The Hopeless Wanderer

 In Books, Character, Culture, Faith, Family, Fred's Blog, Gratitude, Inheritance, Relationships, Scripture, Story, Teaching, Theology

Listen to “The Hopeless Wanderer” by Fred Smith

 

In Don Miller’s book “Scary Close” he chronicles his several years of failed relationships, isolation and painful drama. Honest about his tendencies to manipulate, use and ultimately alienate people out of the fear of being honest about himself with others, Don writes that his actions were not altogether intentional but always inevitable: “A weasel doesn’t know he’s a weasel, he just does what works to get food.”

But in Don’s life there was a moment when he changed — and that’s his story to tell.

I’ve thought about another story of one who struggled with the same relationship-destroying pattern: Jacob, the son of Isaac and Rebekah. Today we would likely label Jacob a sociopath — cunning, deceptive, detached, manipulative and ambitious. He was often cruel and incapable of being loyal. He lived by his wits — and was extremely successful.

But, like Don, there was a moment when Jacob changed — the long night when he wrestles with God.

We all know the story. Jacob is preparing to meet his brother, Esau, for the first time in 20 years. The last time they saw each other, Jacob was running for his life, and Esau was consoling himself with the thought of killing his brother for stealing his birthright.

On the run again, Jacob has sent messengers ahead with expensive gifts in hopes of pacifying and bribing Esau. But when he hears that his brother is on his way with 400 soldiers, Jacob divides his family and all of his possessions into two groups and sends them ahead: “If Esau comes and attacks one group, the group that is left may escape.”

Jacob is resigned to lose half of his family and possessions to save his own life. To Jacob, this loss means little. It’s just collateral damage — the price of surviving. His only attachment is to himself.

Jacob is alone, but he’s always been alone. This is not a dark night of the soul for him. He is not questioning his life or having a spiritual retreat and time of prayer. This is a man at the peak of his power who has worked his way from nothing to extraordinary success. This is a man who has always chosen to live in isolation to protect himself — this time from the certain revenge of his brother.

That night, even after being crippled by the angel, Jacob holds on and demands another blessing. Another blessing? He already has the one he stole from Esau giving him everything he could possibly want. Even God had already blessed and promised to watch over him and never leave him.

What is Jacob asking for? What would be the blessing for one who already has so much?

This moment reminds me of  the rich young ruler asking Jesus what must be done to inherit eternal life: “Jesus looked at him and loved him. One thing you lack.”

There is something lacking, something missing in Jacob. Something shriveled or never there. His disengagement has allowed him to betray, misuse, manipulate and feel nothing his entire life.

I think that is why the angel asks, “What is your name?” He knows Jacob’s name, but wants to hear him say it. It was God’s way of holding up a mirror to Jacob and saying, “Yes, this is who you really have become. You are everything your name describes — crafty, grasping, deceitful, unfeeling and utterly alone.”

And it is then out of love that God touches Jacob and gives him a blessing that changes his name, his nature and his life. It’s not a choice on Jacob’s part any more than it was for St. Paul when Jesus blinded him and said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

Jacob and Paul, undeserving as they were, were not only spared – they were chosen.

In the novel Lila, Marilynne Robinson writes of the notion that illumination often hurts…that there are times when salvation aches before it heals: “When you’re scalded, touch hurts, it makes no difference if it’s kindly meant.”

For the first time, Jacob knew pain and loss as well as love and forgiveness. He was mugged by grace and the uncaring and detached manipulator is gone forever. The sun rises the next morning on a new man:

Jacob looked up and there was Esau, coming with his four hundred men; so he divided the children among Leah, Rachel and the two female servants. He put the female servants and their children in front, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph in the rear. 

He himself went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother.

But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.

Amazing grace, isn’t it?

Jacob lives out the balance of his life tethered to those he loved and the people who came to revere him. His life remained hard and always a struggle, but he no longer lived inside himself — alone.

And when the time came, all Jacob asked was to be gathered to his people. Once the hopeless wanderer, he drew up his feet in the bed, breathed his last and went home.

Art by Marc Chagall

This is an excerpt from my book and you can purchase “Where The Light Divides” here.

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Showing 17 comments
  • Avatar
    Carole McConnell
    Reply

    You cause me to look at these things differently, from a new perspective and I’m grateful.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Good! It’s just a way of turning the object a few degrees to see it from another perspective. It should never be different just to be different.

  • Avatar
    John Willome
    Reply

    An interesting thing to note is that Jacob seems to come by his deception and selfishness honestly. I don’t know what Rachel’s and Laban’s parents were like, but it’s obvious that both Jacob’s mother (Rachel) and his mother’s brother (Laban) are very deceptive and manipulative. Ain’t nuthin’ but a family thing.

  • Avatar
    Joseph Wu
    Reply

    Can’t help but wonder how Jacob’s new name “Israel” (and the God-size transformation in him that resulted) may have foreshadowed God’s plan for Israel, his chosen people, and for the people of all nations through the sacrifice of our Lord, the holy Lamb of God. Indeed it has never been about Jacob or Abraham, nor you and me – It has always been about God and his ultimate glory, both then, now and forevermore. (Isaiah 48:6b-12)

    • Avatar
      Sam Griffith
      Reply

      Jesus always knows that which we lack.
      Not what we feel we need. Nor what it is we feel we lack.
      Like the rich young ruler, we lay our earthly “yardsticks” to our lives, and make our earthly requests.
      But Jesus knows what we truly need, what we truly need.
      And, when we accept that Heavenly, we are transformed.
      Our “clay”, as Eugene Peterson noted, is now suitable for the great Plans GOD has for us, to transform our mundane lives into “earthly pots containing the Light of the World”, no longer homeless wanderers, but the Home-going Children of the Most High GOD.
      Jesus knows what we lack. And He gives it, to allow us to fulfill His Calling for us.

      • Fred Smith
        Fred Smith
        Reply

        What? You mean to say I don’t know what is best for me? You are so right, Sam.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Sam. I believe you are right

  • Avatar
    Carlana Lane
    Reply

    Apple never falls far from the tree

  • Avatar
    Chip Whitman
    Reply

    Fred,
    I look forward to reading your posts every Thursday. You are an articulate and insightful writer. After 46 years of pastoral ministry, I have recently retired to devote myself to full-time writing at age 70.
    Unfortunately my former email address was linked to the church I served. Please change to the new email address below. Thanks.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Chip – You will receive the blog at your new address. Thank you!

  • Avatar
    Clare Frist
    Reply

    Thank you, Fred, for this fresh, insightful, powerful retelling of this familiar story. I will be holding it up and looking in the mirror.

  • Avatar
    Karen Jones
    Reply

    Thumbs up again Fred! Thanks for the insight.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Karen. Just when we think we understand them the OT characters surprise us.

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