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Friday, 8 July 2016

What's in a Gesture?

Gestures are culturally understood ways of communicating without words.  Some occupations rely heavily upon gestures such as airport ground crews and police officers directing traffic at a disabled stop light.  In any situation we need to know what a gesture means in order to interpret what the person using it intends or is signalling to others.  For example, an index finger movement that says "Come here" in North America is insulting to a person from South Korean because in that nation the same gesture is used to summon dogs.
   One gesture infants learn early is to grasp and object tightly and not let it go.  We might even consider it a God-given reflex for their safety and survival.  As we grow older we may continue to grasp things physically and metaphorically.  Holding onto things and refusing to release them, then, becomes a way of expressing control and possessiveness.
   In the Scriptures we encounter a patriarch whose very name refers to the act of grasping.  Jacob, the younger twin, was born literally grasping the heel of his elder brother.  That image has become synonymous with "deceiver," as Jacob illustrated by trickery and wanting the best for himself.  When Jacob had become an adult, he preyed upon his brother's birth right at a vulnerable moment when Esau was famished and would give anything for a bowl of stew.  Later, abetted by his mother, he grasped the blessing of the first born that also rightfully belonged to his brother.
   In Jacob's narrative, he is not the only one seeking his own advantage.  His father-in-law Laban grasps fourteen years of Jacob's labor in exchange for his younger beautiful daughter.  Both of his wives grasp at various schemes in order to bear children in order to compete for Jacob's affection. His favored wife Rachel holds onto her father's idols even when she has rejected this man's authority over her life.
   During his life, we catch glimpses of Jacob being weaned from his tendency to grasp.  When he flees from a vengeful brother he recognizes the presence of God and worships him.  On the eve of a reunion with that same brother, Jacob is terrified of how he will be repaid.  He begins to realize his schemes can undo him; at daybreak God gives him the new name Israel meaning "He wrestles with God."
   By the time Jacob-Israel reaches 130 years of age he has experienced many things, including the 20+ years of grief over losing his favored son Joseph and then the surprising news that Joseph is still alive and ruling Egypt.  We see a very different man in a moving scene in Genesis 48.  His vision is dim with age, but he says with gratitude to the son he had mourned, "I never expected to see your face again, and now God has allowed me to see your children too."  There's no hint of Jacob coming to this moment of beatitude by his own striving or scheming.  He knows the truth expressed later in James 1:17a--"every good and perfect gift is from [God] above"--and he receives it with the gesture of open hands.
   It took a lifetime for Jacob to change from being a grasper to a receiver.  What kind of gesture characterizes your life today?

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