful object.
Abraham placed Isaac “the object” on the altar of sacrifice. At God’s command, he untied and raised up Isaac “the person”. Neither was ever again the same.
As father, as human person, I am called to do the same.
We celebrate Mother Teresa who once said, “…we can do small things with great love.” Her way of living “the little way” has brought her to this extraordinary moment of canonization – which, at the very least, is a recognition that greatness is most often the result of purposeful, consistent action. “A big shot is just a little shot who kept on shooting” is the way American business philosopher Zig Ziglar put it. Tongue-in-cheek it may be, but such observations about greatness serve as a reminder that greatness – extraordinary ways of living – are accessible to all. This is for you and for me. You were made with this.
“You’ve got great potential.” Ever heard that before? It’s funny-strange that this phrase in English can be used as everything from an encouragement to a backhanded insult. But there is a secret genius in this idea of potential. What we might be is already resident within us.
I think that part of the genius is the workman like virtue in this way of thinking. Like a great sculptor who can “see” in the block of marble the figure that could be; potential is the “might be” of a life. The artist knows that this stone has potential and its potential is unlike any other block of stone. And so, with time and energy the stone’s potential is realized in a carved figure that achieves the artist’s purpose.
Unlocking potential is an almost natural, almost automatic process that takes place over an extended period of time. Just as is happening before our eyes with our own children, the infant grows to be a woman. We can’t stop this, even if we wanted to. But we don’t want to – that would be unnatural. We want out children to grow. We want them to “achieve their potential”. We want that all of the potential vested in our tiny baby girl will one day be made into an actual woman. So we experience this transition from an original “state” to the final “state. We go from “A” to “B”. And we say that the person has “grown up”…, the child has matured…, the potential has been achieved – or made actual. Potency to actual – this is what we mean.
It takes time. “Before you know it they’ll be grown”. “Don’t blink or you’ll miss it”. And we miss it anyway. What happened to the time?
And that’s almost the real question. What happened to the time?
When your “self” relates to objects in your field, it’s not relating to time, it’s relating to things in time. Time is a measure of change. Change happens when things move. The conscious “self” is always on the move – it can’t stop moving.
So for a “self”, potential exists differently. Not in some past or present state that may or may not be made actual in some future state. Your “self” doesn’t have a past “state” or any possible future “state”. Self has only the present moment in relation to some object it has encountered in its field. And there is only ever one solitary question that really matters – What is your “self” going to do with this object that it has been given in this moment?
Like his master, the apostle says some pretty outlandish things. “Anything not done out of faith is sin”, he says. What am I supposed to do with that? I can’t live in the confessional.
Sin is lack. More specifically, it is a lack of faith. Even more specifically, it is a lack to convert the potential of a moment with respect to some encountered thing. God asked Adam of every animal – “what are you going to name this?” Adam was free to call the animal anything he wanted. But to have refused to name one of these animals would have been a sin. To have not entered into the possibility of that moment would have left him, and the world, poorer – less than either could have been. The potential in that moment would have gone unrealized, and like the sin he finally succumbed to, it could never be fully recovered.
The prophet said, “Now, is the time of God’s favor. Now is the day of salvation”. “Now” has always been the point with God. The thing in the present moment – what is given. That’s all you and I will ever have.
But that doesn’t mean the past, or even the future doesn’t matter. They both have their place. Yet abusing either is as treacherous as it is common.
Our days with the children are filled with failures. Just this morning, I missed the moment to wake up the twins in favor of some worthless gossip in the news. I chose it. I did it. Now what?
I could take my awareness of my failing and dwell on it. Letting the knowledge of my failure now become my object, I could spend the next moment relating to this knowledge filled with guilt for the original failure. And I could spend the next moment after with another object – this time it’s my story – the story that I tell myself about myself. And in this moment of relating to my story I become acutely aware that this is not the first time I have failed. In fact, it isn’t even the first time that I failed this morning.
So now, in the next moment I am led from my past moments to reflect on my inadequacies – it seems that “I always fail”. “I never not fail.” And this realization settles into my mind and into the muscles in the back of my neck as stress. I feel the weight of my failure physically, viscerally. And in the next moment I can reflect on how I don’t feel well in my body. Increasingly, how “I never feel well in my body”. Every moment has weight.
It’s an hour later now. I didn’t stop thinking. I didn’t stop relating. In fact, I’ve probably related to ten thousand objects over this collection of moments. I don’t think I actually chose any of them. My mind just wonders like that.
But the twins still need to be helped out of bed. I vaguely remember having this thought before. In frustration and even a tinge of anger I feel compelled to get to them and do what needs to be done.
And still I wonder where all the years went. How they grew up right before my eyes but I almost failed to notice. How the time passed so quickly.
My world, your world, is filled with objects that will always compete for priority, for attention. So how can I discern what was given from that which is intruding and imposing?
This is the true heart of the question. I can lament one more time about my failures and in that moment, once again fail to meet that which is truly given. I can be like a surfer always trying to mount a wave that has already passed and then anguish that I missed it yet again. But nobody actually gets a ride that way. It’s only frustration.
But if I take my world, my field, as a whole and deliberately chose to focus on the most valuable thing available to me in this moment, now I am near that which is truly given. And suddenly I can hear the voices of our twin boys calling out, wanting attention.
And I find what is ultimately given in this moment is two poopy diapers. As I gently and deliberately cleanse my sons from their infantile soil, I reflect on how, despite my maturity, our condition is not really very different. They soil their diapers. I do it all in my head.
It’s station two in the way of the cross. Jesus accepts the cross. As Jesus the man, He accepted what was given. Not that it was the only thing in His field. He could have focused His attention elsewhere. He could have thought of something else, or done something else. But instead, He received what was given. He accepted the cross because it was the most important thing in His field at that moment. The potential of salvation uniquely borne in Him became actual then, in that moment. The potential and the actual in that moment.
This way of givenness is not a new way. Potential becomes an actual through action. “Actual” and “action” and “this moment”. Actual through action in this moment. This is your greatness calling – and for you it’s not in Calcutta.
Do you remember that part of the creation story where the Lord God decides that it isn’t good for man to be alone? So, He decides to make some animals. And, in the story, the Lord God brings the animals to Adam so that he can name them.
It’s kind of a funny thought. Scientists tell us that there are around 8.7 million species of animals on the earth. So if Adam was given 1 min to reflect upon each animal before giving it a name, and he spent all 24 hours of each day naming animals, he would have been naming animals for about 16 and ½ years. Try to imagine that, a steady stream of animals being brought before you day and night, and you had to name each one as it came, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 16 and ½ years. So imagine if Adam was able to slow down the process so that he worked only 12 hours a day. Now he would have to name animals for around 33 years. That’s the equivalent of a modern human’s entire work career. Imagine it for yourself. For 33 years, once a minute, you would have to be introduced to a new animal and give it a name, recognizing that in the very next minute a new animal would be coming before you.
So forgive the hyper-literalistic treatment of scripture. It’s not really the point. The idea is to imagine a stream of objects constantly presenting themselves before your consciousness, persistently and interminably. The stream never seems to end. You can’t stop it.
Animals being paraded before you by the creative hand of an almighty God seems perhaps a little hard to relate to. But a constant barrage of objects that you have to deal with every waking moment of every living day on earth, actually sounds pretty much like the way most people describe their own mental experience. If only I had a dollar for everytime I’ve heard someone say, “I wish I could just stop thinking”, I would have a mountain of dollar bills. Although, I’ve never actually helped someone stop this flow, there are some answers about how to make the experience productive and fulfilling rather than exhausting and self-determining.
Here’s the beginning of a secret: You have a self. In fact, at your core, you are that self. But don’t mistake this self for the story that you tell about your “self”, because that’s not really you. Your self-story has a place, especially if you’re using your power of “self” appropriately. But you will never be the story that you, or anyone else, tells about you. The story and the “self” are two different things.
So you, as a self, encounter all these things in your world, in your space, or as I like to say, in your field. Maybe these things in your field come from the outside environment. Maybe these things in your field come from your body – urges, emotional reactions, physical pain. Maybe these things in your field come from your mind – ideas, memories, imaginations. Whatever they may be and wherever they come from, they enter your stream of consciousness just like the animals that came before Adam. And each time it’s like someone is whispering in the ear of your “self” saying, “What are you going to do with this?”
Sometimes this is fun. Interesting objects in interesting environments. Interesting people saying interesting things. Friends lauding your admirable qualities. Beautiful vistas and dramatic architecture. Important and meaningful words written on crisp and recently printed pages. The work is not so hard when the stream of objects are all pleasant and delightful to receive.
But, as we both know, these aren’t the only objects that we experience. Sometimes there are really horrible encounters with really ugly and frightening objects. Of course, most of the ugly and terrifying things don’t actually exist in the environment, although the universe has its share of ugliness. But, strangely enough, most of the ugly and repulsive things in life come from inside of us. Self-doubts, pessimisms, skepticism about the intentions of others, unbelief in the goodness of God, or the goodness of creation, feelings of frustration and emotional injury and loneliness. These also come. Perhaps uninvited, one or several of these always seem to find a way into our conscious streams.
I wonder sometimes at how Adam dealt with the ugly, repulsive, dangerous animals he encountered. The ones that could hurt or kill, the disgusting slimy ones, the sharp ones that could inadvertently cut, the invisible ones that he surely knew were lurking but are so hard to perceive.
What is given, is given. Adam had work to do. He had to name the animals.
Now naming in the ancient Hebrew tradition wasn’t like we understand it today. The power to name was the same as a claim of authority over the things that have been named. If an ancient Hebrew gave a name to something, that indicated he had power and authority over the thing that he, or she, named. Naming implies accepting and exercising authority over the named thing. This was Adam’s work.
This is your work.
When things come to us as given, the first essential thing that can happen – or not – is that we accept the thing “as given”. This is givenness: The willingness to receive, in this particular moment, the thing such as it is – whatever it is. No pre-judgements, but instead a willingness to receive the thing given as an experience in itself without judgement. Judgements will come in due time, or more appropriately said, in the due process of working with the objects that are given into our lives.
Make no mistake, I am not talking about resignation. It’s not que sera sera. Whatever the thing is, it must be dealt with. It has to be responded to. Objects demand responses.
But imagine Adam naming all of these animals and then, one day, suddenly coming upon an animal that he finds so repulsive, he simply refuses to give it a name. The Lord God brings the thing to him and, like a child, he closes his eyes and tries to think about the cute panda bear he got to name the day before. He even says to himself, “Why can’t I just spend more time with the panda? Why are you always forcing me to name these animals? I don’t want this animal, bring me something else”.
Adam’s job was to name the animals. God could have named the animals himself. But in allowing Adam to name the animals, he gave Adam dominion over them.
Your job, my job, is to receive these thoughts – these objects. Not only to receive them, but to receive them with Joy knowing that in accepting them and dealing with them that we gain dominion over them. It might not be clear how that happens, and we can talk about that another time. But no amount of conversation concerning gaining power over your thought life matters if you’re dispositionally unwilling to receive life – the objects of life – those things in your field – as gifts given.
From a single essence, being is split. Like the shaping of day from night from nothing, the one thing is now two. But it is as though the two things long for unity. Nothing else satisfies. The essence of every other being pales. Nothing else can satisfy.
The night precedes the day, the day chases after and overtakes the night. Two beings from what was once only one. Woman and her man. Man and his woman. The original and eternal longing for community.
Know in the other, the God you know to be within.