The Freckles of God

calvin-hobbes-gods-image

It would figure that the one hour I spent alone in Istanbul would land me in the front seat of a cab with a sleazy driver. With barely a word of language in common, he’d managed to cover all the hot topics of conversation: I was American, unmarried, vaguely his age. My typical warnings about large brothers dropped somewhere into the language gap between his seat and mine. He turned the heater full blast and encouraged me to take off my heavy coat, and I pretended I was still cold, as beads of perspiration condensed on my forehead. He pointed to the little dots on the back of my hand, the only skin I had left showing, and arched an eyebrow.

“Freckles,” I told him.

“Fleckels,” he said. I could tell he was not sold on them.

“In America,” I said, “freckles are beautiful.” I drew the last word out emphatically, knowing it was one of those ones that transcends cultures. But I wasn’t speaking to him anymore, I was preaching to to my own spirit. The sermon was the same th​at​ time a man in India said his uncle could get me a cream that would rid me of them. “What! These? They’re beautiful!”

I reacted like he’d offered me a lotion that could erase my skin.  And, ​in a way, he had . . .

Read about My Own Beauty Campaign on the IndiAanya blog.

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The Bloodstained Dreamcoat (Joseph)

Owen Jones - Joseph dreams of stars
This is part of a series: I’m taking a moment in the lives of people in the Bible to see how it might be relevant to our lives, today. That moment may be just part of their story, or it may be all we’re told about them. Either way, you should read it directly from the source. This week’s story comes from Genesis 37, 39-41.

I want to clarify something I said in my last post about having “to choose between ‘a good life’ and a God life.” Though that is the choice as I saw it then, it’s also a false dichotomy. The “God life” is a very good life, and a good life can be a very hard one. Hitching your wagon to His star will not keep you from suffering anymore than hot-tailing it in the opposite direction will. And I think this is important because, as I get older and see more and more of my friends choosing other lives than the God one, the number one deciding factor is always disappointment. It’s sickness, failure, bankruptcy, loneliness . . . In short, they expected something better from God than what I got.

I’m not talking about presumption. I’m talking about justifiable, even biblical, expectations. The kind of things we teach our children, and preach from our pulpits. If I wait upon the Lord, He will show me His will for my life. If I steward my business well, God will make it profitable. If I save myself for marriage, God will bring me a worthy husband. If I marry the one God tells me to, we won’t have any trouble having kids. If the Lord has promised, He will fulfill. If I delight myself in Him, He will give me the desires of my heart . . .

It’s different for every person what will test their faith to the breaking point, but I believe we all get there. The five thousand were disappointed when Jesus refused to give them more to eat. The rich young ruler turned away after God didn’t “meet him where he was at.” And even John the Baptist was offended when the kingdom he’d heralded didn’t keep him from being imprisoned . . . or beheaded. Ouch.

In the face of personal failure and unfulfilled promises in my own life, my faith survived. I got up, I dusted off the ashes, and I continued to follow. But something else in me died: my ability to dream. I could still believe, but I could no longer hope. I knew that God was wholly good, but I doubted that he was fully powerful. Otherwise, why had He failed to come through?

Owen Jones - Joseph cast into the pit

When God began to encourage me to dream again, I asked Him to tell me about Joseph. Why, if God was going to give Joseph dreams, did He show him reigning? Why didn’t He warn him about the years in slavery, about his life as a prison warden? Not only did God not warn him about that, He gave him a dream calculated (strategically, I’d say) to aggravate his brothers’ resentment of him. Next thing he knows, he’s pleading for his life from his own family, he’s facing the prospect of starving to death at the bottom of a pit, and then his identity is stripped off his back and his life is sold for petty cash.

I was talking with some friends about this series the other day and joked that, though Ezekiel is one of my favorite bible characters, I’d have to call a post about his life “God is Mean Sometimes (Ezekiel).” I’m not usually one to skim over hard verses. I kind of enjoy reading Revelation, I actually love the God of Job. But the God of Ezekiel baffles me.

The way God treats Joseph baffles me, too. Take for example his second dream: “Listen,” he said, “I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” Jacob scolds him for this. “What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?”

Will they? When does that happen? Like the sheaves of grain in the first dream, Joseph’s brothers bow down to him as ruler of Egypt. But by then, his mother is already dead. In fact, she was probably already dead when Joseph had the dream. So it’s possible Jacob is talking about Leah here. But based on where she was buried, it’s likely she was also dead long before Joseph was released from prison.

And Joseph himself also baffles me. What was it about him that let God know he could gamble on Joseph’s faith and win? What do we even know about Joseph before his young life is in ruins? (My only answer is this must be the greatest testament to the buoyancy of children who are deeply loved by their fathers!)

Owen Jones - Jacob blesses Joseph

During those years, through betrayal after betrayal, how did Joseph keep up faith that God had not betrayed him as well? In a way, God had betrayed him. Joseph himself says that it was God who arranged for him to be sold into slavery. It took 25 years for him to know why. Maybe during that time he just thought, “Well, I got it wrong. God doesn’t speak through dreams after all.” But we know he didn’t because it was eventually his faith in God’s interpretation of dreams that got him out of prison — as simply as it had gotten him in. What if somewhere in all that time he had just given up on dreams? Where would we be?

We can’t know what was going on in Joseph’s heart or head. We don’t have eighteen chapters of him ranting, like Job. All we know is that at the very end of everything his answer is, “Am I in the place of God? . . . God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”

And all I know is my faith would not have withstood that test. Sitting there amidst the ruins of my hope, I’d tell God this. “I’m not him. I’m not like that. You gambled wrong.” I wasn’t a phoenix who would rise from the ashes.

Jesus told John’s disciples to tell him, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” When thousands turned away from him, Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked, “Are you also going to leave?” And Peter answered, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life.”

So this is the part of the post where I’m meant to solve the riddle. But I don’t know the answer yet, I’m still learning to dream again. I know it’s there, somewhere just out of my reach. I know it has something to do with Peter’s answer to Jesus (I’m going to talk about Peter and the other reason we turn away from God in another post). And I know it has something to do with that second dream, the unfulfilled one, the impossible one, where they were not sheaves on the earth, but stars in heaven.

How to Be Chosen by God (Gideon)

This is part of a series: I’m taking a moment in the lives of people in the Bible to see how it might be relevant to our lives, today. That moment may be just part of their story, or it may be all we’re told about them. Either way, you should read it directly from the source. This week’s story comes from Judges 6:11-15:

Tissot's GideonThe angel of the Lord came and sat down under the oak in Ophrah that belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, where his son Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress to keep it from the Midianites. When the angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, he said, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.”

“Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.”

The Lord turned to him and said, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?”

“Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.”

What do we talk about when we talk about being chosen by God? There are plenty of Biblical characters and verses that fit the bill, David, the disciples, Paul of Tarsus. But I think sometimes we get the idea that God is just looking for the most unlikely character, that he will always pick the runt of the pack, and indeed, it does seem like God is often out to nip our bragging rights in the bud (it’s like He knows us or something).

As Paul describes it, “God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And He chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God.”

So, paraphrasing Paul for our own purposes (oh, come on, everyone else does it!), our How-to-Be-Chosen-by-God checklist looks like this:

  • Be thought foolish
  • Be powerless
  • Be despised
  • Be counted as nothing (better yet, count yourself as nothing)

So, you want to be chosen by God? Be like that.

A Heart Like God’s

But before we get carried away with the fairy tale notions of seventh sons, frogs as princes and baker’s wives as heroines, let’s remember that God is not a Grimm brother. Don’t get the idea that Gideon (or David, or Moses) was picked just because he was from a tiny clan, because he was the youngest in his family and because he was scared. There must have been other youngest sons in Israel, and I don’t think Gideon just happened to out-wimp them all. In this interaction with the angel, Gideon shows he’s unique in some other key ways.

When the angel first appears to Gideon and says, “The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor!” Gideon doesn’t react the way I expect him to. Mary, when she was similarly greeted by an angel, was “confused and disturbed,” and wondered if this was some new kind of greeting. But if Gideon is surprised or flattered by being called a mighty warrior, he doesn’t show it. He objects to what the angel has said, but something more important to him has his attention.

The first thing Gideon says is, “If the Lord is with us . . . ” See how he misquotes the angel? Maybe the reason Gideon isn’t worried whether he’s really, technically “mighty” and a “warrior” or not is because Gideon isn’t thinking about himself at all. Gideon’s heart is with his people. “Why has all this happened to us?” he asks, showing that the fate of Israel was weighing heavy on his heart. And before the angel can even draw breath, Gideon follows it up with, “And where are all the miracles we were told about?” showing he had been studying the history of Israel. He was studying the words of the Lord! So much so that the first thing out of his mouth when greeted by a stranger is a reference to them.

That was the kind of youngest-son-of-a-weakest-tribe God was looking for. Can you think of someone else who cared deeply about the fate of Israel? God did. This was an attribute Gideon shared with God himself. When God explained His choice of David as king, He didn’t say it was because he was the youngest of many sons, or because he was the underdog in a fight against a giant, or because he was ruddy and handsome (ahem), or any of the things fairy-tale heroes usually have going for them, but because he was like Him in heart.

So, you want to be chosen by God? Shape your heart after His.

Good Answer, Gideon

God’s response? “The Lord looked at him and said . . . ” It’s hard for me to picture this action without picturing him smiling. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something important in this look, or the author wouldn’t have mentioned it. The other versions say the angel turned to him. Now Gideon had his attention. That was just what he was hoping Gideon would say.

So, he delivers the punchline, “Go with the strength you have, and rescue Israel from the Midianites. I am sending you!

Whoops. It’s important to understand that when you ask God a question, you’re likely to become the answer.

So, you want to be chosen by God? Start asking the right questions.

Certainty

Remember what happens next in Gideon’s story? He puts out a fleece before the Lord, right? At least, that’s what I always remembered happening next, maybe because all too often that’s the way my story goes: God speaks, two heartbeats later, I doubt.

But because I so disparaged Balaam for testing God, and Zechariah for seeking a sign, I want to make clear what actually happens next. That very same night God comes to Gideon and tells him to tear down the altars to the foreign gods that his own father has erected, an act that could (and very nearly does) get Gideon mob-lynched.

Gideon obeys God, at threat of his own death, first. It’s when his ability to hear from God could mean the death of tens-of-thousands that he asks for a little extra certainty. And once God answers, he never again asks for surety from God, though it’s clear he’s shaking in his boots.

So, you want to be chosen by God? Give up your own safety.

Do Not Fear What They Fear

But God is testing Gideon here. In fact, he’s testing him on the two grievances he had against the people of Gideon’s day. Right before Gideon’s story begins, God sends a prophet to the people of Israel to tell them this: “I said to you, ‘I am the LORD your God; you shall not fear the gods of the Amorites in whose land you live. But you have not obeyed Me.'”

So, will Gideon fear Baal? And will he obey?

This is an aspect of Gideon’s character I’ve never heard mentioned before. He was counter-cultural. God is very clear about what we are to fear. And, for all that Gideon was afraid of, he feared God more. More than the people, more than the gods of his day, more than his own father.

So, you want to be chosen by God? Give up the worries of our day, and fear Him most.

Caveat Emptor

“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower,” Jesus said. “Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’ . . . In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.”

So, you want to be chosen by God? Are you willing to give up everything you have and count yourself as nothing? Do you care deeply about the people around you? Are you willing to be the answer? Are you be willing to be tested? Are you willing to be different?