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Fifteen Years Gone: On Life After Suicide

IMG_0773.JPGI don’t think I’ve ever really dealt with my brother Stephen’s suicide. This may seem like an odd thing for me to say, given the volume of writing I have done on the subject of suicide, often invoking the memories of my uncle and brother. I’ve been with more people than I can count sharing stories of what it is like to have your life rocked in the way that only suicide can provide.

I’ve given advice that I first received with disdain and incredulity. The real grief will sneak up on you when you least expect it. No, it won’t, I said. It’ll be the seemingly smallest details that crush your heart. Nah, I’m over that, I responded in the initial years of grief, not yet understanding.

It takes years to understand. At least it has for me. Fifteen years. Fifteen years of mentioning Stephen, lecturing on suicide and the Bible, working with survivors and trying to help others get help before they take a step they can’t do over.  It takes years to understand that while your loved one may be gone in body, your relationship continues. Only you can keep it stuck in a rut.

I realized today, while processing with my therapist, that I have a ticking time bomb inside of me. I only share the “intimate stories” that I’ve carefully selected for public consumption. There is no duplicity. I don’t leave things out or embellish, at least no more so than our tricky minds rearrange things in the light of trauma.

The pictures of Stephen have largely been stored away, but not because I am ashamed of him. Rather, because I’m afraid that if I see one of these pictures it will trigger unaccessed memories.

I’m terrified to listen to the dozens of cassette tapes I have of our band/comedy team, “The Experimentals.” It will suck me into a time warp, back to the room that is now piled with clothes, books, and cat litter but was my bedroom. Was the place where we recorded hundreds of hours of teenage shenanigans.

How gorgeous was my brother? Seriously. Seeing this picture has brought up a lot of memories and I’m not sure how to deal with them. So long have I held them down so that they don’t pop up, like his body, and bump against the shore.

It has been fifteen years since I heard Stephen’s voice, and I easily could. In the corner of my office, hidden behind a set of bells, is a red case. It is my Pulp Fiction; in it is held treasure, but death surrounds it. In that case are tapes of us doing our characters: Billy Bob Joe Frank and Cleetus, two good ole boys we subconsciously knew we were only two generations removed from being; Chester and Leonard, two old men disillusioned with the world; Jimmy and Billy, created a decade before Cartman, two ruthless obese teenagers, with voices very similar to the aforementioned character, who headed the local mob knocking over Entenmann’s trucks.

On there are the recordings of my start as a guitarist trying to be cool like his brother. I’m sure that on there are many examples of me having a meltdown. Bipolar doesn’t just start overnight, yo’. It grows in ya’. Schizophrenia, too. So I think I imagine that I’m afraid to hear what is there to be heard. We could both be incredibly mean. Mental illness will do that.

In the back of my mind, I knew that October 12 was coming up. And I have known that it is the 15th year.But in many ways I really forgot. I didn’t access the information with my soul. That seems significant to me. I was walking out the door, having almost forgotten my therapy appointment, when it suddenly slapped me in the face. Tomorrow is the day. THE day.

Fifteen years.

The number matters, yes.  But it is what will happen in the coming year. I promised Stephen in my heart and in my head that I would complete a terminal degree. We’ll never have the houses side-by-side, cousins playing with one another as we competed to see who could become the greater literary success, but I’ll earn a doctorate for both of us. 

What do I do then? That’s the question that I’ve been wrestling with.  

It is never lost on me that while I love the life I have and can never imagine doing anything other than being a loving servant, the first footfall in this direction came in the microseconds after learning that Stephen’s body had been found washed up outside a riverboat restaurant on the Newport side of the Ohio River.

Stephen would find it absolutely amusing that I have become a devout believer in God and a minister as a result of his death. Stephen was an atheist. He’d probably say, “Aaron, you always did have a penchant for the dramatic.” But those hoped-for lives of over twenty-five years ago were not lives. They were hopes that we could be better than the pain and anguish of living inside of minds that are both brilliant and prisons.

I haven’t dealt with Stephen’s death because I only integrate him into my life in ways that are safe, that keep me from accessing the depth of pain and despair that has not lessened one bit. It means accepting that this pressure I have placed on myself has really been a form of avoidance. And I just can’t do that anymore.

I have to work in terms of projects. It is simply how I am wired. And I do want people to know him, to show why when I think of safety and love I think of being on the back of his motorcycle, throttle wide open, with him yelling at me “You’re all clear kid!”

I have purchased a cassette player that has an MP3 converter. I have a digital camera, and I will slowly start going through the pictures. And by the time next year rolls around, I will have made a tribute film to our relationship.

After fifteen years, it is time to start grieving properly so Stephen and I can move on to the next phase of our relationship.  To honor him tomorrow, I will spend the day helping others.

Locating the Gratitude: When Music Finds Us

dearcompanion-smA few years ago, a congregant named Gilah, who has made appearances on the blog several times, gave me an album called “In the Cool of the Day” by Daniel Martin Moore. It is an eleven song masterpiece, offering some of the most inventive, yet respectful arrangements of hymns that should be in any bluegrass artist’s repertoire. If you can’t play the blue, you don’t get the grass.  I have listened to this album nearly every day for three years.

I believe music finds us. I believe this as a musician who is primarily a picker and a singer. It has sometimes taken me 20 years to really learn a song because I simply wasn’t there yet to do anything but imitate someone else’s version. As an aficionado, I believe music finds us. I had to get to Art Blakey though Theolonius Monk. It couldn’t have happened any other way. And I believe music finds us as a minister, as a follower of Jesus, as a servant of love. The purity of music, stripped away from the business that tries to co-opt and codify it, is akin to the first breath of oxygen we take extra-womb. It is new, exciting, frightening,  life-giving.

I spend a lot of time in front of a computer. A lot. Music has to be part of the writing process, in no small part because of my tinnitus. And there is lots of music that will not work. But a few weeks ago I purchased DMM’s album Golden Age. I had the same reaction to it as I did to Sufjan Steven’s album Carrie and Lowell. It overtook my life. Granted, having bee-dee means that I pretty easily become obsessed with things. But this experience is different. You know, how albums become in your mind a representative of a time in your life? A song comes on, and you start to tell a story? Or you are with friends you’ve had for decades, and the mere singing of a songline gets everyone laughing and singing along? Those kinds of albums.

But only for yourself. Albums that have touched you so intimately that only you can really understand what it means.

Today, the blessing, the gift has been two-fold. All the amazing messages from all of you who are thinking of me as I mark the 15-year anniversary of my brother’s suicide. The second, the album “Dear Companion” by Ben Sollee & Daniel Martin Moore.

Sollee is a cellist, as is my dear, dear friend Matt, who named his eldest son after me. So there is emotional connection already, and I’m clearly a fan of DMM. But this album has really helped me today. I can’t go any deeper than that right now–it has been a long day on an already taxing anniversary–but from the opening song, I’ve felt less lonely. Less displaced.

I’m seeing the blessings today, even amidst the pain. Only music has that instantaneous power.

Cloudy with a chance of manna

murmurring.png

Exodus is a matter of perspective.

Slavery in the ancient world was not based on race. It was based on the notion that the gods control what happens here, so one’s fate is decided by the stars.

That did not make slavery any less brutal or more humane. It’s just important to know that these religious understandings cannot be gauged through the lens of modern race theory. It takes white supremacy culture to do that.

So imagine if a man with an Egyptian name meaning “drawn from the water” and his brother named mountain put on a spectacular water and lights show, all the while freaking out the earthly representative of Ra, the mightiest god in the known world. And then these two guys say, stop what you’re doin’ ’cause God’s about to ruin the image and the style that you’re used to.

Everything you’ve known has been upended in a flash. Can you imagine the emotions? How do you think you’d be feeling as you pulled the bread from the oven before it had a chance to rise? Excited? Would you be confused as you threw what you could on your back and started walking forth? Hopeful? Scared? Uncertain? Tired?

And then, the greatest miracle: the parting of the Sea of Reeds, with the waters crashing down on the Egyptians, not upon the people whom this new god had saved by besting Ra.

Those two men, Moses and Aaron, along with their sister, Miriam, sing songs to God’s glory. The first night you sleep with a full belly, feeling exhilarated and filled with anticipation as to what comes next.

Now imagine it is a month to the day later. The optimism, like the hearty food, is long gone. You’re wandering. You’ve lost faith in water and mountain, and in the god they proclaim. You’re angry. You feel deceived. Forgotten. Without a place in the order of things. Despite the brutality of the enslaved condition, you start to remember the good things. Consistent food and a place to sleep. A sense of place within the cosmos. Hope.

Exodus is a matter of perspective. The idea of being delivered is powerful, but sometimes the process is brutal. The road to wholeness most often is paved with pain.

I’ve personally had some terrifying depressions that came after a blissful mania. Well, blissful until it wasn’t. This was before being put on medications. It was those experiences that propelled me toward treatment. Some of those walks in the valley of the shadow of death were horrific.

But I have also had horrendous experiences with medications. So bad that I was actually nostalgic about the darkness of my depressions. Why? Because it is a hell I know to survive. I don’t have much control, but I have some. With the wayward meds, I often have no control over my body functions or my mind.

I imagine we all have it in us to a certain extent, a fear of the unknown that can become so stark that we actually prefer slavery or madness to an uncertain tomorrow. I imagine there are not many hearing this who do not have their own version.

Maybe it was or is a job you stay(ed) at because of the benefits, the salary, the flexibility; some reason that you continue to use as justification for doing something that does little more than speed up your journey toward death? Maybe it is a relationship, or a substance, or food? We forget almost everything bad about it, convincing ourselves that this time will be different.

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Murmuring in the desert is natural. Life is difficult when you need a snack and a nap and none are to be found.

mannaToday’s passage features the famous “manna from heaven.” The word comes first from Aramaic (mān hû); in Hebrew, it translates to “what is that?” Our English word comes from the Greek μάννα. Like the Hebrews, though, we wanna know. What is that?

There are two general hypotheses based upon the biblical descriptions. First, the “fine, flakelike frost” like a coriander seed, white of color and tasting like honey points to one or more variety of flowering trees such as Alhagi maurorum (Sinai manna), Tamarisk gallica, or Fraxinus ornus (flowering ash). Each of these has a gum resin.

Which leads us to the second explanation. The Cocidae, insects indigenous to the Sinai desert often called tree louse, secrete a rough, white substance that changes to a yellowish-brown color, becoming sweet with the passage of time. The Bedouins refer to it as “manna from heaven.”

To this day, they rise early in the morning and collect it before the ants wake and the sun melts it. During rainy seasons, one Bedouin can collect three pounds, which is kept in a sealed jar. It can then be made into cakes, bread, porridge, and a variety of other dishes.*

Using mythopoetic language, the author(s) of Exodus describes this as a miracle from God in response to the people’s murmuring. I am not here to deny that; I believe in daily, minute-to-minute miracles.

But I prefer the definition provided by the Dalai Lama: “a miracle is something unexpected.” What is unexpected here? That the Hebrews do not need Egyptian taskmasters to provide them with bounty. God has done it through the natural world. This story, in my opinion, is likely rooted in the historical experience of eureka: “I HAVE FOUND!”

They go from “what is that?” to “I have found.” The act of discovery that one need not go back to those conditions that deny us of our humanity. The realization that many of the solutions to our issues are around us, from the natural world to the people whom God sends.

What God demands is an attitude of gratitude. Toward God, yes. But also toward one another. God tells us to cook and bake and boil for six days, and on the seventh to rest. To be with one another. To connect with God. To appreciate the natural world and the miracle of being an embodied spirit.

God liberates us from that which enslaves our hearts, minds, and souls. May we look around and see what the manna from heaven is within our own lives, and when we find it, let us say “thanks be to God.” Amen.


*Information gathered from the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary and the Lexham Bible Dictionary

Not that kind of God: American Pharaoh and Exodus 3

 

bushIn the ancient world, if you were enslaved it was because your deity had been bested in the heavenly realm. The battles of human beings simply played out what had already been decided in the noumenal world, the realm of reality far removed from the puny humans. The realm perfection. So the enslavement of the Hebrew peoples was confirmation that their God was, well, not much of a god.

In the main, ancient cosmogony operated on the principle that the deities should be the main concern of humans, not the other way around. If calamity befell an individual or community, it was because the patron(ess) deity(ies) had been wronged or were upset. The capriciousness of these goddesses and gods is well-captured in myths. Over 5,000 years ago, humans could not fathom a divinity who would not place self-interest first over the well-being of persons.

But there was the belief that staying in the good graces of these powerful forces would result in divine benefits and protections. Dances, songs, sacrifices, offerings, rituals: all of these were efforts to appease the fickleness and fecklessness of the mighty spirits. Defeat in war, enslavement, occupation, and destruction were seen as the gods’ problems, though. The notion that God could raise another army to humble and chastise God’s people was pioneered by the Israelites.

But we’re talking about the Hebrews. Israel at the time of Moses was just an idea, a name attached to Jacob. Israel, which means “wrestling with God,” was not yet a place. The use of “Israelites” in the text reveals at least two things: the account was written from a point of retrospection and after the establishment of Israel proper, which doesn’t really happen until the time of King David, c. 1000 BCE.

The theology in Exodus 2 is revolutionary. Let’s read it again: “After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God.  God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”

Notice the verbs, the actions: groaned, cried, rose, heard, remembered, looked, took notice. This shapes a theology.

  1. Human cries and groans of suffering rise to God. Certainly, other gods have heard cries of affliction, but not from slavery. These reach the noumenal world.
  2. The cries are heard. These are not ritual actions, dances, ceremonies, etc. These are laments and anguishes directly related to the culturally assumed defeat of the Hebrew God, at this point still known as El-Shaddai.
  3. God remembers an agreement, not to point out human error but as an act of self-discovery. It is hard to picture this as an omniscient God though, right? Did God forget?
  4. God looks upon the Israelites. Imagine being told that you are seen even in the most horrendous of circumstance. Not only seen, but…
  5. God notices the cries of suffering. Your pain matters. It does not go unaddressed.

These actions largely frame what is described in 3:1-15. The Burning Bush is like God’s first Skype call. But let’s go deeper than literalism. God has mastery over the natural world. Fire needs fuel. It is the only way that fire can sustain itself. But fire is not so good for the kindling. Yet here, fire and fuel are in symbiosis. The fire does not consume the bush, yet it need not spread elsewhere to remain alive.

From this harmony comes God’s voice.

“Moses, Moses,” God calls. Moses responds with the words we first heard from Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob, and now, from one not of their genetic line. “Here I am.”

God’s response is theological. “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham…” Abraham’s descendants are not determined by blood alone, but also by faith.

God does not demand that those enslaved offer sacrifices to him. Not yet. This God does not send a tweet saying that these cries of anguish and affliction are unfair because liberation is a communal effort. God does not sigh and say that the damn Hebrews want everything done for them. No. God does not.

God lays out a plan. Notice the action words: observed, heard, know, deliver, bring. And God does not expect worship until the people have been delivered to Sinai, just as God promises.

The revelation of God’s name is a sermon unto itself, and one that I’ve already delivered in past years. Today, let us notice, though, that one translation of YHWH is “I am.” From Abraham to Isaac and on through Jacob, we’ve understood their words “Here I am” to be a reference to themselves.

Let’s perform a through experiment. Picture the words “here I am” as though they are hovering before you, like the Sesame Street reading lessons. Now, place a comma after “here.” Here comma, I am. What happens if we read their words as though they are calling upon God, not identifying themselves.

  **

What happens in Exodus 4 is fascinating from an anthropology of religion perspective. We see the commissioning of two new roles within the nascent faith. The first is that of prophet, literally “mouthpiece.” Moses is charged with proclaiming the words that God has just delivered to him. Moses, as will many after him, claims that he is not up for the job. This ticks God off a bit, so he suggests Moses’ brother.

This just goes to show you, if you want something done just get a loudmouth named Aaron.

Aaron is a Levite, which from this point forward is the tribe of priests. Moses is the first prophet, Aaron the first High Priest, at least according to the Israelites who wrote down this story nearly a millennia after it happened. However it happened.

However, it happened. On some level, significant things occurred that allowed for these theological breakthroughs. A God who hears. Who cares. Who will send human agents to bring about liberation and community. A God who is in this with us. A God of verbs.

There are cries of anguish and suffering coming from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The storm was not punishment for sins. It does not represent the defeat of a god or the failures of the peoples on the islands.

We have a president who is centering himself and his ego whilst people are enduring an unimaginable hell. Let us call out to God both here comma I am, and here I am. We are God’s people. Us. I know that it’s overwhelming. We can’t do everything. In trying to do so, we do nothing. Not well, anyway.

But we can always remind ourselves that if God observes, hears, knows, delivers, and brings, we should as well. We may not be Moses or Aaron, but we are those who stand in relationship with a God who models for us the proper response, especially when we are being ruled by a despotic Pharaoh.

God understand the anger and cries of frustration whilst an inept, bumbling clod makes haphazard decisions that crush lives, while then using the State-enforced propaganda to gaslight people into disbelieving their own lying eyes. What are you talking about, the Nile isn’t red! Don’t believe the FAKE NEWS, there is plenty of food, water, and assistance. The place is teeming with it because of the beneficence of Pharaoh.

Let us all remember our verbs, our action words, and follow God. Amen.

On Jacob, Esau, Momma’s Boys, and Hypertrichosis in Genesis

We don’t like to talk about it, but it happens. A lot. When parents favor one child over the others. Or kids treat one parent drastically different than the other(s). It is so universal the Bible has a story about that, wanna hear it, here it goes!

Last week we left Abraham and Isaac as they walked away from the sacrificial altar.

Today’s passage features a nearly blind, dying Isaac. He and his wife Rebekah have twin sons, Jacob and Esau, who fought in the womb. Esau couldn’t escape the birth canal without Jacob holding onto his ankle, which was interpreted as one baby wanting to steal the birthright of another baby. Esau learned to be paranoid from jump street.

Isaac grew up to be what many consider a “real” man. I don’t know if it has anything to do with being lashed to a rock with a knife held aloft, but Isaac was a rough-and-tumble sort. He enjoyed the outdoors and related to the world on a physical level. So did his eldest son, Esau, who likely was filled with excess testosterone as evidenced by his overabundant hairiness. Isaac and Esau were buddies, it seems. Jacob was different. He was a thinker; some commentators have speculated that he was more stereotypically feminine. He was a momma’s boy–I say this as someone accused of being one myself. The story in Genesis 27 makes it clear that Rebekah prefers Jacob. She encourages him to steal his brother’s blessing of inheritance. What began in the womb is being brought to a head by a mother violating the principles of primogeniture. This is most intense.

Sibling Rivalry

Esau was a big, hairy dumbass. Jacob was a liar, a cheat, and a cunning opportunist. This isn’t a story with one good guy and one bad guy. Esau once returned home from an unsuccessful hunt and alighted upon Jacob making a pottage. Originally, this referred simply to a soup or stew. But through the Jacob-Esau cycle, it can to be defined as selling something for a ridiculously small amount, like giving a birthright for bread and stew. This Esau does, either out of stupidity or just being hangry. He has learned from his Jewish mother: If you’re going to let me starve, I’ll give you my birthright; what good is it if I’m dead?

This action, though, fulfills God’s earlier prophecy to Rebekah: “Two nations are in your womb…and the older will serve the younger.” Sounds kinda similar to what happened with Isaac and Ishmael, no? The former was the successor to Abraham, the latter the progenitor of the Muslim people.

Again, strife between brothers that is encouraged on some level by parents is a theme. Esau has given away his birthright, but he still has the paternal blessing upon which he can rely to secure his standing.

“Far more important than the birthright, which simply passed on property and titles from father to son, was the blessing of the father. This was an official passing on of spiritual rights, and it designated leadership of the tribe or clan. Beyond this, the Hebrews believed that a father’s deathbed blessing determined the character and destiny of the recipient and that the blessing, once given, was irrevocable. Isaac’s blessing was even more special in that it passed on the leadership of all the people of Israel according to the promise that God had given to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham.”*

On the surface, Rebekah’s conniving ways seem untoward and indicative of a horrible mother. How could she do something like that? we might think. But we don’t really know, do we? We don’t know what has happened in the home. We don’t know what Rebekah has seen that might make her fear for the future of the people if Esau is in charge. Maybe she has hopes that her eldest son will be the supreme military commander. Speculation, to be sure. But we should not be so quick to vilify Rebekah.

She is wily, though, ain’t she? That’s a helluva ruse that they put on, ain’t it? Jacob, wearing the clothes of his brother that carry Esau’s scent. Lamb’s wool attached to his hands and neck to simulate Esau’s hypertrichosis.** Isaac, old, blinded, and dying, is confused about what is happening. It is hard not to feel for him. This could be seen as a form of elder abuse. The last thing that he can do for his people is to pass on the leadership to Esau. Have the pair talked about it on those long hunts, sleeping under the stars together and reflecting on how God has selected them to lead God’s people? 

What the selected passage leaves out is that when Esau returns home, he is livid. He has a violent outburst and threatens to kill Jacob. Rebekah tells her youngest to flee “until Esau has forgotten the wrong done to him.”

So it is on the flight from his enraged brother that Jacob puts a stone under his head and falls asleep. In his dreams, he sees a ladder with angels of God ascending and descending. Earth to heaven. Heaven to earth. Suddenly, God is there and in language similar to that uttered to Abraham, promises both a bloodline and land. A blessing and an inheritance. An affirmation that while Esau may think he has been cheated, God holds a different opinion.

(Jacob and Esau reconcile twenty years later, and Isaac is still alive. Rachel, Jacob’s favored wife, dies giving birth to his second son Benjamin as Jacob is on his way to see his birth family. Esau is extravagant in his welcome, but the brothers soon find themselves burying their father. When they depart, they never see one another again. Esau is remembered as the patriarch of the Edomites, so-called after the Hebrew אדום, ʾadhom, meaning ruddy. Once again, an older brother has an unusual path in living out God’s plan.)

What do we do with this?

Scholars believe that the recurring theme of elder brothers having roles that buck against the principles of primogeniture indicates a rejection of the Arab custom. This is a God who will not be hemmed in by human constructs.

How often do we become upset, even enraged, when we are denied something which we believe is owed to us? Sometimes this is a proper response, such as what is happening right now with NFL and NBA players pushing back against a racist system headed by a racist president.  But sometimes our anger is misplaced. We feel we are owed something, but perhaps our behavior has not shown that we are deserving.

Sometimes we can foresee a potential disaster and we feel that God has led us to avert it. This is tricky, as using “God made me do it” as a reason for duplicitous behavior is problematic.

But this leads us to the crux of what is presented in the story. God’s ways are not our own. My atheist friends object to statements like this, and I get it. On the surface, it seems to be a cop-out. A way to justify horrid things as the will of God, thereby dismissing legitimate objections as evidence of a lack of faith. You don’t understand because you don’t believe.

Buddhism teaches that within us we have seeds of mindfulness and seeds of affliction. What blossoms and bears fruit are determined by that which we water. Do we tend to our afflictions, nurturing them so they become insidious weeds overtaking our entire being? Or do we nurture the seeds of mindfulness, examining our emotions, analyzing the factors that impact us, and tend to that which does not keep us angrily rooted in the past?

Once again, I ask where are you in the story? Isaac? Rebekah? Esau? Jacob? What this story is about depends on the perspective you take–the original authors most likely want us to take God’s side: Everyone has a path. Sometimes thinking that others can define it for you means it might take longer to see where God is leading. Amen.

*Losch, R. R. (2008). In All the People in the Bible: An A–Z Guide to the Saints, Scoundrels, and Other Characters in Scripture (p. 178). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

**

I mean absolutely no offense to anyone who suffers from hypertrichosis; if this posting is insulting, I apologize profusely. I love the D and I have an odd mind; combine those, and you get something like this 😉  

When We Don’t Like God: A Sermon Reflection on the Binding of Isaac

isaac sacrifice.jpg
The Binding of Isaac by Caravaggio, inspired by the Genesis narrative

Stories convey meaning. This is a simple observation on its face, but it is important to keep at the center of any consideration of scripture. No matter the context in which a story is situated, is told, is received: there is meaning conveyed. Imagine that you have just heard this Abraham/Isaac story for the first time. You know that it is meant to tell. you something about God, something about the nature of faith, and perhaps something about ourselves. These seem reasonable, general assumptions to hold. A story does not exist for the sake of itself.

So you’ve heard this for the first time. You’ve learned that this God made a covenant with Sarah, that she would conceive and bear a son for Abraham named Issac, and this God–whom you may or may not know from previous stories is named El Shaddai–has fulfilled the promise. You may or may not know that Abraham also has a son named Ishmael, who was born to an Egyptian handmaiden, Hagar.* You may or may not know that Hagar was visited by an angel and told that God was going to fulfill the covenant promise to Abraham, that of a bloodline and land, through two sons. Ishmael and Isaac.

Perhaps you are surprised, then, to hear it said by this God, “Take your son, your only son Isaac…” But it is not his only son, you might retort. Perhaps Sarah’s only biological son, but not Abraham’s.  With or without the knowledge, I imagine what really grabs your attention is God’s request to take Isaac, of whom God explicitly states to Abraham I know you love this child, and take him to a land called Moriah for the purpose of sacrifice.

Deeply unsettling, no? What kind of God would do this? 

You may not know of Moriah or how far away it is when the place is first mentioned but you quickly learn that it takes three days to get there. And Abraham has brought along two other young men, who are unnamed. You might speculate about whether Ishmael might be one of them, but such is a rabbit hole you need not burrow. You have enough to consider.

Three days. A party of four and a donkey. Hours of walking. It seems unlikely that they do so in silence. There is no evidence to suggest that Abraham has told the unnamed duo of God’s request. Three days of walking, eating, drinking, passing conversations settling into silence with only the sound of footfalls to be heard, morning greetings, and evening prayers. The mind boggles to think about what transpires on the journey.

The text beckons us to inhabit Abraham’s heart and mind. The details offered in the text are remarkable, from the gathering of the wood, the loading of the donkey, the instructions to the young men, the journey to the altar by father and son. So. Much. Detail.

Do you find yourself tortured by what isn’t written? So many questions. How could you, Abraham? How did you keep anyone from knowing? And what of the boy? The eagerness and excitement on his face. An important journey with his father, going to a mountain to meet God. Oh, Isaac. No matter what occurs, you will be forever changed. 

And then, the call of Isaac to Abraham.

“Father?”

“Here I am,” the patriarch responds. In Hebrew, hin-nē(h) anî bēn, the same reply that Abraham gives when God calls his name. You likely notice this but have little time to reflect upon it, carried away as you are by the developing plot. Isaac notes the presence of wood and fire, but wonders of the sacrifice.

Where’s the lamb, papa? 

Dagger to the heart! I can’t imagine a person of any compassion not feeling punched in the gut. The trusting child looking to his father. Oh, Abraham–what must you be feeling? One of the two sons born to him, necessary elements to covenant fulfillment, looking up at him with well-known eyes. A child who trusts his earthly father is told to trust a heavenly one as well.

“God will provide the lamb for a burnt offering,” Abraham says, knowingly. Is he angry? Scared? Is he questioning God? Does he have moments in which he almost tells Isaac, he has words on his lips only to stop, confused and frightened? One does not mess with gods. 

It’s in the knowing that we have pain, is it not? Isaac is blissfully unaware until the moment in which he is not. Caught by patriarch, he is trussed up upon the altar with knife at the ready.

It is almost too much. Artists as disparate as Caravaggio and Bob Dylan have speculated upon, have envisioned, have embodied that moment described in the Hebrew as שְׁחֹ֖ט (lish·chot), as sacrifice. Suddenly, a voice comes from the heavens, but it is not the voice of God. It is the voice of an angel of the Lord (mal·’ach Yah·weh) that calls out, speaking first Abraham’s name–again, “here I am”–before instructing him to replace the child with a ram caught in the thicket. Abraham then conducts the first Jewish rite of substitutionary sacrifice.

The angel also relays God’s reasoning: Because I know that you fear me, I won’t make you kill your son. The Hebrew word for fear, יְרֵ֤א (yā·rē), is used in a variety of contexts so we cannot limit its meaning to a specific one. Fear of God, it seems, is what we must give.

You may or may not notice that this story is attached to a place name; I think that depends on who you are and how you hear.

But there we have it, the story that is supposed to tell us something about God, about the nature of faith, and about ourselves. Millions of pages have been written on this story. Far too much to even hit upon in one sermon-length reflection.

Let us, however, consider how the three Abrahamic faiths relate to the story. In general–again, space constraints–Judaism notes the prohibition of child sacrifice as practiced by the Canaanites, and the nature of faith. What these observations mean specifically once again depend on how you locate yourself in the story, and of whose faith we are speaking. Abraham’s? Isaac’s? What about Sarah, the mother who has been told nothing, who has no idea that when her husband and only biological son set out, it is with the intention that only one return? Who’s faith?

In Christianity, it is difficult not to draw parallels to Jesus. God substitutes a ram for Isaac only to later substitute the paschal lamb, the sacrificial lamb, with God’s son, Jesus. Therefore, the passage is about the nature of faith and also of God’s sacrificial love.

In Islam, the specific son is not named. It might be Isaac, it might be Ishmael. Interestingly, neither Sarah nor Hagar is mentioned by name, either. The story is not limited to one son, one moment, one act of faith; it is so universal, we can find ourselves in a variety of roles within a single lifetime. Sometimes Abraham. Sometimes Isaac. Sometimes Sarah. Sometimes the donkey. 

What can we take from this that is of use?

That within the three religions that were launched by Abraham, we have three general viewpoints that have infinite specifics between them. Yet the story continues to do what it is meant to do, to bring us into a space in which we seek, we discern, we look for a God we cannot ignore. Despite our objections, our heartsick, our anger, our desperation, we are pulled, inextricably, back to this tale.

I may love you God, but right now I don’t like you very much.

Sometimes, it is the struggle that matters more than what happens at the end. It is about the impossible choices we make and why we make them. And it is about a God who is to be found, even in the midst of the unthinkable. Amen.

*I’m selective about linking Wikipedia, but this article is an example of how valuable such a free source of researched information can be.

Living with Phantoms

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There was a ghost haunting my crib in the winter of 1977. The year of the blizzard. The Big One Ohioans all over the state still talk about; statewide, and we’s a big state. Everyone, even those in cribs, has stories about the blizzard of ’77. Hundreds of miles away in a motel room in Minnesota my paternal uncle lay dead in a bathtub.

There’s one picture of us. He’s holding me in swaddling clothes. There’s no mistaking the family resemblance that I would grow into during the years that he was not there. I’ve stared at that picture for hours, wondering if in a cosmic moment something passed between us. And whether before my uncle left this realm, God laid down snowfall to make the Finnish spirit more comfortable for his journey? I’ve projected upon that picture a meaningful look, a recognition of what it means to live with phantoms. My brother, who was not of my uncle’s blood, was brought into the fold by his own suicide. I’ve long lived with phantoms.

There are new ones, though, that come only when you are diseased of mind. Only when you are touched in the head, only when God gives you a double-portion, only when you no longer can tell what is real and what is of the phantom.

From the Greek φάντασμα, the Latin fantauma, phantoms have been with us for millennia. Like the fourth rider in Revelation. Ring wraiths. Dementors. The Grim Reaper. They secret themselves, you see. That’s what you must understand: their horror is not in the terror you feel upon seeing them suddenly, it is in the horror of realizing they have been with you all along.

The new phantoms are ones I did not see coming. Ones that are taking over my body, making me question my sense experiences. If you were to ask me how I feel, I would say like a can of paint on a mixing machine, but my body betrays no such state. My hand might shake a little, but nothing like it feels insideIs it the disorder? Is it the meds? Is there something else going on?

Living with phantoms is never easy. They pay no rent but take up too much space.