“Community is the place where the person you least want to live with always lives.” Henri Nouwen
“Let us journey on our way, and I will go alongside you.” Esau, (Genesis 33:12)
It was getting dark on Day 26 of my trek through Oregon on the Pacific Crest Trail, so I pitched camp under a thick canopy of spruce. Deadfall the size of small cars crisscrossed the forest floor leaving just enough space for a tent between the downed timbers. Fresh water flowed close by from higher up on the mountain.
Two middle-aged men had already set up their camp and were finishing their evening meal. They laughed easily and spoke kindly to me. Soon I was asking them stock questions section hikers on the PCT asked of one another.
“Where are you guys from?”
“Well, I live in Wisconsin but my brother lives in California,” replied the one named Bill.
“What do you do when you aren’t on the trail?”
Bill said, “I’m an engineer.”
“I owned a computer software company before I sold it,” said the brother named John.
“Yeah, he has all the money. I still have to work for a living.”
I stoked the fire in my stove and shooed mosquitoes away from my face while I sipped cool water and waited for my supper to cook. The conversation turned towards the personalities we’d met on the trail. I mentioned that I started out in California by myself, but had found fellow hikers that traveled the same pace I did and kept running into each other and camping at the same places; sort of leap frogging each other on the trail. It was fun.
“You guys seem to get along well on the trail for brothers,” I said.
“Well, it hasn’t always been like this,” John said.
“Yeah, I couldn’t stand John for years, “Bill said laughingly.
I smiled and thought of my own brother.
“Obviously things have changed,” I said. “What happened?”
For the next ten minutes they told me about their quarrel, the misunderstanding, and the way it affected their lives and the lives of their families for decades.
“About ten years ago, our mother died,” one said.
“At her funeral we were so brokenhearted that our grudges and guards came down. In the remembering of our mother and our childhood, we laughed, cried, and hugged each other for hours. I don’t remember whose idea it was, but one of us said we needed to keep doing this. We need to get together for a week or two for the rest of our lives and do some of the adventures we dreamed about when we were young.”
The other one said, “Yeah, four years ago we canoed in Minnesota for three weeks. Three years ago we decided to hike portions of the PCT together—as much as we could in two weeks until we finished all of Oregon.”
I watched closely as they finished each other’s stories and sentences. They would wink, defer, and tease like only brothers can do. It was plain to see that they loved each other very much and were determined to make up for all the years of estrangement. In fact, one of them said, “Nothing compresses and bends time like being in the wilderness with your brother.”
When I awoke at dawn, they were all packed up and slinging packs over their shoulders. They waved at me and disappeared down the trail in the dappled light beneath the spruce.
After breakfast I wrote these words in my journal: these two brothers remind me of Isaac and Ishmael. Apart for years and together at the death of Abraham.
Do you know that story? Abraham and Sarah decided to fast-track God’s will by letting Abraham sleep with Sarah’s servant girl, Hagar, in order to produce an heir, for Sarah was barren. They named the baby boy Ishmael. Not long after that, Sarah got pregnant with Isaac. As the boys grew Sarah felt threatened and had Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away. And so, peopleless and landless, off into the wild went mother and child, but God didn’t abandon them there. In fact, Genesis 21:20 says, God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow.
As far as we know, the brothers never entered community with one another. They were separated by class, culture and hostility. At least until their father died. [Abraham’s] sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah. Genesis 25:9
What an opportunity for these two brother to walk together and perhaps circumvent the bloodshed that has plagued that part of the world for generations! Opportunity lost. And the world is the worse for it.
In time, Isaac had twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Jacob tricked older brother Esau out of his birthright and inheritance. Esau was so furious he chased Jacob to a far country. There the brothers remained—estranged, filled with murderous hatred, and fearful manipulation—for decades.
But then Jacob wanted to come home; prodigals almost always do. In one of the more staggering stories in the Bible, Jacob returns home to see his failing father and humbles himself before his brother who has come out to meet him. Jacob fully expects there to be trouble. In fact, he is prepared to die. Let me shorten the story by saying, as my grandfather would, “Jacob came home with his hat in his hand.”
Esau ran to meet his brother with open arms. When Esau didn’t attack Jacob, but instead treated him with grace. Jacob said, “No, please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God” Genesis 33:10
You want to know what the face of God looks like? You see it reflected in the face of a brother who extends grace to a brother. In that closing space between two brothers, God shows up and shines his glory on upturned and humbled faces.
Oh, how we need this today. We need it in families, in churches, and in denominations. We need it in schools, corporate boardrooms, and on the freeways. We need it in courtrooms, congress, and cable news affiliates. We need it in Israel, Syria, and Iraq. We need it between the liberals and conservatives. We need it between arrogant pastors and disgruntled church members.
Grace will heal our land when it first begins to break our hearts.
It happened once at the grave of an ancient patriarch, it happened a second time on the far side of a creek called Jabbok, and it happened a third time beside the grave of a mother somewhere in California.
It could happen again in Ferguson, Missouri. It could happen again at Mars Hill Church in Seattle. It could happen again in my heart.
When hearts are broken so that grudges and guards come down and healing love flows like a cool mountain stream.
And we learn to live as brothers.