Friday, January 24, 2014

to focus on my favourite story

I've started of a program of reading through the Bible in a year, with a lovely group of ladies. Things to take note of seem to pop up all the time. I always seem to be jotting something down.

For example, consider Bible hero Jacob, as an elderly father, when he arrived in Egypt with his family, was reunited with his son, Joseph, and introduced to the Pharoah. The ruler asked how old he was, and this was Jacob's reply. 'The years of my sojourning are 130 - a short and hard life, not nearly as long as my ancestors were given.' (Genesis 47:9-10)

Our natural instinct may be to negate his opinion about the shortness of his life, but I was thinking of the bit about it being 'hard'. It's an interesting statement, coming from a man who was chosen, just like his father and grandfather, to be abundantly blessed.

He was visited by an angel and the ground upon which he lay was promised to all of his descendants for years to come. His cheating uncle didn't want to take him off the payroll, because it was obvious how abundantly his flocks and herds were being blessed while Jacob worked for him. Jacob inherited a birthright that didn't start out being his. He was clearly given precedence over his older twin brother, who didn't value the things of God as highly. He had twelve fine, strong sons and two women who loved him. (Well, at least two. Those maid servants may have been fond of him too.) At the time of his return to his childhood land, he was very wealthy, and he made peace with his brother. When we hear anything like, "You'll be like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob," we get excited, thinking that means great things will happen to us.

Yet I can understand how Jacob could make the claim he did. A blessed life doesn't mean sitting around in the lap of luxury being waited on. There may be a lot of hard work, along with some hardships at the hands of others. We each have more than one story we can tell, and Jacob's life is a prime example.

This describes the same man. He was treated as second best by his father, who favoured his brother. In fact, he was given a name which meant 'heel' and had to live with it. He had to flee his angry twin for fear of being murdered, and never saw his beloved mother again. Tricked by his scheming uncle into working hard for twice as long as he'd expected, he had to leave by stealth. He lost his most beloved wife in childbirth. His daughter was raped. His eldest son slept with his concubine and the next two went completely bonkers and massacred a whole group of people in a town. He was tricked into thinking his favourite son had been savagely mauled to death by wild animals, and grieved him for years until he found out he'd been tricked.

Doesn't this show that even a blessed life may have its share of hardships? (It's also a goldmine for people who want to talk about sowing and reaping, getting back what you give, payback, or karma, to use a more eastern term. The one who agreed to play such a deceptive trick was later the subject of some devastating tricks, first by his uncle, later by his own sons. That's the subject of another blog post I might do one day.)

For today, I'm taking the challenge to focus on my favourite of the two stories which may describe my own life. I may be the baby sister who was picked on by school bullies, later suffered several miscarriages, and have had some financial hardships. But I'm also the same person who has a good husband, three excellent kids who make me smile a lot, the time to spend writing novels, which I really enjoy, and the good fortune to live in South Australia, a safe place where we can flourish.

What are your personal stories like?

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Why people play these mind games

In the first couple of chapters of the Bible, God seems to advocate a style of parenting I've never thought highly of, the rhetorical, or leading question.

'Who told you you were naked?' Well, since He's everywhere, He would surely know.
'Did you eat from the tree I told you not to eat from?' Same as above.
'Where is Abel, your brother?' Come on! He knows the answer very well.

It's like a smug mother asking her little boy, 'Who ate the doughnuts?' when she can clearly see the chocolate icing around his mouth? I used to hate it when my parents pulled this sort of question on me. It seemed they just wanted me to fib my way into a trap so they could pat themselves on the back by calling my bluff. The parent figure comes across as gloatingly superior while the child now feels naughty and foolish, instead of just plain naughty. Why can't we just play it straight? Why make everything into a character test? It used to sadden me that God would stoop to this sort of silly mind game too.

When you do try to wriggle out of it, they are ready to pounce on you with their superior knowledge.
MUM: Who ate the doughnuts?
KID: It wasn't me.
MUM: Then go to the mirror and look at your mouth.

GOD: Where is Abel, your brother?
CAIN: How should I know? Am I my brother's keeper?
GOD: What have you done! Your brother's blood is calling to me from the ground.

Well, if that's the case, why not just say so? Surely the aim of the interrogator is either to make themselves seem smart or to make the guilty party feel even worse by showing them up as a liar too, on top of being a thief (or murderer, in Cain's case). Why do that? Surely it's no way to make people feel friendlier towards you.

Thinking long and hard about it, I've got to conclude that maybe it's good for us, to show up what is inside of us. Maybe the leading question is an effective technique when the answers come as a surprise to us. We discover ourselves doing the underhand, sneaky, sly thing when we're put on the spot. That's happened to me several times before. I'd been thinking of myself as a pretty good person, and then found myself in action telling the lies, making the excuses, running away, implicating the others. I realised that I wasn't as good as I thought I was, because I was caught red-handed. If they'd simply said, 'I know you took the doughnuts and now I'm going to punish you,' I wouldn't have realised that my natural reaction would have been to hedge around and tell lies. I might have been left feeling resentful and self-righteous. Perhaps naughty and foolish is the better option. The questions are not for their benefit but for ours, especially when it comes to God.

Later, in Deuteronomy 8:2, the Bible says, Remember how the Lord your God led you... to test you in order for you to know what was in your heart.

I do understand. This sort of test is not like an exam condition. God is not like the education department. The sort of test we're talking about  is the type that shows up cracks in architecture, or traitors in war time. In the long run, it's better to be aware of our own weaknesses, than to be oblivious of them. It's better for ourselves to be shown, when we're potential traitors and don't even know it. Perhaps God tests us because we're oblivious to the mixed allegiances and motives in our hearts. When we find out, at least we're in the position to deal with them. If you're a knight, it's better to find out that your armour has chinks.

I can accept this. I like it much better than the notion that God is playing mind games with us. The questions we receive don't give God any new information about ourselves, but it may reveal a lot of new information about us to ourselves. And being armed with this new knowledge has got to be a step forward, however hard to swallow at the time. 

Friday, January 3, 2014

that this is my hundredth blog post

This turns out to be my hundredth post on this blog, which neatly coincides with the first post for 2014. I've enjoyed writing this blog immensely for the past few years, and I'm looking forward to keeping it going. As I've shut down my website for financial reasons, this is now the contact site I give to anyone who wants to connect. I've enjoyed the "Just Occurred to Me" theme of mini-epiphanies. I've found that while I keep up this blog, they keep occurring, but dry up when I don't. That's a good enough reason to keep going.

One of the best things this blog has shown me is that epiphanies or serendipitous thoughts don't have to be huge to be significant. I used to make the mistake of thinking they ought to be. But so many of them are not Burning Bush or Damascus Road experiences. I'm happy enough to leave that sort for great, charismatic leaders such as Moses or Paul, because there are plenty of epiphanies for the rest of us, if only we recognise them.

Perhaps the way to attract them may simply be giving ourselves enough time to reflect and ponder. Over the years, I've read stories and memoirs by people who have gone to live in developing nations for a time. It's fascinating that many of them have reported surprise at the rush of creativity such opportunities stir up inside of them. They believed they didn't have much imagination or many fresh ideas because they were born that way, when it turns out simply living in the western world sucked a lot of it out of them. They didn't realise this until changing their location in the world.

Just waking up, turning on our computers and heading out to the shops or to work is enough to bombard our senses with all sorts of sensory stimulation from advertising to radio noise. This sort of background sense pollution is so normal to the average Joe or Jane in the twenty-first century that we're unconscious of a great deal of it. Yet it's still taking space away from the 'a-ha' moments which might flow easier if we'd let our minds and senses be a little emptier.

As well as developing nations, it was similar in the olden days. Some of our senior citizens can remember simpler, slower times. A few years ago, we visited a quiet little ghost town at the foot of South Australia's Yorke Peninsula, where there had been no doctors and the post only used to come every couple of months. That was an eye-opener for me. What a lot of room to reflect, spend time pondering great works of literature instead of speed reading (if you were lucky enough to get hold of any good books), and letting sudden ideas play out in your mind instead of smothering them when you have to rush on to the next thing.

Sometimes I get concerned about how we adulate our celebrities in the creative fields, cramming their schedules full of speaking engagements, book tours and paparazzi. Even though the world is interested to hear from them, perhaps we go about it wrong when we crowd their space and fill their days, smothering their chances to keep doing what they're good at, which is creating and thinking. Minds need clear space to start ticking with the goods, and famous people are surely no exception.

When I think about it, some great epiphanies did result from such slow, unhurried, pondering moments. Sir Isaac Newton was just taking a rest beneath an apple tree when one of the fruits fell on his head (so the story goes) and suddenly he had an epiphany about the Universal Law of Gravitation. What a momentous 'just occurred to me' moment for a fellow who was just enjoying a lazy summer day.

And Archimedes was having a soak in a warm, relaxing bath when the theory about water displacement suddenly filled his mind. If the legend we're told is completely true, I wonder if any onlookers had epiphanies of their own as he jumped out of the bath in his excitement, and went racing down the street stark naked, yelling, "Eureka!"

For 2014, I think it's a good idea to make sure to keep an environment of space and time around us to allow the rise of unexpected ideas. We don't need to move to a third world country and we certainly can't go back in time, but it's still possible to give ourselves ideal conditions sometimes. I wish you all a happy and productive 2014 and now that I've reached 100 reflections, I'm looking forward to sharing more of them on this blog. 

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