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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Filtering by Tag: Abraham

Breaking the Bread of Belief: Stars

jenmichel@me.com

(Today's post is the eighth in a series entitled, "Breaking the Bread of Belief." Read about beginning, dust, home, feast, naked, death, and altar). All images courtesy of Joetography.

* * * * *

Stars

Ryan and I are reading The Meaning of Marriage by Tim and Kathy Keller with an engaged couple from our church. This quote, from Hannah Arendt, in chapter 3 was striking to me: "Without being bound to the fulfillment of our promises, we would never be able to keep our identities; we would be condemned to wander helplessly and without direction in the darkness of each person's lonely heart, caught in its contradictions and equivocalities." After eighteen years of marriage, I am realizing the power of a marriage promise. Yes, the promise binds me to Ryan, and I pray to be faithful to this good man. But in some fundamental way, as Arendt describes, our marriage promise also binds me to me: to the most loving, holy, reliable version of me I hope to one day become.

A promise can bind us to another. It can also bind us to ourselves.

God makes promises, too. And his identity is also bound up with his promises (cf. Heb. 6:13).

In Genesis 15:5, the LORD reassures Abram that his promises to him are sure. He had asked Abram to leave his home, to immigrate to Canaan, to trust him for children. But the years have worn long, and Abram, human as the rest of us, doubts. He wonders why, if God has promised him an heir, he has a household servant, not a son. "O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?" There is so little evidence for Abram to confirm God's word as true. How can Abram trust?

"This man shall not be your heir," God says. And then, for dramatic effect, he leads Abram by the elbow into the cold night air. The sky is electric with stars, luminous with promise. "Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. So shall your offspring be."

This is magnificent scene, not least because God is patient with Abram. I think we imagine that doubt cannot be tolerated by God. (Read Dorothy Greco's terrific guest post on this.) We think God quick to judge the infirmities of our faith. But this is not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—the God who remembers we are dust (cf. Ps. 103:14).

The scolding, disappointed God is not the God of Abraham. And he is not the God of the stars.

This is our eighth word of faith: stars.

It is difficult to believe that God is generous.

Sure, we have the hucksters on television, the health-and-wealth evangelists crooning that we can have our big house and fancy cars and Jesus, too.

But aside from those flatteries, what do we really believe about God? Do we see him as generous? I'm apt to think we've more convinced that he's miserly. Yes, maybe there's goodness to expect from him, but we imagine it's distributed judiciously, sparingly.

We see God's goodness like the bag of chips my friend describes sharing with her two brothers after swimming lessons. They grew up poor. Treats were scarce. But if the three of them swam well, after their lesson, their mother toweled them off and marched them up to the vending machine. She would insert her handful of change, and one bag of chips would drop.

One.

The bag was mostly air. There were few chips to enjoy. But my friend and her brothers would dutifully pass the chips back and forth between them in the back seat of the car, thankful for what they had.

Never expecting—

Stars.

God made a promise to Abram, and he made good on it. He gave him a son and a line of descendants marching all the way to and beyond the birth of a little boy in the town of Bethlehem, Jesus of Nazareth. And now the God-Man is bringing all kinds of people into Abraham's family, His Father adopting them as his own. It's a family spanning continent and race, language and era.

These children are stars. And material proof that when God makes a promise, it is bound up with his identity.

Of goodness. And generosity. And faithfulness.

Breaking the Bread of Belief: Altar

jenmichel@me.com

(Today's post is the seventh in a series entitled, "Breaking the Bread of Belief." Read about beginning, dust, home, feast, naked, and death). All images courtesy of Joetography.

* * * * *

Altar

I'm fascinated by all the leaving in the book of Genesis. For all the settled-ness of the first two chapters, the rest of the narrative is on pilgrimage, and even at its conclusion (granted, not really the conclusion as Genesis is one-fifth of a larger whole), the people of God are not yet settled into the land of Promise.

That story feels like my everyday. The unmistakability of God's promises doesn't undo the muddled quality of life as it moves forward.

In Genesis 12, God gives Abram both a command and a promise. Leave your familiarities, and go to the land that I will show you.

And I will bless you.

"So Abram went," (v. 4)

In verse 6, they arrive in Canaan, the destination of promise. More specifically, Abram, his family, and his flocks and herds pass through the land, arriving at the town of Shechem, which is regionally centralized.

"Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. . . So be built an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him."

Today's word is altar.

I've always wondered about the oak of Moreh in this passage. It seems strange that a solitary tree would merit mention, but in reading from Craig Bartholemew's book, Where Mortals Dwell, he explains that this tree is no ordinary oak.

"The accompanying reference to the Canaanites still being in the land (12:6) makes it likely that the tree is a sacred one associated with Canaanite worship. Abraham faces a choice of adopting local worship or worshiping the LORD; he chooses the latter."

In this passage then, an altar is a symbol, not just of worship but resistance.

And maybe that's a principle more broadly applied. To worship the God and Father of Jesus Christ—and declare him to be the one true God—is to resist other claims on our allegiance. Jesus notes this in his teaching on money. You can't serve two masters, he insisted. You will hate the one and love the other, despise this one and be devoted to the other (cf. Matthew 6:24).

Altar.

I think this is a good word for breaking the bread of belief.

First, altar reminds us that God will not settle for the parts of us we think ourselves generous to offer him. He wants all of us. He is a jealous God and does not abide our divided affections.

But altar also reminds me of the very little that we have to give to God. In the Genesis story, God's giving Abraham the land, and Abraham is going to build a small outdoor grill on which to sacrifice a few burnt animals? The altar—and its gifts—are preposterously small by comparison.

So then this:

If the promise of blessing, given to Abraham and fulfilled most fully in Jesus Christ, is ours through God's death, what altar can be built to express gratitude tantamount to that?

Of course none. So altar-building is a limited enterprise. No gift repays God's eternal kindnesses to us.

Christ is the high priest who presides at the altar. But because there is no worthy sacrifice we can offer, he brought one of our behalf: himself.

Altar.

Worship. Resistance. And ultimately, grace.

Behold

jenmichel@me.com

Behold. I can’t help but notice that the word, “behold,” appears 79 times in the ESV version of the book of Genesis. I notice when I’m standing at the kitchen sink, listening to Max McLean narrate the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in his rich, bass voice. Just as my attention drifts to the sound of an argument forming in the basement,"behold" jars me awake. I'm as sheepish as a school girl who's been caught looking out the window at the trees swaying in the schoolyard.

I wonder why it is that the word, "behold," appears 79 times in Genesis, 1069 times in the entire Scriptures in the ESV – and only ONCE in the most recent translation of the NIV.

My guess is that the ESV translators must have known how much we would need this two syllabled interjection, the one that boxes our wandering ears and insists: sit up straight; pay attention; listen closely because something spectacular is happening and you're about to miss it.

Behold.

I think it was a word Abraham needed as much as we do. When you read the story and take note of the chronology of Abraham’s life as it unfolds, you can't help but see how deliberately vague God was with Abraham. Twenty-five years of Abraham practically bumbling in the dark, his send off from Haran, when he was already seventy-five, as unspecific as, Go to land I’ll show you.

Piece by piece, God grants a bit more clarity. But the literary text is incredibly sparse: ten stories is all we have for the twenty-five years between God's first conversation with Abraham and the eventual fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham of a son. Like a man collecting cryptic clues, Abraham cobbled together a sense of what God meant to do and how He intended to do it. Every interaction with God pulled back the shade of the future, allowing in a bit more light, but never was Abraham's understanding flooded with full daylight.

No, it won’t be Eliezer, your servant, through whom I’ll grow your family.

I’ll give you a son from your own body.

And no, the son will not be Hagar's but Sarah's.

And actually, for the record, the land will not be the possession of your descendants for another 400 years.

You can’t read the book of Genesis without sensing that faith is not at all like reading a blueprint. It would have seemed infinitely easier had God given Abraham the complete picture up front, had He given Abraham advance notice of the twenty-five years of necessary waiting, had He explained to Abraham the mechanics of the the plan.

But I guess faith doesn't come fully-assembled. It grows in dark places. It grows when we're confused, when we have nothing on which to rely but the voice we think we've once heard.

Behold.

I might wonder how much more important is the word today in our digital age when the phones in our pockets and the screens of our computers buzz, beep, blink and hold captive our capacities of listening, looking, for beholding. 

"I sometimes wonder if we'll survive our own ingenuity. . .We're living in sensory poverty, learning about the world without experiencing it up close, right here, right now, in all its messy, majestic, riotous detail. The further we distance ourselves from the spell of the present, explored by our senses, the harder it will be to understand and protect nature's precarious balance, let alone the balance of our own human nature. . ." ("Are We Living in Sensory Overload or Sensory Poverty?" Diane Ackerman, New York Times)

And I might argue, the harder it might be to hear God.

Behold.