sowing seeds in the desert

Last week I was part of a great tradition.  Presbyterians are pretty serious about being “connectional,” meaning that we make decisions and engage in church work as a part of networks.  In the spirit of being connectional, we ask people who want to be pastors to stand up at a presbytery meeting, and give an account of their walk with Christ.  Those who are beginning a new call must also answer some questions on Scripture, worship and/or theology.  After their petition (to accept a call or to go forward with their seminary education) is approved, people who are connected to them are asked to stand.  I got to stand for two young people who have participated in campus ministry, as well as for a nearby colleague.  It was a proud moment of seeing seeds bear fruit.

A question posed to one of the candidates got me thinking:  “What’s your favorite book of the Bible, why is it your favorite, and can you outline it for us and explain its major themes?”  (If that sounds like a big question, know that they used to be worse!  Back in the day, candidates could be called upon to outline and explain any book of the Bible, not just their favorite.)

Lately I have been captured by Genesis.  It has been in our lectionary (recommended readings for Sunday worship) this summer, and even though we’re doing a sermon series on another topic, I’ve been going back to Genesis in my personal reading.

What I never noticed before is the amount of individual interaction with God.  In the past I’ve read Genesis from a historical or even a family systems theory point of view, looking at the broad scope of what happens to the emerging people of God.

But this time I’m focusing on these encounters between fallible people and a God who has a scary amount of power to shape the future.  And most of these encounters are clothed in deep, wrenching personal struggle.

  • Of course in Genesis we have good old Abraham, who hears the call to go to a new land (12:1), and the disturbing call to sacrifice his own son (22:2).
  • Then there’s Rebekah, a woman, who had a conversation with God.  Her twins in utero kicked her until she was utterly spent.  So she asked God to explain her suffering, and God told her about his plans for these humans in the making. (25:22-23)
  • This week the lectionary tells us about Jacob, who sent his whole family ahead of him on his journey home.  During his night alone (32:24) he wrestles with “a man,” some kind of divine manifestation.
  • And later we’ll have Joseph, who spends time alone in a well (37:24), alone in prison (40:23), and alone weeping when he sees his brother Benjamin (43:30).

These are just a few examples.  What stands out to me this time around, is that none of these people receive a perfect resolution as a result of their struggle.  Jacob is left with a limp, Rebekah is left to deal with two sparring sons, and Abraham must go on raising his son after almost killing him.  Some interpreters say that Joseph, although he saved countless people from starvation, set in motion a chain of events that led his people into slavery.

What happens when we struggle?  We’re so similar to these people from a faraway time and place.  We too struggle alone. We too have sacred moments during which we are deeply connected to God in the midst of our pain, but not given magical powers to bend circumstances to our will.  We too play a part in stories larger than our own, stories that are shaped by the movement of the Spirit.

And we too leave our mark on the story.  The people of Genesis sort of sow seeds in the desert:  they build monuments, they tell their children about God, and they stand out from the other peoples they encounter.  I doubt they would have kept going had it not been for the strength they received from those long nights of prayer and wrestling with God.  They left deep wells of faith as they moved through the dry land.

What seeds will we sow as the result of our struggles? 

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