Thursday, February 19, 2009

Leap of Faith

Esther 4:1-17[1]

In our study of Thomas Moore’s book Care of the Soul, we’ve been looking at various aspects of his view that the way to find true happiness in life is to embrace life as it is: good and bad, joy and sadness, pleasure and pain, fulfillment and disappointment.[2] Some of you may be convinced, but there may be others who are still skeptical. What makes anybody think that we can embrace life as it is?

Moore answers this in several ways:

• We can embrace life when we recognize the beauty all around us. The biblical view of creation is that God has filled all that is with life and beauty. That means if we look properly, we should be able to see beauty in everything and everyone.[3]

• We can embrace life when we accept our own value as individuals. If you can realize that there is something necessary to your existence in this world, that there is something that you and only you can contribute to life, then you can look at yourself in the mirror see a person whose life is important.[4]

• We can embrace life when we see what we do as sacred. When we grasp that all our work is God’s work—that we are contributing toward the well-being of all life, and thus participating in God’s ongoing creation, then we can “be good at what we’re good at” with passion and enthusiasm. [5]

•We can embrace life when we simply accept our families as they are—even if we keep our distance! In a very real sense, you can only be “comfortable in your own skin” when you come to terms with the fact that, for good or for ill, your family is the only one you’ve got!

• We can embrace life when we acknowledge our own name, with everything that goes with it. It is only when we embrace ourselves that we can embrace others in the joy of friendship and love.[6] This is especially the case when it comes to loving a significant other. We learn to love in the give and take of everyday life.

Today, we are looking at the fact that embracing life takes a “leap of faith.”[7] I think the story of Esther is a perfect way of learning about this aspect of embracing life. You probably know Esther’s story better than I—she was a young and beautiful Jewish woman living in the Persian empire with her uncle Mordecai. When the King was “in the market” for a new queen, Esther was one of the beautiful young women from all over the empire to “try out” for the position of queen. And, of course, the king was vastly more delighted with Esther than any other young woman, and she became the new Queen. But one of the King’s advisers, named Haman, hated Mordecai and all the Jewish people. So he convinced the king to sign a decree allowing Haman to execute all the Jewish people—because the King didn’t know Esther was Jewish!

When Mordecai found out, he sent a message to Esther asking her to do something about it. Now, what you have to understand is that Esther, queen or not, was subject to the whims of the king. To approach the king without being summoned meant risking death. But Esther was a courageous woman of faith—like her ancestors before her, she was willing to risk what most people would never dream of risking! And so she asked Mordecai to call a fast for three days, and after that she said “I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16).

That’s the way of faith according to the Scriptures. Setting out on a journey without even knowing where you’re going, like Abraham and Sarah. Facing death in a furnace rather than compromising one’s commitment to God, like the three young men. Exposing oneself to ridicule and humiliation to obey God’s command, like Mary did when she agreed to bear God’s son. That’s what faith is about. It’s not about knowing exactly how everything is going to turn out. It’s about “hoping like mad in something” that may seem too good to be true—that “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15)! And because it seems so far-fetched the only way to take the leap of faith is to “know that we do not know”—and in fact we cannot know—how it will wind up for us.[8]

Biblical faith is not about rational arguments and scriptural “proofs” that are supposed to make us feel safe in a world that is more and more confusing. It is not about clear-cut moral codes and fixed dogmas that are supposed to protect us from the tension of not knowing, of not being sure, of not having all the answers. The faith of the Scriptures is full of questions, uncertainty, and mystery![9] It opens us up, making us vulnerable to the unpredictability of our world. It challenges us take part in an amazing journey, a pilgrimage of faith that has always been about taking the kind of risk Esther took. And because this journey takes place right in the middle of the uncertainties and anxieties of our day and time, it is a journey that takes all that we can muster in terms of faith and courage.

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/23/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, xii, xvi-xvii, 4, 14.

[3]Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life, 48-50. Cf. Moore, Care of the Soul, 277-280.

[4] Moore, Care of the Soul, 114-15.

[5] Cf. Moore, Care of the Soul, 181-82, 199.

[6] Moore, Care of the Soul, 57.

[7] William Willimon calls it “Unspectacular Faithfulness” but recognizes that it takes a leap of faith nevertheless! See William Willimon, “Unspectacular Faithfulness,” A Sermon preached on 9/28/1997 at the Duke University Chapel; accessed at .

[8] John Caputo, On Religion, 2, 19.

[9] Moore, Care of the Soul, 244-47.

Love’s Embrace

Ruth 3:1-18; 4:9-17[1]

In our discussion of what it means to embrace your life—the life you have—we’ve talked about a lot of facets of life. I think, however, that perhaps the single most difficult facet of our lives is our relationship with those closest to us—our friends, our family, our children, our husbands and wives. There’s a lot we can say about loving others that can in the end sound pretty superficial and even worn-out. The plain truth of the matter is that our experience of loving the people in our lives is a difficult one.

I guess that’s one reason why our culture romanticizes human love to such an extreme. When you look at what our songs and poetry, what our stories and films have to say about loving another person, it sounds like something straight out of a fairy tale! If you were to go strictly by most of what we hear about love, then love is the most natural thing in the world to fall into, love is something that makes you completely happy, love makes your life a bed of roses; and of course, if that’s not your experience with love then you simply haven’t found “the one.”[2]

That’s not the perspective of the 2006 film The Painted Veil. It’s a story set in early 20th century England about the very difficult path two people take to finally learn how to love one another. [3] Walter is a young doctor who has been assigned a position in Shanghai; he’s so infatuated with Kitty he’s truly blind to everything that might tell him not to become involved with her. Nevertheless he asks her to marry him. Kitty is a spoiled rich girl desperate to escape her family; she doesn’t really love Walter, nor can she imagine ever loving him, but she’s willing to use him as a ticket to another life.

It’s no surprise that when they arrive in Shanghai Walter immerses himself in his work and Kitty has an affair. She is desperately in love with Charles, but he has used her just as she used Walter. When Walter finds out about the affair, volunteers to go to a remote village suffering from a Cholera epidemic, he almost literally drags Kitty with him—mostly out of revenge. But the situation of living and working with people in extreme need changes both of them. As Walter selflessly engages in the work of teaching the Chinese villagers procedures to stem the epidemic, Kitty volunteers to work with the nuns at the local convent who are caring for the village orphans. In the process, something strange and wonderful happens—Walter and Kitty actually learn to see one another in a completely different way than they had before. And they begin to love one another, despite the past and despite their “incompatibilities.” They learn that loving another person has very little to do with feeling love-struck; what it is about is accepting and caring about another human being.[4]

The Bible teaches us this about love in many ways— through it’s practical teachings about love, through the stories of God’s love for a wayward people, and most importantly through the life of Jesus, who gives himself completely for the sake of us all. I think perhaps one of the more memorable stories about love is the story of Ruth and Boaz. Ruth is a “foreigner” who married an Israelite living abroad. When he dies, her mother-in-law, Naomi, resolves to return to Israel and the life of destitution that she believes to be her fate. But Ruth is devoted to her mother-in-law Naomi, and so she returns to Israel. If you read between the lines, it would seem that Naomi begins to play the the matchmaker. She suggests that Ruth glean in the fields of their relative, Boaz. Though it’s not obvious, it would seem that the attention Boaz pays Ruth suggest that he falls for her.[5] But for whatever reason, while Boaz keeps tabs on her, he also keeps his distance. Naomi (perhaps sensing the attraction) urges Ruth to “make the first move.” There’s a lot we don’t know for sure about the scene at the threshing floor, but what we do know is that two people are alone together at night. But perhaps the fact that their motivation is not simply one of desire, but rather one of concern for others—for Naomi and Ruth’s safety and livelihood—there’s not a hint of criticism in the story.[6] The end result is that they marry and build a home and a life and raise a family that leads to the birth of King David!

I like this story for a number of reasons. For one, it doesn’t cover over the realities of two people coming together. Also, the story of Ruth teaches us that love is about devotion to another person—no matter what.[7] And I like it because Ruth and Boaz’s love is about raising a family and making a life together—which is what human love has been about for ages, not about fairy tales and fantasies where all our dreams come true!

What we don’t know is how Ruth and Boaz learned to love each other over the long term, through thick and thin, for better or for worse. But I would be willing to bet that they had their share of ups and downs—just like we all do.[8] Because that’s how we learn to love another person—by going through the difficulties together. As one observer put it, that’s part of the journey toward love that is stronger and richer.[9]

It’s the very difficulty of loving another person that makes it so valuable to us. None of us is suited to loving—we have to learn to love in the give and take of everyday life. That’s when love becomes for us a token of God’s presence among us—lifting us up, giving us hope, comforting us in our sorrow, encouraging us when we’re discourages.[10] That’s how our love for one another becomes a mirror of God’s love. That’s when our love becomes “sparks from the great flame of love that is God”[11]

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/16/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, 78, where he talks about “our love of love.”

[3] See Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, “Review of The Painted Veil”; accessed at

[4] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 255: it means combining, “respect for the other person’s freedom” to be an individual “with deep affection for him or her as a person.”

[5] See Danna Nolan Fewell and David M. Gunn, “Boaz, Pillar of Society: Measures of Worth in the Book of Ruth,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 45 (1989): 45-59.

[6] Cf. Lillian Klein, “Engaging Biblical Women,” Bible and Interpretation, 2003; accessed at .

[7] See Michael S. Moore, “Ruth the Moabite and the Blessing of Foreigners,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 60 (April 1998): 217 where he calls the Book of Ruth a “powerful statement about the power of human love” as well as “a powerful theological statement about a God who keeps his promises, a creator who takes great delight in blessing his multifaceted creation, a Redeemer who will use any means—any people, tradition or person—to accomplish his gracious will.”

[8] Cf. Moore, Care of the Soul, 89, where he talks about love’s “shadows.”

[9] John Welwood, in Love and Awakening, says it this way: “I don't know any couples who have not suffered this fall from grace at some point, losing touch with the original bright presence that first drew them together. Yet this is not a problem when we understand it as an integral part of a couple's journey toward greater wholeness and a richer, more seasoned kind of love.” Quoted at .

[10] Cf. Moore, Care of the Soul, 95: “There is no way toward divine love except through the discovery of human intimacy and community.”

[11] Fulton Sheen, From the Angel’s Blackboard; quoted at .

Crisis of Faith

Exodus 32:1-14[1]

Anne Lamott is one of my favorite authors. The story of her journey to faith is a dramatic one. She grew up in Northern California with parents who were atheists and who raised her to think Christians were idiots.[2] As a teenager she fell into a self-destructive lifestyle. After struggling with addiction for years, she found herself at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, a church with a largely African-American congregation, in Marin City near San Francisco. About her conversion she says, “I found I was really drawn to the Jesus part. And I didn’t want to be.” Despite her hesitation, she was converted from a life that was out of control to a life of peace and joy and fulfillment in her faith in God, in her relationship with her son, and in her work as a writer and activist. In an interview with Tavis Smiley, she explained what I think might be the core of her faith: “I believe that there is a force of goodness or sweetness or sanity, and it does meet us where we are, and it doesn’t leave us where it finds us.”[3]

There are many in our day who have spoken of a “crisis of faith” in our society. Of course, in our context that relates primarily to belief in God and/or active participation in a religious institution. While “belief in God” is doing as well as ever in our society, participation in church or synagogue is not (mosques and temples seem to being doing better). Nevertheless, I don’t really think that means that we are living in a more “secular” age—“secular” in that it is devoid of faith. I think most people have some kind of faith, whether it’s faith in the family or faith in a market economy or faith in the constitution of the USA. I think the question most of us would rather not have to face is whether what you place your faith in can live up to your expectations!

In our Scripture Story for today, the people of Israel had a crisis of faith.[4] They had witnessed the plagues on Egypt and the crossing of the sea, they had been liberated from their oppression and were on their way to a “land of milk and honey.” But after all that, Moses was long in coming down from the mountain, and they were in the middle of the desert. They began to get anxious and panicked themselves into deciding that maybe Moses didn’t know what he was talking about after all. And so they made an image of the God who had brought out of Egypt in the form of a golden calf—and they even named it Yahweh!

It’s amazing what we will turn to when we have a crisis of faith. I use that phrase in a special sense—not a “catastrophe,” like “the current financial crisis,” but a challenge. When everything you’ve staked your life on begins to come unraveled, when your expectations are dashed and your faith is disappointed, you’re in a “crisis of faith.” I call this a “challenge,” because I think a crisis of faith can actually be a blessing in disguise. It gives you an opportunity to “clean house” with reference to your faith—to get rid of some expectations that may not be worth believing in and hoping for.

I know whereof I speak on this matter. When my marriage ended, my family was torn apart, and I had to choose between my kids or my career—pretty much in one fell swoop!—I went through a “crisis of faith.” God didn’t live up to my expectations—in my marriage, in my family, and in my career. What I discovered was that some of my most cherished hopes were in reality naïve and presumptuous expectations! I went through a painful time of “conversion” that led me to a more firm and confident faith—that God will never leave us nor forsake us, that God is in the process of making all things new, that God is faithful, and will not stop until the work of new creation is finished.

Thomas Moore reminds us that we all need a focus, a foundation for our lives.[5] We need some organizing principle that enables us to make sense out of life to view it as something meaningful. For most of us, our faith fulfills that role. But we also need to find a faith that is worth staking our lives on, because there are many “golden calves” out there that will inevitably disappoint us.

For me, the bedrock of faith that I found when I was at the bottom is the Good news—

· Jesus died on the cross to break the power of that which keeps humankind from the life God intends for us to have[6]

· The resurrection of Jesus points us to the new life that came into being on that Easter morning and will one day transform everything and everyone—and it is already in the process of doing just that. [7]

· Nothing limits the saving grace of God! Everybody “makes it in” because God wills it. The whole creation is to be drawn into the peace and love and life of God’s kingdom.[8]

· Because God loves us all unconditionally and irrevocably, we are all moving toward the day when we will all share in God’s own rich, joyful, loving, and free eternal life[9]

The nature of faith is such that we cannot entirely “borrow” it from someone else. What that means is that we all have to find our own bedrock. But part of what makes our faith so fulfilling is that it is not so much about the destination as it is about the journey. It is a journey in which we learn to trust our loving creator. It is one in which we learn to live like our courageous savior. And it is a journey in which we find joy and fulfillment because we are on it together.

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/9/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. Bob Abernethy and Kim Lawton, “Profile: Anne Lamott,” Feb. 17, 2006, Religion & Ethics Newsweekly; accessed at religionandethics/week925/profile.html .

[3] Cf. Tavis Smiley, “Interview with Anne Lamott,” March 28, 2007; accessed at .

[4] Cf. Mark Hillmer, “Faith in the Old Testament: Pentateuch and Prophets for Pentecost,” Word & World 18, no. 3 (Summer 1998): 318-324.

[5] Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, 204.

[6] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 94. Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 242-43, 246, 277; Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 181-83.

[7] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 85, 88, 197; Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God, 250-55; cf. further, Jürgen Moltmann, “The God of Hope,” in The Gospel of Liberation, 31; Jürgen Moltmann, In the End—The Beginning: The Life of Hope, 87; cf. also Moltmann, Church in the Power, 77, 80, 83, 86, 93, 98-100, 135, 152-53; 190-91; Moltmann, Way of Jesus, 26-27, 28, 30, 32-33, 97-98, 182, 220, 254, 256; Jürgen Moltmann, Experiences of God, 20, 28.

[8]Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 54-6, 76, 85, 288-90; Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 56-57, 94-95, 112, 212-13; Paul Tillich, “Salvation,” in The Eternal Now, 114; Hans Küng, The Christian Challenge, 120.Moltmann, Theology of Hope , 204, 216; Moltmann, Crucified God, 129, 176, 178, 242-44, 276-77; Moltmann, Church in the Power, 77, 83, 100, 134-35, 190-192, 216; Moltmann, Way of Jesus Christ, 104, 109, 133, 178, 190, 223, 225, 255, 263-64, 276, 278-79, 282-86, 303-7, 325; cf. also

[9] Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 38-40, 57, 151; Moltmann, Church in the Power, 83, 87, 95-96; Moltmann, In the End—The Beginning, 139-151; cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Passion for Life: A Messianic Lifestyle, 72, 73, 74

What’s Your Name?

Genesis 32:9-12, 22-32[1]

Herman Melville’s classic story Moby Dick begins with an interesting line: “Call me Ishmael.” Now, to the average person that probably doesn’t mean much today. It sounds to most of us like a typical name for an American whaler in the 19th Century— a bit old-fashioned. But Melville was writing to an audience he knew would assume more than that. You see, “Ishmael” is the name of an outcast. Ishmael was Abraham’s son who was rejected, banished from his home, and sent out into the desert with his mother to die.[2] Although the narrator of Moby Dick is the only one to have survived the tragedy of the good ship Pequod, he considers himself to be unlucky, rejected—an outcast. When he says, “Call me Ishmael,” it’s almost as if he’s apologizing for even existing!

We live in a much more “enlightened” era—we know better than to assume that our name somehow reflects who we are. Most of us were raised with the phrase, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” And so we know better than to let “name-calling” get to us, or to indulge in such uncivilized behavior! (My tongue is firmly in my cheek at this point!).

Of course not! Names are important, whether or not we choose to acknowledge it. Would you ever name a daughter “Jezebel”? Or who would name a son “Judas”? There are definite associations with those names in our culture that effectively remove them from the list of most parents’ possible baby names. The truth is that names do matter—not only our own names but also the names we create to attack and demean others.

When Jacob approached his homeland, he had been away from home some 15 years. And yet he was still afraid of what he might face when he met his brother Esau, whom he cheated out of his birthright. So Jacob did what he always did—he tried to manipulate the outcome by sending messengers to appease Esau (cf. Gen. 32:4–5). But instead of receiving word of his brother’s disposition, all they reported to Jacob was that Esau was coming with four hundred men, a small army!

So Jacob the deceiver continued his manipulative ways by dividing his caravan. He sent several groups of animals ahead as a gift to Esau, separating them into different groups, perhaps to magnify the size of the gift, perhaps to achieve the desired effect of placating Esau with repeated offers of good will. Jacob then sent his wives and children across the Jabbok River, and “strategically” remained behind! After all that Jacob had been through, it seems that he had not learned a thing!

Then Jacob did something we only hear of him doing one other time—he prayed! He prayed earnestly for God to deliver him from danger and rescue him from vengeance at the hand of his brother Esau. And in response Jacob encountered an unknown adversary attacking him in the night! He wrestled with this “someone” all night, and apparently was able to hold his own! At the end, Jacob’s adversary asked him his name, and the fact that he replied with “Jacob” suggests that he was admitting his character as a deceiver. Somehow this wrestling match brought Jacob to the place where he could finally admit to himself and to another who he really was—a liar, a cheat, and a fraud.[3] Jacob’s adversary then renamed him “Israel,” meaning “one who strives with God and with men and prevails.”[4]

It was only at the end of this strange wrestling match that Jacob realized he had actually been struggling with God! So he named the place “Peniel” in honor of the fact that he had seen God face to face and yet lived. Jacob crossed the river to rejoin his family, with a new limp to remind him of his encounter with God. The result was that instead of slinking up to his brother behind his wives and children, as he had originally planned, he went ahead of them. When Jacob met Esau, he was a changed man—so he humbly bows down to him seven times. Esau, himself a changed man, embraced his brother and forgave Jacob his past wrongs.

Thomas Moore, in Care of the Soul, reminds us that the first step toward embracing the life we have may very well be to embrace who we are. We can only embrace those around us when we can embrace ourselves, and we can only embrace ourselves when we can acknowledge who we are—all of who we are![5] Unfortunately, many of us are like the beautiful young man Narcissus of Greek mythology, or like Jacob the deceiver—we cannot really embrace those around us because we cannot embrace ourselves! The tragedy is that it leaves us disconnected, both from our own life and from the lives of our family and friends.[6] And if we never have to face who we are, like Jacob did, we may wind up selfish, rigid, intolerant, and perhaps even bitter![7]

The problem is that, like Jacob, we have to be “dislocated” or perhaps even “broken” in order to come to the place where we can actually look ourselves in the face and not only acknowledge what we see—all of what we see—but also actually embrace it![8] That’s what happened to me 8 years ago—I lost everything that meant anything to me. At the time I thought my family life was through and my career was over. Before my divorce, I was a lot like Jacob—very wrapped up with reaching my personal goals but not very connected with the people around me. But after all I went through, I came out much more comfortable with who I am—all of who I am, the good and the not-so-good! That kind of experience is one that many of us go through at one time in our lives or another. But the good news is that it brings us to the place where we can acknowledge our own name, with everything that goes with it, and that frees us to embrace our lives and the lives of those around us in the joy of friendship and love that God intends for us.

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/26/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] The only other significant “Ishmael” in the whole Bible is Ishmael the son of Nethaniah, who assassinated the Babylonian governor who was appointed over the Jewish people after the fall of Jerusalem and then proceeded to kidnap his court (2 Kings 25:23, 25; Jeremiah 41).

[3] On this and other interpretations of the story, see Frederick C. Holmgren, “Holding Your Own Against God,” Interpretation (1990): 5-17.

[4] Jacob’s new name signifies the change in his character in an ironical manner. The name “Israel” itself means “God strives” or “God rules” (Holman Bible Dictionary, 722); in this text, however, the meaning of the name is interpreted as “one who strives with God and with men and prevails.” In a sense, because of Jacob’s resistance to God’s purposes, God was “striving” against him; yet in another sense, though Jacob was certainly “striving” against God, God graciously allowed Jacob to “prevail” by blessing him (cf. G. Wenham, Genesis 16–50, 303).

[5] Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, 57.

[6] Moore, Care of the Soul, 58.

[7] Moore, Care of the Soul, 65-67.

[8] Moore, Care of the Soul, 61-62. Stuck with a certain “image” of ourselves that gets in the way of relating to others.

Risking Family

Genesis 17:1-8, 15-22[1]

Families. What can we say about them? It seems we either love them or hate them. Given the necessities of biology, everybody has some kind of family somewhere. Of course, that doesn’t mean that everybody wants to have anything to do with their family. In a day and time when the word “family” is glibly thrown out as a political campaign strategy, I think it’s high time we admit the truth—we’re all pretty ambiguous about our families. I guess what you’d have to say about families is: “you can’t live with ‘em, you can’t live without ‘em!”

Thomas Moore has an interesting twist on the family in Care of the Soul. He talks about family in terms of the risks each of us takes in order to engage in family life. Fathers take a risk—you don’t just automatically become a father by procreation! The process of becoming a father is a long and sometimes precarious journey.[2] Motherhood is also a risk—the role of a mother is wonderful but also painful, because in the end you have to let your children go down the paths that could very well destroy them, but it’s the only way for them to find their own individuality.[3] Children face risks: sons have to grow up with an imperfect father, have to set out on their own journey to find out what it means to be a man with their own flaws and foibles that probably resemble those of their fathers.[4] Daughters have to find a way to be a woman in their own right, without the voice of their mothers telling them what they should do differently![5]

It’s interesting that the “first family” of the Bible, the family of Abraham and Sarah, has so much “exposure.” All their dirty laundry is on display in the stories of Genesis. First there’s Abraham, the “prototype” of the kind of faith that God desires from us all—and we see him passing off his wife as his sister in order to save his own skin—not once, but twice (Gen. 12:10-20; 20:1-18)!?![6] Then he sends one son out into the desert to die (Gen. 21:9-14) and takes another son up a mountain to “sacrifice” (Gen. 22:1-13)!?! Sounds like a family I’m not so sure I’d want to be part of. Sounds like a family just like yours and mine!

With a father like Abraham, it’s no wonder Isaac follows in his daddy’s footsteps and puts Rebekah at risk in the same way (Gen. 26:6-11). And in turn, his two sons, Esau and Jacob, wind up estranged from each other over their inheritance (Gen. 27:19-29).[7] Jacob successfully “cheats” his brother Esau and leaves home—only to be cheated in return by his uncle into spending 14 years of indentured labor (Gen. 29:12-30)![8] Then Jacob’s own sons are so resentful of the favored son Joseph that they throw him in a pit, initially planning to kill him, but then they “only” sell him into slavery (Gen. 37:12-28)![9] Sounds like the kind of family we could very well do without![10] And yet, this is the family of promise, the family through whom God determines to bless all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:3)!

Thomas Moore reminds us that one of the most important lessons we can all learn about family is that in a very real sense we cannot choose our family—we’re stuck with them. It’s a lesson most of us have a hard time learning, because we spend our lives in the futile effort to escape the influence of our families—after all, in one respect our families are programmed into our very DNA! But the frantic attempt to escape the influence of your family is a little like trying to cut off a part of your own self! You never can quite accomplish it, and all you’re doing is hurting yourself in the process.

A healthier, happier, less stressful approach is to simply accept our families as they are—warts and all! In a very real sense, we can only be “comfortable in our own skin” when we come to terms with the fact that, for good or for ill, your family is the only one you’ve got! In fact, one of the greatest obstacles most people face in accepting themselves is accepting their family. The sooner you can accept that they are yourfamily, the sooner you’ll be on the road to wholeness.

Although all families have their shortcomings, it is those very challenges they present to us that make our lives rich and meaningful. [11] Like the fires that purify and refine precious metals, the disappointments and heartaches of the family becomes the very means by which we can forge a life for ourselves that is beautiful and precious and fulfilling.

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/19/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, 34-39.

[3] Moore, Care of the Soul, 40-49.

[4] Moore, Care of the Soul, 34-35.

[5] Moore Care of the Soul, 43-44, 47.

[6] Of course, we should recognize Abraham’s great faith in other respects of his life, but one wonders where it was when he was so afraid for his own life that he put Sarah’s at risk! We are used to acknowledging Sarah’s “lack” of faith in that she laughed when God promised her a son; perhaps it is time to recognize that both Sarah and Abraham showed both faith and frailty in the course of their life’s journey.

[7] Gordon J. Wenham Genesis 16–50, 214–16, points out that the Genesis narrative is surprisingly restrained in that it does not condemn any one member of this tragic family for their role in it.

[8] Wenham, Genesis 16–50, 237–38, suggests that Jacob’s subsequent experiences seem to fit poetic justice for his own previous deceptions.

[9] Wenham, Genesis 16–50, 351, points to Jacob’s favoritism as causing a complete breakdown in his sons’ relationship with Joseph! Of course, Joseph’s actually recounting his dreams to his brothers suggests that his own selfish absorption must have contributed toward the problem; cf. Wenham, 359-60.

[10] Cf. David L. Peterson, “Genesis and Family Values” Journal of Biblical Literature 124 (2005):14, where he says (or perhaps understates?), “The final chapters of Genesis describe a family in disarray.”

[11] Moore, Care of the Soul, 26, reminds us that “to some extent all families are dysfunctional”! See further, ibid., 27-32.

Sacred Work

Genesis 11:1-9[1]

The 2005 film The World’s Fastest Indian is based on the true adventures of Burt Munro, a sixty-seven year old motorcyclist from New Zealand. Working in a cinder block garage in Invercargill spent 20 years modifying a 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle, which was originally designed to go about 50 miles an hour. In 1967 Burt travelled to the USA to compete at the Bonneville Salt Flats, setting an under-1000cc world record by reaching the speed of 183 mph! During his ten visits to the salt flats, he set three speed records, one of which still stands today.

I think one reason why Burt Munro achieved what many would have thought impossible was because he had a passion for what he was doing. He loved going fast! In fact, at one point, when asked if he’s afraid of being killed in a crash, he says, “You live more in five minutes on a bike like this going flat out than some people live in a lifetime.” Burt’s passion was also fired by his imagination—he could imagine what it looked like to set a land speed record—he could see it, he could taste it, he could feel it in his bones! His dream inspired him to the extent that he spent all his waking moments working on his beloved “old girl,” forging his own tools and parts in his shed. Not only that, but he also overcame a whole list of obstacles, from booking his passage aboard a ship (which included him working for part of the fare), to finding welding tools to repair his makeshift trailer, to talking the officials at Bonneville into letting him race even though they thought he was just a “crazy old coot”! Boy did he prove them wrong!

Our story from Genesis today tells us about a people who had another dream. The people of ancient Mesopotamia decide to build a great city and a tower “with its top in the heavens.” Now, if you think about it, there’s nothing wrong with having a passion for building great cities and impressive towers. But what was wrong was their motivation. They did it to “make a name” for themselves and to prevent them from being “scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11:4).[2] They were motivated by one of the oldest motivations of all time: pride.

Now, as we learned from the story of Cain and Abel, there’s nothing wrong with a healthy sense of satisfaction at “being good at what you’re good at.” But the kind of pride that motivated the builders of Babel was different. It’s the kind of pride that many theologians throughout the ages have called the “original” sin![3] Think about it: there’s a huge difference between the joy of finding fulfillment in what you do and the desire to “make a name” for yourself. One can inspire you with the kind of passion that enabled Burt Munro to achieve his dreams. The other will drain you of all imagination and energy, and leave you bitter and angry. Even if you achieve the goal of “making a name” for yourself, you have to guard it jealously because fame is so fleeting.

We are a people who suffer from a serious lack of imagination. The only reason we seem to be able to find for actually pursuing what we do for a living is to “make a name” for oneself or to make a lot of money. Talk about unimaginative! We keep spinning our wheels in the rat race thinking if we only get more fame or more money we’ll finally be “happy.” What’s the definition of insanity? Isn’t it doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results!

Thomas Moore reminds us that we all need to be able to see our work in the context of a larger story, a story that is concerned with what really matters in this world, a story where we make a significant contribution. [4] I would say that before we can do that, we need some idea of the larger story we’re in! This is where our Bible stories can help us. The story of Creation reminds us that we were made for the purpose of contributing to the life and beauty of God’s world. The story of Abraham and Sarah and their descendants reminds us that God’s purposes in this world don’t just “appear” out of thin air—they get done by people with flesh and bones. The story of Jesus impresses upon us the immense value God places on our being able to carry out our part in the larger story of God’s purpose.

That biblical view of God’s story might be overwhelming to you. It’s a pretty big story, after all. As my favorite Reformed Theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, reminds us, that’s the whole point of the story of God’s Spirit. God’s Spirit is poured out on all people in order to us free from everything that keeps us from fulfilling our part in God’s story. The Spirit fills us all in order to energize us to accomplish things we could never even dream of![5]

When we can live our lives in harmony with the story God’s purpose, we can view all our work as God’s work.[6] If we can have the imagination to conceive our work in that way, then all work is sacred work, and we can do it with passion and enthusiasm. Then all work is a “vocation”—a calling from deep within; it is an “occupation”—something that chooses us from outside ourselves; it is “liturgy”—we are contributing toward the well-being of life, and thus participating to God’s ongoing creation.[7]

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/12/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 242. Cf. also Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, 99; and Nancy L. deClaissé-Walford, “God Came Down … And Scattered: Acts of Punishment or Acts of Grace,” Review and Expositor 103 (Spring 2006): 403-417; they suggest that the scattering that God effected on them may be construed as a blessing rather than punishment!

[3] See Otto Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics I:571, 600; cf. also Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, II:50, where he defines sin as “hubris” and says, “Hubris is not one form of sin besides others. It is sin in its total form, namely, the other side of unbelief or man’s turning away from the divine center to which he belongs. It is turning toward one’s self as the center of one’s self and one’s world.”

[4] Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, 185.

[5] See Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, 114-122.

[6] Cf. Moore, Care of the Soul, 199.

[7] Moore, Care of the Soul, 181-82.