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12-2014-Vayishlach-The-Death-of-Rachel-(painting-c-1847-by-Gustav-Ferdinand-Metz)Then they journeyed from Bethel; and when they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel was in childbirth, and she had a difficult labour.  When she was in her difficult labour, the midwife said to her, “Do not be afraid; for now you will have another son.”  As her soul was departing (for she died), she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin.  So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), and Jacob set up a pillar at her grave; it is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day.  Israel journeyed on, and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder.
Genesis 35:16-21

“If you think being blind is the worst thing that could ever happen to you, then it will be the worst thing that could ever happen to you.” I was stunned to hear those words coming from one of my favorite college professors, a man who just happened to be blind! It turned out to be one the great ‘aha moments’ of my life. The professor was Dr. John Hudson, a very popular professor on campus who also served as the President of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists. To see Dr. Hudson going around campus with his guide dog you would see that he was quite happy with the way his life turned out.

I often recall Dr. Hudson’s words from years ago and use them as an overlay in my own life:

  • “If I think [losing my wife to cancer] is the worst thing that could ever happen to me, then it will be.”
  • “If I think [huge doctor and hospital bills] is the worst thing that could ever happened to me, then it will be.”

A wise professor helped me to understand that life has a lot to do with how we see it, and how we define or name the things that happen to us. It has helped me often to rename adversity as adventure.

I took this way of looking at life further than I had ever taken in the summer of 1986. My grief was fresh from the death of my wife Melodee from cancer in the spring. I was reading the Bible when I stumbled on today’s Scripture about Rachel dying in childbirth. It is one of Scriptures most heartrending, poignant scenes. Every line bleeds pathos.

Here is a young wife and mother in difficult childbirth. Added to the difficulty is the young family being far from their homeland and not knowing where God is leading. As Rachel is dying she breathes out a name for her baby, calling him “Ben-oni”, that is, “Son of my sorrow”. Rachel’s sorrow becomes iconic in the Bible and is made to represent all the sorrow of every mother in the world (Jeremiah 31:15; Matthew 2:19).

But then the story takes an unexpected turn. After Rachel’s death the baby’s father, Jacob, names the baby, “Benjamin”, meaning, “Son of my right hand.” Jacob wants his son to go through life knowing that he is dad’s ‘right hand’ man, highly favored and loved. And Benjamin did grow up to become one of the patriarchs of Israel, and father of one of the nation’s greatest tribes.

But it’s not only a story of the renaming of Ben-oni as Benjamin, it’s also the story of the renaming and transformation of the baby’s father. He goes from being called Jacob, meaning “swindler” and “deceiver”, to being called Israel, or “Prince of God”. Note the text says: “Jacob set up a pillar at her grave…Israel journeyed on…” A man whose life had been marked by deception and trickery journeys on as a new man after whom God’s covenant people would forever take their name, Israel.

Something good happens deep inside when we begin to look at life’s tragedies and losses through the lens of faith. Although we may not know how, we do know that God is at work. We refuse to ever think of something as the worst thing that could ever happen to us, but rename it as God’s opportunity. Paul does this spectacularly in Romans 8:35, where he lists some of the worst things we could imagine happening to us:

“…hardship…distress…persecution…famine…nakedness…peril …sword”

Then Paul comes to the startling conclusion about these worst-case scenarios: “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37). It is “in all these things” that God makes us not survivors, but conquerors!

Dr. Hudson took his blindness and renamed it opportunity! Jacob the swindler took profound loss and called it room for God to work! And like Jacob we can become new people as we start to look at life in the light of God!

Grace and peace,

P.S. Water from Rock’s Advent devotional “And the Word Became Flesh: Daily Reflections on the Incarnation for Advent 2015” is available now. Order copies for yourself, your family and friends, study group, Sunday School class, church, etc., by using our order form.

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