What Troubles Me About Abraham

In today’s first Mass reading, God instructs Abraham to take his beloved son Isaac and offer him up as a burnt offering.

Leave aside for a moment God asking this of Abraham.  It is Abraham’s response that I always wonder about.

Four chapters earlier in Genesis, when God tells Abraham of his plan to destroy the Sodom and Gomorrah because of the extreme sinfulness of the people there, Abraham goes into full advocacy mode.  He challenges God not to “sweep away the innocent with the guilty,” and proceeds to haggle with God. Will you spare the city if you find 50 innocent people there? Great, then will you spare it if you find 45? Terrific, what about 40? Wonderful, do I hear 30? Abraham doesn’t cease his argument until God agrees that if there are ten innocent people in the cities, the cities will not be destroyed.

Abraham puts his all into an argument with God aimed at saving a depraved city, a guilty people.  Yet here, when God instructs Abraham to offer up his son Isaac – the son he loves more than anything and who presumably is innocent of any wrongdoing, Abraham just says Right-O and proceeds to follow the instructions he has been given.  Not a word of protest.  Not any request for explanation.  No effort at persuasion.

How do we explain the difference in Abraham’s behavior? Is it that he knew he was being tested when God asked him to sacrifice Isaac? Did he feel some greater responsibility toward an entire population of people than toward his son? Is there something in how God spoke to him in one instance that is different from the other? Is there something else? And, if Abraham’s behavior in the two situations can not be reconciled, which of them are we to take as the better reaction? Just a few questions to ponder today, along with Caravaggio’s depiction of the scene.

Sacrifice of Isaac


The “United” States

Today the United States celebrates Independence Day, the federal holiday that commemorates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence 241 years ago on July 4, 1776.

In 1776 the American colonies were united in their opposition to overreaching by the British Government, which taxed them severely while not letting them make their own laws or trade with other countries.  I’m not suggesting the years surrounding 1776 were glory days of unity.  “We the people” largely meant white property-owning men.  But there was a belief that the united colonies stood for something.

What are we as Americans united for or against today?  That shouldn’t be a hard question to answer, but lamentably it is.  What do we as a nation stand for?  I don’t know how to answer that question, and that saddens me.  And it should sadden all of us.

To adapt a portion of Jane Deren’s Prayer for Unity, I pray on this Independence Day that we may “move beyond partisan politics so we may create a vision of the common good so sorely needed for our country.”  That we may practice respect, be grounded in compassion, and work together to rebuild our world.


A Clear Portrait

I love the author Haruki Murakami and freely admit I am among those who wait excitedly when I hear he has a new book.  I just finished reading his latest, Men Without Women, a collection of short stories about the lives of men who, in one way or another, are alone.

In one of the stories (An Independent Organ) the narrator is describing a particular character, a Dr. Tokai.  As the narrator explains that he plans to record everything he learned about Tokai, he says this:

Most of it originates from things he told me directly, though certain parts are based on information that people close to him told me, people he trusted.  Admittedly, a certain amount is also conjecture, based on my own observation of things I thought might be true.  Like soft pate nicely filling in the gaps between one fact and another.  In other words, the portrait that follows is not based entirely on fact.  As the writer of this account, I cannot recommend that the reader treat it like evidence submitted in a trial, or supporting documents for a business transaction…

But if you slowly take a few steps back…and view this portrait at a distance, I’m sure you’ll understand that the veracity of each tiny detail really isn’t critical.  All that matters is that a clear portrait of Dr. Tokai should emerge.

My first thought when I read these lines was that this, with slight editing, could be a lead in to the four Gospels.  None of the accounts of the life of Jesus can be considered like “evidence submitted in a trial or supporting documents for a business transaction.”  Nor was that their intent.  The question is only do they, individually and collectively, give a clear portrait of Jesus.  And I believe the answer to that question is yes.

We can argue about the particular factual details.  Did he go to Jerusalem early in his ministry or only later?  Did he feed 4000 or 5000?  Etc.  But as with Murakami’s narration about Dr. Tokai, “the veracity of each tiny detail really isn’t critical.”  If we step back and view the portrait, we get enough of a picture to meaningful know this person Jesus.

I should add a more general note about the book: I devoured it in little more than a day. If you are already a Murakami fan you’ve probably already purchased the book; if not, I recommend it.

I Have Competed Well

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul.  The second Mass reading on this day is a beautiful passage from Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy, one that always moves me.

At this point, Paul realizes he is “the time of [his] departure is at hand.” Looking back at his life, he writes: “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.”  These words always affect me deeply, and I keep coming back to them.

“I have competed well.”  What is Paul saying here? Or, perhaps, more appropriately: What would it take to be able to say, as does Paul, “I have competed well”?

I think the words can mean a lot of different things, depending on the circumstances. Of course we’d all like to be able to say at the end of the day that through our words and deeds we accomplished big things, changed the world in a major way, maybe moved a few mountains. And sometimes we do accomplish big things. Other times, our best efforts may produce small results. The circumstances in which we find ourselves may mean that we have little show for our efforts.

Perhaps the bottom line is that we can not necessarily fairly evaluate our discipleship based on visible results. The relevant question is only whether we acted true to our faith. Whether we followed the course of Christ, bearing witness to Christ and being his love in the world as best as we could. If we do that, then, at the end of the day we can say, as did Paul, “I have competed well…I have kept the faith.

Can’t We Do Better Than War?

I mentioned that we saw a production of Lisa Peterson an Denis O’Hare’s An Iliad this past weekend.  It is a retelling of the epic Homer tale narrated by a single storyteller that also draws on events through the ages.

The play was fabulously performed, and I can’t imagine the energy it took for the single performer to so passionately tell his tale for an hour and forty minutes.  I was captivated from beginning to end, as was the rest of the audience.  I was telling someone about it last night and thought to share it here (especially for those in the area who might have time to catch a performance of it before the Winona festival ends).

At the opening of the play, the narrator sadly comments, “Every time I sing this song, I hope it’s the last time.”  For me the most chilling part of the play is the one that suggests that hope will not easily be realized.  The narrator is trying to remember something that occurred during a particular conquest, but corrects himself, remembering it was not that conquest at all, but a different one, a failed recollection that leads to an almost three minute narration of wars through the ages.  I almost couldn’t breathe as the recitation went on and on.

Here is the scene, although from a different performance than the one I saw:

There is a similar, although shorter scene at the end.  The play ends before the actual fall of Troy.  The narrator casually observes that we all know that story.  We’ve heard it before.  The fall of Troy.  The sack of Constantinople.  Of the Aztec empire.  The destruction of Dresden.  Of Sarajevo.  Of Aleppo.

Do we just accept that that these lists will go on and on?  That if this play is performed in another 10 or 15 years the recitation of wars will grow to four or five minutes rather than just over three?

Shouldn’t we hope for something better?  Shouldn’t we commit ourselves to trying to do better?


Applause After Death

We just returned from a wonderful weekend in Winona where we saw the opening performances of the 14th season of the Great River Shakespeare Festival.  (Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors and Richard III, as well as An Iliad, a modern day retelling of the classic.  All fabulous productions.)

The GRSF folks are dedicating this season to the memory of a woman named Karen Fawcett, who played a vital role in “building a fledgling theater company into a sustainable fixture in the regional and national arts scene.”  She co-founded their volunteer organization, raised money, was involved in strategic planning, and was instrumental in building an audience outside of Winona.  She died this past January.

On opening night of the first play, Comedy of Errors, the artistic director of the GRSF talked about Fawcett and the dedication of the season to her.  He said that when someone in the theater passes away, there is a tradition of offering the person a final applause.  When he asked the audience (many of whom have been attending GRSF performances for years) to join him in a final applause for Fawcett, everyone rose and applauded long and hard.

In the moment, I was deeply touched by the gesture, and joined heartily with the other audience members.  As I sat later, I asked myself for whose benefit was the applause?  Certainly not Fawcett, much as we like to picture our dearly departed smiling down on us.

It struck me that the answer was us.  Not in a bad selfish way.  Rather, the applause was an expression of collective gratitude (and any expression of gratitude is a good thing).  It was a recognition that what had been built was worth having and worth preserving, and that it is important for us to acknowledge those who had a hand in it, whether they can hear us or not.  And, as or more importantly, the applause recognized something Fawcett embodied: the idea, in the words of the director, “that anything is possible with the right work and the right people.”  And that is something that should motivate each of us.

And, Karen Fawcett, if you are smiling on us, I hope you enjoyed the weekend performances as much as we did.  Rest in peace!