October 7, 2008
Beast of BurdenOn Monday Dave blogged about Moses; today's Donkey Tale takes us to another Old Testament great: Abraham. And, of course, his donkey.
On this Wednesday, even if your day is going well so far, I don't think any of us would argue with the fact that days are hard. We are called to hard tasks, to places where it's hard to see any light. But we aren't intended to face days, conversations, situations alone, because we're called to invite each other in to our pain, to walk with each other and--like the donkey in our tale today--carry each other's load.
I was reminded of this recently at the Art--Music--Justice concert I attended. One song by Sandra McCracken particularly struck me. She explained that she had written it for a friend--apparently a friend who tends to hold pain inside and keep it private, which I can relate to!--who had gone through a hard struggle:
I cannot read your complex mindHer lyrics highlight the sacredness of being both a burden-bearer--willing to carry someone else's load--and a burden-sharer--willing to let others help us carry our load. The song reminds me of the freedom we have as Christians to need each other; God, in fact, wants us to ask for help. Often I don't do a good job of this; I wrestle with loneliness because I'm afraid or unwilling to share my struggle with others.
Which is maybe why Abraham's journey in Genesis 22 moves me deeply. Just one chapter earlier, Isaac--Abraham and Sarah's promised, long-awaited miracle child--is born. He is the one through whom God has said he'll make Sarah "the mother of nations" and the ancestor of kings, and Abraham the father of offspring as numerous as the stars.
And then comes Genesis 22:2. God--the one who always keeps his promises and detests nations that sacrifice their children to gods--says to Abraham, "Take your son, your only son, whom you love--Isaac--and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you." The instructions seem to go directly against what we know of God's character, breaking one of the "rules" frequently suggested by pastors and spiritual directors about how to discern whether or not you've actually heard God's voice. Yet Abraham knows without a doubt that God is the one who has spoken to him.
The passage gives us none of Abraham's thoughts or emotions, no hint of how he reacted to this shocking and seemingly unfair task from God. Verse 3 simply says, "Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac." From verse 3 alone, we might think they were merely setting out on a weekend father-son camping trip.
In all honesty, I can hardly comprehend what that journey must have been like for Abraham, walking with two servants who have no idea why they're taking the trip (see v. 5), and watching Isaac--his son whom he loves--most likely running, jumping, picking up sticks to play with as they go, totally oblivious to the instructions God gave Abraham, completely trusting of his father. To me, the trip feels like it must have been extraordinarily lonely for Abraham.
Yet the picture of Abraham's donkey bearing the physical load, plodding along next to Abraham in his grief, gives me a good picture of what God calls us to do for each other. Donkeys are, quite simply, load-bearing creatures; they carry people and provisions, as Abraham's donkey does here. They aren't fast or beautiful, but they are strong, and can walk with a heavy load on their back. The donkey in this passage, set next to Abraham's pain, provides a tangible image of the gift we can give each other by walking with each other in our struggles.
I'm also reminded in this passage of God's faithfulness in walking with us through our pain. To be honest, I think I would have disobeyed God. Or, if I had obeyed, I at least would have ranted and raved at God's seeming cruelty and unfairness. By the end of the passage, however, we're left with the image of Abraham's trust and God's goodness.
Again, the passage gives us no glimpse into Abraham's thoughts, but when Isaac asks him where the lamb for the offering is, Abraham replies, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering." Based on what's recorded, it doesn't seem like Abraham wavers, questions, gets angry, doubts. He seems to go through the experience matter-of-factly, exhibiting faith that God will somehow work out the details, that there is, in fact, some divine plan and reason for the task. Yet, despite the depth of Abraham's trust, we know he was human; he was a father who deeply, deeply loved his son, and I have to believe it nearly killed him to strap Isaac to that altar.
In the end, of course, an angel stops Abraham from actually killing Isaac. God was simply testing Abraham, and, in keeping with his perfectly good nature, he richly rewards Abraham for his obedience. It's that obedience and faith--obedience before Abraham knew how it would all turn out--that makes me think Abraham knew God was with him. It reminds me of the fact that, as awful as God's instructions to him seem at the beginning, God was with Abraham, watching his journey, understanding the depth of Abraham's sorrow at every step, knowing he would experience the same sorrow when the time came to sacrifice his own Son. He loved Abraham deeply and knew he had good plans for him and for Isaac--plans to reward his faith and obedience and make him known throughout the earth for thousands and thousands of years.
So for the hard days--yours or others--be a donkey. Find a donkey. It's what we're called to be and do for each other; the church is meant to be a people who bear each other's burdens. As fellow humans living on a broken, sinful earth where evil still lives, having others who will walk with us through struggle, pain and grief is crucial--and, in fact, woven into the very fabric of our being by God himself. He created us to need others, to crave relationship with others.
And, following in the example Abraham sets for us in our passage today, we can not only walk with others and invite others to walk with us; we can actually choose to have faith in the midst of sorrow, because the God who is faithful, who is trustworthy, who is, in fact, able to "empathize with our weaknesses," walks with us.