Friday, August 27, 2010

Hagar and Her Children

The angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation." (Genesis 21.17)

Compare and Contrast

I’ve been pondering the controversy around the proposed Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero. As an American, denying any group’s freedom of religious expression and right to assemble is blasphemous to me. Every inch of our nation, coast-to-coast, is sacred ground baked with the blood of patriots. While the 9/11 site should be venerated for the lives lost there, the toll on that horrible day shrinks against millions of lives sacrificed so people of every race, creed, and color can live, learn, and worship where and as they choose within our borders. If Cordoba House—the center’s name—does not rise at its planned location, we’ve conceded every US soldier served, suffered, and died in vain.

But this firestorm sickens me for another, equally important reason. Cordoba House has been targeted because it’s a Muslim institution. This somehow brands it as a hotbed for extremists who commit atrocities in the name of Allah. With little nudging, the rhetoric digresses into a diatribe against Islam’s legitimacy as a faith and its adherents as people of faith. Now we’ve moved off the Bill of Rights to run roughshod over Scripture. Testing what anti-Arab zealots endorse as biblical fidelity against what the Bible actually teaches shows why attacking the people of Islam is especially wicked and dangerous. The Book of Genesis lays out the story of Hagar and Ishmael, inviting us to compare and contrast them with Sarah and Isaac. When we read it as it is (not what we want it to be), we may be shocked.

The Births of Two Nations

Most of us know the tale. To compensate for her infertility, Sarah offers Abraham an Egyptian slave, Hagar, as her surrogate. Hagar quickly conceives. This arouses resentment in Sarah, who begins to abuse her. Unable to bear it, Hagar runs away and God sends an angel to tell her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her,” adding, “I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count.” (Genesis 16.9-10) She obeys and gives birth to Ishmael. In retaliation for her mistreatment, Hagar becomes arrogant, deepening the rift between Sarah and her. Flash forward 14 years. Sarah miraculously becomes pregnant and the tables turn again. Now that she has Isaac, she implores Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. Genesis 21.11 tells us, “The matter distressed Abraham greatly.” In a tenderly rendered scene, he bids Hagar and Ishmael adieu, providing food and water for their desert travels. When the water runs out, Hagar lays Ishmael under a bush and walks away. “I cannot watch the boy die,” she sobs. (Genesis 21.15) Once again, God dispatches His angel. “What’s the matter, Hagar?” the angel asks. “Don’t be afraid. God has heard the boy’s cries. Don’t leave him to die. He will father a great nation.” Hagar spots a well of water and replenishes her supply. Ishmael survives to become the father of all Arabic people—and hence the wellspring of Islam.

Foreseeing conflicts bound to result from the births of two nations, Scripture presents Jews and Arabs as a divided family and leaves it at that. Thereafter, their squabbles for regional dominance are not unlike antagonisms common to two-child households. One envies what the other has. One feels superior to the other. Since the Bible marries Israel’s history to God’s evolving relationship with humanity, the Jews have an inherent advantage as the only monotheistic people in the region. Ishmael’s side of the family doesn’t forsake idolatry until the seventh century (AD), when One God is revealed to Mohammed. This is a difficult purchase for a people steeped in polytheism, so much so Islam takes its name from the Arabic verb “to surrender.” In contrast, Israel’s memory of life prior to Abraham is vague at best—perhaps even tidied up in biblical accounts to suggest it always worshiped One God.

“Infidels” and “Heathens”

Both nations, Isaac and Ishmael’s, are born with promises of greatness God indubitably has honored. That Jews (and Christians) claim their inheritance sooner doesn’t negate the Arabs’ claim. The Bible could not be clearer on this. Consequently, denigration of one another’s beliefs has no scriptural foundation. While inability to comprehend God’s purpose goads us to act like jealous siblings, it can’t be disputed He ordained two nations all along, choosing Abraham as His conduit to bring both to life. Common heritage as “children of promise” erases any rationale for regarding one another as “infidels” and “heathens.” Is either unfaithful to the One Who promised greatness? No. Does either doubt His existence, supremacy, and benevolence? No. So why are we constantly at each other’s throat?

Neither nation can rest before proving it's God’s favorite. Nor is it probable either will ever rest, as it’s obvious He won’t choose between us. This is why Genesis establishes the genetic link between Isaac and Ishmael without further comment. Comparing and contrasting their stories uncovers no difference between them. Both sons share one father, who loves them and lives in harmony with their mothers. The mothers resent one another and turn abusive when God blesses them with sons. The tables keep turning until Hagar and Ishmael spin off. The Bible doesn’t pursue them because its focus rests on God’s covenant with the Jews, not because the Arab covenant is invalid. That God won’t allow Hagar to let her son die refutes any presumption He abandons Ishmael. There's no cause to believe His promise to Isaac’s side of the family cancels Ishmael’s promise.

Inscrutable Yet True

God vowed to make Ishmael a great nation and rescued him to honor His covenant. If we so much as suspect He had no intention of standing by His promise, we have no reason to believe anything He says. If He were like us, our suspicions might be justified. But He's not like us and there's no reason to believe His promises are as devious and unreliable as many of ours can be. Numbers 23.19 states, “God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?” To dismiss a divine promise because it subverts our agenda confesses total absence of faith. Muslims who vilify non-Muslims as infidels are themselves infidels; they’re faithless to God’s will and plan. Jews and Christians who vilify non-Jews and non-Christians as heathens are themselves heathens; they don’t believe God’s Word.

God’s ways are inscrutable, yet His promises remain true. As an American, I can’t accept any rationale for blocking the Cordoba House construction near Ground Zero. But even if could, I couldn’t oppose the center’s right to be where it’s meant to be. The greatness of the people it celebrates and serves witnesses God’s covenant with Ishmael. I believe that because I believe God.

God has no intention of abandoning the great nation He promised to make of Ishmael. Christians who vilify Arabic people and Islam confess absence of faith in God’s word. (Giuseppe Bottani: Hagar and the Angel; c. 1776)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


When I said, “My foot is slipping,” your love, O LORD, supported me. When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul. (Psalm 94.18-19)

Knowing the Ropes

A longtime client once took me to lunch to talk over a serious challenge he faced. In reward for turning around a division in decline, his superiors put him in charge of another group whose business and morale were in worse shape than the first. The previous assignment involved rejuvenating the employees’ pride and commitment—no small task, but one he achieved with surprising speed by urging his management team to model behaviors they desired. The new situation wouldn’t be as simple and clear-cut, he told me, as the preceding VP had completely mangled his managers’ trust by pitting them against each other. Paranoia, cynicism, and rogue posturing prevailed at every level of the organization. “They have no faith in anyone,” Bill lamented, “and without that, I can’t do my job. How can we teach them without trust we’re doomed to fail?”

We kicked around a few ideas, but none got down to the nitty-gritty—visceral awareness that overcoming trust issues requires taking risks and confronting fear. “We need to force them to rely on each other,” Bill said. With that, the solution became very simple. We pulled his managers together at an off-season ski resort, where they ran a gantlet of exercises in which each person’s safety and success depended on teammate support. The regimen built to a climactic test. Each manager had to cross a rope bridge. The teammates’ ability to keep the ropes taut and balanced at all four anchor points determined the crosser’s stability. The risk was minimal; the bridge barely left the ground. But the point was made and later reinforced in the debriefing session, where managers learned they’d been evaluated solely on how well they supported their peers. They dubbed the eye-opening experience “the ropes.” Knowing the ropes—the metaphor for personal skill and savvy—turned into a mantra for mutual trust that results in common success. It transformed them and their business.

Caught in the Slide

We like to picture following Jesus as a sure-footed ascent to faith’s summit. While we’ve got the destination right, our characterization of the trek may need some revision. Discovering we’ve undertaken a mighty hard climb riddled with risk often sends us reeling into doubt. Are we up to this? Add to that leaders who, for no discernable reason, leverage anxieties to pit us against each other, and you’ve got a formula for failure. We lose traction. We sense we’re falling behind, but we’re unsure how to maintain our grip and momentum. We lose trust—in people assigned to guide and protect us, in one another, and in our own self-worth and strength. We face a very serious challenge, one that can easily escalate into a make-or-break situation. We’re slipping and wherever we look, no one seems to notice or care. Furthermore, the actions we see and words we hear suggest God doesn’t notice or care. This sounds ridiculous when we’re making headway. But when we’re slipping, that’s how it feels.

The composer of Psalm 94 is slipping. His/her leaders have exchanged God’s ordinances for their own imperatives. They’re arrogant, oppressive, and ruthless. (v4-5) Their killer instincts target the very groups God commanded them to protect—widows, foreigners, and orphans. (v6) They counter protests by saying, “God’s not paying attention.” (v7) The psalmist looks around and writes in verse 8: “Take heed, you senseless ones among the people; you fools, when will you become wise?” It’s as though she/he woke up in a horror film, surrounded by carnage and insensate villains run amok. One sees the poet standing in the street, screaming, “What’s happening?” The inertia of wrongdoing and apathy is what’s scary here. The psalmist watches society slipping and fears getting caught in the slide. There’s no one in sight to anchor his/her trust and assure her/his safety and success. Verse 16 laments, “Who will rise up for me against the wicked? Who will take a stand for me against evildoers?”

Help Comes

Here’s what we take away from Psalm 94. The poet’s certitude that what’s happening displeases God creates traction to trust God. While others slide into a morass of self-interest,indifference, and disobedience, the writer cries out for help: “When I said, ‘My foot is slipping,’ your love, O LORD, supported me. When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul.” (v18) I like to think, in the middle of the carnage and chaos, the psalmist began to sing Psalm 121, one of the songs of ascents that Israel sang during its annual processions to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount: “I lift my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip—he who watches over you will not slumber.” (v1-3) God is paying attention. He senses the writer’s fears of sliding backward with the crowd. He knows the ropes. “Your love supported me… Your consolation brought joy to my soul.”

For 20 years, my partner, Walt, made his living as a TV news writer. Sometimes jokingly, more often regretfully, he’d say, “Good news is no news.” This bears remembering in our age of reactionary religion and politics. It’s easy to lose our grip with backsliders surfacing in every news cycle. Every slip by arrogant leaders and senseless followers receives full coverage. The pessimism on the air hangs in the air, leading us to think God is oblivious to our spiritual violence and treachery. But the rogues won’t escape His scrutiny, and we needn't fear getting caught in their slide. When it appears no one else cares how far we’ve slid, we cry, “My foot is slipping!” Divine love braces us. Consolation that God is in control restores our joy. Traction returns to enable us to keep climbing. We look up, lifting our eyes to faith’s summit. Help comes from our consummately present, observant, and powerful God. He will not let us slip.

In a world of cynics and rogues, it often feels like we’re losing traction and sliding with them away from God. But His love supports us. We're safe and secure. He knows the ropes.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

What's in a Name?

If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God. (1 Peter 4.16-17)


I’ve not taken time to think much or write about Anne Rice’s disavowal of Christianity because I’m not a fan of her novels. I am, however, an admirer of her individualism. She is one intrepid lady. She merits respect for risking popularity to challenge readers to reconsider their views on timely and controversial topics—even though her eccentric persona often seems as calculated and pretentious as her prose. Rice’s knack for shock appeal ranks her with Madonna, Prince, and Lady Gaga. (She’s a rock star trapped in a writer’s body.) Yet despite her mannerisms and methods, I usually trust her motives are sincere. This most recent tempest gives me pause, though. Whatever her intentions are, she’s in over her head with this one.

Rice’s decision to no longer identify as a Christian while continuing to abide by Christ’s teaching traps her in a netherworld not unlike that of her most famous vampire, Lestat. He’s not dead, but he’s not alive. Rice’s situation is no less bizarre. She’s abandoning the Body of Christ while hanging on to Its Head. It’s a double severance—her from It, It from Him. This may be a marketable premise for a novel, where paranormal constructs build suspense. In terms of faith, it’s a perilous position. It accedes powerlessness (or unwillingness) to forgive, a thing so alien to Christ one can’t conceive how Rice’s proposition possibly works.

Suffering and Shame

In the rush of comments, many gave her the benefit of the doubt. “Well, she’s leaving the Church, not the faith” they said. That sounds reasonable, since Rice castigated her chosen denomination as “anti-gay,” “anti-feminist,” and “anti-birth control.” But, by her confession, she didn’t quit the Church or her church. She quit being a Christian. That’s profoundly different, as she should know from a decade of writing extensively about her faith and early Christianity. It’s also too glaring a blunder for someone who earns a fortune with words. If she didn’t mean it, why did she type it? First Peter 4.16-17 solves the mystery better than anything I’ve come across. “If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed,” it says, “but praise God that you bear that name. For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God.” It’s not the Church, her church, Christianity, or Christ that Anne Rice wants to escape. It’s being called “a Christian.” She’s trying to elude the suffering and shame that comes from being numbered with a people that dishonors itself by its disobedience to Christ, disregard for others, and disrespect for God’s creation. We can empathize with her feelings. But is her move sensible and scripturally sound?

Rice has done exactly what Peter teaches not to do. The rashness of her action reinforces the attitudes of millions who cite the Body of Christ’s iniquity as justification for staying away. But isn’t naïve to believe Christianity and the Church would be ideal were it not for the heretics, hypocrites, and demagogues? Christ and His teachings are perfect because they’re divine. The religion and institution built on them are manmade and therefore never were nor ever will be perfect. When the Apostles recognized this, they fervently urged us to strive for perfection. Perfect Christianity and a perfect Church imply full knowledge and understanding, which obviates their purpose—i.e., increasing our knowledge and understanding. In 1 Corinthians 13.9-10, Paul says, “For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.” The perfection we long for will come, and learning to forgive and tolerate one another's imperfections is what leads us to it. In light of this, Rice's defection seems either premature or immature, or possibly both.

Peter instructs us to praise God for suffering and shame that comes “when you bear that name.” Saying “I’m a Christian” confesses weakness and imperfection. It embraces every believer’s imperfections—even the failures and enthusiasms that contradict what we believe Jesus taught and exemplified. “I’m a Christian” tells everyone, “Yes, I belong to that unruly, conflicted family that constantly embarrasses itself and the Savior it follows.” We can’t admit this without suffering and shame. But we praise God for the grace to do it, because acknowledging our brothers and sisters’ faults as integral to their faith teaches us why our faults and failures are so integral to our beliefs. It’s why condemnation and ambivalence have no place in Christianity or the Church.

The Forgiveness Quotient

Could it be Christians who inflict suffering and shame are given to us so we can learn to love, forgive, and accept them before attempting to do so for non-Christians? In Matthew 18, Peter asks how often must he forgive his brother, suggesting seven as a reasonable quota. Jesus takes Peter’s figure, squares it, and multiplies it by 10: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.” (v22) Before we conclude our duty to forgive expires with Sin #490, we should note the numbers’ symbolic weight. Seven represents perfection. Seven squared totals absolute perfection—i.e., God’s nature. Ten signifies completeness. The forgiveness quotient is perfection X perfection X completeness. Ergo, there is nothing a Christian can do, say, or suggest that we mustn’t forgive. Rice’s reasoning is flawed because it concedes we haven’t power to forgive and tolerate imperfections found in the Body of Christ.

What would Peter’s comment be if he caught Rice’s announcement about rejecting the Christian name. He might ask: Whom does this benefit? Does severing your family ties help them? Can you influence their thinking and behavior in absentia? How can you convey God’s love and acceptance to the world if you can’t tolerate us? “For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God,” Peter tells us. Everywhere in God’s household, we find imperfections—in us, others, our leaders, our dogma—everywhere. If we’re not present, doing our family duty by wrestling with our failures forgiving one another, as living proof of God’s grace and mercy, nothing will change. Christianity has no interest in what others do against us. It's only focus is what we do for them. We’re Christians. We make change happen. What’s in a name? If it’s “Christian,” there’s love, forgiveness, acceptance, integrity, humility, and power. For all the suffering and shame that comes with it, it’s an honor both to be a Christian and called one. We pray Anne Rice and anyone else deceived to think otherwise will grow to understand this.

Peter tells us to praise God for the privilege of being called “Christian”—despite the suffering and shame our failures impose on all who bear the name.