The Light in the Wilderness

Scripture Passage:  Psalm 22: 23-31 (Lent 2B Psalter)

You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him; stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!  24For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him. 25From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him. 26The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord. May your hearts live forever! 27All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. 28For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations. 29To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him. 30Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, 31and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.

This psalm is probably more meaningful in its entirety.  The beginning verses (which are not included in our psalter for today) bear an agonizing pain by the Psalmist, one who is feeling lonely and desperate.  The writer is surrounded by enemies and is sure of God’s abandonment.  It’s kind of like how we usually think of the wilderness.  You can imagine standing in the Judean desert with the winds whipping around you and the sands stinging your eyes.  You just want it to end.  You’ve resolved that you can’t go back but you want this desperation and pain to be over. You want to see something up ahead.

And then, almost abruptly, the threat is gone.  The Psalmist is no longer surrounded by enemies but is aware of the surrounding community, a community of worship, a community of God’s people stretching out for generations.  God has heard the cries of the children and despair has been replaced with blessing, lament has turned into praise.  And the psalmist knows that God is everlasting, that even future generations will know of God’s presence.

This Psalm is also read on Good Friday.  You can understand why.  It is the story of one forsaken who ultimately encounters blessing and redemption.  But it’s a good psalm for our wilderness journey through Lent.  I mean, it’s hard to wander through the wilderness and always know that God is there, always know that you have not been abandoned.  Sometimes we need to be reminded and, let’s face it, sometimes we just need a good old pity party before we are again able to remember God’s promise that the beloved Creation will never be abandoned.  I think God knows that.  We are made to be human.  We feel pain.  We feel despair.  We feel abandonment.  Stuff happens in our lives.  Sometimes the wilderness seems to have no end. 

And, then, just as suddenly as our despair overtook us, we are able to see again.  Maybe the winds have shifted.  Maybe the sands have calmed.  Or maybe, we are finally ready to encounter the One who walks with us through it all.  And God is there.  And, like the Psalmist, we feel joy once again.  But I don’t think joy comes and goes.  It’s not like happiness.  Happiness is fleeting.  But joy is deep and abiding.  It never really leaves once we have it.  But sometimes, sometimes we have to be reminded of it.  And it’s OK if we have to wander in the wilderness a little while to remember.  God is patient even if we need a little pity party now and then.  God is patiently waiting for us to remember yet again that we are a son or daughter of God with whom God is well pleased. 

Here is the God I want to believe in: a Father who, from the beginning of Creation, has stretched out his arms in merciful blessing, never forcing himself on anyone, but always waiting; never letting his arms drop down in despair, but always hoping that his children will return so that he can speak words of love to them and let his tired arms rest on their shoulders. His only desire is to bless. (Henri Nouwen, from “The Return of the Prodigal Son”)

Grace and Peace,



Scripture Passage:  Exodus 5:1

Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.

We know the story.  The people had been taken away, held in slavery.  And now, God is insisting, “Let my people go.”  Now it probably wasn’t slavery as we think about it.  There were no shackles or locked cells.  They were able to pretty much roam around as they pleased.  They were even able to earn a living and have a home.  Their slavery may have more resembled that of an indentured servant.  They could not leave because they were economically and even culturally bound.  And after a couple of generations, they had sort of grown accustomed to it.  The culture that enslaved them had become their own.

So God screams, “Let my people go.”  Maybe God’s most prevalent concern was that after generations of this, the people had forgotten who they were.  They had become part of the culture in which they lived and had somehow morphed into being someone who they were not.  In God’s vision, the wilderness, the place where darkness loomed and consumed, was better than the place of bound safety that enslaved the people.  God was calling for their release, not just from economic chains but from the chains of being content to be who they are not. 

We can identify.  Sometimes we find ourselves bound by our lifestyle, by what our life is expected to be.  We are bound by the expectations of others.  We are bound by plans that did not materialize but that we cannot (or will not) change.  We are bound by who we think we should be or who we think we should become.  And just as God did so long ago, the Divine screams into the night, “Let my people go.” And just like that, we are driven into the wilderness.  It is a place of unfamiliarity, a place of discomfort.  It is a place that scares us.  It is a place that we cannot control, a place for which we cannot plan.  But it is also a place of freedom.    

Maybe the point of this story was not so much about freeing God’s people from her enslavers but about freeing God’s people to become God’s people.  How many times have you looked back into the dark times of your life and realized that, as hard as it was, it was exactly what made you who you are? Sometimes the dark times are the ones that push us into the light, even if the way is through a wilderness.

The wilderness is calling us.  The wilderness is the place where we are not bound, where we can finally be free to be who God calls us to be.   The wilderness is the place where we finally set down the things that we are holding that are not ours, that do not make us who God calls us to be.  The wilderness is the place where we become who we are meant to be.  This season is our time to go into the wilderness.

What would happen if security were not the point of our existence? That we find freedom, aliveness, and power not from what contains, locates, or protects us but from what dissolves, reveals, and expands us. (Eve Ensler)

Grace and Peace,


Letting Go

Scripture Passage:  Mark 8: 31-38 (Lent 2B)

31Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 34He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.What things in your life could you never be without?  What things in your life really sort of describe who you are?  I think that’s what Jesus was trying to get across to Peter—the point that all of this was more than that, that Peter’s very identity was affected by who he thought Jesus was. Sure, I think Peter got that Jesus was the Messiah.  He knew the words.  He had been taught the meaning probably from his childhood, the idea that this Messiah would come and bring victory and glory. Put yourself in his place.  Here is this great man who you have grown to dearly love.  This ministry that he has begun has been great.  He truly IS the Messiah for which you have waited so long.  What great plans for the future Peter must have imagined! 

But then Jesus starts talking about his own coming suffering.  This wasn’t the plan that Peter envisioned.  Most of us identify with Peter here.  This cannot be!  There is no way that it is time for Jesus to leave us.  This was our Messiah sent here to save us, the Messiah for which we have waited for generations upon generations!  Jesus’ harsh statement to Peter jolts us into reality, though.  For we do often limit our thinking to things of this world.  We want to protect and possess this Messiah.  We want a Messiah who will save us on our terms, someone to be in control, someone to fix things, someone to make it all turn out like we want it to turn out, someone to make our lives safer and easier. 

Now, contrary to the way our version of the Scriptures interprets it, I don’t think Jesus was accusing Peter of being evil or Satan or anything like that.  Who could blame Peter?  He’s just like us!  Listen further…If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  We’ve all read that verse before.  We’d like to make it read a little easier.  We would rather skip through the end of Holy Week and go straight to Easter morning.  That’s why this season of Lent is so difficult.  It won’t let us do that.  The cross is not something that we look to only in the past.  The cross is not something that we look to at the end of our lives.  This is not some goal for farther down the road. This is not some plan laid out for our lives.  This is here; this is now. It’s talking about the journey.  It’s talking about our listening to God’s calling us in our lives now.  It’s talking about letting your life go NOW! If this were easy, then we wouldn’t need Christ.  We’re not asked to just believe in Christ; we’re asked to follow….all the way to the cross.

I know what you’re all thinking.  I’m not so sure I signed up for this.  What happened to that Messiah that was going to take away all our troubles—you know calm all the storms and such?  What happened to that Savior that would solve all of our problems so that life wouldn’t be so hard?  Ooops! Wrong Savior!  

Now, don’t get me wrong.  We are not called to be martyrs.  We’re not called to suffer unbearable pain as proof of our devotion to Christ.  I’m pretty sure that none of us will ever be victims of first century Roman persecution.  Our crosses are as unique as our DNA.  Taking up our cross means simply letting go, letting go of those things that shield us from God, that get in the way of us really living, that stand in the way of who we are called to be.  For some of us, it means letting go of a plan for our lives and instead journeying a little farther into the wilderness as we follow God’s lead.  For others, it may mean letting go of our life security so that others may share in it.  For still others, it might mean letting go of hurt and pain and instead picking up the mantle of forgiveness that leads to life.  It may just mean finally getting up enough courage to quit standing on the shore to our lives and finally, finally jump into the deep end with no fear of how far you will sink before you rise.  Each of us is different.  Taking up our cross means, as Joseph Campbell said, being willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.

There is an old story that originated somewhere along the banks of the Mediterranean that tells of a really old man, who had lived a long and very happy life on a beautiful island.  He loved his island, where all his family, for generations, had lived and made their home.  And so, when he realized that he was approaching his last days of his life, he asked his sons to take him outside one last time.  There, he knelt, and gathered a handful of native soil, and clutched it tightly.

Soon afterwards, the man died and came to the gates of Heaven.  He was greeted joyfully and was told by one of the angels, “You have lived a good life.  Welcome to the Kingdom of Heaven.  Please come in.”  But when the man tried to cross the threshold, he was kindly told, “You must let go of the soil that you are clutching.”  “Oh no, I could never do that,” he cried, “This is my native soil, the earth of my beloved island home.”  The angels at the gate were sad as they went back to heaven, leaving the old man wandering, lonely, outside.

Many years passed, and the angels came again.  They brought the old man a taste of the heavenly banquet and feasted with him there, outside the gates, trying to persuade him to come into the fullness of the Kingdom.  He wanted so much to join them for all eternity, but again, when they asked him to let go of the soil he was clutching, he couldn’t bring himself to do so.  And again, they had to leave him standing there, alone.

Finally, after many more years had passed, the angels came again and this time, they brought with them the old man’s granddaughter, who had grown old in the meantime and had died herself.  She was delighted to see her beloved grandfather standing there. “Oh, Granddad,” she cried, “I’m so happy to see you.  Please come and join us in the heavenly Kingdom.  We love you so much, and we want you with us for all eternity.”  The old man was overwhelmed to see his little granddaughter there, and in his joy, he flung out his arms to embrace her.  And as he did so, the soil slipped right through his fingers. With great joy, the angels now led him into his heavenly home, and the first thing he saw there was the whole of his beloved island, waiting there to greet him.

Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.(Steven Pressfield)

Grace and Peace,


Face to Face With G_d

Scripture Passage:  Genesis 32: 24-30

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When 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. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 

So, for a little background, note that Jacob and his entourage are about to reenter the Promised Land.  He has sent his entire caravan across the Jabbok, an eastern tributary of the Jordan about twenty miles north of the Dead Sea.  And it is here that, for some reason, Jacob stays behind.  And sometime during the night, he is wrestled to the ground.  Jacob may well have thought it was Esau at first, who had threatened to kill Jacob for taking his birthright.  He might have thought that he was finally getting his due for all those years as the trickster, that he had finally once and for all been “found out”. 

The struggle goes on through the night and as daybreak approaches, Jacob is struck on the hollow of this thigh by his opponent.  The blow has a crippling effect but Jacob retains such a hold that there is no escape.  He demands a blessing for the release.  You think about it—he had the birthright, he had everything in his life.  But his greatest desire was to be blessed. So, somehow Jacob either knew or had realized that this was God with whom he was wrestling, because only God has the power to grant such a blessing. 

Now remember that it was believed that God’s face would not be seen and if it was, the one who saw God would die.  This says something about Jacob.  He is willing to risk even death for the sake of the divine blessing.  And God is willing to allow Jacob to wrestle, even to demand, even to seemingly take more of God’s time and God’s power than he really deserved.  God gives the blessing and changes Jacob’s name to Israel, “God-wrestler”.

The story ends with a lot of ambiguity.  I mean, there’s no clear winner.  They just sort of walk away as the dawn breaks.  But Jacob will never be the same again.  He has looked not only God but himself square in the face and everything has changed. In a way, the old sages were right.  Once someone looks into the face of God, they do indeed die.  They have been made new, reborn.  Nothing will ever be the same again.  For Jacob, this act of wrestling has been one of transformation. And this trickster, this heel, this one who had spent his whole life trying to better his own existence, is renamed.  He becomes Israel and he names the place Peniel, which means “I have seen the face of God.”

You know, it’s interesting to note that the New Revised Standard Version uses “Peniel” in one place and “Penuel” in the other to name this place where Jacob wrestled.  They both essentially mean the same thing.  The difference is that “Peniel” (with an “I”) is singular or first person.  It means “I have seen the face of God.”  “Penuel” (with a “u”) is plural.  It means “We have seen the face of God.”  So Jacob names the place for his own encounter, acknowledging that he knew that he had seen the face of God.  By the time he leaves, though, the name is plural, opening up new possibilities to all of us having a similar encounter with the Holy and the Sacred.

The truth is, this wrestling match that Jacob had is not a story of persistence or winning; it is a story of redemption. Jacob was allowed to wrestle and wander and even doubt and, still, became the one he was called to be.  The message of our Christian faith is not that God is some impersonal force, or a terrifying presence to whom we cannot relate.  God does not expect empty praise and sacrifices and groveling from us.  God is willing to wrestle, to get down into our lives, to know who we are, and to allow us to search for who God is to us.  We are the people who wrestle with God. It is not presumptuous of us to make this claim. God was the one who gave that name to God’s people. That’s who God wants us to be.  Of course God could squish us like a bug in a nanosecond. But for our benefit, God is always available to wrestle with us, at whatever level we are capable of wrestling.  God sent Jesus into the world to wrestle with us, and Jesus allowed himself to get pinned to a cross. That’s what it took for us to experience the love that flows from God.

This season of Lent is our wrestling season.  It begins in a wilderness and ends on a Cross.  And God is there for each round of the game.  Because only those who wrestle with God, those who let go of the armors that they have built around their lives, those who forsake their plans and ask for help, those who are vulnerable, those who wrestle with their guilt and their despair, can encounter God.  The wilderness is a place of blessing.  God wants us to wrestle; indeed, invites us to wrestle.  That is the only way that we will come to know God and come to know ourselves.  Faith grows in the midst of the struggle.  Faith grows in the wilderness.  That is the way that we will forever walk, perhaps even with a slight limp, with the mark of the Divine.

You must give birth to your images.  They are the future waiting to be born.  Fear not the strangeness you feel.  The future must enter you long before it happens.  Just wait for the birth, for the hour of new clarity.”(Rainer Maria Rilke)

Grace and Peace,


A Finger Pointing At the Moon

Scripture Passage:  Romans 4: 13-17 (18-25) (Lent 2B)

13For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. 16For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 17as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) —in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 18Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” 

In our pragmatic 21st century minds, sometimes it is much easier to grasp at the obvious and to make that the basis of our belief.  But, as Paul reminds us in his roundabout, run-on sentence kind of way, if our whole faith system depends on nothing more than adhering to the set of laws or interpretations that have been laid down by those that came before us, what good is faith?  Remember that faith is about relationship.  The law is not bad.  In fact, it’s usually a necessary construct to help us understand, to help us point to that which we believe.  But it is not the end all.  It is not the God who offers us relationship.

Now, that said, I personally struggle with those who profess to be “spiritual and not religious”.  Really?   For me, it’s a little like traveling without baggage, which can mean that you are not weighted down and are essentially free to do what you want, but, chances are, at some point you’re going to find yourself virtually unprepared for what you encounter (or at the very least unable to brush your teeth!).  To put it another way, how many of you really want to go to dinner with someone who always leaves their wallet at home?  They may be fun to talk to and all, but is that really the way we live?

There is a story told among Zen Buddhists about a nun who one day approached a great patriarch to ask if he had any insight into the Nirvana sutra she had been reading. “I am illiterate,” the man replied, “but perhaps if you could read the words to me, I could understand the truth that lies behind them.” Incredulous, the nun responded, “If you do not know even the characters as they are written in the text, then how can you expect to know the truth to which they point?”  Patiently the patriarch offered his answer, which has become a spiritual maxim for the ages: “Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?” (from a commentary by Daniel G. Deffenbaugh, available at, accessed 27 February, 2012.)

Now I don’t think Paul would in any way dismiss religion or even the rules.  He’s just reminding us that they have their limitations.  They are not God.  In fact, it is easy for them to become idols of worship in and of themselves (and last I read that was frowned upon!).  But rules have their place.  They provide a systematic way of at least attempting to understand something that, in all honesty, really makes no sense to us.  (And, to turn it around, professing to be “spiritual and not religious” actually has a good chance of becoming a religion in and of itself.)  An authentic faith, it seems, is one that weaves what doesn’t make sense into understanding, laughter into prayer, and a grace-filled encounter of the Divine into our everyday life.  It is about both transcendence and meaning and, on a good day, the weaving together of the two into a Holy Encounter with the Divine Presence that it always in our life. 

You cannot practice religion for religion’s sake.  That would certainly be the death of your being.  You need to somehow breathe life into it.  That’s where spirituality comes in.  But spirituality cannot stand alone because it has nothing on which to stand.  They need each other.  They breathe life into each other.  They give each other meaning.  G.K. Chesterton once said to “let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair”.  I love that.  It’s one of my favorite quotes.  So, in this Lenten wilderness season, focus on the love affair part.  Rules are important.  Religion understandings are important.  But they are only the thin boundary.  They do nothing by themselves.  Faith is not about rules; faith is about Life and understanding both mean that we open our whole being to the newness that God continues to show us.  So, let go of what is not life-giving or, perhaps, allow God to breathe life into it.  That is what wandering in the wilderness will allow you to do.

Religion is about transcendence, and spirituality is about finding meaning in the mundane. (Joan Chittister)

Grace and Peace,


The Tonic of Wilderness

Scripture Passage:  Deuteronomy 2:7

7Surely the Lord your God has blessed you in all your undertakings; he knows your going through this great wilderness. These forty years the Lord your God has been with you; you have lacked nothing.”

So I’m also spending this Lenten season writing another set of devotionals for a church.  The theme for that series is “The Wilderness Season”, so I thought that on the days when I don’t deal with the coming lectionary passages for the upcoming Sunday, maybe we could wander around in the wilderness a little too.

Think back to the Gospel passage for this past Sunday.  (I think I actually wrote about it on Saturday.)  Remember that Jesus was driven immediately into the wilderness.  And, we too, somehow found our way there.  Now that we’ve been driven into the wilderness, where are we?  Where do we go?  The truth is that the wilderness can be either physical or spiritual.  I think it sometimes can be both.  It is the place we find ourselves when we do not know where to go, that place that is unfamiliar, uncomfortable, even seemingly unforgiving. It is the place, not unlike what we’ve gone through over the last year (and for many of us in Texas, the last week), where you wish you could go back, perhaps retrace your steps, and yet are propelled farther and farther into the unknown. 

Perhaps your image of the wilderness looks like the piney woods of East Texas, thick with brush and pine needles carpeting the floor.  Perhaps it is more like a rain forest, with slick pathways and unpredictable weather and odd sounds that you’ve never heard.  But think about the Judean wilderness into which Jesus was driven.  There were few trees.  The mountains rise up ahead of you, each one appearing to be bigger than the one in front of it.  The winds blow, shifting the sands beneath your feet making your pathway ahead on which you had set your course disappear.  And when you look back, your footprints are also gone.  The way is unclear.  

The wilderness is a challenge.  It is a place of continuous change, a place that forces us out of what is comfortable and familiar.  In the wilderness, our fears abound and loss becomes much more obvious.  The wilderness is a place where we have to let go of what we’re holding.  We have to set it down, relieving ourselves of its weight, so that we can walk unhindered by it.

Today I find myself in a wilderness of sorts.  My living quarters are askew, actually unlivable at the moment thanks to a burst pipe from the once-in-a-century freeze (which will probably return well before that!), and I’m relegated to a nomadic type of existence.  I’m moving into a place that will not hold what I’ve amassed.  So, I’m also looking at storage options.  The wilderness is not only an appropriate metaphor for my life.  It is also a lesson.  We tend to look at the wilderness as a place from which to escape, a way of being that is not to our liking.  But the wilderness is not that at all.  It is a growing place, a clearing place, a place that calls for us to let go of what we’re holding, what we’ve amassed.  The point is not to find our way through the wilderness but to become what the wilderness let us be—open, vulnerable, unable to fend for ourselves, learning to trust, letting go not only what we’ve amassed but also what we’ve become. 

This Lenten journey is about letting go.  Have you ever grabbed a rope to swing you out over the water?  You have to let go.  If you continue to hold on, you won’t end up back where you were.  You’ll end up slammed against the edge of the rock.  There is no going back.  You have to let go.  You have to drop and let what is there catch your fall.  Let go.  Follow.  You are not alone.   God knows your going through this great wilderness.  Let it teach you.  And become what it shows you.

We need the tonic of wildness, to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only the wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground.  We can never have enough of nature.  We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder cloud, and the rain which lasts weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.(Henry David Thoreau)

Grace and Peace,


Holy Laughter

Scripture Passage:  Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16 (Lent 2B)

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. 2And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” 3Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, 4“As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 7I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you…15God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”

What does the notion of “covenant” mean to you?  I guess the broadest definition is promise (or if you want to get more legalistic, a “contract”).  When I was little, I remember talking about what a covenant was in Sunday School.  It was actually pretty scary to me. It was presented as a bilateral contract.  So, I wondered, if I mess up, if I don’t keep up with my end of the deal, does God just cut me off?  (Why do we do that to kids?  For that matter, why do we do that to anyone?)

So, I think we probably read this passage wrong sometimes, perhaps too legalistically.  It is the story that establishes Abram’s identity and, with it, his relationship with God.  He would become Abraham, the “father of many people”.  And Sarai, his (sort of) doting and laughing wife, would become Sarah, the “princess of many.”  Abraham and Sarah now have a new identity, an identity that comes from this established relationship with God.  This is what it means to be a covenant people.  In the Jewish tradition, this is the establishment of the identity of a people, the establishment of a covenant people.  God has done a new thing.  Nothing would ever be the same again.  It’s not just a flat bilateral contract; it’s a mutual relationship.  It’s a becoming.  Don’t think of it as two parties signing a deal; think of it as two (or in this case, three) parties holding hands and jumping together into the unknown pool of grace.  With this jump, Abram and Sarai changed.  But you know what?  God did too!

Now before you go all never-changing God thing on me, think about it.  God came to Abram.  (God waited until Abram was 99 years old.  I don’t really get that one but maybe I can add it to my “questions” list for later!) God moved, offering a piece of the Godself to Abram, a piece of newness, a new identity.  God didn’t just sit on some throne in the sky waiting for Abram to show up and bow in reverence.  Rather, God appeared to Abram, came to him, and offered grace and re-creation.  God is all about re-creation.  God is all about change.

So, yes, the idea of a covenant connotes an agreement.  But, more than that, it implies a relationship.  This was not some sort of holy “to do” list that was given to Abraham.  God never told him what he had to do to be accepted, to be part of the covenant, to be part of the people, to be “godly” (oh, I hate that word!…”like God”…are any of us really “like God”?)   God never gave him a list of beliefs to which he had to adhere to be part of the covenant community.  (Hmmm!)  Once again, the covenant was not about right living; it was about relationship.  God claimed Abram and Sarai as children of God and their life was never the same.  And then God renames them.  Their names mean something–father and princess.  The new names are symbolic of the new relationship into which they enter.

I looked up the meaning of my name.  “Shelli” (not spelled that way–it is NEVER spelled that way!) is actually a derivative of the Hebrew, Rachel–“ewe, female sheep, little rock, rest, sloped meadow.”  (So, Sarai becomes a princess and I am a sheep that rolls down a small hill and goes to sleep!)  Like I said, identity is a funny thing.  We hold tightly to the way we envision ourselves, to the image that we’ve created.  And then God comes up with the most ludicrous thing, like being the father or the princess of many (or maybe a sheep that follows down a gently sloping meadow!)  It IS laughable.

We actually didn’t read the part where Abraham laughed.  He laughed because it was far-fetched and downright ludicrous.  But then, when you think about it, most of God’s promises are.  And then when he told Sarai the whole preposterous scenario, she also laughed.  So, do you think it was disbelief or nervousness or something else that brought laughter?  We in our 21st century boxes probably think it a little irreverent. After all, would you dare laugh at God? Well, good grief, don’t you think God is laughing at us sometimes? Perhaps laughter is what brings perspective. It brings humility; it brings a different way of looking at oneself. Laughter is about relationship, which, when you think about it, make it holy.  Funny…  

Abraham laughed. Sarah laughed. And I’m betting God laughed. (You can just imagine the inside joke between the three: “This is going to be good. No one will ever believe this could happen.” You?  Sarai?  LOL!!!–for those who don’t text or tweet or still use proper English, it means “laugh out loud”!) Maybe laughter is our grace-filled way of getting out of our self and realizing that, as ludicrous and unbelievable as it may be, God’s promise holds something and, more than that, holds something for us–a new identity. Maybe it’s our way of admitting once and for all that we don’t have it all figured out, that, in all honesty, we don’t even have ourselves figured out, that there’s a whole new identity just waiting for us to claim. In this Season of Lent, we are called to get out of our self, to open ourselves to possibilities and ways of being that we cannot even fathom. Go ahead and laugh. It’s probably incredibly ludicrous…and it’s only the beginning.  Because somewhere beneath that façade you have so carefully built is the real “you”, the “you” that God envisions you can be.  And someday you and God are going to have a really good laugh about this whole remarkable journey into this covenant creation that is you.

Humor is the beginning of faith and laughter is the beginning of prayer. (Reinhold Niebuhr)

Grace and Peace,