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February 9, 2022

Marks

Two years ago last month my husband and I were in New York, celebrating fiftieth birthdays with our college class of 1992.
8 min read

Two years ago last month my husband and I were in New York, celebrating fiftieth birthdays with our college class of 1992. Organizers of the event had booked a ballroom at the Yale Club in Manhattan, and we were looking forward to catching up with friends, enjoying good food, and getting the chance get gussied up—something our current lifestyle hardly offers anymore. Weeks before, my husband purchased a new suit, his first in ages. I splurged on getting my hair and makeup done professionally, since the secrets of cosmetic enhancement mostly elude me. The one wild card in the equation—I thought—were the fancy shoes I had bought to go with my little black dress. Would they hurt my feet after hours of standing and schmoozing? Only one way to find out.

Right before we left our hotel room to head out for the party, I removed the socks I had been wearing all day to don the delicate heels only to discover—to my horror—that my legs bore clear elastic marks right above my ankles. I looked like I had been lassoed by two tiny cowhands trying to wrangle me back to their ranch.

Elastic marks?! Who anticipates such a thing? And what was I to do about it? It wasn’t like I had packed some stylish stiletto boots in reserve. And I didn’t think guzzling a gallon of water and running about our room like a crazed ostrich would instantly plump out my gams.

There was nothing for it. I would simply have to hold my head high and step out into the social ether, just as I was. I had heard the ballroom would feature an open bar. Perhaps my drinking peers’ vision would soon blur over in my favor.

(You know you’ve reached new heights of emotional maturity when you actually wish for mass inebriation).

As it turns out, no one noticed the marks. Or if they did, they skimmed right over the sight of them as if they didn’t matter. Because they absolutely didn’t.

What mattered that night was gazing into the faces of those with whom I had lived and learned half my lifetime ago. Swapping stories about our kids, our work, our challenges, and our blessings. As I have in the past, I marveled once more at how time seems to compress in the presence of loved ones, so that the years melt away and we feel like we are picking up right where we left off.

One thing did jar me that evening, however, reasserting a sense of decades having passed between then and now. As I was chatting with a friend who had served as one of our senior dorm counselors, he said, “I never worried about you. You had this peace that came out of you. And you knew how to talk about your feelings.”

Whoa. What?

Sure, I thought. I’m not surprised that I could talk about my feelings. Finally out from under my abusive father’s roof, I had relished speaking truth without harm coming to either me or my mother as a result. But a radiating peace? As I remembered it, I was a hot mess of painful emotions my freshman year, trying to cope with dark secrets coming to light, plus a head-spinning case of culture shock, as my experience of growing up in the Caribbean butted up against life in New England—not to mention my immersion in my parents’ conservative Christian values colliding with an institution that put the “liberal” in “liberal arts.”

Having skipped a grade in high school, I was especially naïve compared to my older peers. When I think about the way I initially dressed (before I learned about layering for winter, for example), and the inappropriate things that I said (about people who were wildly different from me), I cringe. I was so young, and yes, just plain stupid on occasion. But I was receiving an education in far more than academics. As I have written in previous blogs, my picture of God was seismically shifting, slowly reorienting towards something healthier. I was embarking on a journey that would fundamentally change how I experienced being me—moving from a place of fear and anxiety to one of acceptance and peace. But that journey was slated to take decades, so what was it, exactly, that my counselor friend perceived at its very beginning that had lodged in his memory?

My best guess is that he saw something of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promised would come to dwell in his disciples after his departure from Earth (John 14:16-17). The apostle Paul talked about this same presence, that would only reflect the life of Jesus more brightly for being conveyed in a “clay” vessel (2 Cor. 4:7-10). As for a reference from the Hebrew Bible, Exodus tells us that Moses unknowingly glowed in the face when he descended from a conference with God on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:29). Apparently, the glow was so pronounced that Moses veiled himself after subsequent meetings with God, so that the people of Israel would not fear him upon his return to them.

What I like about these texts is that the divine vibe, imprint, mark, that others quickly identify as not-of-this-world emerges in ordinary people. Unlike Greek and Roman mythology, the Scriptures do not focus on demigods like Achilles or Hercules, whose special powers automatically derive from their parentage. Again and again, the God of Israel chooses to work in and through all-too-human agents, and sometimes it takes several tries for the person in question to get it right.

Take Judah, fourth son of the patriarch Jacob, for instance. The first time he speaks in the Bible, it is to suggest that he and his brothers sell their hated sibling Joseph as a slave rather than kill him outright (Gen. 37:26-27). How noble.

When we encounter him again in Genesis 38, he reprises his role as a man of action—this time behaving impulsively rather than just cold-bloodedly. After his first two sons die following marriage to his daughter-in-law Tamar, he ruthlessly banishes her to her father’s house rather than keep her close till his last son grows old enough to wed her.

In the wake of his own wife’s death, he engages a woman he believes to be a prostitute—but who is actually Tamar in disguise. Incredibly, he hands over his seal, cord and staff (think: driver’s license and credit cards) in order to have sex with her, a move he later regrets when he fails to recover them.

When Tamar is found to be pregnant three months later, Judah summarily orders her to be burned to death for her assumed immorality. He narrowly misses murdering his own children in utero, who are saved solely by their mother’s quick thinking. Confronted with the identifying markers she produces, Judah proclaims: “She is more righteous than I…as I did not give her to my son Shelah” (Gen. 38:26). With these words, Judah not only exonerates his daughter in law, but implicates himself, shouldering the responsibility for her welfare that he should have borne all along.

(Notably, Judah never has sex with Tamar again, suggesting that he wants to keep things proper between them after she bears his two sons [Gen. 38:26].)

While the narrator of the Joseph story, which spans fourteen chapters, only describes Judah’s inner thoughts in one place—when he fears for Shelah’s life after losing his first two sons (Gen. 38:11)—the space he devotes to this family leader speaks volumes. It’s as if his close call with Tamar causes something within him to pivot, so that he begins consider the needs of others not only alongside but actually above his own.

For it is Judah who convinces Jacob that the brothers must bring his beloved Benjamin if they are to acquire more food from the Egyptian governor, who insists on this condition.

Send the lad with me, and we will arise and go, that we may live and not die, we as well as you and our little ones. I myself will be surety for him; you may hold me responsible for him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you then let me bear the blame before you forever.”

(Gen. 43:8–9)

When Joseph makes a show of discovering his “divination cup” amongst Benjamin’s things (where it has been planted), it is Judah who steps up and makes an impassioned, 240-word plea on his father Jacob’s behalf. After Joseph announces that he will keep Benjamin as his slave and let the other brothers return home, Judah valiantly urges him to consider another course of action:

Now therefore, when I come to your servant my father, and the lad is not with us, since his life is bound up in the lad’s life, it will come about when he sees that the lad is not with us, that he will die. Thus our servants will bring the gray hair of your servant our father down to Sheol in sorrow… Now, therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the lad as a slave to my lord, and let the lad go up with his brothers. For how shall I go up to my father if the lad is not with me, lest I see the evil that would overtake my father?

(Gen. 44:30, 31, 33, 34)

 Notably, the reader learns of another reason, besides Jacob’s endangerment, that drives Judah to make this petition. When Joseph demands an explanation for Benjamin’s supposed theft, Judah construes this dismaying turn of events as a divine reckoning:

What can we say to my lord? What can we speak? And how can we justify ourselves? God has found out the iniquity of your servants…”

(Gen. 44:16)

That Judah does not specify what sin the brothers have committed, and that Joseph, still disguised as an inquisitor, does not ask, may signal to the reader that the time for the whole story to come out is close at hand. Soon, everyone must trot out what the last decades have made of them, whether they have been brought very high or very low.

If I were to guess, I would say that losing two sons (see Gen. 38:7, 10), nearly murdering two more within Tamar (Gen. 38:24); witnessing years of Jacob’s unabated bereavement over Joseph (Gen. 37:35); and contending with a long-term famine, has primed Judah to make more room for God in his world. To not simply rely on what his eyes see, but to expect that other factors, which he may not fully understand, may be in play in his family’s life. He may also have learned that his limited view in no way exonerates him from culpability in the choices he makes—so he had better make good choices! Ones based on the things that really matter: like showing love for others and taking responsibility for one’s actions.

Apparently, Judah’s “all-in” speech to Joseph finally breaks his brother’s ability to maintain his façade. With a loud cry and many tears, Joseph brings his brothers close to make his own confession:

I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here…for God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance… —Hurry and go up to my father, and say to him, “thus says your son Joseph, “God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me and do not delay.”

(Gen. 45:4,5, 8, 9)

 And so the reader sees firsthand the power of truth-telling in this story, both to exhume long-buried secrets and to elicit compassion and forgiveness.

 One last detail about Judah emerges in the Joseph story that supports a focus on what’s truly important. As Jacob and his family are beginning to cross the border into Egypt, Judah is sent ahead as a scout to help lead everyone to Joseph (Gen. 46:28). In this role he is the harbinger of hope, the point of first contact before dire need and gracious provision, the old life and now the new.

 Next time I am tempted to worry about some flaw or fault before I step into the light where people can see me, I’m going to think about Judah. I’m going to ask: is this something that he would worry about? Is there some way I can be honest about what lies behind me that will help clarify the way forward? Is there someone God wants me to help, even if it means some personal sacrifice? Is there some need, fear, or wrongdoing for which I should take responsibility?

Because I suspect that the way of Judah ultimately points to the way of Jesus, who would one day descend from him.

 Oh—and one other word of counsel. Go with the comfortable shoes when shopping for a special night out. As the evening went on, my leg marks went away but my feet were killing me.

 May we live and learn, about so many things, Lord. So we may shine Your light. Amen.