Ruthie knew it was coming. In fact, she didn’t really want to come to the Bible study that night, because she knew exactly where the conversation was going to end. She had felt it building for weeks. It was a new Bible study group, and the women were still feeling each other out. The more that they talked about their families and their children, the more obvious it became that she was the only one without kids. She and her husband Jeremy had been trying for years to conceive, and had spent a lot of time and energy and money and tears to make it happen. It was emotionally exhausting to tell the story again each time, so she decided to avoid it as long as she could.
But tonight’s Bible study topic made it darn near impossible. Abraham and Sarai. The promised child. A story of joy and promise for most Christians. A story of pain and struggle for her. Ruthie knew the moment was coming. And about two-thirds of the way through the meeting, the teacher asked if anyone had ever wanted something as bad as Sarai did, and what it felt like to not have that yearning met. Ruthie broke down into silent tears before anyone else could respond. Fifteen minutes later, the story was told, everyone else was in tears, and the Kleenex box was almost empty.
All of the Bible study members tried to be helpful. None of them were. Some offered physical help, and suggestions of doctors and herbal supplements and something that worked for their second cousin who had struggled to conceive. Some offered emotional help, suggesting ways to reduce stress and anxiety (ironically doing just the opposite for Ruthie). Some even offered spiritual help, one member suggesting a book about how God wants to fill your basket with fruit but you have to take out the rocks first. Ruthie tried not to roll her eyes. She knew it all and had tried it all, and the longer the meeting went, the more frustrated and angry she became.
Why was it always Sarai? Or Hannah? Or Rachel? Wasn’t there a decent story in the Bible about a woman who wasn’t having trouble conceiving? And why was it that in the end, they always had the baby? The one that Ruthie never had?
This story is not about a real person. But it is about a lot of real people. It is a conglomeration of so many stories of those who I have sat with in hospital rooms, and living rooms, and church office counseling sessions who have emptied their own Kleenex boxes telling stories similar to Ruthie’s. And more than once, that question has been asked…if God blessed these women in the Bible, where is my blessing? For couples dealing with issues of infertility, these stories feel like gut punches. So many Ruthies have asked, “where is my promise? What about my child?”
And while others of us cannot relate to that very personal and private pain, we also understand the experience of reading a story in the Bible: a promise kept, a body healed, a mind restored. And looking at our life and seeing something incredibly different:
- You get that call that your brother has been arrested again, despite so much effort and prayers to the contrary. Why couldn’t his life be changed like Saul’s?
- You get the text message that the cancer finally took your friend, though you had earnestly prayed, as hard as the centurion did, for healing.
- You get the word that your wife lost the baby at work, even though you had both been like Hannah on her knees before the Lord that this time would be different.
We pray. We plead. We believe. We have faith.
But that faith is rewarded only with pain.
In the first three verses of the fifteenth chapter of Genesis, Abram is there.
The chapter begins with a reiteration of a promise from God: “I am your shield and your reward shall be great. Do not be afraid.” It is a promise that Abram has heard before. A few chapters earlier, in chapter 12, Abram had been promised that he and his wife Sarai would deliver a child. “Go to a land that I will show you,” said God. There would be a land of promise and there would be a people of promise.
So Abram and his whole family left. Abram’s nephew Lot went off to the land of Sodom…I am sure everything will go well for him there. And Abram had traveled to a fertile land, the land of Canaan, where God reminded him again in chapter 13 that his offspring would be as numerous as the grains of dust on the earth. The priest gives him a blessing in chapter 14, all is going well for this man of promise.
At least half of the promise. By chapter 15, Abram is there. Like so many of us have been there. God has kept so many promises in our lives. But that one. That big one. That painful one that leaves a hole in our lives. Is not kept:
Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.”
The custom of the day was for the chief servant, the keeper of the household, the steward, to become the heir if a family could not produce a natural heir. And so, Abram said, “maybe this is the answer to my prayer. Maybe Eliezer of Damascus will be my heir. But I had so wanted a child of my own. I had so wanted Sarai to hold up her baby and laugh with joy and peace. I watch her hold the children of the household and I can see the pain in her eyes. God, you speak of reward. But I feel left alone, and void of promise.”
Abram was there.
One of the worst things about the Two Way is that they like the Bible so much. They KNOW the Bible so well. I bring them a Scripture passage, and they connect it to this passage and this passage, and “that reminds of this verse.” I mean, I try and talk about the first six verses of Genesis 15, and they are talking about Sarai and Hagar and Ishmael and all these other passages of Scripture. Of course, I jest. I love the fact that this group comes together every week that loves the Bible and knows the Bible, and sees connections throughout Scripture. In fact, that is kind of what this long series on the narrative lectionary is all about: finding the narrative thread throughout Scripture, the connections throughout the Bible.
So, obviously, when we read these six verses, they know the story behind them. They know of the pain that is to come with Sarai and her servant Hagar and her son with Abraham, Ishmael. They know of the resentment that builds between Sarai and Hagar. They know of generations of resentment and deceit and the messiness of the whole story.
Scholar Walter Brueggemann does the same thing from this story, connecting it to another messy story of faith: that of Peter. He compares Abram’s faith in God to Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ. Meanwhile, both stories get messy before they are over. Abram and Sarai stumble through the realization of this promise, and Jesus is telling Peter by the next chapter, “get behind me Satan!” And we know that the messiness continues.
The thread that I saw to a later story is that of Job. Here is a similar story about a man for whom, for 37 chapters, there is this jumble of confession and complaint all tied up together. And then, in chapter 38, the Lord speaks out of the storm. I liken it to God’s response to Abram here about the stars in the sky. Like in Job, throughout the story, God uses these pictures of creation: dust on the earth, stars in the sky, to help Abram envision this promise. Like Job 38, where God is talking about the leviathan and the ostrich and the sea and the rain, here in Genesis, God uses this language of creation to speak truth to Abram’s fearful heart.
And what is Abram’s response? Like that of Job, of Peter, and of so many standing in the sight of God incarnate: humble trust…“And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” I think this verse is really the heart of the text. Again, it is Brueggemann who points it out…what has changed between Abram’s despair in vs. 1 and his confession in vs. 6? Is Sarai pregnant? Is he holding his newborn child? Has his deep desire been met? No. Nothing has changed physically here. Abram is still in the same mess that he was 5 verses earlier.
But what is different is that Abram is ready to trust. For once, Abram believes that God is there. He trusts that God will provide. What or who or how, he doesn’t know. Which is kind of the point. That God will provide, he is sure of. By the end of the passage, we finally hear Abram hearing what God said five verses earlier: “do not be afraid.” He is finally able to hear and trust that truth.
So, for Abram and Sarai, for Peter, for Job, for really most of the folks in this book, there is what I would call the messiness of faith. As much as some of us would like to believe, faith is not about certainty, or perfection, or clarity. It is not about saying the magic words to impress a stubborn God. It is not about hitting the Staples Easy Button and getting just what we need. The prayer of Abram was a prayer of faith…which means it had the very real possibility that it would not be answered in the way he wanted.
I think that the misreading that is so easy to make when we yearn for something so deeply, is to read that word from verse one—“reward”—and think that God works like a carnival game. Throw the dart just right and we get the reward…the prize of that pink teddy bear. Thanks not what faith is. It’s much messier. The Hebrew for this word “reward” implies more of a gift. The point of faith is that we enter into relationship with a God who will give us good gifts, even if they weren’t what we had hoped for or expected. That word “reward”says less about Abram’s (and our) precision of faith: “if we do it right, we get what we want.” Less about us earning a reward, and more about the Rewarder. The Grace-Giver. God is our shield and loves us enough to walk with us through the pain. That’s what relationship is all about.
God is a guide, and friend, who will never leave us or forsake us. Abram understood the messiness of faith, and throughout the messiness of the story: the lies about his wife being his sister, the disaster of his nephew Lot in Sodom, the attempts to produce an heir with Hagar, the jealousy that erupted because of those attempts, and even the eventual birth of the child, the perceived command to sacrifice him. Through it all, THIS is the family through which God chose to covenant with humanity. It’s like God has a thing for messes.
And God continues to covenant with us through our messiness. Anne Lamott wrote about the grief of losing someone important, but I think it relates to the grief of losing a person, or a place, or a thing, or a dream, or an expectation. She writes…
You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.
A good quote to talk about the family whose son has a son who continued the family tradition of messy faith. And in an actual literal wrestling match with God received a limp. And he carried this limp like we carry our pain and our disappointment and our grief and even our anger, all into a relationship with the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, Sarah and Rebecca and Leah and Rachel. And you and me and our own lumps and limps. And somehow, we learn to dance anyway.
In the back corner, Harriet spoke up. Harriet was rather mild-mannered and it took a lot to get much out of her. But her voice was unmistakable and clear: “Why don’t we give the floor back to Ruthie? She has been brave and vulnerable and honest and I think she might need us to spend more time listening than speaking. Go ahead, dear.”
And before she knew it, Ruthie had spilled her spiritual guts to these women. She cursed and cried and questioned. And she believed and trusted and showed a fierce faith in the middle of her struggle. Some of the other women were a little anxious by the honesty that Ruthie showed, and looked over at Harriet to see if they should say something. But Harriet calmed them with a nod. “Let her speak.” Finally, Ruthie was exhausted and had nothing else to say for the moment. After a few moments of silence, Harriet spoke once again: “thank you, dear. It feels like that was the most honest show of faith that I have seen in a long time.”
On the drive home, Ruthie was weary but strengthened. Her honesty and the space to share it had given her a reinvigorated soul. The pain was not gone, and she knew it wouldn’t be for some time. But as she turned the corner onto her street, she thought maybe she could learn to dance again.