Amidst disturbing violence this past week, a Bible lesson with a five year old: God is still speaking.
It’s our second day of reading about Jacob’s return to his homeland. His children have been born, and his herds have grown—all while living with his father-in-law. But God had spoken—he told Jacob to go back to Canaan and that he would be with him. He said to do this, even though Jacob would be encountering his brother Esau after years of absence. The older brother may have held a grudge against Jacob who had taken the birthright and blessing of the firstborn son.
In Ordinary Time, after Epiphany, we read Old Testament stories as a family. They’re not like the New Testament—more confusion, less direct labeling of sin.
My six-year-old interrupts. “But people aren’t supposed to give gifts like that. People are supposed to give gifts because they want to.” She is straining to find words. Here lips pressed and eyes earnest.
We are finishing supper, and her plate features a yellow-orange stripe of cheese from her tuna melt—the kind of food I serve when her daddy is on a business trip. She is leaning forward, her body taut, words found—“People aren’t supposed to give gifts like a trade!”
At our place in the story, Jacob had sent multiple gifts ahead to appease Esau, who is marching toward him with four hundred men.
“Right,” I say, lowering the storybook Bible, “although in some cultures people always bring a gift when they visit, but Jacob does seem to be overdoing it.” It’s not clear if he was being savvy or distrusting God.
Hard stuff. I won’t go into all of my older daughter’s questions when I read about Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac, except for, “Why would God want to test people?” Yesterday, she was shocked that the man with whom Jacob was struggling was God. “Why would God wrestle with him?”
I don’t always have answers, mirroring the reality of this summer when I cannot produce my own words for the horrendous events occurring in our world, our city, and my friends’ lives.
I can’t explain why cancer killed someone who was young, a former roommate, even though my kids’ impression is that cancer is a killer of elderly people such as their great grandma.
I pretend not to hear when my older daughter asks if anyone died in Nice, France, after I say we need to pray for people hurt there. I had been similarly vague about Orlando.
I can’t tell my children why President Obama couldn’t have stopped the shooting of the policemen in Dallas (or Baton Rouge) as the five-year-old asked.
I won’t agree with them that the cop who fatally shot Philando Castile was a “bad person.” Instead, I say that the police officer did “a bad thing” in a traffic stop five miles from our house. I had told them that the officer may have assumed Castile, a popular food service manager at a local school, was dangerous because he was black.
I merely smile when my six-year-old urges that “the two sides”—the protestors who blocked a major artery of Saint Paul and police “need to be kind to each other.”
I use veiled language with my husband to ask him to avoid taking one of our kids to a store in an area of the city where racial tensions are running high. Am I Jacob, being savvy or distrusting God?
Maybe I’m asking the wrong question. Each time we read from the Old Testament, I inquire, based on the Godly Play curriculum, “What do you think is the most important part of the story?”
Again and again, the six-year-old responds–“God spoke to them.” My daughter’s faith is not wearied by coming up with a personal application. She doesn’t have my tendency to think of a lesson to learn. God in his speaking–whether as the man who wrestled, one of three outsiders who visited Abraham, a voice, or a vision—these strange and varied moments are what’s special. She states her answer as if it is obvious.
The first brother murdered the second out of jealousy, fire rained onto a city as a fleeing woman died when she glanced back, a mother and son were sent alone into the wilderness, another mother connived to cheat her firstborn out of his father’s blessing, and a father-in-law tricked his new son-in-law into sleeping with the wrong bride. And yet God was still working. We know this because he kept speaking.
And that’s what I pray to believe. And I remember what’s hidden in turning from one page to another as I read: sometimes there are long silences in between.
Image: Guernica, by Pablo Picasso.
Along with being a mother to two young and remarkably different daughters, Heather Walker Peterson is a member of Redbud Writers Guild and Chair of the Department of English and Literature at University of Northwestern-Saint Paul.