Sunday, November 27, 2011

Wombs, Babies, and Christmas (11/27/11)

Wombs, Babies, and Christmas
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

First Sunday of Advent
November 27, 2011

Infancy Gospel of James, 1-5

Genesis 29:31-30:24 
When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren. Leah conceived and bore a son, and she named him Reuben; for she said, ‘Because the Lord has looked on my affliction; surely now my husband will love me.’ She conceived again and bore a son, and said, ‘Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also’; and she named him Simeon. Again she conceived and bore a son, and said, ‘Now this time my husband will be joined to me, because I have borne him three sons’; therefore he was named Levi. She conceived again and bore a son, and said, ‘This time I will praise the Lord’; therefore she named him Judah; then she ceased bearing.

When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister; and she said to Jacob, ‘Give me children, or I shall die!’ Jacob became very angry with Rachel and said, ‘Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?’ Then she said, ‘Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, that she may bear upon my knees and that I too may have children through her.’ So she gave him her maid Bilhah as a wife; and Jacob went in to her. And Bilhah conceived and bore Jacob a son. Then Rachel said, ‘God has judged me, and has also heard my voice and given me a son’; therefore she named him Dan. Rachel’s maid Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son. Then Rachel said, ‘With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister, and have prevailed’; so she named him Naphtali.

When Leah saw that she had ceased bearing children, she took her maid Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as a wife. Then Leah’s maid Zilpah bore Jacob a son. And Leah said, ‘Good fortune!’ so she named him Gad. Leah’s maid Zilpah bore Jacob a second son. And Leah said, ‘Happy am I! For the women will call me happy’; so she named him Asher.

In the days of wheat harvest Reuben went and found mandrakes in the field, and brought them to his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, ‘Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.’ But she said to her, ‘Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? Would you take away my son’s mandrakes also?’ Rachel said, ‘Then he may lie with you tonight for your son’s mandrakes.’ When Jacob came from the field in the evening, Leah went out to meet him, and said, ‘You must come in to me; for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.’ So he lay with her that night. And God heeded Leah, and she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son. Leah said, ‘God has given me my hire because I gave my maid to my husband’; so she named him Issachar. And Leah conceived again, and she bore Jacob a sixth son. Then Leah said, ‘God has endowed me with a good dowry; now my husband will honour me, because I have borne him six sons’; so she named him Zebulun. Afterwards she bore a daughter, and named her Dinah.

Then God remembered Rachel, and God heeded her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son, and said, ‘God has taken away my reproach’; and she named him Joseph, saying, ‘May the Lord add to me another son!’

Welcome to the First Sunday of Advent.

It is a season “pregnant with possibility”. One of the leading metaphors for Advent is pregnancy. Pregnancy is a condition that lends itself to metaphor as shown by Sylvia Plath’s poem, Metaphors:
I’m a riddle in nine syllables,
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
This loaf’s big with its yeasty rising.
Money’s new-minted in this fat purse.
I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I’ve eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there’s no getting off.
The hope of Advent traditionally is realized in the birth of Jesus, the Son of God. Jesus’s mother, Mary, was considered to be Theotokos or the Mother of God. The Divine Spirit passed through her womb. She was pregnant with God. The spiritual life is conceived (conceived!) as re-birth. We are to be like Mary, a vessel, or in the words of Sylvia Plath, “a means, a stage, a cow in calf” for Christ to be born in us. The spiritual life is not mine, but Christ in me.

“Not my will, but thine be done,” so goes the expression.

The early Christians were clever enough to appropriate Winter Solstice as the time this divine birth occurred, making Jesus the Light of the world, born in the darkest hour. Wombs, babies, and Christmas. Advent is full of it.

During Autumn we have been exploring the myths of Genesis. These myths are patriarchal myths. You may wonder why I keep bringing up patriarchy. The reason is that if we don’t acknowledge that these stories are patriarchal stories, we may conclude that they are universal human stories, or even supernatural or divinely created stories. They are human stories created by human beings within the context of patriarchy. Patriarchy literally means father-rule or father-power.

Patriarchy is one answer to the question, “Where do babies come from?” That is an important question. How that question is answered determines how power is managed and who manages it. Who has control over babies and birthing? Whose womb is it? All of these debates that we are having regarding abortion are about power. Who controls the womb? Christianity’s answer is that the Holy Church controls every womb. Christianity, Islam and Judaism were formed, birthed, if you like, in the context of patriarchy—“father—power”. That is based on a particular answer to the question, “Where do babies come from?”

“Father-power” influences our contemporary discussions on sex and marriage. Who gets to have sex with whom? Who gets to be married? Who decides what marriage is? Who decides what the appropriate living arrangements are for human beings? Who decides gender roles? Who is responsible for reproduction? In short, who controls the womb?

We ought to be reading these stories, these myths of the Bible with great care. Not just the myths of Genesis, also the myths of Jesus. We ought not on one hand appropriate their spirituality into our lives without discernment. Nor should we on the other hand dismiss and ignore them. Because they have power, we need to understand them.

The church is obsessed with sex and wombs. Why is reason, rationality, and equality met with so much resistance by the church? The power structures of the church have advocated for a certain power arrangement, namely, father-power. These defenders of “traditional marriage” and “family values” claim that God is the one who set all of these laws in His Bible.     When we begin to actually read these stories in the Bible and we begin to unravel these claims we discover that at least in part, probably in large part, the “God” who supposedly made up all of these rules is a projection of patriarchy itself. It is patriarchy writ in the heavens.

Patriarchal spirituality is taking human power arrangements and projecting them onto the heavens as if these arrangements were absolute, divine truth. So Jesus being born of the Father to a virgin is most definitely a story only patriarchy could create.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Where do babies come from?

In pre-modern societies, that is before the modern science of reproduction, there were and are many theories. Anthropologist, Carol Delaney, in her book Abraham on Trial suggests a few:

In Australian aboriginal society the male opens the passage for a fetus to come by other means. Repeated intercourse is a process by which the male feeds the fetus. Delaney writes that in “China and some African societies, the male contributes a particular substance such as bones.” P. 27

Only in patriarchal societies, is the “male imagined as the primary, engendering, creative agent.” P. 27

That is the way Genesis and the Jesus mythology understand procreation. The male has the seed which is the identity and creative agent or the life that is planted in the womb, like a seed is planted in the garden. The womb or ground nurtures the seed.

In this theory of procreation, the father owns the seed, and ultimately, the child and the womb. Marriage was the process of trading wombs from one man to another. The key here is that the male has the life-giving role and the male is symbolized as divine creativity. (Delaney, p. 28)

In this very odd story of Rachel and Leah, we can see what is at stake for these two sisters competing for the affections of their husband by having as many sons as possible. The story assumes that wombs, like ground, can be barren as opposed to fruitful. There is status on behalf of the women to be able to nurture the patriarch’s seed. Jacob owns these two women. He controls their wombs for the most part.

But there is also a hierarchy of control. For instance the slave women of Rachel and Leah have children on behalf of their mistresses. Rachel and Leah have some control over “the ground” or the wombs of their slaves, so the seed planted in the slave belongs to the owner, as much as the seed can belong to the female.

God in this view is imagined as the ultimate Father, the primary patriarch. He speaks for the most part to the men. He makes promises and establishes covenants with the men. He has the men be circumcised as a sign of this covenant. The sign of circumcision reminds everyone that all seed belongs to him. All seed belongs ultimately to God the Father. Not only that, but God the Father owns all the wombs. He opens them and closes them as he is wont to do.

It is a set up for conflict. The sibling rivalry between Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and Rachel and Leah is about who will win the Father’s favor. The stories are written such that God the Father simply chooses who he will favor and who he will not. The power arrangements are seen as “the way it is supposed to be” and divinely ordained. I find this story of Rachel and Leah to be comically depressing. That is it? The value of your whole life is to please a man?

When we get to the New Testament and then into the speculations of the early church, not much has changed. Jesus comes to be seen as the Divine Son of God, the Divine Seed that passed through and is nurtured by Mary’s womb. Mary, even though the church bestowed upon her the title of Theotokos or Mother of God, did not contribute anything to Christ’s identity. Jesus is not part Mary and part God. Her role was to be a pure, receptive, vessel.

The story in the Infancy Gospel of James, created likely in the middle of the second century, is concerned that Mary was pure enough to be the ground so it tells the story of Mary’s birth as miraculous. The “barren” Anna gives birth to Mary. This makes Mary pure enough to be the holy ground that nurtures the divine seed. Now, Jesus is absolutely "untainted" by humanity. Still, Mary contributes nothing to the creativity or identity of Jesus.

This is all mythology, of course. Jesus would turn over in his grave if he were to know the religion that was made about him. Nevertheless, the mythology is what captures our interest especially during seasons like Advent and Christmas. I am not suggesting that we do away with the mythology. What I am saying is that the mythology might be richer if we challenge the patriarchal assumptions behind it.

Christians are called to the spiritual life of being a vessel for the divine. We are to be like Mary and give birth to divine creativity. We are to deny ourselves so that Christ lives in us. As Mary says to the angel:
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
That comes from a patriarchal understanding of God that is not necessarily bad. But before we jump into it, before we decide that our wills and our identity ought to be replaced, we should consider what we are doing.

There is an assumption in this spirituality that human beings are by nature sinful and bad and that our salvation requires a total replacement of our will by God’s will. We have nothing to contribute except to be a vessel. I grew up with that and my guess is that you have as well and to challenge such a notion might be seen as arrogant or rude. As always, you have the freedom to accept or reject anything I say.

My spirituality is changing in that if God and I are going to have babies together then I will contribute equally to this birth. My life or my identity is important and it is part of me and it has value. I will be a partner with Christ but I won’t merely be a vessel. I am playing with metaphors, of course. But metaphors shape who we are, how we live, and what we value. Humans created these metaphors. We can create new ones.

The consequences of human beings giving up their identity, saying that we are all bad and in need of replacement, are not always so good. Think of the whole Christ vs. Culture thing. In this view, culture is bad and is in opposition to and inferior to Christ. This has led to the aggressive nature of Christianity that needs to take everything over. In this view, the secular and the material is nothing but inert ground, barren, lifeless until the divine seed of creativity, male creativity at that, impregnates it.

One of the insights of science and reproduction is that we might imagine spirituality in a different way. As men and women can be equal partners in reproduction, we are co-creators with the Divine, not just vessels. A spirituality that imagines the Divine not just as a seed or a spark within us, but as totally mixed with us is far more appealing to me. Everything is divine.   All is sacred. Every cell is holy.

When I think of Advent hope, I don’t think of myself as a lowly vessel giving birth to God. Rather, I am an active participant in this creative work. Each of us is an active participant in this creative work. Earth itself is an active participant in this work. We are less in need of a divine savior to take us over and to whom we must submit. We are more in need of taking responsibility for our lives and for our future.
Advent hope is not sitting around waiting for Jesus to come again and make everything right. We are the ones we have been waiting for.
This Advent we can take responsibility for the future we hope to see. We are giving birth and what is being born is a product of our intelligence, energy, imagination, and love as it interacts with divine creativity, or as the late theologian Gordon Kaufman called it, serendipitous creativity.

What are your hopes?
Advent is a good time to dream them.
--our personal hopes, hopes for our relationships, and our global hopes.
As we dream them we create them.
We, women and men both, are creative agents in this holy work.


Sunday, November 20, 2011

Wrestling With God (11/20/11)

Wrestling With God
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

John Shuck
November 20, 2011

Genesis 32:22-32
The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.

When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’

But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’

So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’

And he said, ‘Jacob.’

Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’

Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’

But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’

And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’

The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.

During the season of Autumn we are working our way through the myths of Genesis. If you haven’t recently, I invite you to take an hour or two and read Genesis. Skim the genealogies so you don’t get mired in them and move on to the narrative portions. They are our stories. When I say “our” I mean Western Culture’s stories.

All the way through the 19th century in academic circles (and it is still the case for most people) Genesis told the story of Earth and human origins. Since Galileo, Newton, and Darwin, we know intellectually at least, that Genesis has been replaced by science in regards to Earth’s and humanity’s story. Rather than the Bible telling the story of the universe and the human condition, it is now one part of a human story that is encompassed by a much larger story that grows larger each day through use of the tools of science.

Those of us for whom the Bible has been our book, the Word of God, wrestle with this. Like Jacob at River Jabbok, we have been wrestling with this new story and we are not going down easily. Why Creationism for example? There may be a number of reasons but I think one is the anxiety over the loss of the Bible as the grand narrative. Their beliefs will not allow that. "The Bible is the only book God ever wrote." So they try to fit the universe into the Bible.     That could go on for some time especially as the guardians of the texts, the church and its theologians, priests, and preachers, continue to operate as if nothing has changed.

Those of us who know this change wrestle too. We know the Bible no longer contains the grand narrative but it does say something about us. We wrestle with what it does say. We turn to the literary critics who tell us about myth, irony, and motif, and to the depth psychologists who can tell us about archetypes, shadow, and projection and to anthropologists who can tell us about patriarchy.

We turn to these stories as myths, not universal human myths, but myths forged from patriarchy that still have a hold on us, our values and our drives, regardless of whether we identify as religious or not.

When I read these stories and enter them I see myself in them in surprising ways, not unlike when I realize that I have become my father or my mother. You know that experience don’t you? Someone else might make the observation, “You are just like your dad” and it is not meant in a positive way. But it often isn’t good or bad, just what is. These stories, like our parents, are part of us. Even as much as we might like to move beyond them, we may find it is not so easy.

I also see my spirituality in these stories. Even in the stories from which I recoil, such as Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac, I see myself. What parent does not look back and ask “What have I sacrificed for my ideals or some code or script written or unwritten that I am compelled to follow? Who did I sacrifice for it?”

I see myself in Jacob, wily, charming, cunning, deceitful, and yet na├»ve, ambitious, needy, and in love. Reading Genesis can be therapy. We find here the stories of wives and husbands, fathers and mothers, sons, daughters, siblings. Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah. These stories can be doorways into our own psyches. As we give these characters voice, our voice, we can recognize our wounds and perhaps even honor these wounds and allow healing.

We have to be careful. These stories are raw. They are not politically correct. They are patriarchal. Carol Delaney, author of Abraham On Trial, pointed out that patriarchy is based on a theory of procreation in which the seed belongs to the male and is planted in the female who is like the ground. The identity, the soul, is the father’s. Thus the father has control over the sons and daughters. They belong to him in ways they do not belong to the mother. This is a theory of procreation that belongs to patriarchy and it is not universal. Nevertheless, patriarchy is the dominant mythology in Western culture.

What about God? How does patriarchy imagine God? The sacred or the holy is presented as other. For Genesis and the myths of patriarchy, God is not Mother Earth. Not a She. God is not seen in every flower. I and God are not one. Those notions of the sacred and the holy are very different traditions. For Genesis, the sacred is wholly other. W-h-o-l-l-y as in completely and H-o-l-y as in set apart.

I am not saying that that view of the sacred is right or wrong, it is what it is. That Holy, that Other, that Sacred, intrudes itself, uninvited and unexpected. “And God said to Abram, “Go!” And after that, no communication for a long while. That is the myth of the call. The myth of giving up everything and following. The Holy intrudes when you don’t want it and is absent when you call for help. The spirituality of this is the constant struggle, the wrestling with this intrusive absence. That is the experience of the patriarchal sacred. God is on his own time. He has his own agenda.

And he owns your seed. That is the mark of circumcision. You, Father Abraham, your seed, your children, your sons and daughters belong to the Holy. Within the tradition that is the test of Abraham. Will he or will he not acknowledge that Isaac is not his but belongs to the Holy? If Abraham is willing to sacrifice his son to the Holy and give him back to the Holy, then he is faithful to the Holy. In the story the Holy acknowledges the faithfulness of Abraham and gives him back his son. I provided a critique of that story last week. I won’t go into that again.

Now we enter into the sibling cycle. This is the story of Jacob. His story begins in the womb when he is struggling with his twin brother Esau. God tells their mother, Rebekah, that two nations are wrestling within her. When they are born, Esau is born first but Jacob grabs Esau’s heel. The name, Jacob, means “heel” and it also means “one who supplants.” Jacob, the heel, is going to take Esau’s position.

Jacob is the smooth man and Esau is the hairy man or the red man. Esau is an outdoors guy and he hunts. He is his father Isaac’s favorite. But Jacob is a smooth man. A smooth operator. He is his mother’s favorite.

One day Esau comes back from the hunt and is hungry and Jacob prepares some stew and Esau trades his birthright for the stew. That is where we get the image for making a bad deal.  Foolish Esau traded something valuable for a bowl of pottage. That isn’t the only trick that Jacob "the heel" will play.

Isaac is old and he can’t see. He is about to give his final blessing to Esau. Rebekah tells Jacob that he needs to get that blessing instead. She puts animal skins on him and he brings in some mutton and offers it to his father pretending he is Esau. Isaac has his doubts but is convinced enough to bless Jacob thinking he is blessing Esau. Here is the blessing:

May God give you of the dew of heaven,
And of the fatness of the earth,
And plenty of grain and wine.
Let people serve you,
And nations bow down to you.
Be lord over your brothers,
And may your mother’s sons
Bow down to you.
Cursed be everyone who curses you,
And blessed be everyone who blesses you.

These words have power. These blessings are prophecies. The blessing is like an arrow that has been shot. Once it is sent, it is no longer under control of the sender. Isaac cannot take it back. When he realizes that he has been duped, there is nothing he can do for Esau except give him a second-rate blessing:

See, away from the fatness of the earth shall your home be,
And way from the dew of heaven on high.
By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother;
But when you break loose, you shall break his yoke from your neck.

Esau is pretty upset. He vows to kill his brother. Jacob heads for Haran.

One night Jacob camps out and he has a dream. He dreams of a ladder that goes to heaven and angels go up and down it and the Lord speaks and tells him that he is the God of Abraham and Isaac and he will make Jacob a great nation.

Jacob’s response is tepid. He says yeah this is cool. He performs a lightweight spiritual ritual by pouring some oil on a small rock and says to himself:
If God will protect me and give me bread and clothing and peace at my father’s house, then the Lord will be my God.
We know enough about these stories to know that that isn’t what you do with the Holy. There are no conditions. We know that Jacob has some things to learn.

He goes to Laban’s home--his mother’s brother’s house--and falls in love with his cousin, Rachel, who is the younger sister to Leah. The lovestruck Jacob makes a deal to work seven years for Rachel. Jacob is the Bible's first romantic. Here is the text:

“So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.”
But on the wedding night, the cunning Laban who was even more cunning than Jacob, sends Leah to the marriage bed. How Jacob didn’t know I never could fathom. Maybe too much wine? Anyway, he is tricked and has consummated a marriage with Leah instead. Laban says you can have Rachel, too, but you will have to work another seven years.

Seven years and more and eleven sons and one daughter later between his two wives, their slaves, and plenty of loot that he tricked from Laban, Jacob leaves. He has a destiny. He must meet his brother, Esau. The dream of the patriarchal myths is brotherhood. One day brothers will live in peace. This is the dream of patriarchal spirituality. This is the hope.
Psalm 133:
How very good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!
it is like the precious oil on the head, running down the beard of Aaron,
running down the over the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.
While on the journey, Jacob gets word that his brother Esau is coming to meet him and he has 400 men with him. Jacob sends him gifts and flattery and bribery, one bunch of them after another after another, and he divides his family and sends them on ahead in different groups so that if Esau attacks one the other might escape.

He waits alone on the River Jabbok. He does the one activity that is the last refuge of a scoundrel. He prays. He prays that God will protect him like God is supposed to and deliver him from his brother. Jacob, all alone, has what we call the dark night of the soul. Solitude is most certainly a centerpiece of patriarchal spirituality. You have to walk that lonesome valley. Ain’t nobody gonna walk it for you. You have to walk it by yourself.

Jacob is all alone. He has no more tricks left. Jacob is alone with his sins. Been there? That night a man wrestles with him until daybreak. Out of nowhere. That is how patriarchal spirituality works. It is dusty and bodily and sweaty. It is violent and erotic. Jacob wrestles a man until daybreak.

Jacob proves not to be just a smooth mama’s boy after all. He is a good match. So good that the man can only get away by wounding him. He touches his hip. The word for hip is yarekh. It also means loins. There is a sense in which the wounding is the wounding of the sexual power and drive, the source of the seed. It is another sign that the holy controls the seed.

Even when wounded, Jacob will not let go until he gets a blessing. The man will not tell him his own name, but he does rename Jacob. He calls him Israel, one who struggles with God. With the name Israel, he comes to represent in his story the people of Israel. His twelve sons become the twelve tribes of Israel. Christianity supplanted that tradition with its twelve apostles. Both traditions go back to the founding figure, Jacob, who wrestles with the Holy. Peter Pitzele in his book, Our Father’s Wells writes of wrestling:
Wrestling is a metaphor for the patriarchal sense—and my own—of the soul’s existential reality. Soul is made by grappling with ultimate things: with one’s own nature, with one’s kin, and with God. As a poetic image and as a way of life, wrestling seemed to me the unique contribution of the patriarchal tradition, its splendid excess. P 191
I identify in many ways with Jacob. He is not an admirable person. He is a chess player and a schemer. He calculates and deceives. The fact that God picks him makes me question God’s judgment. Adonai is not always a good judge of character. Adonai picks who he wants despite their character. I don’t think Jacob ever really trusts God like his grandfather Abraham did. Jacob always wants something. But that maybe is the point.

God is not easy for Jacob. This is why I identify with him. Jacob does things the hard way. God is a struggle. His spirituality comes from lonely nights wrestling. I am putting on Jacob things that aren’t in the text now. I am taking him over. Jacob is for me the one who simply won’t stop doubting and struggling. Faith is not simple for Jacob. It is not trust and obey. It is
Fight me all night long, God, and I won’t give up.
This spirituality, the myth of wrestling allows for putting it all out there. There is nothing to hold back. This is a spirituality to which you can give all of your doubts, all of your shortcomings, your anger, your battle with authority, your addictions, whatever you got. There is no place for being politically correct or pious or nice. The Sacred, the Divine Wrestler will take you on as you are. You wrestle in the dirt with this God and you don’t ask for permission. You take it.
“I won’t let you go until you bless me.”
You wrestle until you are wounded, even then you hold on. You will get renamed.

That is why Jacob gets the story and not Esau. Esau is a better man. Esau is a moral human being. He is simple. He trusts. He forgives. They meet and they embrace and Esau kisses him and hugs his neck. Esau is good. He doesn’t have that ambition. Jacob is not a good man. But Jacob is chosen because he is a son of a gun who will not give up. Jacob is the survivor. That is the heart of the patriarchal tradition that still lives with us and still has its value.

Life, the Holy, the Sacred, God, whatever you call it is a struggle.
You don’t have to love it.
But don’t let go.
Wrestle with it until you are blessed.
Wrestle with it until dawn.


Sunday, November 13, 2011

Faith or Attempted Murder? (11/13/11)

Faith or Attempted Murder?
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

November 13th, 2011

Genesis 22:1-9

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’

And he said, ‘Here I am.’

He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’

So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt-offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away.

Then Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.’

Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together.
Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father!’

And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’

He said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’

Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’

So the two of them walked on together. 
When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.

But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’

And he said, ‘Here I am.’

He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’

And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt-offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’ 

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, ‘By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.’

So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba.

Carol Delaney begins her book Abraham on Trial: The Social Legacy of Biblical Myth with these words:
In the beginning of the last decade of the twentieth century, in that most modern of places, California, a tragedy of Biblical proportions unfolded with the morning newspaper:

Father Sacrificed Child. God Told Him To.

So accustomed are we to horrendous tales of domestic violence that this headline might seem only a bizarre twist on the ordinary. People who read about he incident over their morning coffee noted it, registered a reaction, and turned the page, muttering, “The man must be crazy.” In this way, the man was defined, the deed was labeled, and the whole thing could be put out of mind. A year later, when Cristos Valenti came to trial, only one of the jurors remembered the newspaper story.

Yet once upon a time, God asked another father to sacrifice his child. For his willingness to obey God’s command, Abraham became the model of faith at the foundation of three monotheistic (Abrahamic) religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. His story has been inscribed on the hearts and minds of billions of people for millennia. P. 5.
We are working our way through the myths of Genesis. These are the foundational myths for Western culture, not just Christians or Jews, but Muslims too. Not just Bible believers or religious people, all of us, secular and religious. These are the myths that are so pervasive that they rest in the marrow of our bones. They are so central that we may think they are natural in regards to issues of gender, authority, and power. They are not “natural”.

These myths have been constructed. The views and vision they propagate regarding men, women, children, fathers, and God, were created and constructed by human beings in a particular way. They are not universal to all humanity. They are not what “makes us human”. Not all cultures have shared this vision and these views. If they can be constructed, they can be deconstructed.

The via negativa, the spiritual path we have been honoring during the season of autumn, is a path to God that says, “God is not this.” One of the ways to approach God is to say what God is not. This is a way of spiritual growth because it invites us to dismantle images of God that no longer work or are no longer true for us. The via negativa is the way of letting go. We let go of ways of thinking or believing that are no longer life-giving.

This gives us the opportunity for creativity. After letting go, we can create. We can create new images for God. I am using the phrase “image of God” as a metaphor for creating meaning and morality. This is certainly a secular work as well as a religious one. I don’t mean to suggest that we can just decide tomorrow to create new myths and new images for God. That is a much longer process and it is something that is done collectively and it is something that arises from creativity. We can give ourselves permission to begin.

The via negativa or in this particular case of analyzing myths, deconstructing, is not saying that we need to discard these myths or stop reading them. I think it is the opposite. We need to read them carefully. We need to read them with awareness of their cultural and historical setting. We need to read them with awareness of their agenda and of their assumptions. We need to read them with awareness of the effects that they have had upon us and continue to have.

They have power. Part of their power is that they are assumed to be sacred or holy in a way that other stories and myths are not. These stories come from the Bible. We place them on a brass stand. We use phrases such as “Word of God” or “Authority of Scripture” and we are instructed not to question them. We are told not to analyze their assumptions. We are told not to challenge their view of God or their morality. We are simply told in the words of the childhood hymn, whose chorus I know by heart, “trust and obey”.

Trust and obey for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus but to trust and obey.
Trust and obey like Abraham, who heard God say:
‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
Trust and obey, like Isaac trusted and obeyed his father. Trust and obey like Jesus who obeyed his father and went to the cross never saying a mumbalin’ word and died for the sins of humanity in order to satisfy his father’s honor and need for blood revenge on sinful humanity. All in love, of course.

Before trusting and obeying perhaps we ought to see if this image of God is worthy of trust and obedience. There is a difference between the god who is a character in a biblical text, the god of theological reflection, and the god of personal experience. They interact, but they are not the same. Just because God does something in the Bible, like tell Abraham to kill his son, that doesn’t mean that the character, God, is the God we need to trust or obey.

And what of Abraham? He is a model of faith. He is not the model of faith because he said no to this voice. He didn’t say,
“You know that is pretty crazy voice to obey. I don’t think I am going to do that. Instead I am going to set up an appointment with my mental health professional.”
He didn’t say,
“You know, I think I might run this plan by Sarah and see what she thinks. “Sarah, honey, God just told me to take Isaac and kill him with my knife and burn his body as a sacrifice. Then I’ll be back for breakfast. Is that all right with you?”
He didn’t say,
Isaac, my boy, we are going on an adventure today. God told me that we need to hike to Mount Moriah. When we are there I am going to take a knife and kill you and offer your body as toast for the Lord. You don’t have any objections do you? I did pray about it.”
Abraham didn’t tell his wife and he lied to Isaac.

Isaac asked. “Where is the lamb?”
Abraham said, “God will provide the lamb.”

Well, that is the truth as the story turned out, but you and I know that is a lie as Abraham didn’t know. If he knew then his near-sacrifice wasn’t an act of faith at all. He was simply calling God’s bluff.

The point of the story is that Abraham was willing to kill his son for God. That is why he is honored as a model of faith.

You may be sensing that I am disrespectful and irreverent regarding Holy Scripture. You are right. This is a text of terror. We dismantle bad texts by removing their halo, their supposedly deserved reverence. The problem with these texts are not the texts but the aura of sacredness we place around them. The unquestioning authority of scripture. I remember my seminary experience of hearing explanation after lame explanation supposedly justifying Abraham.

One explanation is that this is a story that ends child sacrifice and substitutes animal sacrifice. God did provide a ram, after all. There are a couple of problems. Isaac did ask about a lamb. So there already was a tradition of animal sacrifice even within the story itself.

Or…God could have simply declared that child sacrifice was wrong, as is done in other texts

Or…Abraham could have refused the command and on his own told God, “No, you get a ram instead.” Then Abraham would have been a true hero.

The point of this story is that Abraham is a model of faith because he was willing to kill his son. Abraham’s faith is what we are to emulate.

Christians have taken this story as prefiguring the sacrifice of Jesus by his father. In that case, the divine father carried it out with the divine son's acquiescence.

Some have said this story is not about killing his son, but his willingness to give up what is most valuable to him. Giving everything to God, even his most valuable possession, his son, is the faith we should emulate. We ought to be willing to give up everything to God, just like Abraham.

OK, except that Abraham didn’t give up everything. He didn’t give up his wealth, for instance.  He didn’t even bargain. He had bargained with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.Remember that story?

God wants to destroy these wicked cities and Abraham tries to stop him by claiming there are good people there. He says to God, “If I find 50 righteous people will you not destroy the city?” God agrees. Then Abraham realizes there might not be 50 righteous people. So he goes down, how about 45? 40? 30? And finally, ten?”

The point is that Abraham was willing to bargain with the Lord for Sodom and Gomorrah. But when it comes to his own son, Abraham doesn’t raise an objection. He doesn’t say, “Take my stuff, instead!” He doesn’t say, “Take my own life.” He just does what God asks without saying a mumbalin’ word.

The next problem we have is the notion of possessions. Is Isaac Abraham’s to sacrifice? Where did we get the notion that Isaac was a possession of Abraham? If a possession, does Isaac not belong to Sarah as well? The story assumes that Abraham owns his son in a possessive sense, in a way that Sarah does not.

This is the major insight of Carol Delaney in her book, Abraham on Trial. What is assumed in this story and not questioned by the authors is a theory of procreation. That theory is what gives patriarchy its power and gives monotheism its vision.

It begins with the word, seed. Isaac is Abraham’s seed. He is not Sarah’s seed. Sarah is the ground that nurtures the seed, but she does not provide seed. Abraham’s seed is the spirit, life, soul, and identity for Isaac. Isaac as the seed of Abraham belongs to Abraham. Sons and daughters belong to fathers in ways they do not belong to mothers. In a patriarchal and patrilineal understanding of procreation, the seed of the father is passed down.

This is seen in the Christian myth of the virgin birth. The seed is God. The Word, the Divine Seed, is passed through Mary. Mary does not contribute anything to Christ's identity. He is not defiled by Mary because she is the ground, the womb. She is not a co-creator. The point of that myth is that Jesus is born of virgin and therefore divine, not sinful.

If Abraham kills Isaac, his seed, he is killing himself, according to this theory of procreation. Killing his son, or killing “himself” is killing the promise of the great nation that Abraham will fertilize with his seed. The land, the ground, is feminine, like the womb, ready to be planted with the seed of the father in order to build a great nation. That is the lifeblood of patriarchy.

We have vestiges of this in our modern secular society. We see it in marriage rituals where the father “gives away” the daughter to another man. We regard it sentimentally today, but marriage, the holy sacred institution that our conservative friends wish to protect, is a legacy of a patriarchal property exchange.

Children, and the rare exception proves the rule, take the father’s surname as does the wife. In fact, I still hear even in my own family that “the line” is not continued unless sons are born to “carry on the name”. The name is the seed. If you have daughters some other man is going to plant his seed and that seed will populate the land, not yours.

Even though we know the science of procreation, that both mother and father contribute genes to the child, it has not changed in our cultural and religious understanding of gender roles and parenting roles. The myths are powerful and resilient.

Abraham is faithful because he is willing to kill his own seed.

Says the father to his son, 

“I brought you into this world, I can take you out of it.”
Says God the father, to humanity, 

“I made you, I can destroy you. So you better obey.”
Remember, that is an image of God that human beings created. Dare we speak back to this barbaric image of God, 

“Yeah, we brought you into this world, and we can take you out of it?”
The effects of Abraham’s sacrifice, or attempted sacrifice, or attempted murder of Isaac, is seen in the real ways we sacrifice children today. Carol Delaney begins and ends her book with the question that should haunt us:
“Why is the willingness to sacrifice one’s child the quintessential model of faith, why not the passionate protection of the child? What would be the shape of our society had that been the supreme model of faith and commitment?” p. 5
Poverty. Punishing disobedience is the legacy of our patriarchal God. We would rather spend our money on prisons than on education, food, or housing for single mothers who raise their children after some father has sown his seed. We are stripping away the social net for women and their children and justify it with the mythology of the “welfare mother” and blame the victim. We would rather punish these women and their children rather than help them.

Parenting. Spare the rod, spoil the child. I am not going into today the horrors of child abuse that is excused by supposedly breaking the will of children so they will be obedient to parents. Every fourteen hours a child under five is murdered in the United States, every five hours a youth between 15 and 19. Delaney, p. 235

War. Did you know that November 11th, 1918 was called Armistice Day? It was the day that honored the end of the war that would end all wars. It was a day that acknowledged peace. This war to end all wars eventually came to be known as World War 1 because there was a World War 2. The war to end all wars didn't. It wasn’t until 1954 that Armistice Day became Veterans Day.

I support veterans. I support them so much that I advocate ending needless wars and paying for providing for the emotional and physical needs of veterans who have been permanently damaged by these wars.

Here I turn to a veteran, a prisoner of war, Kurt Vonnegut from his novel, Cat’s Cradle. The voice is one of the characters speaking at a memorial event, but it is Vonnegut's voice:
"I do not say that children at war do not die like men, if they have to die. To their everlasting honor and our everlasting shame, they do die like men, thus making possible the manly jubilation of patriotic holidays.

"But they are murdered children all the same.

"And I propose to you that if we are to pay our sincere respects to the hundred lost children of San Lorenzo, that we might best spend the day despising what killed them; which is to say, the stupidity and viciousness of all mankind.

"Perhaps, when we remember wars, we should take off our clothes and paint ourselves blue and go on all fours all day long and grunt like pigs. That would surely be more appropriate than noble oratory and shows of flags and well-oiled guns....

"...But if today is really in honor of a hundred children murdered in war," he said, "is today a day for a thrilling show?

"The answer is yes, on one condition: that we, the celebrants, are working consciously and tirelessly to reduce the stupidity and viciousness of ourselves and all mankind...."
Kurt Vonnegut from his 1963 novel, Cat’s Cradle.

We have created a war mythology not far removed from Abraham’s legacy that advocates sacrificing our children for the honor of the fatherland. We instill this mythology in our children at a young age through war games and constant flag waving. We communicate to them and to all of us that war is the most important and noble thing we can do. Don’t question. Trust and obey.

I have given you a negative reading of this myth of sacrifice. But I want to leave you with a positive message. That message is that we are not beholden to this myth. These patriarchal stories are not all there is to say about God and about faith. I am not saying that you have to agree with all of what I have said or with anything for that matter. But I do invite you to think about it.

We can, if we choose, in the spirit of the via negativa let these stories go. We do not have to defend the god of these texts or the faith of the other characters. We can read them critically. If we choose, we can give ourselves permission to remove the haloes around texts that are no longer sacred and challenge their assumptions.

We can honor the Bible for what it is, a collection of writings written and compiled by limited human beings. But we have new stories to share. In particular, we need new stories and we need to celebrate old stories that serve to honor equality, sustainability, peacemaking, and protection of our children.

I think a practical way of doing that is to acknowledge that each of us has a loose-leaf bible. Whether that bible is literal or metaphorical, it contains stories, poetry, and knowledge that is meaningful for us. What if we began to call our loose-leaf bible sacred scripture? With that we move from deconstruction and the via negativa to the joyful life-long project of the via creativa, the way of reconstruction.

In my loose-leaf bible you find the wisdom of Kurt Vonnegut. I will give him the last word from the conclusion of the war memorial speech I quoted earlier from Cat’s Cradle:
"...This wreath I bring is a gift from the people of one country to the people of another. Never mind which countries. Think of people....

"And children murdered in war...
"And any country at all.
"Think of peace.
"Think of brotherly love.
"Think of plenty."
"Think of what a paradise this world would be if men [and women] were kind and wise.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Call Me Ishmael (11/6/11)

Call Me Ishmael
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church

November 6, 2011

Genesis 16:1-15; 17:18-26; 21:8-20; 25:12-18

We are all familiar with the Wizard of Oz. Most of us know the 1939 film version. It was based on the children’s book by L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz written in 1900. As a child, I watched the Wizard of Oz on television once per year. I remember waiting for it and watching it year after year. I read the book, too, as well as some his other Oz books.

The film has become a cultural icon. From Dorothy singing, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to Glinda the good witch calling to the Munchkins to “Come out, come out wherever you are” while Dorothy puts on the ruby slippers and courageously follows the yellow brick road picking up wounded companions with hidden strengths, the film has been an inspiration for individuals and many groups including the LGBT equality movement.

Her character, and in many ways, the actress Judy Garland who played Dorothy in the film, has been appropriated as an icon as both actress and person who reflects the tragedy and hope of marginalized people.

In 1995, the story took another turn when Gregory McGuire published, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. It has been turned into a Broadway Musical. In Maguire’s book, the story of the wicked witch is told with sympathy. She was misunderstood, mistreated and oppressed by the powerful forces and the “beautiful people” represented by Dorothy and Glinda. The wicked witch who was born a little green girl, Elphaba, challenges the notions of good and evil.

All of this is to say that literary characters take off in unexpected ways and become important as they are appropriated by different people for their interests. Old tales get re-written and re-interpreted for new purposes. When these stories have religious interests tied to them, they become even more important.

This is the case with this particular narrative that involves six literary characters, Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, Isaac, and God. For the narrators of Genesis, Hagar and Ishmael are not that important. In this patriarchal narrative, the plot involves God choosing Abraham to be the ancestor and the promise of a great nation. There are threats to this promise, particularly, that Sarai is barren.

Sarai convinces Abraham to take Hagar as another wife and to bear a son for her. Hagar and Abraham have a son, Ishmael. But according to God, Ishmael is not the chosen one. Ishmael and Hagar need to leave the plot and they do, so that God can intervene and miraculously give Abraham and Sarah a son, Isaac, who is the child of promise.

From the point of view of both Judaism and most of Christianity, Hagar and Ishmael are not important. For Paul in Galatians, Hagar, represents bad religion, the law, slavery in a spiritual sense. Sarah, on the other hand, represents promise and freedom.

However, Hagar is an important figure for Islam. For Mohammed writing in the 7th century of the Common Era, and the traditions that followed after the Qur’an, Hagar is a figure of faith. For Islam, Abraham is the first Muslim and his wife, Hagar is the mother of Muslims because it is through Ishmael that Muslims trace their mythical religious ancestry in the way that Jews and Christians trace their mythical religious ancestry through Sarah.

Like Maquire retelling Oz from the point of view of the wicked witch, Mohammed and the Islamic tradition retold the story of Abraham, Hagar, and Ishmael as exemplars of faith. The Qur’an doesn’t specify which son was nearly sacrificed by Abraham, but it is believed to be Ishmael, because it was his only son, and so the logic is that Isaac wasn’t born yet.

In the tradition Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael away because it is Allah’s command. But Allah watches over Hagar and Ishmael and Abraham continues to visit them and builds the Kaaba in Mecca with Ishmael and places the stone there. The Kaaba is the place of pilgrimage, the most holy site in Islam.

Hagar is seen as courageous and resourceful and filled with faith. While she and her son, Ishmael, are in the desert, she runs back and forth, between two hills, Al-Safa and Al-Marwah in search for water. After her seventh run, an angel hits the ground with his heel and water appears miraculously. It is called the Zamzam well, just a few yards away from the Kaaba. Muslims are invited to participate in the Hajj once in a lifetime, to travel to Mecca.Part of the pilgrimage is to run between the hills as Hagar did to emulate the courage and faithfulness of Hagar who is a model of motherhood and of women’s leadership.

The Muslim appropriation of Hagar and Ishmael culminated in a new narrative and tradition. Muslims will say that their story is the correct story and Jews and Christians will say their story is the correct story. All claim to have their stories written on stone in their respective holy books. All claim to be the true religion, and that they are the people who were really chosen by God. It would be boring if it weren’t so dangerous.

Somehow, we have to get Hagar and Sarah and their children to reconcile. Can we appropriate our religious stories for peace and cooperation? Or will we continue to tell them to justify division and superiority?

One of the ways to at least begin that process is to learn how the different faiths have told their stories. I didn’t know the importance of Hagar in the Muslim tradition even though it is 1300 years old.

Personally, I think it is helpful to recognize that the stories of Abraham, Hagar, Sarah, Isaac, Ishmael and God are not history but religious myth and legend. No one has a corner on “how it really happened” especially since it didn’t happen at all. Legends appear and grow and are reshaped by the interests of the tellers. We can enjoy all of it and take from all of it. I can enjoy and learn from both The Wizard of Oz and Wicked even as it would be pointless to harmonize them. They tell different stories. Could we not enjoy and learn from both Genesis and the Bible on one hand and the Qur’an and the Hadith, the early writings of the Muslim tradition, on the other?

Religion is different from story, although it begins with story. Before they became sacred texts they were stories. They have value because these stories can “read us”. We can find ourselves in them. Plus, tradition and ritual centers on these characters. Perhaps at Christmas as we tell the story of Joseph and Mary we might also tell the story of Hagar and Ishmael as the Muslim tradition tells it.

Participating and incorporating the rituals of another religion can make their stories part of our story as well. Despite the shrill claims of the purists, religion is never "pure." It always changes, adds and subtracts. No book is ever final and finished. If it is good it will be the seedbed for new creativity. We certainly need creativity, a creativity that points toward reconciliation and peace between the daughters and sons of Hagar and Sarah.

Some of this creative work is being done by African-American womanist theologians as they reflect on Hagar from the point of view of the experience of African-American women. In preparation for this sermon I read Hagar, Sarah, and Their Children: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives, edited by Phyllis Trible and Letty M. Russell.

One of the contributors to this volume is Delores Williams who taught theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York. In her entry, she says that Hagar has been an icon for African-American woman as a survivor and one who through whom they can say,
"God helped me make a way out of no way.”
She writes:
The African-American community has taken Hagar's story unto itself. Hagar has ‘spoken’ to generation after generation of black women because her story has been validated as true by suffering black people. She and Ishmael together, as family, model many black American families in which a lone woman/mother struggles to hold the family together in spite of the poverty to which ruling class economics consign it. Hagar, like many black women, goes into the wide world to make a living for herself and her child, with only God by her side.
--Diana L. Hayes, Hagar’s Daughters: Womanist Ways of Being in the World (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1995), p. 58.
Hagar is a three-fold victim of oppression by gender, class, and race. Phyllis Trible writes of Hagar:
She is the first person in the Bible to flee oppression; the first runaway slave; the first person whom a messenger of God visits; the first woman to receive an annunciation; the only woman to receive a divine promise of descendants; the only person to name God; the first woman in the ancestor stories to bear a child; the first surrogate mother; the first slave to be freed; the first divorced wife; the first single parent; and the first person to weep. Given all these distinctions, Hagar haunts the biblical narrative and its afterlife in ways that the other characters do not. Trible & Russell, p. 61
Hagar is a survivor.

According to Delores Williams, Ishmael is the abandoned child. Abandoned by his home. Abandoned by his father. Abandoned even briefly by his mother as she cannot bear to watch him die. Yet, he and his mother, find a way out of no way. The ambiguous story narrates that God hears the cry and responds. Hagar and her son represent endurance and resistance.

Letty M. Russell writes:
“One discovery we can make as we reflect together on the enmity between Hagar and Sarah is that the struggle between us will not cease unless we become children who struggle for the wider gift of God’s justice, peace, and wholeness in our lives and in the whole creation.” Trible and Russell, p. 196
Survival and quality of life come from courage, resistance, and making a way out of no way. Perhaps the struggle of Hagar can be a model not just for African-American women but for all of us. We are all children of struggle. Sarah and Abraham both were victims and oppressors. Our history of religious and political struggle has been one in which we have crossed those lines.

Maybe there will be a new way of telling our story and a new way of hearing the stories of others, such as the Muslim Hagar and the African-American Hagar, so that we can hear the cry that ultimately says,
“I am a human being.”
We might all have been Ishmael or Hagar at some point in our lives. Perhaps we have been Abraham and Sarah too. If we can identify with them in any way, maybe we can realize that others identify with them as well. If that can happen, if we can recognize that others also feel abandoned or mistreated, misunderstood, and rejected, and yet have discovered the spiritual strength to make a way of no way, we can realize that we really aren’t all that different.

Maybe we can with our lives write new chapters for Hagar, Sarah, Ishmael, Isaac, and Abraham, and go where the authors couldn’t—away from chosen vs. unchosen—away from special vs. rejected, and instead be human beings whose very lives are sacred struggles for survival and dignity.