Wednesday, March 19

There are vast swaths of the Bible I can read through without reacting, but the story of Abraham and Isaac is not one of them. I avoid this story like the plague, because it hurts so bad.

Abraham sits awake by the fire, the night before The Day, and he watches his son Isaac sleeping under the stars. His body is numb and his mind clicks machine-like from task to task. He has torqued down the clamp on his emotions so tightly now that nothing will ever touch him again. He does not understand, he CANNOT understand, yet he is driven by the Command and he knows that on the morrow he will do the very last thing he could have ever imagined doing.

This boy, this beautiful boy, sleeping peacefully on the sand under these stars.

Oh God, not the stars, not the sand.

His heart is a lump of cold lead somewhere inside the deadness of his chest - and that is all he can feel. He knows it is cold outside, he can see his breath, but he is unable to sense cold. He knows the fire is warm - all fires are warm - but he can feel nothing. The wind moves his hair move across his face, but he senses it as if from a great distance. His vision has gone red around the edges - red like blood and like fire and like madness.

How did it come to this? He wills himself to forget the past, to forget the future, to forget everything but the act he knows he will commit tomorrow. Is he mad? Of course he is. Madness is the only possible response - madness or suicide. But a man must be alive to commit suicide. And Abraham knows for certain he is already dead. Oh, his heart still beats and blood still flows in his veins, he can see his chest moving and know that breath still flows in his lungs, but that is simply the habit of the body. He is surely already dead.

Sand and stars and even his name mock him now. All those choices he made parade past his inner eye, a procession of demons. Why did he leave home and family? Why? Such pain... Why did he dream that dream under the Oaks at Mamre? Who is this God that gives and takes with such sovereign impunity, who treats mankind as toy soldiers to be set up and knocked down at will? He quickly slams the lid on these thoughts - Thinking is no longer an option. All that is left is Doing. And then after that...

There is no after that.

Isaac stirs, and mumbles something, rolling with his face towards the fire. Abraham gazes in mute wonder at the miracle sleeping blissfully unaware on the other side of the fire. If he had any heart left at all, surely it would break in two now. But he is already dead inside. He died the moment he heard those words:

...take your only son Isaac, and offer him...

Oh how he wished he could die this moment. But he knows as surely as the stars above his head and the sand under his feet that he will keep on breathing, and that he will not stop breathing until this soveriegn, imperious God decrees it to be so. And so he wills himself to concentrate on this shining, golden moment - he forces himself to study the face of his beloved Isaac, to memorize ever curve and crevice of that beautiful face; the dark hair; the strong hands, the broad shoulders that will never carry a son...

"STOP IT!", he commands himself.

What is this dread certainty that impels him onward? Why not just say, "to hell with it" and put an end to this madness?

The small little man in his mind, the one that can never quite be silent, whispers to him, "remember The Promise", and the last desperate hope within him wants to grasp that ethereal Word. But he knows it is just a dream, an illusion, a wish as surely as his whole sorry life has been nothing but a wish. Nothing makes sense, nothing will ever make sense again. ALl that is left is breathing and doing till the day he can blissfully stop.

Somehow, in spite of his fervent desire, night mercilessly gave way to the cruelty of morning. The first rays of daylight stabbed across the floor of the desert and through his soul with the speed and violence of a sword-thrust. And yes, Abraham thought, yes of course the sky is blood red. And I am dead, and Isaac is so very alive and soon even this will not be so.
In later years, looking back on that night and the following day, Abraham had shadowy recollections - he remembered the heaviness of his old legs as they climbed the mountain, he recalled that the buzzing in his ears and the redness that never left the periphery of his vision. He remembered the sound of Isaac's questions as if he listened from the bottom of a well. He remembered stones and wood and rope and the uncomprehending look in his son's eyes as he bound him and gently laid him across the altar. And cold metal - he remember the sound of the knife as he pulled it from its sheath. Cold and hard and unforgiving as man - the cruel sunlight glinted off the blade as he grasped it familiarly, momentarily blinding him. He remembered how dispassionately he wondered how he would go home afterward. Or even if he would go home. Anywhere or nowhere was fine. Maybe he would just stay on top of this mountain and never move again. He felt his arm lift into the air as if it had a will of its own, he looked up at the blade then down at his son; he was grasping Isaac's arms, pulling his shoulders back and his chest forward. That moment, etched forever in his memory, dripped with life and death and fear and ache and sorrow.

And Fury.


With primeval rage and a furious roar, he thrust downward with the knife...

...and felt his arm stopped in mid-flight.

Someone had grabbed his arm. He turned his head to see a hand - a strong, familiar hand on his arm. And heard a familiar Voice, "Not the boy, Abraham, not the boy. Take the lamb - the one caught there in the bush."

That same voice - that same unmistakable Word - the very Word that had seized him so many years ago, compelled him to leave Mother and Father and Land and Home and strike out looking for a city of his own, that same Word that had made the Promise, that same Word that had come twice more in the most unexpected times and ways - that Word which had only last week taken his very heart and snuffed it like a glowing wick - that selfsame Word restored to him his very life and promise and love...
In the days and years that followed, he and Isaac never spoke about The Day. But Isaac would sometimes simply gaze upong the old man with a mixture of awe and fear and deep, deep love. For his part, Abraham never saw Isaac the same way again. In some ways, if it was at all possible, Isaac was even more precious to him than he had been before The Day. And yet in other ways, Abraham knew with deep certainty that Isaac did not belong to him, never had belonged to him. He knew that he, Abraham and Isaac and who-knows-who-else, were merely players in a grand drama that was being worked out before his very eyes by a God both closer and more mysterious than he had ever dared imagine.

And that was enough.

Wednesday, March 5

My normal day starts with a trip to school to drop off the kids. On the way, we listen to NPR. Usually, after the kids jump out of the car, I switch to ESPN radio to listen to Mike & Mike in the Morning, (Mike Golic used to be a local radio personality, and I like listening to him), but this morning I kept it on NPR. And heard that 53% of Russians think Josef Stalin was a great man.

Hold that thought while I bring another stream online.

Last night we had our small group meeting at my house. I started to exercise my normal leadership style, which is actually no leadership at all - really just facilitation. I realised quickly that these folks didn't want facilitation, they wanted to be lead. And further, that they would do what I said. I've had to make a conscious effort to lead rather than facilitate this meeting over the last month, and I have quite frankly been shocked at the eager acceptance these folks accord my leadership. I'm certain my shock is related to the fact that I would not be near so easy to lead as they are. But still, they desperately want to be lead and respond positively to strong leadership.

Hold that thought while a third stream joins the river.

The story I quoted from on 2/28 talks about how the first chapter of Genesis shatters the idols of day with the assertion that the one true God created everything. One of the most ancient myths of beginings is the Chaos/Order dichotomy. Choas is personified and is seen to be the overriding reality in all creation. Some great god fights with Choas, pushes him back and brings order, but Chaos is always lurking around the borderlands, looking for an opportunity to bring destruction and wreak havoc. The ancient Greeks developed the political philosophy of the Republic largely out of desire to bring order out of chaos rather than to bring freedom to the masses.

I heard in the voices of the Russians interviewed on the NPR program this morning the same longing for order. These folks honestly missed Stalin, wept at his memory and considered him a great man - because he brought order and because the country was strong and feared when he was the leader. They desperately long for leadership - any leadership -and are apparently willing to accept genocide as the price of pushing back Chaos.

I struggle to make sense of this. What is it about the Russians in particular, (and most people in general), that will embrace a strong leader who brings order and discipline - even if the cost is mass-murder? The 20th century provides a veritable laundry list of such tyrants. Hitler was actually elected by popular vote. Stalin rose to power on the back of Lenin, who was brought to power in a "people's revolution". Mao led a "people's revolution". Mussolini was lauded not just in Italy but around the world because he "made the trains run on time". Pol Pot, Idi Amin, the Ayatollah Khomeini - I'm just pulling these from memory. Wander backward along history's timeline and you will constantly stub your toes on these murderous despots who are fondly remembered by the very people they destroy. Does Saddam Hussein belong in this pantheon of pusillanimity?

And worse, how many of us are just like that? I'm independent to a fault and difficult to lead, and yet I know I long for strong leadership. The folks in my home group eagerly embrace my leadership. Does paganism have such a grip on this world that we still believe, (and fear!) the Chaos myth?

Does this horrify you like it does me? If Josef Stalin were running for president of Russia today, he would win. Is this the appeal of Napolean, (and Saddam)?

Does Islam appeal for the same reason - it is a strong denouncement of the chaos of the modern west? I'd love to hear comments from whatever readers there may be out there...