Combinatory Play

While doing research for my doctoral dissertation awhile back, one nugget I continue to use is the gift of creative genius that by putting two-three ideas together, named by Einstein as “combinatory play,”[1] you create a new idea. Similar to cooking or baking, adding two or more different ingredients than required, you create your own new recipe. My friend, Lisa, makes new dishes nearly every night with her creativity by combining different ingredients for a mouth-watering experience. We all have this gift of creative genius by simply attending to what has been given to us in each day, combining that which seems unconnected, then somehow together creates a new idea, or at the very least a fresh idea.

I had a “combinatory play” experience today while listening to the story of Jacob, the son of Isaac, brother to Esau, in the Old Testament. It goes like this: Jacob steals the birthright of his older brother, causes a great rift in the family, leaves with nothing other than the promise that comes with a birthright. He goes to Bethel where he spends the night on the first night of his journey. He takes a stone as a pillow, and after falling asleep, he dreams of a ladder (some may recall the childhood song, “We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder”). It’s a place where heaven and earth touch. In the dream, God offers this promise:

14 Your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth and shall extend to the west and the east, the north and the south. All the nations of the earth shall be blessed through you and through your descendants.
15I am with you and I will protect you wherever you go. I will make you return to this country,
for I will not abandon you without having done all that I have promised you.” 
Genesis 28

This is where the connection between two different stories – two different ideas – begin to merge. 

The other story is Jesus in the wilderness, in a place of temptation, solitude, and questions by the devil who wants to distract, lead astray, cause Jesus to betray the Father, Creator God. In particular with the second question, the proposal is this:

Then the devil took Jesus to the holy city, Jerusalem, 
and he had Jesus stand at the very highest point in the holy temple.
Devil: If You are the Son of God, jump! 
And then we will see if You fulfill the Scripture that says,
“He will command His heavenly messengers concerning You,
and the messengers will buoy You in their hands so that 

You will not crash, or fall, or even graze Your foot on a stone.”
Jesus: That is not the only thing Scripture says.
It also says, “Do not put the Eternal One, your God, to the test.” 
Matt 4

According to Henri Nouwen, this temptation addresses the “desire to be spectacular” when the devil invites Jesus “jump,” to stand out among everyone else.[2] In fact, scripture is used to back up the suggestion to prove himself, surely there is nothing wrong to see if God will bring to pass what God promises. Indeed Jesus does stand out, but it’s not because he is seeking to stand out. He seeks something else.

That’s when the two ideas emerge. Placing Jacob’s experience alongside Jesus’ temptation, both stories are about encounter and seeking, granted of different kinds, that occur in isolation, only rocks for pillows, and discovering that God is present. And it’s about promises. It’s about what God will do, not what we set out to do. The discernment in these stories is not about jumping, becoming spectacular, or all the grains of sand as the number of descendants. It’s about meeting God in the places we find ourselves. 

These encounters in both Jacob’s seeking and Jesus’ experience reflect the real promise. God doesn’t promise that life will happen as we want or expect. In fact, it usually doesn’t. Rather, as we witness the discovery of Jacob and the response of Jesus to the devil, there is a promise of presence, one that Jacob recognizes as more valuable than all the eventual descendants.

16 The dream ended, and Jacob woke up from his sleep.
Jacob (to himself): There is no doubt in my mind that the Eternal One is in this place—
and I didn’t even know it!
17 But even as he said this, a bit of fear came over him.
Jacob: This place is absolutely awesome! It can be none other than 
the house of God and the gateway into heaven!
Genesis 28

Jacob finds God where God finds Jacob, in his solitude and questions, in the life he has been given, not the one that he thinks he wants. Jesus also meets God as he understands the “Eternal one in this place” as the one to whom he trusts, not in the proving of who is he. Jacob begins to recognize the sacred moment and place where God meets him. For Jesus, he lives out of God’s presence, in the solitude and questions, an ongoing filling by the One who loves him.

And for us, combinatory play – the creative genius given to us by the Creator – means we get to join in this reality that God invites us to also be present in God’s presence. 

  • Mary Pandiani, Executive Director, Selah Center

[1] https://www.themarginalian.org/2013/08/14/how-einstein-thought-combinatorial-creativity/

[2] Nouwen, Henri, In the Name of Love.

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