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Jacob twice swindled his brother, Esau, then had to get out of Dodge for his own good. After Jacob had done him dirty, Esau swore he’d make sure his younger brother wouldn’t be long for this world once their father died. The boys’ mother, who easily favored Jacob, shooed away her youngest so he could stay with her brother, who wound up being as big a cheat as his nephew. (The name Jacob can mean “trickster.”)

Along the way, Jacob tired from the journey, stopped in a forlorn spot, picked out a nice-sized rock for a pillow and fell fast asleep. While sleeping, Jacob dreamed a dream that has gone down in history. The song “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” set it to music years later.

The part of the story you may not remember is when Jacob woke up, remembered God’s promise to bless him and his whole family and then exclaimed, “The Lord is in this place, and I didn’t even know it” (Genesis 29:11). The whole business can mightily annoy scrupulous folks, wondering at the choice of somebody like Jacob, who did not change his spots for years to come. Put him in the same cast of characters as the prodigal son and the eleventh-hour workers, those that offend eye-for-eye ethicists.

What do you do with a God who gives nice dreams and fulfills promises to a scoundrel? Theologians like the notion of prevenient grace, which comes before you can wrap your mind or your character around it all. Human conceit tricks you into thinking “there is no such thing as a free ride.” But even if you don’t believe in things like prayer, basic human sincerity should make you thank your lucky stars that things like grace and mercy exist at all. And make you say thanks one more time if you’ve never had to learn it by way of bitter trial and error. “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Corinthians 4:7).

The Rev. Eugene Stockstill is pastor of Ebenezer United Methodist Church and Myrtle United Methodist Church in Union County.

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