Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (Genesis 31) transports me to an informal weekly lunch gathering at my office during the last year I worked at Mars Hill College. It was a year when the collective dis-ease of the college community was increasingly palpable and was affecting all corners of campus life. People were bellyaching left and right; I even had 2 of the 3 VPs come down to my office to secretly vent their rebukes of the administration’s various mis-steps. At some point, a group of bellyachers began gathering for a weekly bag lunch, with the aim of trying to form an alternative community of health within the dysfunctional wider community. The group included disgruntled folks from across campus: faculty, students, student life personnel, physical plant workers, all with their fair share of righteous indignation at some of the indignities being served up. Someone came up with a name for the subversive gathering: MFG - Mafia For Good (one of the members suggested that the acronym instead stand for Mother F’in Grim to describe the despondent ethos of the place, but we stuck with something a little more promising). We hoped that we could create a space for people not only to vent frustrations and air out rebukes, but to collectively figure out how to best deal with the craziness and bring about some semblance of health. It was actually a heady kind of experience, having regular confirmation that our indignation was indeed righteous, that our rebukes were on target, and that given the opportunity we could turn things around. When I made the move some months later to document all these concerns and blow the whistle, cashing in all my chips with various trustees I had built relationships with, I discovered the limits of the MFG’s influence; the Board supported the administration’s decision to shoot the messenger instead of dealing with the multi-page message of bulleted rebukes. I was sent packing, and the Mafia disbanded, for good, as far as I know.
Jacob, as today’s Passage documents, had a lot of bellyaching to do. He had years of pent up righteous indignation against the administration of the ranch where he had worked so diligently to fulfill his father-in-law’s fickle demands so that he could finally have the woman of his dreams. He could vent rebuke after rebuke of the various indignities Laban had served up, and he had the heady confirmation that his indignation was indeed righteous, that God was on his side. Like our little band of malcontents, he did some clandestine planning with his own MFG subversives; they made their way out of town under cloak of darkness in hopes of finding a healthier and more functional community in the hill country of his father. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the story gets an interesting twist as head kahuna Laban not only discovers that his daughters and son-in-law have abandoned him, but he finds that someone has stolen his household gods. The narrator of this tale tells us that the culprit was none other than the beloved Rachel. Laban is warned by God in a dream not to mess with Jacob, to let him go without a word of protest, but Laban follows him in hot pursuit nonetheless. When he catches up with the fleeing family, he accuses them of the theft, and Jacob flatly denies any wrongdoing. He challenges Laban to find the missing gods, promising death to anyone found holding the treasure. Rachel avoids the death penalty by lying to her father, apologizing for not being able to rise when he entered her tent, because “the way of women” was upon her, when all the while she was sitting on a saddle that concealed the stolen gods. When Laban was unable to produce material evidence of the theft, Jacob unleashed the fury of his rebuke, cataloging years of injustices, all the ways he had been mistreated and all the ways he had been in the right. The two men made a covenant to part ways and avoid one another’s company, and the story ends.
This saga speaks to me in a powerful way. After I was canned from my job, I spent a fair amount of time continuing to operate out of a sense of righteous indignation, cataloging my rebukes with anyone who cared to listen. But if this Jacob-Laban story tells us anything, it is this: we are rarely as righteous as we think. In some very real ways that I was completely blind to, I was guilty of stealing some household gods; I was hiding away an idolatry of petty power in the arrogant notion that I could solve the complex challenges of a demoralized campus, if only the powers that be would listen to me. This small-scale will to power stayed concealed beneath something I loved dearly – the college and my work there. The household gods were chiseled out of an over-confident hubris that kept me from cultivating genuine relationships with the decision-makers; my righteous rebukes kept the possibilities for compassion and transforming initiatives at bay. At the end of the day, the humiliation of getting canned turned out to be a good thing; it forced me to travel from the heights of hubris down into the depths of humus, into the soil of the soul, where I could acknowledge my own idolatry and could let go of the will to power that had done me no good. I can’t promise that I will never again engage in righteous rebukes when situations get mother f’in grim, but when those occasions arise calling for indignation I hope I’ll check under the saddle first and make sure I’m not sitting on any stolen gods.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.