In one Old Testament story, God reassures Abram (later named Abraham), saying, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” The reward, in this case, is the promise of children and generations thereafter. Abram thinks of a creative way to resolve this problem—through adopting someone else in his househould, technically not a son. But God responds that Abram can expect biological offspring, whose generations after will be as many as the stars in the sky. My first thought, on reading this, years ago, was, “How cruel.” I’ve known people who’ve wanted nothing more than to conceive and have not. Or who have had miscarriage after miscarriage. I’ve known people whose adopted children have brought boundless joy. This passage, on the other hand, seems to suggest, first of all, that biological children are preferred, and, secondly, that God will provide biological children to the faithful. Maybe that barb is embedded in every blessing—that it comes to those who are faithful enough, who pray enough, who are, simply, “enough.” And that makes it hard to sustain a credible faith. After all, are we to worship a transaction God, so petty as to reward obedience with children, and to withhold children from those of insufficient faith? That, to me, sounds like a hostage negotiation. When I arrive on a problematic text in scripture, and find in myself the impulse toward irritated dismissal, what’s often the case is that I’m reading it literally. As if ancient cultural norms and the narrative’s particularities purport to instruct my life with their narrow-mindedness. Boy, can I get steamed! What helps, if I am to receive a relevant message from such ancient texts, is to step back and to adopt a position of wonder and reflection. “What is the message here? What’s being conveyed? What is going on between the characters in this story?” When I can slow down and do that, almost always, the text yields a deeper message. For instance, in this story, from that reflective stance, here’s what I read in this passage. I read about God reassuring Abram of great reward. In response, I see Abram voicing anxiety—his life, to this point, has not realized the reward he yearns for. Next, Abram devises a plan by which he can stage-manage the deliverance of God’s promise. And God shows Abram a broader context—the night sky and the stars—and reasserts the promise. Which Abram, at last, receives. Now, that’s a text I can relate to! For instance, I can relate to being someone with worries and burdens, who doesn’t believe that what’s wanted will arrive. I can relate to the hope-lifting promise of deliverance—the presence of reassurance. And then, yes, to my own anxious response to that, disbelieving, conjuring how, through my own strategies, I could bring about what I want. And then to realize a wider perspective and setting in which the promise could arrive. And to anchor my faith there. For instance, maybe what I really want—what I have been praying for—is to win the MegaMillions lottery. And it doesn’t come through. But, in faith, as I reflect on this desire from a broader perspective, what does arrive is a different form of wealth, or a different form of security. Or maybe what I want and have prayed for is a cure for an aunt’s cancer (purely hypothetical). But no matter how hard I pray, the cancer only spreads. But, on reflection, in faith, I can see that what was most important to me—my aunt’s peace and healing, and the reassurance of the love around her—is showing up all the time. So, what I particularly pray for doesn’t arrive in the way I want it to; but there is a way that God responds, anyway. This might seem like a shell-game. A way to justify continued faith in God, after disappointment. After all, if my plan to pay this month’s rent is to win the lottery, all the warm feelings of the wealth of good health and friends, for instance, aren’t going to replace the fact that I’m about to be evicted. If God can’t bring relief from specific, named suffering, then what good is faith? If bad things still happen, no matter how hard one prays, then what good is faith? These are excellent questions, worth while taking seriously. (Don’t worry, all is well with us, this is hypothetical, we have a nice (paid for) little home. As I see it, God isn’t directing particular events—whether an unexpected touchdown, the ability to pay rent, or whether or not someone gets better from cancer. Nor, in my view, is God standing back, merely observing—the watch-maker God of Enlightenment thought. I’m drawn to the image of weaver, popular in process theology, which conceives of God as that force who weaves or integrates new relationships between the stuff of life, to create a new and emerging tapestry, as time rolls. So that nothing in our lives ever goes to waste: no suffering, no challenge, no loss is meaningless, and separate from the creative divine process of love. I don’t know what your particular prayer or urgent desire is in your life. Whatever it is, I’m sure you’ve been working on it, and hoping for it—maybe even praying urgently for it. And maybe it hasn’t arrived. Or not in the way that you wanted. The stance of faith I’m proposing here is not the transactional one of “pray hard enough and you’ll get it.” But, instead, the stance that says, “There is a creative process of life which integrates everything, in the end, for the purpose of love, and—somehow, in ways we can’t yet even imagine—even our suffering, or especially our suffering, can be and will be redeemed and uplifted for that majestic purpose, sewn into the night sky and the fabric of the generations to come.” As we trust in that way, our prayers change from wanting to get something to wanting to know ourselves held in that love, and as part of that process. I don’t know. I could be way off. Let me know what you think. And although we don’t play the lotto, winning the MegaMillions would be a darn good thing! Rick Davis Crystal Lake, Illinois, USA God, help us learn a form of faith That’s as rugged as trust And as real as rain And as grace-filled as an old friend Who forgives us Be with us in the valleys Reminding us that, no matter our struggle today, We are never apart from You, We are never alone. Amen. After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2 But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.”4 But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” 5 He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6 And he believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
Click Here to Download Rick Davis Christian Poetry Chapbook
Rick Davis lives in the Chicago area, USA. He is married to Marianne. Marianne has five children, and twenty-four grand & great-grandchildren. They have a loved cat & dog. Rick graduated from Northeastern Illinois University, and several graduate schools. He’s has worked in market research and other positions. He has worked as a volunteer pastoral counselor at Blind Service Association in Chicago, and at the University of Illinois Hospital at Chicago. He is an ordained minister and interfaith Rabbi.