As New Year approaches, people often reflect on the events of the past twelve months. As it is generally a good thing to stop and take stock of our lives, it is important to do it in the right perspective. I say this because I know of a couple of siblings who were both raised in the same way, same household and same parents, same situation, and while one has a generally positive outlook on his childhood, the other sees nothing but gloom. Indeed, much has to do with the perspectival lens we use as we reflect.
For two weeks I have been reading the story of Joseph in the Bible. The life of this renowned patriarch seems to have followed Murphy’s Law --, ‘if anything can go wrong, it will!’ His father’s favor earned him the hatred and contempt of his eleven brothers who eventually sold him to be a slave in a foreign country. After several ups and downs in his new host country, Joseph ended up as the viceroy of the whole Egyptian Empire of the day.
Later, when Joseph was in the position to take revenge on his brothers, he did not. He actually made sure that they knew he was not out for revenge. What made him react like this? Was it a religious sense of piety? Love for his brothers? Did he blame his father who seemed to be responsible for the situation? The text tells us of something even greater that seems to be good advice for most of us. When his brothers feared due retribution for their evil deeds, Joseph comforted them and told them not to fear. He said, “God sent me before you to preserve life...it was not you who sent me here, but God. …” (Gen 45:5,8) Joseph did not blame his siblings, his parents, the government, his environment, his surrounding for all that happened to him. He utterly trusted that not only God let it happen to him, but that he let it happen to him for a good reason.
As we reflect on last year’s events we may find lots of good things, but also lots of bad things. We may EVEN find ourselves at the end of a mostly taxing and trying year. To make sense of it all, it is important to look at it all not as cosmic randomness but as a mysterious plan for an ultimate good. Unlike Joseph, our troubles will probably not bring us to the ‘courts of Pharaoh’. We might even never see a positive outcome for them but whether we understand it or not, or whether we see it before the end of our days or not, we can comfort ourselves with the assurance that it was not random people and events who created these situations, but God who let them happen for an ultimate good purpose, somehow, ‘in order to preserve life’.
In 2013 the American celebration of Thanksgiving and the Jewish feast of Chanukah fell on the same date. This gave rise to ‘Thanksgivukah’ celebrations where people found many historical and philosophical similarities between the two holidays. On this year of 2016 the synchronic oddities of the Jewish and Gregorian calendar grace us again but this time the eight day celebration of Chanukah falls on the same day as the Christian celebration of Christmas. Let’s see how we can again humor the two calendars.
Chanukah celebrates the remembrance of Israel's victory against the evil Greek king from Syria who would forbid them to practice their religion but instead wanted them to worship idols. This evil king brought an idol bearing his own face to the temple for people to sacrifice to. This led to the Maccabean ragtag army revolt which eventually recaptured Jerusalem from the hands of the Greek imperial armies. When it was time to rededicate the Temple, the priest needed to relight the eternal temple candelabra, but discovered that they only had enough oil for one day. Though it would take eight more days to get more oil, the miracle was that instead of one day, the oil lasted for eight. . Since that time, beginning each 25th of Kislev in the Jewish calendar, people remember this unlikely victory against the Greeks by lighting the Chanukah candelabra for eight days, one extra candle everyday. This is the story of God’s presence with His people whenever they take a stand for Him; a story of freedom against oppression. Jesus was seen teaching in Jerusalem during the feast of dedication which is Chanukah (John 10:22).
In the fourth century AD, Pope Julius decreed that the birth of Jesus should be celebrated on the 25th of December of the Gregorian calendar. The early Jewish disciples of Israel celebrated that event in the fall during the Feast of tabernacle. What makes this year calendrical coincidence beautiful is that if Jesus was truly born during the Feast of Tabernacle, that means that He was conceived during the Feast of Chanukah, in the winter. Therefore the time of Chanukah, the season of what is called the the Festival of Light is also the time when He who is called The Light of the World. would have been conceived, the time when Gabriel the Angel appeared to Mary and told her,
"Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." ... "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy--the Son of God. (Luk 1:30-35 ESV)
A story is told in southern France. It is the story of Blanquette, an independant goat who was willing to risk it all, and eventually did lose it all for freedom. The story tells that though she was well taken care of, she constantly pulled at the rope that tied her to a stake on the ground longing to run wild in the nearby hills. Her master tried to explain to her that the wolf lives in the hills and that he would swallow with one gulp. She would hear none of it. “I’ll fight him with my horns!” The desperate shepherd told Blanquette the story of the strongest goat he had. She did escape to the hills and there fought all night until finally at down, she was vanquished.
Eventually Blanquette freed herself and ran to the hills. There she played all day and satisfied herself with the lush abundant grass, until at dusk, she heard him. Slowly he came to her from the deep of the forest. He had waited for the perfect time as Blanquette was now tired. She was tired but she would fight. She would gloriously fight all night like the renowned goat she had heard about. She, too, will be sung about for her bravery. She did fight all night but glory is a cruel companion as at dawn, the wolf did win this combat and Blanquette was swallowed up whole.
This story came back to me as I was reading a similar story in the Bible this week. It is the story of Jacob who also fought all night with an unbeatable adversary. Unlike Blanquette however, Jacob did not die at the hand of his nocturnal opponent. But like Blanquette, Jacob never gave up nor gave in. After all, that’s what his name meant. When in his mother’s womb he was fighting with his twin brother in order to be the first one out. Even when it looked like his brother beat him to the punch, he still didn’t give up and came out holding on to his brother’s heel. The name Jacob means, ‘heel-grabber’.
In the same ‘jacobian’ manner, the night he met his aggressor, Jacob did not give up but continued the fight until he realised that his aggressor was actually an angel. So Jacob, (who of course never gives up) was going to get something for his troubles. He asked his angelic aggressor for a blessing, a blessing which he received in the form of an infirmity which made him limp for the rest of his life. What kind of blessing is that?
This infirmity actually transformed Jacob into a new man. We actually learn and grow in character and virtue much more through struggles and infirmities than through comfort and strength. Jacob got his blessing and was able to become the person he needed to be in order to accomplish his role in life. His infirmity was actually a blessing in disguise.
George Matheson, the famous composer of hymns, became totally blind as a young adult once said, "Dear God, I have never thanked you for my thorns. I have thanked You a thousand times for my roses, but not once for my thorns."
Actually, if it has no thorns, it must not be a rose!
My wife and I raised six children. Five were born in France, and the last one in Bangkok, Thailand. We are strong believers in early education and homeschooling. It was challenging, but today we thank God that our children are for the most part in a good place, so if we had to redo it, we would.
When he was nearly three years old in 1980, our oldest son contracted a complication from the mumps and became deaf. This was devastating for us, especially my wife. It took her a long time to recover as she could not understand how God could let this happen to the child she was caring so much for. At three, he very advanced in his reading , and was talking; she had poured a lot into him. It was a very difficult time in her life.
Years later, we had four more children in tow, one girl and three boys.. Wherever we went, we would introduce them starting with the girl our second, “... This is Melissa, Joseph, Samuel, Pavel, and this is Isaac…” and anticipating the next question, we automatically finished with “... and he is deaf!” We lived between France and Switzerland in those days, so the usual reaction from the people was, “Oh, c’est dommage…!”, the equivalent of, “What a pity…!”
While we very much appreciated the empathy, no quality of reaction matched the one we received from an elderly lady in Switzerland, dressed in black and sitting in a rocking chair just outside her chalet. When we went through our usual introduction of the children and she heard about our son’s deafness, she replied in a matter-of-fact manner, , “Oh; if it weren’t that, it’d be something else…!”
This lady probably lived long enough to realise that everyone has a burden of some sort to bear in life. It is normal for us to wish that things were different for us but the mistake may be to think that there are some people on earth who do not have any burdens. The truth may actually be closer to the fact that most people in the world have a burden heavier than ours to bear.
True, some may appear to not have a burden to bear but it could be because the light hasn’t shone on them yet. Or instead of coming to the light that might help them to understand and deal with their issue by facing it, they live in denial and fill the void in their soul with frivolous activities, overwork, mental affirmations, or even hiding behind some form of altruism and/or religiosity.. The truth is, that as sure as the last day of our lives catches up with us and there is nothing we can do about it, reality also eventually catches up with us no matter what. As I heard it said one time, “We can forgive a child for being afraid of the dark, but the real tragedy of life is when adults are afraid of the light!’
A gentle pacifist Quaker once heard some noise in his living room in the middle of the night. He quietly grabbed the rifle (that he, of course, only used for hunting) safely stored in his bedroom and tiptoes out of his room to hopefully catch the intruder by surprise. As our dear Quaker watches the nocturnal thief going through his things hoping to find something of value, he calmly said, “I would certainly do thee no harm, but thou standest where I am about to shoot!”
There is much discussion about the subject of killing. The forbiddance to kill comes from the Bible which forbids voluntary or involuntary individually motivated manslaughter. Today, the current practical applications of this commandment vary according to political or religious affiliations, from situation to situation, and even from individual to individual. As a believer that life is something given to us by a Divine Authority, this writer believes that only this Giver of Life, and only He has the authority, and even the right to retrieve it.
While the concept of ‘to kill or not to kill’ seems murky in our society, the concept of saving lives is not. He who gives life gives it freely but we sometimes endanger this gift through submitting ourselves to dangerous passions, inclinations, and lifestyles which cause us to be foolish and irresponsible. Also, when we endanger our lives through our own foolishness, it sometimes requires other people such as EMTs, fire-fighters, police officers, to come and endanger their own lives in order to save ours.
As human beings, we have the ability to kill and to take lives; to protect and to save lives. When we fight to save lives; when we position ourselves to retrieve people from the jaws of death due to a vehicular accident, a fire, or a medical condition of some sort; when we participate in trying to preserve life; we in fact put ourselves on the side of the Life-Giver; we partner and work right alongside He who is the Author of Life. I would go as far as saying that it is Holy Work.
While we may not all be an EMT, firefighter, or police officer, there are many ways in which we can be lifesavers everyday. We are lifesavers when we help, protect, and contribute to the care and safety of the most vulnerable among us. May we remember this and strive to live each day on the side of the Life-giver.
If you appreciate these articles, support their upcoming publication in a book called, "REFLECTIONS OF A FIRE CHAPLAIN"