Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thoughts on Sarah and Hagar

Now Sarai, Abram's wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar;  so she said to Abram, "The LORD has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her."

Abram agreed to what Sarai said.  So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian maidservant Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife.  He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.

When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress.  Then Sarai said to Abram, "You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my servant in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the LORD judge between you and me."

"Your servant is in your hands," Abram said. "Do with her whatever you think best." Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.  (Genesis 16:1-6, NIV )

There's been a bit of discussion about Sarah and Hagar lately on the discussion board for our EfM group. One really outstanding thing about online EfM is that the dialog doesn't stop at 9:30pm on Sunday night when the class ends. Some, like this one, can go on for weeks with people contributing and reading the contributions of others as new thoughts or available time permit.
It seems hard to find a justification for Sarah's treatment of Hagar. Turning her out, as Abraham gave her implicit if not explicit permission to do, was tantamount to a death sentence for both Hagar and the child Hagar conceived by Abraham but with Sarah's permission and connivance. The child would have been considered Sarah's as soon as Sarah held the child "on her knee", a ceremonial adoption. For all intents and purposes, Ishmael would have become Sarah and Abraham's son, not Hagar's.
I can't help but think that had Hagar not gotten what Southerners call "uppity" things might have gone better. Being "uppity" means acting in a way that is above your station, like an employee acting like a boss or a chauffeur using the limo for his own parties and purposes. Hagar's pregnancy would have been hard enough for Sarah to bear, knowing that Abraham still had potency while it was her, Sarah's, fault that they had no children to fill the tent and most of all, to inherit Abraham's flocks and herds. It had always been whispered that Sarah was at fault because in that day, it was believed that a man's sperm contained babies just waiting to be implanted and incubated in the womb of a woman. That was why Onan's "crime" centuries later was considered severe enough for God to kill him on the spot. Onan had literally "killed" children when he ejaculated on the ground instead of impregnating his sister-in-law who would have raised the child or children as her dead husband's heir.
Regardless, Sarah's story at this point brings me conflicted feelings. On one hand it is hard to understand how one woman could be so cruel to another, how one woman with the power of life and death over another could exercise that option in such a cold, hard way. Sarah herself had put Hagar in the position in which the servant found herself and yet Sarah was ready to terminate that situation.
But then, I can empathize with Sarah. Like The Mouse That Roared, you have to be careful how you treat people because even a mouse can become a lion given the right circumstances. And the story tells us that Hagar was roaring. After all, she was pregnant by Abraham, carrying Abraham's heir while Sarah was just a withered bag of bones with a barren womb and no hope of changing that. Clearly Hagar felt she had the upper hand but I wonder if, in some perverse way, Sarah didn't already have what T-shirts a few years ago proudly proclaimed as "Old age and treachery will overcome youth and skill."  Sarah and Hagar may have been sisters under the skin but that didn't prevent them from engaging in both sibling rivalry as well as "I'm the boss so you'd better...."
Poor Hagar. She was caught in the middle of a situation not of her own making but she chose to use it to her advantage.  Poor Sarah. She did what she thought she had to do to protect what Abraham had built but she didn't figure on Hagar figuratively biting the hand that fed her -- and the unborn child -- probably better than she would have been fed otherwise. Poor Abraham -- caught in the middle and blamed for (a) not sticking up for the underdog and (b) doing what his wife wanted in the first place.
For some reason, this story brought to mind the protesters outside Planned Parenthood clinics -- clinics that do perform abortions but which also provides contraception information and assistance. As I see the people pacing back and forth, some reading a Bible or praying, some carrying signs I wouldn't like a young child to see, I wonder how many of those Sarahs were willing to adopt a child that is already born and in the foster care system for whatever reason. maybe some of them have -- but it's a thing I always wonder.
As a child whose mother decided to walk out of her life when she was six months old, I am eternally grateful to the Sarah (whose name was really Alberta) who heard the cry for help from my father (a long-time friend of the family) who was in the service and found himself with a small girl child on his hands and no way to care for her. I was lucky but I hear stories of others who weren't so lucky, people who had no Sarah.
I also think of the children who wind up with parents who divorce and then fight over who has custody. I also think of kids whose divorced parent remarries and whose step parent really doesn't want a reminder around of a previous relationship. the ones who really suffer are the Isaacs and the Ishmaels and they are the ones least able to control or even cope with the situation and come out unscathed.
It's a sad story. It happens over and over. The circumstances may differ but the situation is still the same -- who has power over whom, what they do with that power, and who pays the price. Nobody escapes untouched.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


No matter how well one plans, something always seems to throw a spanner into the works. I had planned out a TR for our online class last Sunday evening but my internet seemed to have a mind of its own. Even the tech-whiz at the other end of the phone couldn't solve it on Saturday evening so an appointment was scheduled for Monday at 1:30 pm. Not much help when the class was online at 8pm on Sunday night!

I had prepared --- but suddenly it was all out of my hands. I got to thinking about how many times my preparations have ended up being for almost naught, how I had either over-prepared or under-prepared and just sort of lurched from almost a success to almost a failure and back again.

Advent is a preparatory season where we prepare for the coming of the Christ child. Unfortunately it also comes at a cost; we've been in an almost non-stop preparatory period since before Halloween.  We had to have the right costumes for Susie and Billy, the right treats for small (and sometimes rather large (height-wise)) ghosts, witches, princesses and superheroes, and the right decorations to add a festive note. We prepared --- and before you knew it it was over and we were facing All Saints Day. Not much to prepare there but we had to look down the corridor to the rapidly approaching Thanksgiving celebration. 

Arranging for overnight (or weekend) guests, cleaning the house to a fare-thee-well (good luck displacing all the cat and dog hair, not to mention the stray socks and errant spiderwebs in the ceiling corners), planning the perfect dinner, securing the best ingredients, planning out the timetable so the turkey is perfectly browned and ready to carve at the precise moment the green-bean casserole is the perfect temperature and the stuffing hasn't cooled too much or the potatoes left too lumpy because we didn't have the one or two minutes more we needed to ensure their perfect lump-lessness. By the time we sit down to Thanksgiving dinner we've probably spent as much as 15 hours preparing in various ways --- all for something that is eaten in a half hour or less (although the leftovers may go on for days!). We can take it easier during the football games (although the nagging thought of the dishes in the sink is doing precisely that --- nagging) but sure enough, a stray thought or two (or ten) will pop up about what to do for Christmas.

Christmas stuff has been in some stores since Labor Day. It used to be they waited until the day after Thanksgiving before decking the halls and putting up the Christmas sale displays but no more. Thanksgiving dinner isn't even cold before we have to start preparing all over again. Gotta find the perfect gift for Aunt Sallie, even if we don't like her all that much she will expect it, and will have something for us that we aren't particularly crazy about but heck, it's the thought that counts, right?  Put the lights up on the house so the neighbors don't think we're Scrooges or worse. Fight for parking places somewhere within a quarter mile of the mall so we can go shop and then lug bags and bags of stuff the quarter mile back to the car -- if we can even remember where we parked it through the haze of frustration, anxiety and exhaustion. Find the lovely Christmas paper and bows we bought at the after-Christmas sale last year. Bake umpteen dozen cookies for the Christmas parties at the office, the school, the church and for having on hand in case somebody just happened to drop over for coffee. Select and trim the perfect tree with the right number of lights (not too many, not too few), ornaments (some of which are as old as if not older than our oldest kids), and tinsel garlands. There have to be the perfect number of presents under that tree -- not so many as to look like we're made of money or have stretched our credit card to the absolute max but not so few as to suggest we're penurious or worse yet, just plain cheap.  the preparation reaches its height on Christmas Eve and by Christmas Day most are just ready to collapse -- once they've made the obligatory visits to Grandma, the in-laws or wherever. Just don't go in the grocery or drug stores. On Christmas Day Valentine's Day decorations, cards and candy are already on display.

Advent comes in the middle of all this preparing. We're asked to take on one more preparation, an internal one with some external duties and responsibilities. Advent is a quiet season, sort of like what pregnant women feel when they contemplate what's going on inside them.  Advent is a pregnant season; it is based on Mary's pregnancy with a very exceptional child. We wait as she did, we watch, we contemplate, we prepare. 

There's no one way to have a "perfect" Advent. Although Advent wreaths are traditional, sometimes they can be extremely contemporary in look and feel while still being very traditional in use and meaning. Advent discourages the orgy of Christmas carols that ring through the stores since Thanksgiving because you don't celebrate a birth until a birth has taken place. Besides, in our tradition, Christmas still has 12 days to run after Christmas Eve!  Bet you won't find a single carol being played anywhere much after midnight on December 24th though!

We always have to prepare -- prepare for a coming birth, a move, a change in status, a death, an event, retirement, a financial crisis, a sudden catastrophic illness or accident, a whole raft of things that can and often do happen, just on their own timetable, not ours. We can't schedule them and often we can't even completely prepare for them like we can a trip "over the river and through the woods to Grandmother's house we go."

PrePare -- stop being anxious and frantic, stop trying to keep up much less outdo the Joneses down the street, stop trying to be all things, do all things and, most of all, buy all things.  Sit quietly for a time. Think about the pregnancy of the season as Mary thought about the growing life of that special child within her. Even if your hands must be busy knitting sweaters and booties or stirring the stew, keep an inward ear on what is going on inside. Nurture the small flickering flame of faith that will grow to a strong, steady fire if propriety tended. PrePare --- let God grow in you. Renemember the "P" in the middle, a link between "pre" and "are" and yet a place to pause and reflect.

Have a blessed Advent.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Preparing II

The previous exercise wasn't completely satisfactory so now I will say what I wanted ot say without it being attached to any particular form or type of TR.

Preparing is a verb that speaks of getting ready for something or going somewhere. "I'm preparing a lesson for class," "I'm preparing to go to visit Aunt Mabel next week," and "I'm preparing dinner for the whole family this year" give a range of responses that indicate at least part of the range of situations where preparing is an important part.

This Sunday is the feast of Christ the King, traditionally the last Sunday in the season of Pentecost and the last Sunday in the church year, sort of New Year's Eve before December 31st. This year it also marks the beginning of the week of Thanksgiving preparation and celebration. Families are travelling, others are stocking up on essentials like yams, ingredients for stuffing, cranberry sauce and, of course, the main course which in many households is turkey. There are those preparing pies of various flavors, baking breads and rolls. Thursday morning the fever reaches its pitch and by Thursday afternoon it's all over but the cleanup and the doling out of leftovers.

But there's no real let-up. We have to be busy preparing for Christmas that comes in about four more weeks. There are gifts to buy, some to ship, some to be carried, some to stay at home under the tree. There are cookies to bake, parties to plan, decorating to do, cards to send, travel plans to confirm or housecleaning to be done in preparation for arriving company. We prepare right up to Christmas Eve and even Christmas Day is no real respite until late in the day when the presents are all open, dinner is over and the detritus of all the day's activity are cleared away.

Two deep breaths and its time to prepare for New Year's even though the stores have had Valentine's Day cards and candy on the shelves since just past midnight on Christmas Day. Come to think of it, Christmas stuff appeared on the shelves before Labor Day this year, ensuring we have plenty of time to prepare for the extended HallowThankMas season.

In the middle of this, though, is a quiet little season that is almost forgotten by most. Advent is a church season totally dedicated to preparing --- not decorating with lights and baubles, not preparing the larder for orgies of cooking and baking, not preparing lists of gifts to buy or cards to send. The church season reminds us to look past the worldy preparing we are urged, encouraged and cajoled to do and to look within ourselves. We are enjoined to prepare ourselves spiritually for the coming of the Christ Child. It's hard to remember Advent sometimes, especially when images of Santa Claus abound and Christmas carols that we don't sing until Christmas Eve resound through the stores and malls only to be silenced again at midnight on Christmas Eve.

Oddly enough, Advent ends at midnight on Christmas Eve as well. We have prepared outwardly and hopefully inwardly. We have decorated but we have also contemplated. We have sent cards and gifts but we have also read and prayed.  We have baked and stirred but we have also thought a bit more about saying "thank you" to someone who holds the door for us or putting a bill in a red kettle instead of just loose change. We notice people are a bit more thoughtful, a bit more cheerful, a bit more generous.

It's the result of preparing --- the internal preparing that opens one up to possibilities which might have escaped us had we not gone through a bit of preparatory work.

During the holidays we spend a great deal of time and energy into preparing and then realize we've reached the culmination and suddenly there's a big void. Ask my friend who just got married in October. She'd spent a year planning, organizing, coordinating and preparing, sometimes driving herself (and those who loved her) absolutely crazy until the day arrived and all the preparation ended. the next morning she woke up and realized there was only a different kind of preparation to do -- preparation for the rest of her life as Mrs M, not Miss M who was going to be married October 10th. 

Advent is preparing but the preparing can go on past December 24th at 11:59 pm. There are 12 days to celebrate Christmas ahead when the world has already moved on to Valentine's Day. There are the days of Epiphany that encourage a different kind of inner preparation, that of being aware of God among us and then we find the season of Lent as another preparation, preparing the heart for the dismay and pain of Good Friday and the joy and celebration of Easter. It's a continuous project, if we do it right.

In the midst of the holiday preparing, remember to stop and prepare the inside.  It will pay off in the end, and you won't have to wait for the after-holiday sales.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


Since I'm going to be using this as a TR in a week or so, I wanted to try this out on myself first. 

The word to be considered is "Preparing." For me, it denotes a getting ready for something, planning and executing things necessary to accomplish something --- like cooking Thanksgiving dinner, the season of advent and all the commotion of buying gifts, trimming trees, hosting parties and baking cookies for Christmas.

Who was involved when I was feeling a sense of preparing?  Mama for the most part but also me at various times. Buying certain items of food (a turkey, a ham, apples, grapes, celery and miniature marshmallow, polishing the silver and making sure the linen tablecloth was spotless and perfectly ironed were Mama's traditions. Mine followed some of them although my tablecloth wasn't white linen.

What image comes to mind about feeling the sense of preparing?  Chopping apples and the other ingredients for the salad, soaking the Christmas ham, stuffing the turkey for Thanksgiving, having the house smell of spices and seasoning, not to mention the scent of cedar from the fresh tree every year.

Where does this come from and where is it found in society?  It comes from family tradition and also from everything from Saturday Evening Post covers to contemporary advertising.  We are programmed to prepare for an ideal celebration with all the proper accoutrements. Anything less is second-best, a failure and may possibly warp our children and grandchildren for life.

When does this come up in the Bible, lives of saints, hymns, etc?  The idea of preparing shows up for me in the story of the Wedding at Canaan. The bridegroom's family forgot or failed to secure enough wine for all the guests and so were left in the embarasssing situation of not having enough to go around. Preparing also shows up in Isaiah, especially the parts we hear during Advent, itself a season of preparing as is the season of Lent. Perhaps preparing for Christmas or Thanksgiving Day aren't on the same plane as celebrating Advent or moving through Lent, but still, preparing is a very important component.

Why is this manifest in our lives?  I look to tradition -- family, faith and societal -- to give structure and meaning to life. Preparing for something, like the steps of cooking Thanksgiving Dinner or getting ready for Christmas, gives a sense of being part of a community activity even if the communal activity takes place only in the home. Celebrating Advent, itself a spiritual preparing for the Feast of the Nativity, encourages us to think more deeply than what to get Aunt Mabel or whether the family will all be comfortable at dinner if we invite Susie's boyfriend with the earring and tattoos that definitely mark him as an 'outsider'. As preparing for Christmas is an external event, so Advent is preparing in an internal way.

How might God redeem any negatives in this?  I think that instead of God redeeming any negatives, I need to remember to put God back in to the preparing process.

What have I learned for the next time I feel a sense of preparing?  I need to remember to do the important preparing -- the internal preparation -- even if the more visible, external preparing doesn't get done.