That’s not how you’re supposed to do it

Jacob, Ephraim, and Manasseh (17th-century painting by Guercino)

But Jacob crossed his arms as he reached out to lay his hands on the boys’ heads. So his right hand was on the head of Ephraim, the younger boy, and his left hand was on the head of Manasseh, the older … “I know what I’m doing, my son.” (Genesis 48: 14, 19)

Jacob was 147, blind and dying. It was time to deliver his parting blessings to his children and grandchildren – a holy and emotional moment.

While blessing the two sons of Joseph, his favorite son, he crossed his hands. In ancient Israel, the right hand was the “good” hand (maybe because they wiped after going to the bathroom with the left hand?), so it represented the greater blessing. The younger son was about to get the blessing that was supposed to go to the older.

Even though he, himself, was a younger son who’d eclipsed his older brothers, Joseph didn’t like that one bit. He grabbed his father’s hands and tried to rearrange them to the expected position. But Jacob said it was no accident.

Which follows a pattern in their family.

Isaac was Ishmael’s younger brother, but Isaac inherited Abraham’s household. Jacob was Esau’s younger brother, but he tricked Esau out of the blind Isaac’s blessing. Joseph was one of Jacob’s younger sons, yet his brothers bowed down to him.

In theory, any son could succeed his father as head of household; in practice, it was considered the oldest son’s legacy. But over and over in the Old Testament, a younger son received the greater blessing.

That’s interesting, but what does that have to do with us?

God is not bound by our norms. There are different norms now, depending on where you live, but our societies and cultures still have expectations and molds they expect you to fill depending on your gender, education, neighborhood, racial or ethnic identity, wealth or poverty, physical prowess or disability, intellectual capacity, etc. God has always called people to bust through these molds, and blessed the people who did, in His name.

Even religious cultural norms. God is not bound by those, either.

You might be the one being told, “That’s not how you’re supposed to do it.” If so, you’re hopefully flush with passion and leaning on God’s guidance for how you’re working out your faith.

But what if you’re the one saying the confused and anxious, “That’s not how you’re supposed to do it”? What if you’re Joseph, the once-rebel who now has a stake in maintaining the cultural status quo?

There is anxiety for both the rebel and the gatekeeper, but the same path is open to both of them. Pray. Read the Bible. Pray some more.

It takes a lot of trust to not be threatened when God calls someone to behave in a different way than your cultural norms dictate. Just as it takes a lot of trust in how God is leading you to oppose your dominant culture. Trust that God knows what He’s doing. Because He does.

Strange Bedfellows

Last week, my family and I went on a crazy trip to New York City — crazy because we drove for, essentially, three days to be in the city for one full day, an evening and a morning. Nuts. But fun.

It all started with a Groupon for a hotel in Williamsburg. We were thinking the Williamsburg we knew when we lived there: where our friends lived, where Michael’s band, The Haints, practiced and did weekly open mic nights at the local pizza parlor. We knew the neighborhood had been gentrified, with new hotels and everything, and were excited to stay there.

However, out hotel was in way South Williamsburg, in a Hasidic Jewish neighborhood. We were expecting to hang out with young, rich hipsters and wound up intruding into an old, old world in which we were not welcome.

It was fascinating to walk the same sidewalks (although not always: they crossed the street to avoid us if they could) with men with silky, long curls bobbing on either side of their faces, dressed all in black until Friday night and Saturday morning, when some men sported white knee socks, black loafers, UFO-shaped fur hats, and beautiful black and white fringed prayer shawls. The women were less interesting to look at, but that’s the point of their clothing traditions.

When I run across groups that separate themselves so fully and deal with strangers so suspiciously, I tend see their culture as fear based. Fear of contamination by the other, fear of dilution of belief, fear of female sexuality (which is actually fear of male sexuality, as if seeing the outline of a thigh or unadorned hair will drive men insane with lust). I have no problem with modesty and I appreciate the comfort they may take in their clothing traditions, the pride in expressing their culture so visibly. I admire their determination to be who they are in the face of pressure to conform to the wider society. But fear-based, nonetheless.

And then, upon coming home and doing a little reading on Hasidism, I come across this description of their message and lifestyle: they “stressed joy, faith, and ecstatic prayer, accompanied by song and dance.”

That sounds like my church, and like me. The white denomination I grew up in stressed knowledge of God, but my multiracial church stresses experiencing God, hearing from God, freely expressing joy in God, deepening faith and trust in God. I’ve been known to go up front and dance (sometimes planned, sometimes not), to raise my hands and do actions while singing, to twirl my big purple ribbon on a stick, to cry, to immerse myself in the experience of worship in a way that might make people suspicious of emotion in worship uncomfortable.

It’s interesting that a group that stresses joy in following God’s decrees is beyond strict about following them. When I read all those decrees in the Old Testament last year, I was struck by what seemed to be God’s tone: desperation. It felt less like a precise list of what you must do to be holy than a plea to do anything, anything to help you remember the Lord: as in, “Wear my words in a box and tie it to your arm, wear tassels on your garments so you see them flapping and think of me, write the words of the Shema on your doorposts — whatever it takes!”

Indeed, the people we saw in South Williamsburg must find it impossible to ever forget God and the history of what God has done for them. Even the simple act of getting dressed is spiritual. In my entirely modern world, it’s easy to forget God, to slide through my day without taking even five minutes to read the Bible. I’d had a strong almost-daily habit of Bible reading and prayer, but I’ve gotten haphazard again. I need better remembering. Not to the point of shaving my head and wearing a wig and scarf in public, but something. Something joyful.