Laban and Jacob have their say on the folly of borders and their control

A cairn marking the boundary between Norway and Sweden in a remote area of the Arctic. Photo by Bjorn Christian Torrissen

The UK Government has announced plans to take “full control” of borders unveiling an Australian-style points system to overhaul immigration law and close our borders to unskilled workers and those who can’t speak English. When we talk about taking “full control of our borders” aren’t we just allowing fear and anxiety to take control of our borders? Are we forgetting border controls escalate and will be reciprocated? Have we given any thought to who in the end will wipe our bums?

This is all part of the deceit of government. I have been intrigued by the stories about Jacob and Laban from Genesis 29-31. Jacob is the “leg-puller”, the “supplanter”, the “deceiver”. Laban is the “white man”. Laban means white. The story of Laban and Jacob is a saga of deception – the white man deceiving the deceiver. Was Jacob the outsmarter of the two?) They come to terms with each other by building a witness heap of stones laid by their families as a commitment to peace. It marked the first bilingual place name recorded in the Bible – Laban called it Jegar Sahadutha and Jacob called it Galeed – the translations of “witness heap” in their respective languages.

Galeed, (we would perhaps call it a cairn) stood as a landmarked prayer. It provided a boundary to their hostility, an end to it. Significantly both Jacob and Laban refuse to take control of their new border. Instead they pray: “The Lord watch between you and me”. The Lord is the one they want to control their border and to watch their limits so that they never cross for harm but only cross for peace.

I wonder when we pray, when we put or hands together, whether we are building a cairn – a knuckle-boned physical structure to mark the limits of our hostility and anxiety, to say “beyond this only peace, beyond this only love”. Are our churches also cairn like landscaped prayers – places to confess our hostility, to find better ways to deal with our differences and markers within our communities beyond which we commit to “go in peace”? “This heap is a witness, and this pillar is a witness, that I will not go past this heap to your side to harm you and that you will not go past this heap and pillar to my side to harm me.” (Genesis 31:51f)

Borders are worse for our control when our export is fear. The boundaries of our Brexit mindset become brickset – walls built against others deconstructing differences, obstructing relationships, restricting trade and exchange.

Where are we building our witness heaps and our places of commitment? How are we replacing walls with cairns? How do we lament our nationalism?

The leadership and ministry of fools (and other outsiders)

The Fool (1944) by Cecil Collins
The Fool features in much of Collins’s art. The Fool represents saint, artist and poet – the saviours of life, according to Collins. He always portrays the fool as an innocent figure who, although finding no place in the modern world, has the vision to find fulfilment and eventual reward. Here the Fool is carrying a heart (for love) and an owl (for wisdom and freedom)

When it comes to power and leadership in the church are we confused by worldly perceptions of power and success?

Recently I have heard about arguments amongst leaders about who sits in the “best seats” in the chancel, and there’s real power politics at play in ecclesiastical processions!

If we are entitled (Rev, Reader etc) what are we entitled to? Cases of abuse show how wrong some of us so entitled have been.

What are the qualifications for leadership? And what is our unconscious bias about those qualifications – and how much potential is wasted by those biases?

Justin Lewis-Anthony makes the case that our understandings of leadership are qualified and conditioned by Hollywood and the leadership of those on the “wild frontier” as portrayed by decades of “westerns”. (Donald Trump fits that well.) Lewis-Anthony talks about “the myth of leadership” and describes the way the myth is told.

Someone comes from the outside, into our failing community. He is a man of mystery, with a barely suppressed air of danger about him. At first he refuses to use his skills to save our community, until there is no alternative, and then righteous violence rains down. The community is rescued from peril, but in doing so the stranger is mortally wounded. He leaves, his sacrifice unnoticed by all.

This is the plot of Shane, Triumph of the Will, Saving Private Ryan and practically every western every made. It is the founding myth of our politics and our society. It tells us that violence works, and that leadership only comes from the imposition of a superman’s will upon the masses, and preferably those masses “out there”, not us.

The new archbishop of Canterbury should be a disciple rather than a leader in The Guardian, 4 February 2013

The Bible is very critical of worldly systems of power and leadership. Walter Brueggemann (in Truth Speaks to Power) makes the point that the pharoah is never named in Exodus, but that he is a metaphor representing “raw, absolute, worldly power”. He is never named “because he could have been any one of a number of candidates, or all of them. Because if you have seen one pharoah, you’ve seen them all. They all act in the same way in their greed, uncaring violent self-sufficiency.” Samuel is scathing about the Israelites’ insistence that they be led like the other nations. He knew (1 Samuel 8:11-17) that those sort of leaders are always on the take (sons, daughters, chariots, horses, fields and livestock – everything).

The ways of God are very different to the ways of preferment and career advancement. Paul is amazed when he surveys his fellow disciples. He wrote to the church of Corinth: “Consider your calling. Not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29).

Similarly Jesus praised God that she had hidden the things of heaven from the seemingly well qualified. “Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit said, “I praise you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” (Luke 10:21).

What difference would it make to our CVs if we focused on our foolishness and our weakness? Would it prompt us to realise that power and leadership is found in some very strange places and surprising people? What difference does it make when we recognise that leadership qualifications are the gift of God and that the leadership qualities are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) by which measures pharoahs look hopelessly unqualified.

I have recently had the privilege of reading The Bible and Disability edited by Sarah Melcher, Michael C Parsons and Amos Yong. I quickly realised how pervasive disability is and how important a lens it is to view Christian leadership. Under their prompt it is easy to see how “disabled” the people featured in scripture are. Moses was chosen in spite of his speech impediment. Jacob bore his limp with pride that he wrestled with God (and Israel takes its identity and name from that fight). Jesus’ crucifixion was the ultimate disability.

I asked the question on Twitter, “would it make a difference in leadership if we focused on disabilities and vulnerabilities rather than just abilities?” Friend Mark Bennett replied: “In Matthew’s gospel Jesus uses parables so that people hear, “see”, understand anew, overcoming disabilities of preconception, prejudice and fear.” Friend Jenny Bridgman replied: “”What are my blind spots?” is a tough but necessary #leadership question. Some more are: What can someone else do better that I can? How can I free them to do that well? Or even – how do my/our disabilities and vulnerabilities make my/our leadership more effective?”

I suspect that as long as we ignore these questions there will always be “us” and “them” – a few privileged by the powers-that-be working “for” (or even “against” as some sort of pharoah) rather than working and living “with” and in love with others.

PS. I didn’t include the title of Justin Lewis-Anthony’s book because it is so flippin’ long – It is You are the Messiah and I should know: Why Leadership is a Myth (and probably a Heresy) .

Changing the order of things

It is a privilege to be supporting newly ordained ministers: a group of people in short-term posts on their way to taking on posts of greater responsibility. They are a people in transition who manage remarkably well to avoid being anxious about what might or might not happen to them. They are going through the appointment process, which is also, of course, often a disappointment process. The process of appointment and disappointment is a confusing one. There is not always an apparent justice.

I have always been intrigued by the element of surprise in (dis)appointments and the more exciting appointments I have been involved with have had an element of surprise. Ruth was overwhelmingly surprised when she was appointed churchwarden. Jack was surprised when he wasn’t, though to his credit, he came to terms with his disappointment with great grace.

Ordinarily, there should be justice in appointments, and succession planning should follow well understood procedures. But there needs to be processes of disruption. I have been reading the story of Jacob’s blessing of Joseph’s two sons Manasseh and Ephraim (Genesis 48). They were born in that order and should, by rights, have been blessed in that order. Jacob himself “stole” his father’s blessing from his older twin Esau. Of Jacob’s twelve sons, Joseph was the last in line, inspiring murderous resentment amongst his brothers. (The stained glass pictured above shows Joseph’s blessing). Disappointments abound in the Bible. The choice of David by the prophet Samuel was a surprise to David’s father. David was not the first-born, but the last-born – and still so young. Each of his older brothers was presented to Samuel. Each was dis-appointed as Samuel turned the line of succession on its head (1 Samuel 16:1-13).

The New Testament takes up the theme. Everything is in the wrong order. Even the birth of Jesus is in the wrong place. The wise ones went for Jerusalem and finished up nine miles wide of the mark. (Matthew 2). Jesus, himself set the cat among the pigeons by describing the disappointment process. He said “The last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16) before being challenged by the Mum who claimed her two sons had the right to the best seats in the house (Matthew 20:20-24).

All these stories are a reminder that there has to be room for manoeuvre and that there have to be processes of disruption. Prayer before appointments is an invitation for the Holy Spirit to confirm or disrupt the natural order of things. Sometimes the order of things has to change if things are going to change. The story of Manasseh and Ephraim, (or is it Ephraim and Manasseh?) is a reminder of that. It represents the hope of a new order, in which those whose appointment comes as a surprise live for the sake of others and not for themselves. That is why the order is changed.

A new order is one in which all those who come last in things come first – a great disappointing for some.

The stained glass is by Maria Stolz of Renaissance Glassworks Howard Lake, MN 55349

Here is another post on the theme of disappointment and leadership.

Preaching for a change

Sermon for today – in which I have chosen to go with theappointed Old Testament text (Exodus 33:12-end) for preaching this morning. The OldTestament is often neglected in our thinking – but I hope you will see whytoday’s reading is important to us, and not only to us, but to all the peopleof God.

Jacob wrestling with angel by Rembandt
Can I remind you that thepeople of God were named Israel, by God after Jacob’s sleepless night of wrestling with the angel of God (or withGod)? After that match Jacob is called ISRAEL – and the name Israel means “onewho wrestles with God”, or “one who is straight, direct with God.”


The people of God wrestlewith him, struggle with him, and are straight and direct with him. This line ofthought suggests that we are not called to be mildly submissive to God, butthat God actually wants us to struggle with him, be direct with him, and begrown up with him. He wants us to get to grips with him.

This straightness anddirectness is reflected in the prayer of the People of God – which might aswell start with “I want to be straight with you God”, in a spirit of challenge. Our reading from Exodus showsMoses engaged in this sort of conversation which consists of challengingdemands.

We are told that “the Lordused to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” In our readingwe have the privilege of overhearing that conversation in which Moses isnegotiating with God.
We may take it for grantedthat God answers prayer – but in this passage we have the foundation of thatfaith which Scripture wants us to take for granted.

Black Moses

Speaking face to face, as onespeaks with a friend, God hears Moses’ prayer and answers it in the mostpositive way. He doesn’t just answer Moses’ prayer, but gives more than Mosesdares even to imagine – and it isintended that we get used to that, and take it for granted, so that we may toowith trust let God get to grips with us so that he can know our mind and whatis on our heart.

Thebackground to Moses’ demands is that God had told him that he wouldn’t go withthem to the Promised Land because he was so angry with the people for breakingthe agreement that they had.
“Go up to a land flowing with milk andhoney; but I will not go up among you, or I would consume you on the way, foryou are a stiff-necked people.” (Exodus 33:3).
Mosesinsists that God must accompany his people. He recognizes that the relationshipwith God is more important than the real estate of the Promised Land.
Theanswers to Moses’s prayer in these chapters of Exodus are outrageouslygenerous. He is prepared to start again and offers new tablets of commandmentsto replace the agreement and commandment that the people had broken.
Mosesand the Lord stood together on Mount Sinai – as friends so that Mosesunderstands just how God is going to fulfill his part of the bargain, hispromise to his people.
Thisis how God summarized the characteristics of his behavior with his peopleduring that conversation with Moses:
The Lord passed before him, andproclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow toanger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast lovefor the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parentsupon the children, and the children’s children, to the third and fourthgeneration.” (34:5-7).
Whilethere is mention of punishment the emphasis is on God’s forgiving love. Theguilty aren’t cleared, but the consequences of their guilt only reach to thethird and fourth generation, while steadfast love reaches to the thousandthgeneration – in other words – forever. This is how God is going to be forever:merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love andfaithfulness, keeping steadfast love to the thousandth generation.
We have to remember howdifferently God is promising to behave. He had been so angry with his people(and justly so, according to the text) – but now, in response to the demands of his people, he isgoing to be so slow to anger. In response to one of us humans, God changes hismind about his behaviour. In future his behaviour is going to be governed bysteadfast love and faithfulness.
In the section of the storywhich we read this morning we have the summary of God’s response to Moses. “Mypresence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
All of us can find rest inthe knowledge of the manner of God’s promised presence, particularly when thatpresence is governed by steadfast love and faithfulness. This is how God iswith us. We don’t need to worry that he is any different. We can trust in hisforgiving love. We don’t need to be afraid – the Lord is here, unconditionally.
Moses makes one request toGod that God does not agree to.  Moseswants to see God face to face. God’s response: “You cannot see my face; for noone shall see my face and live.” (33:20)

Instead, we have a ratherpuzzling response.
“Thereis a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passesby I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my handuntil I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see myback.”

WakeSeeing the back of God israther strange. Most people see this as “the WAKE of God” – just as we see theripples and waves in the wake of a boat, so we are given sight of the effectsof God’s love. Seeing the back of God is seeing where God is and has been.

So far, I have mentioned onlyhow God is governing his behaviour in covenant with his people. I haven’t mentionedwhat he promises to do. He said “before all your people I will perform marvels,such as not have been performed in all the earth or in any nation. (34:10).

Seeing the back of God isseeing the wake of marvels, seeing the work of God. And the work of God ismending the broken – the broken in this case, being the very heart of therelationship between God and his people.

Seeing the wake of God isseeing where God is going. Seeing the wake of God is being able to follow hiswork of mending. Seeing the wake of God is being able to follow him and joiningin his most marvellous work of remaking broken relationships, and SHALOM.

Even in this way, Godresponded to Moses request, but gave him, once again, more than he could everdream of. Which is better? To see God face to face, or to be able to followhim, in his wake, and love him for all his ways?