Sunday, February 8, 2015

Threshing in a Winepress

This past fall, I was in a women’s Bible study that focused on Gideon. Rereading the first few chapters of Judges this week, I was reminded of a passage that stood out to me during that study

Judges 6:11-12: Now the angel of the Lord came and sat under the terebinth at Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, while his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the winepress to hide it from the Midianites. And the angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, “The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor.”

Have you ever watched people beating out wheat? When I was living in Jordan as a teenager, we sometimes drove past a group of threshers. They held flails in their hands, and energetically beat at the wheat on a tarp to remove the hulls from the grains. It would always be on a windy day, and when the wheat was well beaten they would take the corners of the tarp and toss the wheat up in the air. The grains would fall down again, while the chaff would fly off in a cloud, carried by the wind.
Have you ever seen a winepress? The ones I've seen in the Middle East were all either sunken down in the ground, sort of in a hole, or surrounded by a wall. A winepress is about as unlikely a place to find a breeze as you could imagine. When Gideon beat out his wheat in a winepress, the chaff wasn’t going anywhere fast. The commonplace task of threshing would be an arduous chore if you had to do it in a winepress.
I remember the study asked if we had any tasks that felt like beating out wheat in a winepress. With 5 kids, I do a lot of laundry. Here’s what laundry looks like at our house.
Our house was built in about 1900. The laundry hookups are in the basement. When I say “basement”, you ought to picture a place that looked like Shelob's lair when we moved in. It is located under the kitchen, but there is no indoor access. You have to go out the back door into the ambient weather conditions and enter the basement from outside the house, by lifting up the slanted doors using a rope handle. The rough concrete steps accumulate pine cones and needles quickly, and are not as deep as my feet are long. The ceiling beams are about 5’ 8” from the rough concrete floor. With bare feet, the top of my head is about 5’ 9 ½” from the floor, and no-one in their right mind would go into our basement barefoot. Hanging down from the ceiling beams are rusty electrical conduits and the bare bulb that illuminates the basement. To turn on this light, you have to go inside the house, because there is no light switch down in the basement. Spiders repopulate the basement each summer, and some sort of sticky dots rain out onto the washer and dryer regularly – spider poop, perhaps? When it rains, the water runs down the steps and floods the basement floor. 2 years ago, we had a blizzard when Ari was out of town that dumped 2 feet of snow overnight. A pine branch fell across the kitchen door, so instead of being able to shovel the 20 feet or so from the back door to the basement, I had to shovel all the way around the house from the front door in order to do the laundry. Last winter and this winter, the path from the back door to the basement became a strip of ice under the relentless pressure of feet on snow. Every time it snows, you have to either shovel off the slanted doors or reach through the snow for the rope handle, which is frozen stiff, and pull until the ice that has formed around the edge of the door gives way.
Earlier this week, there was so much snow behind the door that when I opened it, the snow pushed it shut again. I didn’t realize how solid the snow was, gave an extra push on the door, and the entire door broke off right next to the hinges. For the rest of the week (until Ari fixed it this afternoon), I had to lift the entire door off and move it to the side in order to get into the basement. This was such a headache (particularly with a basket of laundry balanced against my hip) that for a couple of days, when no snow was predicted, I simply left the door off to the side. What I hadn’t thought about was that this left the basement uninsulated from the 8°F night-time temperatures. Fortunately, the main water pipes didn’t freeze, but the flexible conduits from the water pipes to the washing machine did, as did something mysterious inside the washing machine. When I tried to run it on Saturday morning no water flowed into the machine, and when we had removed the conduits and thawed them upstairs in the bathtub, the machine still didn’t work. Fortunately, after 12 hours or so of keeping the door closed, the furnace in the basement had returned the ambient temperature to well above freezing and the machine resumed its normal operation. But I confess – I have a mountain of unwashed clothes in the bathroom, and right now I don’t feel like threshing them in my winepress.
But here’s the encouragement I gained from the passage, and what I remember from the study. First, the angel of the LORD was there, seeing Gideon’s situation (he “came and sat”) before Gideon saw him (he “appeared to him”). I might not always be aware of God in my situation, but he’s aware of what my circumstances are even if I’m blind to his presence. “The LORD is with you.”
Second, the angel addresses Gideon as a “mighty man of valor.” Now here he is, hiding from the enemy, probably feeling like “mighty” and “valor” don’t describe anyone he knows, let alone him. But just as Gideon didn’t see God until after God saw him, Gideon didn’t see his true character until after God saw it and told him about it. He was a mighty man of valor, but he hadn’t had a chance to show it yet. There are aspects of my character, too, that God can see and I can’t; things he’ll do through me that this situation is preparing me for, plans for my future that are just as invisible to me now as the angel was to Gideon before he appeared to him.
So each time I haul another load of laundry around, I’ve been reminding myself: “The LORD is with you, O mighty woman of valor.” Saying it helps me to see ways it’s true. I can see that the LORD is with me because I have strong knees and arms to cope with carrying the laundry down those steps, despite a shattered kneecap and arm in our December 2003 car accident. I can see that the LORD is with me because my back can support me and the laundry basket as I squat below the rusty pipes, unlike after baby E’s birth. I can see that the LORD is with me because he has given me healthy, growing children who are able to run around and get dirty. Money might be tight, but he has given us a wonderful church community with people who share their kids’ outgrown clothes with us. He’s always provided us with enough money to pay the water and electric bills, sometimes in surprising ways when I’ve been worrying about how it’ll work out. It’s turning into a sort of game – how many ways can I see that the LORD is with me while I’m down in the basement this time?
How about you? Are you in a situation that feels like beating out wheat in a winepress? “The LORD is with you, O mighty (wo)man of valor!”

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