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A Meditation on Abraham and Isaac

28 Jun

This was adapted from a sermon I gave at Edgewater Presbyterian Church last Sunday.

Genesis 22:1-14

On this week that the acclaimed actor Peter Falk passed away, I’m reminded of his narration of one of my favorite childhood films:  the Princess Bride.  Playing a rough around the edges grandpa who reads the fairy tale to his sickly grandson, he gets into a debate with his grandson over the a twist in the story.  The grandson is stunned as his grandfather reads that the princess heroine of the story has abruptly married the villain.  “It can’t be true!  It isn’t fair!” protests the son.  To which Falk’s Grandpa responds, “Who says life is fair?”

That conservation echoed in my mind as a thought about the story of Abraham bringing Isaac to the verge of child sacrifice.  At first glance there is little in such a story strikes me as fair or encouraging.  Like many my compassion toward youth, especially innocent youth, is such that I cannot receive this story without reply, rebuttal or heavy conscience.  Here we have the God that threatens and the God that provides, the God that gives life and takes it away.  We see a Father who waits years to have a son, only to come so close to taking that precious life away in an instant. But I know the Scriptures are durable enough to receive doubts, questions and even complaints. Throughout Christian and Jewish history there have been various faithful interpretations that seek to probe beyond the surface to ask exactly what God is doing behind these difficult words. I want to share one possibility.

At the beginning of the story it is said that “God is tested Abraham.”  I believe that test was more than simply a way to see if Abraham would sacrifice or kill for God.  It was a way for God to test Abraham’s ability to listen and discern two critical voices:  that of God and that of Neighbor – the essence of Torah and the heart of the Gospel.

To his credit, Abraham had two things going for him in this test:  The first is his posture of Alertness.  When Abraham says, “Here I am” to God’s calling it is the response of someone at attention.  The Hebrew rendering of that phrase, “Heheni” strikes an even more authoritative tone than the English. It is as if to say “Behold, I stand at the ready”.  “Heheni” is not just a word you will hear from the mouth of Abraham, but also from Moses at Sinai and the other prophets of Israel. That phrase illustrates an awareness of God’s presence and his willingness, even eagerness to attend to what God has to say.  It’s the kind of alertness of a mind on two cups of strong coffee.  But the real wonder is that Abraham seems to maintain it from the first call to take his son’s life, to the following call to refrain from doing so.  He doesn’t quit listening to God.

What is it that prevents us from having that quality of alertness and obedience to the voice of God?

Our minds could immediately point to the usual suspects, the 1001 daily distractions that can thwart our ability to hear and respond to God.   These are often as simple and ubiquitous as our smart phones, mp3 players, wifi or morning/evening commute.  Yet behind these distractions looms a larger issue.  Those goals and agendas that begin as God’s good word to us, have a rather insidious and mysterious way of pulling us away from the voice of God.  We seek to succeed in our work, be the best that we can be, thrive economically and own a piece of the American dream. I have also observed this dynamic in that pesky desire to Right at all costs.  To be right at all costs lures us into winning argument rather than simply being in relationship with people.  Defending the strategies and tactics of our favorite causes, we trample over the freedom to disagree.  What turns these worthy goals sour is the inability to consider that what God once called us to do is no longer what God is calling us to do in this moment.  Did you catch that?  The covenantal promises of God are most at risk most when we forget God is still speaking and that God has not spoken once and for all.  God’s ways cannot be determined by one utterance, but must be discerned over a lifetime, over generations.  So eventually that call to succeed must be open to God’s eventual call for Sabbath and rest.  That call to be right must be open to God’s eventual call to let go of arguments and be a people of grace.

Abraham was steeped in cultures in which child sacrifice was the norm.  And perhaps he traveled up to Moriah thinking this horrible, regrettable and ugly practice was just the way things were   After all this was a common Ancient Near East custom.  And yet, God was not done speaking on the issue.  Through the call of Angel, God desired to overturn and end this culture of child sacrifice.  I’m glad Abraham had the disposition to listen twice for in doing so he passed the test of listening to God.

But how about listening to his neighbor?  In this case that neighbor was a vulnerable son and mother who doted on him.  For someone who has devotedly and consistently listened to the voice of God, Abraham has a difficult time listening and attending to the voice of the vulnerable and the suffering.  Where is that Abraham who was so willing to go tete a tete with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18)?  Where is the Abraham that called God to account for being just and protecting the righteous?  He pleads on behalf of a city of strangers, but now suddenly can’t muster the courage to plead for the life of his son!  The Abraham of Genesis 18 had a great deal of compassion. Given his journey began in Ur and took him to many corners of the Middle East, perhaps his heart was especially attuned to the struggle, poverty and kindness of the many people he encountered along the way.  I have a feeling that quality of character looked promising to God seeking a covenant partner to bless many nations.  For some reason Abraham is not consistent in applying his compassion, and it nearly costs his son’s life and the covenant itself.

I wonder what makes us fail to hear the voices of the vulnerable?  Perhaps it’s a kind of compassion fatigue, in which we’ve heard too many voices pleading on behalf of them.  Because we think we only have so many resources to go around, we stop listening so to ease the guilt.  Does it make a difference if we hear the voices of the vulnerable themselves rather than just their advocates?  I’m not sure.  Nigerian author and Catholic priest Uwem Akpan wrote a series of short stories entitled Say You’re One of Them and what is most impressive about the work is that it doesn’t just plead for at risk children throughout Africa, but allows them to author (as much as possible) their own stories.  In one of the stories, I was struck by how much a young girl, Monique, and her little brother Jean, were talked at instead of listened to.  Granted the people talking at them often (though not always) had their best interests at heart, their voices were nevertheless overpowered by the clanging speech of adults.

It isn’t just the children of Akpan’s stories that have no one to turn to who hear their voices.   There are children on the streets of American neighborhoods that find themselves in the same predicament.  Those children and the vulnerable in their distressing array hide openly in our homes, apartment buildings and workplaces.  Maybe you too have a quiet pain that has not been uttered or voiced. Like Abraham, we are occasionally inspired to act upon these voices, but like him these moments become fleeting as we experience “fatigue”.   The great treasure of Christian community is that it reminds us that the author of the Universe is not done with us despite our fatigue.  God never quits on and continues to use people who don’t always “get it”.  Take solace in the fact that God did not quit on Abraham despite his inconsistencies.  God never quit on Israel providing the people prophets whose voices were as God’s own.  God in Christ Jesus never quit on a band of fickle disciples, nevertheless pouring the Holy Spirit upon them on Pentecost.  Genuine community also reminds us that God will provide the additional ears needed to hear the important voices when your ears or my ears fail.  Church can indeed be a place where our conscience is nourished and becomes viaticum on the road of life.



18 Mar

The reason we need a season to focus on Christ as we observe lent is because we all need a focal point.

We live in a world of constant chaos and everything feels like a moving target.

Today in my cardio and weight training class, we had to do this one exercise where you stand on one leg and do squads. I began waddling as I usually do because I have a very bad sense of balance. But I remembered what I had learned in my yoga class- to find a focal point which helps you balance.  It’s called a Drishti in sanskrit which basically means to gaze. You gaze at a specific point in front on you that is not moving, and it help you balance.

As I found my Drishti in my cardio and weight training class, I realized that was very much the same in my spiritual life too. Sometimes we’re trying to do one legged squads without a focal point and then we wonder why we are falling all over the place!

Today’s lent reflection for me remembering that I’m honing in on my focal point, Jesus Christ throu

being faithful

16 Mar

Today I got a chance to speak to a group of IV students who are on their spring break in Chicago participating in Chicago Urban Program.

I talked about living our lives as Christians for justice and mercy in a way that is faithful to God. I think sometimes we get caught up in the impact of what we do (or lack of impact) rather than focusing on being faithful what God has placed on our hearts.

This obviously doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care about any accountability or any impact but I think we should be driven by our faith, not by a desire to change the world. Changing the world should be a result of our faith, not the motivation. When we focus on impact rather than faith, we begin to compare what we do with others and begin to put value on the many and diverse needs of our world.  How can anyone say that an AIDS orphan is less valuable than

As I reflect on Christ’s ministry I am encouraged that he lived a life of faithfulness rather than living a life to make a name for himself. The incarnate story of our Jesus Christ cannot be a stronger example of a life that care about being faithful more than having a broad impact.

Looking for New Space

10 Aug

A constant theme I sensed flowing through the plenaries, presentations and caucusing during the APPARI conference this year was problem of place.  Whether it was through their own personal experiences or through scholarly discourse, people were searching for a safe place to identify themselves ethnically, culturally and politically.  This theme became evident on the very first night.

During the opening plenary, we saw three generations between Roy Sano, retired UMC Bishop and Stephen Yamada, and his cohort Joshua Joh, college and high school students respectively, talk amongst each other about contrasting strategies for securing a place to fully be oneself.  Bishop Sano remarked the tendency for cross-cultural types to see themselves as “neither/nor” when it comes to being acculturated to different social environments.  He, on the other hand, preferred to regard himself as “both/and” able to in his particular situation, adapt to both the Japanese and American cultural worlds. Similarly, Stephen and Joshua acknowledged the ability to adapt to both American mainstream and other ethnic cultural worlds, but also revealed the preference not to do so.  Instead, the objective they struggle to attain is to inhabit a cultural world where they can fully be themselves.  They seek a kind of “third space” where acquiescence and social isolation are not so necessary.

This elusive search for new cultural spaces, so well articulated by these young men, became a theme I observed in the sentiments of many in this conference. When it came time to reading papers, I heard some like Samuel Perry at University of Chicago wondering if there was space for Asian evangelicals to do more culturally adaptive fundraising.  I heard Hanna Kang from Irvine discuss Asian Young Adults looking to transfer skills developed in an evangelical context to the Episcopalian Church because there is an overabundance of underused “space”.  During the last panel, Peter Cha and Soong Chan Rah grappled with the emergence of new evangelical ethnic churches.   Cha discussed his work with second generation returnees to ethnic churches who are nevertheless uncomfortable with the traditional status quo and desire to carve out a territory in which ethnic enclaves become socially inclusive and active in their religious life.

My hunch is that in these various anecdotes we are witnessing the emergence of a kind of cross-cultural America.  People may be intentionally seeking it.  They may unwittingly be falling upon it.  Or in some cases they may be deliberately trying to avoid it.  Yet more and more people are finding themselves at cross-cultural intersections in American ethnic and religious life that are difficult to avoid or erase.  New things are being forged here, old things are being contested.  What I love about APARRI is that there is a convivial group of scholars genuinely trying to map and then understand this new phenomenon.  When we talk about racial and ethnic groups in America, the terms that readily come to mind are oppression, marginalization and discrimination.  Increasingly though, these negative terms are giving way to more constructive endeavors like hybridity, liminality, double and triple consciousness.  My hope is that these ideas will continue to be discussed in varied and wider circles.

What’s Wrong with this Reporting?

4 Jun

Where to begin with these perennial exercises in “race analysis” by those studious chaps at the New York Times.  No wonder MSM is clueless about its own demise.  I’d rather just get fed needless gossip from TMZ than this mish mash of data passing for reporting.  Here are a few problems I caught, how about you?

  1.  Why is the first premise of this article about the fact that black woman cannot find men to marry?  Does the data indicate this is what the black women identified truly want?  And what gives the reporter the right to classify the situation as the cause or problem of black men who do not end up marrying black women?  Editorializing par extraordinare!
  2. It’s only halfway through the article when you actually get to the implications of the data cited beyond black women.
  3. The concerns about how the census will calculate race/ethnicity plays into the concerns of current racial politics, but there is no analysis of how that politic will give way to something new.  I’m not saying what comes after will be some panacea, just that people will calculate their interest in new ways.  Where is the reporting on that?

One last point, I bet pulling up a Lexis-Nexis search would reveal about at least 4 articles published every year in major newspapers or television broadcasts have essentially the same stock headline and analysis done over and over again with the same kind of data.  Call this journalistic filler if you like, but I do not call it Journalism.

Googly Eyed for Better News

13 May

Following up on my media post from yesterday, here is James Fallows from one of my favorite magazines, The Atlantic, writing a nice long form piece on Google’s attempt to help resurrect the news industry after its impending death by a thousand cuts. Fallows asks the leader of the Google News effort what he’s learned from being at the center of so much news aggregation.  His response?

“what astonished him was the predictable and pack-like response of most of the world’s news outlets to most stories. Or, more positively, how much opportunity he saw for anyone who was willing to try a different approach.”

I’m in the process of trying to figure out what that different approach is, and exactly how grassroots communities and organizations I’m a part of (like the Church)  could play a role in changing the stories we tell and how we tell them.

What do you think a better approach to news would look like, sound like, read like?

Sunday’s coming…

13 May

my sister emailed this to me… Joe and I were watching it and Joe said the guys that actually made it are a part of a mega church. It’s pretty hilarious- I’m glad we are somewhat self-aware. 😉