A Meditation for Beloved Community from Genesis 15:1-18
Eighteen verses that contain a lifetime’s worth of literary themes.
Questions about the future.
A primitive human desire for certainty and resolution.
And yet—time to count the stars in the sky.
More questions. Acknowledgment of the intimidating presence of the unknown.
Solidarity amidst the darkness. An embrace of the faceless face of the unknown.
A respite space there. A calm within that frightening embrace. Strength—courage developed through solidarity in the darkness.
This story’s home is exile. It’s why this story, and just about all of these stories were told. To provide strength, courage, hope to a people in exile. It’s a wilderness story.
As I was sitting with this story, and allowing this story to read me, I began to imagine what this story might have sounded like around a campfire in exile.
Can you imagine refugee people sitting around a fire, cooking dinner, eating, some heading off to their tents, others sticking around to talk about their experiences and their troubles late into the night? These are the kinds of conversations that gave rise to the Hebrew blues.
As the darkness shines more brightly on their skin, they begin to show their souls to one another. After a long while of listening, and taking in the scene an old sage would begin to tell a story… and the few still gathered in darkness around the flames would grow quiet and hear her into deeper speech.
Can you imagine people in exile—standing together in darkness—hearing this story told?
“Super” Modern Exile Midrash
It was a fantastic Super Bowl Party. Wings! Pizza Bites! Fresh hand crafted beers on tap! Carrot Sticks and a Salad! Gluten-free crackers! Guacamole! Juice! There was something for everyone and a room full of soulful folks had gathered to witness the ultimate display of the bright shining Broncos battling for the forces of good vs. the evil Panthers from Carolina. Not to mention Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Bruno Mars, that British band Coldplay, and that Doritos commercial!
It was a quintessential American event. All of the things that make American great (Again!) were gathered together in one room. Can you feel it? Can you feel the beating heart of Americana?
As the game wore on we wondered openly about the Bronco’s chances. A field goal on the opening drive?! Not half bad. That sure beats two points for the other team on the first play from scrimmage. We ooed and awed as Von Miller ran around the offensive line to sack the un-sackable Cam Newton. We were surprised. Astonished. Elated. The party had an even better energy than we could have imagined. As the Bronco’s lead increased, the fairly lackluster commercials grew funnier than ever before. We were so entranced that we nearly agreed with Peyton that Budweiser is a decent beer. Nearly.
We were so entranced that we might have missed what was going on behind us. There was a puzzle, indeed. But beyond that even, just beyond that. Out the back door, where the patio view displayed a Bronco’s colored sky… just off the edge of the patio… a few conflicted souls began to gather around the warm embers of a camp fire.
One by one, they trickled out past the puzzle, through the doors, and just beyond the edge of the patio, I am told. It seems that Jillian must have been the first to go. She has never been much for football anyways, and though she felt the warmth of friendship in the crowd that had gathered, she has always enjoyed the sense of solitude that a warm fire brings. Its presence just beyond the patio lured her quickly. With her long white hair displaying her wisdom she had a sense that the warmth of that fire may lure a few more folks over time as well. So she would be there. Ready to receive them if they came her way. Ready to move beyond the need for small talk and listen deeply to her friends if the need arose.
Sure enough—Darren came first. It’s somewhat surprising that Darren got up and wandered away from the comforts of that room. Darren loves competition just as much as any American, and he grew up in this very town cheering for the Broncos. But on that evening, as Darren watched the game, it must have felt as though the dichotomy playing out on the field was reminiscent of the dichotomy playing out in his soul, and he just didn’t know if he had the strength to hold it.
Darren’s hair may not quite shine with the wisdom of Jillian’s, but he’s not hiding his age in the salt and pepper crops emerging around his temples. Darren has spent the whole first half of his life building a container for himself and his family. And he has built a good one—a safe one. His job made enough money for his kids to be educated at the university of their choice, and they chose wisely, and Darren should be proud. But after what feels like a lifetime of providing safety, security, and perspective for others to count the stars, Darren is just about ready to make a decision for himself. He wants to do something that will make him happy. Something full of meaning and challenge and risk. But he’s afraid. He’s uncertain. Uncertain that it will ever work and uncertain that he can afford it.
Jillian just listens as Darren’s quiet presence narrates this story. Before too long, Bill walks out the door, and past the patio as well. You wouldn’t notice much of a difference between Darren and Bill by their outward appearance. On the outside, there’s not much difference between these two apart from Bill’s sun weathered face, ski coat, and backpack. But as Bill looks into the coals, and begins to share his story, Darren and Jillian learn that Bill feels as though he has failed at just about everything he has ever tried.
Bill’s parents split up when he was young, and he was beaten by his stepfather for far too long. In spite of all of the trauma, Bill beat the odds, he graduated from high school on time, and he made it into college. Unfortunately, Bill’s life had not prepared him to succeed in college, or imagine graduating, and he eventually lost his scholarship. Even so, Bill managed to find a decent job anyway. He got paid enough working shift work at the factory, and eventually he settled down with a nice young lady that he met at church. But the demons of childhood trauma have always shone their face in Bill’s life, and before too long he lost the stability of both his marriage and his job and for the first time in his entire life he found himself sleeping on the concrete.
After a winter outside, Bill got into a group home and got sober, but that all came crashing down when the group home lost its funding, and Bill wound up sleeping on the streets again. Bill’s sobriety remains and is now his only stabilizing factor. He has a network of friends, but as Bill told Jillian and Darren he doesn’t even know what he needs.
Just then, Asalah walked out the door—perhaps the most interesting person at this party. Asalah is a Syrian refugee who has been in America for about three months. She has no idea what a “Super” bowl is, much less a “buffalo wing,” or a “dorito.” The assistance she received along with her immigration status won’t last forever, and her husband still hasn’t found a job. Her twelve-year old son is the best English speaker in the family, but he is too young to work and is already falling behind in school. The promise of American soil seems fleeting, yet things are still better here than they were in the environment from which she fled. Well… maybe. Are they better? She feels a bit safer now, but she has never felt so alone. In spite of the trauma she was suffering from back home, most days she can’t remember why she left. She is completely uncertain that the risk of her lifetime is going to pay-off in the end. Will she ever be safe and secure? Will her children ever be happy?
And then there is Kip. At some point Jillian, Darren, Bill and Asalah all notice that Kip has rounded out their circle. Kip is at a different end of the uncertainty spectrum than his newfound friends, but he’s on the scale, and to him life feels fairly tumultuous and dramatic as a result. Kip is not so much younger than Asalah, but his lack life experiences might suggest that he possesses a couple decades less wisdom.
Kip is taking his own luxurious time figuring out who he is—a privilege few have been afforded quite like young, white, educated men. He works at a coffee shop, reads ravenously, and spends time with friends. His quality of life seems extremely high, and some days he is quite aware that it is. But there is an ominous question always knocking at the door of his comfort, making him feel at times like he is out in the cold right beside Bill. “Who am I? What is my work in the world? What does the future hold for me?” The same old question comes to Kip in the dark of night in many forms… and even though he thinks he knows the answer… he doesn’t quite know how to enact that answer in the world. And that feels like the tragic gap to Kip. The gap between the truth in his soul about who he is and the reality of the role his life asks him to inhabit. Kip feels uncertain, he deeply desires resolution, he thinks he’s alone.
Jillian, stoic Jillian, has absorbed all of these heartfelt stories while she quietly stokes the fire. After a long, pregnant pause, she begins to tell a story about a man named Abrahm.
“Abrahm was a man of great courage,” Jillian said.
“In the days when the hair around his temples was turning gray, the voice of his Inner Teacher came to him and said, ‘Will you go to a land that I will show you? Will you leave all that you know, all that you have built, and walk headfirst into the unknown?’ Perhaps to his own surprise,” Jillian chuckled, “Abrahm said yes.”
“But before too long, Abrahm began to whine. And Abrahm whined loudly, much more loudly than the four of you,” she gestured.
“But perhaps you too, whine this loudly when others aren’t around.”
“Abrahm, who had so courageously befriended the unknown began to feel as if the boundless walls of his new life were closing in on him. Uncertainty began to grip his body and he became completely uncomfortable with it.”
Abrahm called out to the Divine, “Hello, I’m out here—all alone. I’ve got a question for you, who is going to be my heir?”
“As if to say,” Jillian added, “What will my life look like into the future, how will my story live on?”
“I’m pretty sure, I already told you that…” Abrahm’s Inner Teacher responded, “I’m going to give you a child. Everything is going to be ok. Just have a little patience. As a matter of fact, get out of yourself a little bit and take a look at the stars. Your story will be as abundant and beautiful as theirs is.”
“That response appeased Abrahm for a bit,” Jillian said, “But before too long he was back at it again. His need for assurance, and reassurance, and re-reassurance arose.”
“Uhhh…. Hey you!” Abrahm called out to the Divine, “About the land, the place you promised to show me? Uhhh… where’s that? How does that fit into all of this? Going to be seeing that anytime soon? It would be nice to know for certain.”
Once the deep darkness fell, Abrahm’s Inner Teacher responded “Ahhh… you need certainty. Is that what it is? Well, This… you may know for certain. The children… which you will have—will be refugees in a land that does not belong to them. They will be incarcerated and held as slaves for four-hundred years. They will be oppressed. But afterwards, they will be brought forth with great clarity and with great possessions.”
“Abrahm swallowed dramatically,” Jillian said, “And then, is if shaking his head, out of confusion and fear, he replied…”
“It’s as if the only certainty is uncertainty.”
After another long, pregnant, pause, and more fire stoking from Jillian, Asalah broke the silence,
“That story brings me comfort.” She said, “I am a refugee. I feel incarcerated and oppressed. I want so badly to know what my future will hold. I want to know that my family and I will be safe, secure, happy, and loved…” And then, gesturing towards the circle, she said, “But I am not alone in this. I am not alone in my uncertainty.”
We are not alone in this. We are not alone in our uncertainty, and our tedious pursuit of resolution.
At circle on Tuesday night, we read an Alice Walker poem entitled, “Reassurance.”
I must love the questions
as Rilke said
like locked rooms
full of treasure
to which my blind
and groping key
does not yet fit
and await the answers
mailed with dubious intent
and written in a very foreign
And in the hourly making
no thought of Time
to force, to squeeze
I grow into.
I laughed, as we reflected about the possibility of “loving questions,” about keys that do not “yet fit,” about the “hourly making” of ourselves.
I laughed, because I was under the impression that my desperate need for certainty and even resolution was just a failure of my personality. But I was assured, in that circle that I am not alone in this.
I am so not alone as I whine and cry out wanting to know what the future holds—wanting to live into it already.
You are not alone. You are not alone in your uncertainty.
We are gathered together in a circle of human-kind, throughout the ages, who desperately resists uncertainty.
We are gathered, especially, in that place of uncertainty, with Jesus of Nazareth, who cried out in the garden, “Take it away. Take away my fears about the future. Take this cup from me.”
We are gathered together, in solidarity, as a people who have stepped out into the unknown. We are in the wilderness, together.
May we begin, again, to love the questions, together. For in the questions, hope and love await. Amen.