On Wednesday, I told the story of Jacob/Israel during my school’s chapel service (I am the chaplain of the St. Michael School of Clayton)–it was the first time I ever saw the first through sixth graders absolutely silent and absolutely still (now I thank God that I loved theater as a little girl and know how to tell a good story–I’ve got ’em!).
First, I said I was going to tell a story about a person whose character changed when he put “God in his thinking; God in his speaking” (this is a phrase from a prayer we pray to close chapel every day). Two hands shot up–I didn’t realize they’d try to guess who!–the first said, “I’ll bet it’s Paul!” I was so sorry to say that it wasn’t (but believe me, I’m bringing in my huge drop cloth next week to talk about Paul); the second hand said, “It’s Jacob, right?” And we were off–I talked about how he’d fought his twin brother right out of the womb, how he deceived his brother and father and stole the special oldest-son blessing, how he ran away and was subject to an unfair master himself, and then realized the error of his ways and repented. He was so sorry, I told them, and he’d been so changed by his experience, that God changed Jacob’s very name (i preached on this passage a year or two ago, text forthcoming). God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, and Esau, his brother, forgave him when they met the next day (the chapel at the Church of St. Michael and St. George–where we hold chapel–has a stained glass window depicting Jacob’s dream and the name change).
I think I ended the story weakly–something like, “And so, when we have God in our thinking and in our speaking, we are kinder, and more honest, and more loving to each other.” Learning, as I am, that ministry is mostly about asking questions to encourage people to think (duh–the most revelatory moments of my own journey have been the direct result of (Holy Spirit movement) gently-asked, probing questions), I wish I’d asked a question instead. Following this train of thought, I wondered, “what’s the question I should have asked?” “Who are we in the story?” As Newton’s apple, the answer dropped into my head, “we’re Esau.” I remembered the way that I’d opened my arms wide at the front of the chapel, showing the children what Esau did when he saw his long-lost, double-timing brother. Some audibly gasped (what joy that these stories hold such power! it’s been so long since I didn’t know the story that I’ve become inoculated to its shock value). “Can you imagine being like Esau? Can you imagine forgiving your brother or sister or friend for something like what Jacob did?”
Our culture does quite the job of telling us that we’re okay–we’re fantastic, even–just the way we are. We don’t need forgiveness, we don’t need help, we don’t need to be told how to do things–we’re quite capable of pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Esau teaches us that the way we are–grudge-holding–is not okay, it is not the way that makes more of us. Deceit, in the long run, makes less of us. Holding onto the (bad) past makes less of us (the old saying goes, it’s like drinking rat poison yourself and being sure that this will kill the other person). Think of the story of Jacob & Esau next to the story of the Prodigal Son. Have you heard, “the real question of the parable of the Prodigal Son is, ‘did the older son come into the banquet?'”? We know that Esau did, we know that Esau’s story challenges us to do the same, and we wonder, as we, the older brother, stand on the edge of the threshold, whether we can let go of the words or actions (or lack of words or actions) that hold us back from opening our arms to our siblings (friends, spouse, parents…).