Another “limp” for Jacob was his favoritism toward his son Joseph. It’s a big long story and worth the read (Genesis 39 really shows us the limitations and consequences of a family system characterized by dysfunction). This family was a mess, but the neat thing is that this mess didn’t negate the presence of God either.
It seems like all our collective family dysfunctions come out to play during the holiday season.
I want to encourage us to remember that not only do each of us walk with a limp, every family has its own, shall we say….special challenges?? Despite the lovely artistic renderings of families portrayed by Norman Rockwell, there really is no such thing as an ideal, “normal” family. At least if there is, I haven’t met one.
Am I suggesting that we double down and try to improve our functionality so as to make the season a bit more enjoyable? Well, that would be nice but….let’s face it, some things in families never get fixed.
It is the relentless pursuit of getting everyone “fixed” that I believe causes the most distress in families. This year, let’s take the pressure off and abandon the expectation of perfection. Instead, let’s try to appreciate the fact that in spite of our dysfunctions and handicaps, most of us are doing the best we can much of the time. We can figure out ways to mitigate harm. We can make new and better choices.
There are some exceptions to this everyone-is-doing-their-best mentality; these require special circumstances. We do not ignore abusers or predators in a vain attempt to have one day when the entire clan can gather. We do not put our family members at risk by hanging out with folks who have taught us that they are unsafe. Can’t stand the thought of not seeing Uncle Billy even though you have twenty years of holidays when he has gotten all liquored up and started an ugly fight with Aunt Ruth? Ok, well, accommodate the dysfunction but don’t allow it to control the day OR expose your children to toxic fumes. What about meeting them out somewhere in public, grab a lovely breakfast out that is both safe and less likely to be boozey? And, if the mimosas flow too freely, hey, you’ve come and can just as easily leave in your own car. Maybe even let Uncle Billy pick up that check! That would be a sobering experience!! Here’s the thing – the holidays are a lousy time to use denial as a strategy for coping, but with creativity and discernment, we can accommodate the inevitable limitations in each family and find a way to love well.
Jacob was a guy who was able to manipulate and control his life circumstances. True, there were consequences along the way, but by and large the guy got what he wanted. One rough spot in his life involved his broken relationship with Esau, his twin brother, whom he had cheated out of his inheritance. Unable to avoid an encounter with Esau years after Jacob had fled his hometown, Jacob turned to prayer.
“I’m not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant…please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him. I’m afraid that he might come and attack me.” (Genesis 32:10-11)
Notice that Jacob wasn’t particularly repentant; he did not mention all the things he had done to stir the ire of Esau; he was continuing to finagle his way to the safest place in the caravan in an attempt to shield himself. But he prayed.
Suddenly, a presence overcame Jacob, and a wrestling match of epic proportions continued unabated for hours. It’s a great story, but let me bottom line it for you. God had come to wrestle with Jacob and once Jacob realized this, he asked God for his blessing. God asks Jacob to claim his identity, which he does. But for the first time ever, his manipulations do not work. God gives him a new name. And leaves him with a permanent limp.
There’s a lot of pressure to have the “perfect” holiday season; Christians even argue over how to have the perfect Spiritually aware season. But God doesn’t carry the burden of those expectations around with him, demanding that we straighten up and fly right. It’s okay with God that we walk with a limp, that we have limitations AND he continues to give us opportunities, like Jacob, to realize that this is true. So. As you wrap those presents and stuff that Christmas goose, maybe take some time to admit your own limitations. Do you care more about your clean floors than choosing to have friends and family over? Hospitality is messy and lots of work! Do you care more about what you receive than what you give to others? Are you so concerned with appearances that you are willing to bust your budget for a couple hours of gluttonous giving? Willing to eat your way into a diabetic coma without regard for your health? Sometimes when we do not know that we know that we know that we have God’s blessing, we get all confused and start looking for it in all the wrong people and places. This holiday, what if we start with a commitment to remember that we ALL walk with a limp?
One problem with Christmas is the weight of expectation we unduly place on the holiday. My mother’s decline was first noticeable the year she used paper products instead of her good china for the holiday meal. It was a strategic decision but one that left her restless and discontent. She acknowledged that the holiday feast was too much for her, but was unwilling to allow her children to help. The best she could muster was giving in to the use of paper products for the sake of an easier clean up.
It was very difficult for my mother to ever walk with a limp. Even the last few weeks of her life she needed me and others to believe that she was still able to “do what she always did.” Untrue, but an essential varnishing of a truth she could not bear – her ability to contribute to the smooth running of her home was slipping beyond her grasp. Here’s what I wish my mom had been able to accept: we all walk with a limp. We all have limitations. It is not the limitations that cause problems, it is the refusal to acknowledge them that gets us into hot water.
Tomorrow, I want to spend some time thinking through this idea that we all walk with a limp, and consider how knowing this can change the way we experience Christmas this year. In a good way.
But for now, ask yourself this question: would your life be (a.) more joyful or (b.) less joyful if you could embrace, accept and even appreciate the limitations of yourself and others?
One year I lost my Christmas Spirit. My propensity to love everything Christmas is an inherited trait from my mother – a woman who especially loved the gifts she received! But as Alzheimer’s stole her piece-by-piece, it was both inevitable and grievous that she lost her Christmas spunk. I developed a Christmas malaise the year I realized I had lost my partner in celebrating Christmas cheer and commercialism. My mother did not suffer any shame or unnecessary anguish about her love for Christmas somehow competing with her faith. At Christmas, more was more and that was A-OK. During that spiritual malaise, I was doing what I do and reading the scriptures on a fairly regular basis. One day I came across that strange story in Genesis (18) where the Lord AGAIN promises Abraham and Sarah a son. Sarah scoffs at this suggestion as she is now old and resigned to her barren state. When the Lord asks her why she laughed, Sarah lies and says, “I didn’t laugh.” In Russ Ramsey’s book entitled Behold the Lamb of God, he suggests that Sarah’s laugh was “the laugh of turning away.” (p.33) He reminds us that in Genesis 21:6-7 the Lord didn’t permit Sarah to stay stuck in her funk. The birth of Isaac ushered in a season of love and joy but it was preceded by decades of longing and confusion. This story made me think about my own empty heart and Scroogey attitude. I was suddenly more curious than apathetic; I considered the possibility that God would not sanction my indulgence of self-pity any more than he had allowed it in Sarah. Maybe, I thought, the time will come when I will experience a return of joy. Where are you this holiday season? My mother’s death and the birth of our grandson has caused a seismic shift in my own Christmas Spirit. I like to think that my mother has passed away but not without leaving me a double portion of gratitude for the Christmas season and all it represents. Soon we will celebrate the birth of Jesus. I am a fan of making a big splash with lots of lights and tinsel. Babies are worth going all out for in celebration and the birth of Jesus certainly is a celebration. So here’s my advice to you – don’t let anyone shame you this holiday season with Grinchy ideas about how spiritual people SHOULD celebrate. Instead, go all out! Decorate! Bake cookies. Don’t allow the Lifetime Movie Network to be the only place where people dare to believe in love and miracles and the power of hot cocoa and cookies to restore a thirsty soul. God has always shown up in mysterious ways – let’s allow his spirit of joy to permeate our festivities!!
Yesterday I suggested that once we become kids of God, it changes how we live and love. Earlier I talked about how in my family, we have a new baby that we are crazy mad in love with. We clap when he poops and compete to change his diaper. He throws up on us and we don’t wipe it off – it’s like a badge of honor to have a spit-uppy sweater on! He cries, we nurture; he laughs, we giggle back!
We aren’t so great at treating messy adults with as much delight. And hey, I get that too. It’s called developmentally APPROPRIATE, right?
But the larger point isn’t how we love one another, although I believe this is directly related to the point I am trying to address. As kids of God we receive a call to return back to the foundations of where love begins – the love of our Father God. The scriptures say it like this: “Ask, and you will receive. Search, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Whoever seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door is opened. Who among you will give your children a stone when they ask for bread? Or give them a snake when they ask for fish? If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him. Therefore, you should treat people in the same way that you want people to treat you; this is the Law and the Prophets. Matthew 7:7-12 CEB
The birth of Jesus is a defining, disruptive, even offensive moment in history. It demands that all of us consider and reconsider our own ways of both giving and receiving love. Christmas is 21 days away. Tough decisions will be made by many of us regarding how we choose to express our love for other mere mortals this holiday season. I would never dare to presume to tell another how to love, heck, I have my own issues to sort through in this department. But I would suggest to you what I am telling myself. Any decision I make must be made within the parameters of love. Hear me out on this one – this is like playing ten-dimensional chess, because we have to ponder the love needs of ourselves, our families, our friends and even our enemies. This is not a simple thing. But I suspect that the struggle is valued by God. I think it makes him smile when his kids care enough to wrestle with how to love well.
Here’s the thing about the God of Israel. Other gods demanded things of their people. I know plenty of folks have talked about God in these terms too, insinuating that natural disasters are a response by God to punish his people for their wickedness. I totally sympathize with the intuitive ease with which we could naturally assume that a God who has the power would use it in this manner. Haven’t we seen plenty of examples of humans who, once given power, find amazingly creative ways to abuse it? The scriptures provide us with a different framework for God. His character is steady. He is the kind of God you can love with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and not be abused. He’s the God who loves us because he can, not because we’ve figured out how to placate his temper. So when we “Behold the Lamb of God”, this is a Lamb who looks and acts and feels and believes like his daddy; that’s a big deal. And it matters because for those of us who call ourselves children of God through adoption into his family, we are given the responsibility and privilege of learning how to reflect this same character. We reflect the very nature of God in who we look like, how we act, what we feel and believe – again, a big deal.
The story of God invites us to challenge our traditionally held cultural perspectives. Here is one message I am learning as I experience God. It goes like this, paraphrased with great liberty by me! “Hey, kiddos, when I made you, it was all very good. And nothing much has changed. That nasty fruit tasting incident in the garden got you all confused, but listen, none of this is surprising or particularly upsetting to me. What WOULD upset me is if you kids started acting like our relationship was based on anything other than love. You don’t need to play me, hide from me, lie to me, manipulate me. I see you. I see all of you. And I find you quite to my liking, even if on some matters you and I both know – you have blown it!” I get this God. Because this is how I feel about my children and my grandson. I fancy myself as someone who can SEE them and what I SEE I delight in. I study them from a place of wonder and curiosity, appreciation and great affection. Are my kids perfect? No way. They take turns like the rest of us being hot messes. But they delight me. I see beyond the miscues and even the big wins. I see their essence. Or at least I pray this is true. I guess you could say that when the rest of the world has long forgotten their fresh baby aroma, I, their mother/Meme, have not. And if I can love this way, weak mere mortal that I am, how much MORE capacity does God have to love us? His acceptance allows us the relational foundation and wriggle room to see ourselves (and others) honestly. We can work with this.
The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one about whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is really greater than me because he existed before me.’ Even I didn’t recognize him, but I came baptizing with water so that he might be made known to Israel.” John testified, “I saw the Spirit coming down from heaven like a dove, and it rested on him. Even I didn’t recognize him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit coming down and resting is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and testified that this one is God’s Son.” John 1:29-34 CEB
That wild man John the Baptist cried out, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Long before there was a United States of America, there came a man in the form of a baby, son of God, son of man – Jesus. Destined to become The Christ. John knew then what we need to remember today: Jesus, son of God, son of man, The Christ – has come and changed everything. John was a man to whom folks listened. Isaiah prophesied in Isaiah 40:3, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight.’ “ He’s that guy. As a mother and grandmother who wants the world to be a decent place for my family and friends to thrive, I am DESPERATE for perspective. If I’m looking around at the world through the lens of the news channel, I can get pretty freaked out. Surely my hope cannot be found in trusting mere mortals to make the world a safe and decent place for my family. I’m too old to believe that one!! Fortunately, I am one of countless mothers who has learned over the course history that I do not need to put all my faith in humans. In the book of Deuteronomy 6:4 it says something like this: “Here, O Israel! The Lord your God is one. Love Him. Love Him with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” What has taken me a bit longer to understand is the reason WHY I am encouraged to love with this wild abandon. You see, humans taught me that love is conditional, a quid pro quo experience. I learned this as a child and it took decades to unlearn this faux love principle. As a young person, I thought I HAD to love God so that he wouldn’t smite me. This is so very, very wrong. We do not have a hungry, angry, narcissistic God who demands our loyalty because he is insecure in his own Godhood. I experience Deuteronomy as a cry to worship, not as a demand for obedience. It’s the ONLY appropriate response to a God who loves us because he is loving. It is acceptance that springs from his character, not as a response to our playing by his rules. Oh how I love this God of mystery and grace, who holds me and my babies in the palm of his hand with tender mercy.