Learning a life worth living

Saturday, September 6, 2008

"I believe we have two lives: the life we learn with and the life we live with after that."

— Iris Gaines from "The Natural," 1984

Our family has a dog, Lucy. Lucy came to us after having been abused by a previous owner, a man. Six years ago, my wife rescued Lucy and brought her into our home while our daughters were with me at the Illinois State Fair. Lucy imprinted on my wife and has been her devoted companion ever since. When I walked through the door after returning from the 2002 fair, the dog greeted me as though I had ransacked the place. Loud, extended and annoying barking. The dog still is devoted to my wife (and our daughters) and still despises me. Every single day, without fail, it's bark-bark-bark. It is what it is.

It is inaccurate to say that human beings are "imprinted" the way dogs seemingly are. We're far too complex for that sort of simple analysis. But Iris Gaines is right: We do have two lives. We learn a certain orientation to life; once that takes hold, it is exceptionally difficult to make a change.

If you accept the aforementioned as having some semblance of logic, then poor Jacob never had much of a chance. Jacob comes out of the womb, Genesis tells us, a taker. Literally. He grabs onto his twin brother's heel during delivery. The biblical account sets the table, with that story, for a self-centered, conniving, by-hook-or-by-crook life. Jacob, at the encouragement of his mother, steals brother Esau's birthright. Jacob "wrestles" with God at Bethel and feels he has bested his maker. Jacob has gotten his share of slights along the way, as everyone does, and these serve to confirm his general attitude toward life. Laban abuses Jacob's labor by making him think he would give Jacob his daughter Rachel after seven years of service. Instead, he gets Leah. ("Oh, didn't I tell you, Jacob, the first-born daughter must be married off first!") Jacob must then work seven more years for Rachel. This back-of-the-hand treatment, which Jacob often meted out to others, is now served on him. He doesn't learn from this; his attitude hardens.

When Esau and Jacob finally meet, Jacob is scared to death. Esau will certainly kill him, he thinks. So Jacob prepares a lavish gift to try to abate his elder brother's anger and buy his mercy. Esau, who is filled with grace, doesn't need or want the bribe and is just happy to see his sibling. But Jacob forces it on Esau anyway. He follows this up by lying to Esau, who has just given his twin brother the gift of forgiveness. Why?

Because Jacob hasn't learned. His basic orientation is unshaken. Unmerited forgiveness — the true definition of grace — makes no sense to him.

At the end, what goes around comes around. Jacob, as an old man, is told by his sons that his favorite son — Joseph — has been devoured by a wild animal. "Here, Dad, look at his coat, which is smeared with his blood!" It's a lie, of course; it's a lie Jacob's boys learned from imitating their father, who was offered grace but spurned it in favor of living a by-hook-or-by-crook existence.

A cautionary tale, this is. Jesus' free gift of grace is so hard to accept, even by some of those who populate our pews. Too many of us, isn't it true, figure we must buy God's favor rather than simply accept it. Too many of us, isn't it true, pretend to be Esau but live like Jacob.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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