March 14, 2010

Centering in God

How is your journey to simplicity this Lent? I’ve found that unexpected bits of life tend to get in the way of keeping to the discipline of a simple life. My focus has been pulled away from God and I’ve become distracted by the little things.

An image that has come to my mind is of the solar system. As planets must stay in their orbit, we are better off when we put God at the center of our lives. Each of us in on our own orbit around the SON, but sometimes we get distracted and start orbiting the little things in our life. These can be good things like our families or perhaps not so important things like our appearance or even things we have no control over like what we believe others think of us.

Leah is an Old Testament woman who also found that her life was complicated by the reality she was faced with. She was the older daughter of Laban in Haran. Her sister, Rachel, was “beautiful and lovely”. Poor Leah is said to have “weak (or tender) eyes.” (Gen. 29:17) That’s an odd description—what does it mean to have weak/tender eyes? Traditionally she has been considered to be less attractive and therefore undesirable.

Whatever the description means, Leah finds herself being used by her father to trick Jacob into a total of 14 years of free labor. Jacob wants to marry Rachel and agrees to work for 7 years in order to marry her. However, on the wedding night Laban substitutes Leah in the marriage bed.

In my book Beloved Leah Jacob is angry when he discovers the deception.

For the rest of the night I let myself forget the morning. I listened to his words of love and whispered them back to him. My exploring hands learned to delight in the feel of his body. Finally he slept in my arms exhausted by our lovemaking. I dozed lightly to awaken when the first light touched the tent. Not wanting the man to awaken, I lay barely breathing watching him sleep.

“I love you Jacob bar Isaac,” I whispered taking in every detail of his face and hair and body. “Thank you God of my husband for this night.” The illusion was nearing an end. He stretched and yawned then rolled toward me.

“My dearest love…” the words died on his lips when he saw my face not Rachel’s. The shock was quickly followed by fury.

Outraged, he demanded, “What have you done? Where is my Rachel?”

I cringed back from the rage in his eyes. Throwing himself out of the bed he rapidly wrapped his clothing around his body. He threw a tunic at me.

“Put that on,” the man snarled. “We will see your father and get to the bottom of this farce.”

Amazingly, my hands didn’t shake as I dressed. A calm of inevitability settled over me. Jacob grabbed my wrist. He stormed across the yard dragging me behind him.

“Laban, Laban bar Nahor come out and face me!” the furious voice resonated through the house. I was sure he could be heard to the ends of Haran.

Father must have expected such a greeting for he came out fully dressed, hair and beard neatly oiled and a calm expression on his face.

“My son, what is this?”

Jacob spun me forward into my father’s arms.

“You tricked me!” the words were level and hard. The brown eyes that were usually gentle and loving were glinting with rage.

Leah continues to live with her feelings of being second best and unlovable even though she is the wife who bears sons for Jacob. She and her sister even enter into competition for Jacob’s affections. “When Rachel saw she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister….[and] said ‘Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to here, that she may bear children through her’…When Leah saw that she had ceased bearing children, she took her maid Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as a wife.” (Gen. 30:1-9)

This competition eventually has disastrous results. The sons of Leah learn to hate their half-brothers, Joseph and Benjamin who Rachel does finally bear.

I learned that sibling rivalry had taken root among the boys. One day I interrupted a wrestling match between Judah and Gad. I scolded my son for taking advantage of his brother’s smaller size.

“He’s not my real brother,” he told me in a whisper.

Appalled, I sat him firmly on the ground. Kneeling to look in his eyes I asked, “Who told you that?”

“Simeon,” the dark eyes look at mine innocently.

“We are all one family,” I said with a slight shake of his shoulders to emphasize the words.

“Simeon says that we aren’t really brothers to Dan and Napthali and Gad and Asher and Joseph,” he persisted trying to convince me.

“You all have the same father,” I told him, “and that makes you brothers.” I had to force the words out because I too wished that Rachel had never offered Bilhah to Jacob and that I had not entered the competition by giving him Zilpah.

Looking at my son, I repeated, “You are all brothers. Besides you should always treat the younger and weaker with kindness.”

Throughout her life, Leah struggles with her self-perception as an unloved and unattractive woman. It is easy to let ourselves get caught up in the cultural messages that say we need to be lovely and accomplish great things. When that happens we forget to be content with having God as our Center, like planets around the sun. Leah discovered that true beauty was the love she had to give and had nothing to do with her appearance or what she did (or did not do).

“For too long, I raged against Rachel and against Jacob for not loving me,” she said. I wanted them to love me for being beautiful. Too late I have learned and understand that they loved me for who I am.”

Jacob bent his head to kiss his wife’s forehead. “You are my faithful Leah. You are the strength of the family,” he whispered.

She seemed almost beautiful as she smiled softly up at the man.

“My husband, God is your strength. He will be with you to bring you to Egypt and back. Your God always keeps his promises.”

Turning her head, she admonished the eleven men still crouched near the bed.

“My sons, you are all my sons, though I didn’t bear you all. I have raised you and watched you grow into good men, true husbands and loving fathers. Do not forget the God of Israel, your father, when you are in Egypt. Remember and teach your children how He showed grace by redeeming your anger and restoring your brother to you. Joseph has forgiven you. Accept that gift. My God has forgiven you as he has forgiven me. Do not be afraid. Trust in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He has promised to bring you back to this land as a mighty nation. Let go of the remaining fear and grudges against your brother. Do not continue to blame yourselves. The mighty hand of God has turned our evil designs and anger to great good for all.”

When we get caught up in the cultural messages, it might be time to step back and take a deep breath and seek God instead of the latest beauty aid or another job to finish. A friend reminded me of a discipline that works to help her re-center with God. She takes time throughout the day to say the Jesus Prayer. It is short enough to be done easily and is actually a great relaxation aid, when done in rhythm to breathing. Before you feel stressed and over-stretched, sit quietly.

The Jesus prayer is just one example of a prayer that can be said while breathing. Many psalms lend themselves to the practice. Breathe in deeply, expanding your diaphragm, on the first half of the verse and out fully on the second. Below are some examples.

Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God-Have mercy on me, a sinner.
The Lord is my strength and my song-And he has become my salvation.
Thy word, O Lord is a lamp to my feet-And a light unto my path
The Lord is my Shepherd-I shall not want
It doesn’t hurt to do this more than once at a time and to return to the prayer regularly throughout the day. Sitting quietly in nature or with a picture of some relaxing natural scene sometimes helps me to relax and re-center, too.

Next week Miriam will offer thoughts on our busyness that separates us from God.

*All quotations are from Beloved Leah by Cynthia Davis. Available online from and the author.

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