I’ve known a lot of people from Solomon’s Porch for many years, but had never attended a gathering there. So last week when I was in Minneapolis for Christianity 21, I was excited for the chance to join them. I’d read books about this place, and had made wonderful friends with many Solomon’s Porch folks all over the country, but this was my chance to see for myself. Even better, it was a chance to have several reunions with wonderful friends I hadn’t seen in years. I had toddlers to meet for the first time, friends to catch up with, and people to needle about the fact that Jon White will never, ever move back.
It is a great place, filled with a warm spirit and engaging my heart and mind and senses. I gazed around the room at many pieces of art on display, and into the faces of divine works of art (they do church in the round, so it’s impossible to miss the people you’re worshipping with). The service unfolded as expected, and as they were concluding I slid to the adjacent refreshment area for a swallow of coffee for my sore throat. By the time my attention returned to the song that was being sung, it was halfway done.
It was a beautiful, simple song about Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac, a story that most everyone has heard several times before. Yet for all its familiarity, it cut me right through the heart.
I realize that there are many facets to this story. Some read it as a story about divine provision, and others read it as a commendation of deep faith, and others read it as a tale of the apparent illogic of following God. And there are certainly myriad other ways it can be read. I’ve heard this story hundreds of times, beginning when I was a small child. But on that night, I was locked in on a facet that I had somehow missed: of a father who has lost a son. Since it was set to music, the story unfolded slowly. I tried to sing along, but I was unable. I was sweating, restless, angry. I was reliving the awful experience of watching my son suddenly die. Of feeling the utter helplessness that comes with something so final and intractable. Of pacing around the hospital room rocking his lifeless body. Of all the wonderings and questionings and ‘what-ifs’ that come with losing a loved one. I was reliving my anger at God for allowing such a thing to happen, and my anger at myself for the same.
And somehow, these feelings were multiplied as I tried to put myself in Abraham’s shoes. How could he even consider taking his own son’s life? How could he continue to consider it over the many days of their journey, to premeditate that act, again and again? To feel the knife on his belt and think about pressing it into his son’s flesh, to do what could never be undone? To ask his son to carry the wood for the fire that would consume his son’s body? What did they talk about on the journey to the mountain (and what on earth did they talk about on the way home?)?
Moreover, how could God ask Abraham to do such a thing? Something so inhumane, and so ungodly? What kind of Father God would require such a thing, and what kind of Father was Abraham to consider it? If God Almighty asked my dad to kill me, I hope my dad would tell God to forget about it. That’s insane. I’m not going to do that. What kind of cruel God would ask his follower to kill his firstborn? (And the latter detail that God provided an alternative seems to make God look even worse– was God just messing with Abraham, in some kind of twisted test?)
Now I know some will respond that it’s just a story. But it’s an awful story. A terrible, cruel, deeply unsettling story. And even if it never literally happened, the story is so central to so much of the Biblical narrative, and is cited by so many of the early Christian writers, that I honestly don’t know what to do with it.
Some will say that God made exactly the same choice with his own son, Jesus. Which might bother me even more, because sanctioning this kind of abusive and violent behavior has even wider repercussions. At a theological level, it makes God out to be a harsh tyrant, a character trait seemingly absent from Jesus’ teachings and storytelling about his Abba Father, who is pointed only when it comes to un-grace and injustice. On an ethical level, it seems to endorse all kinds of contemporary injustices and abuses: if God can torture and kill his son, then why shouldn’t we do something similar to our enemies?
…but I’m getting ahead of myself…
Rationale aside, I was a wreck, standing there in this very relaxed and welcoming place. I felt myself sweating, with anger coursing through my blood, and tears barely contained. I noticed people looking at me with deep concern as I paced back and forth. I kept reminding myself, “Don’t blow your top. Don’t throw anything. Don’t start yelling.” And I saw my friend Amy walk across the room to step right up and wordlessly give me a hug. I gripped her for a long time, sobbing and watching flashes of light pop inside my eyelids. Then I pulled away from her, and she somehow knew that I needed some space again. Next, a new friend David sidled up next to me. He’s an exceptionally sensitive soul, a hospice chaplain who has experienced tremendous pain in his own life, even as he’s journeyed with others toward their death. I didn’t have much to say to him except, “That is an awful story. It’s a terrible, horrible story. It’s like I never heard it before!” I could feel my whole world shifting under me, as my lifelong anchors of faith and God and the Bible were cut loose. Somehow, he seemed to understand all of this, and said very little.
The song ended, mercifully, before I had a complete breakdown.
I was embarrassed at making such a spectacle in front of so many friends, and on such a special night. It was a night I’d never get back, and I was wrecking it. I could sense that people were keeping their distance from me, yet were waiting around to try to have a normal conversation with their friend who was suddenly not himself. I wanted to tell everyone that I’m not like this– I’m not still stuck in this same place of grief, 3 years later.
But at the same time, the grace for me was having that same group of trusted friends to use as a sounding board over the next day or so. Some suggested that the story was a literary tool intended to contrast with other Ancient Near-East cultural/religious narratives, wherein God and/or the gods routinely required human sacrifice (and the Hebrew God pointedly did not). Others simply said that they cannot reconcile that story with the rest of the Biblical narrative, and so they don’t try. Still others said that they understood it as a part of a process whereby God learns, and gr
ows, and moves toward greater love. And other friends just listened to my questions and empathized with my sense of loss (of both my son and my former innocence about this central story in the Bible). Thankfully, no one minimized my meltdown, though most everyone had clearly grappled with this story on this level many years earlier.
One thing I realized is that, like a former fundamentalist who is now fundamentalist about being liberal, I’m a person with fairly deep roots in foundationalism. That is to say, when I see a story in the Bible that I’d like to reject, I struggle with a basic assumption that to exclude one account is to throw out the whole thing. I don’t think this way on my best days, but I feel cornered by this thinking on my worst days. Hence my crisis of faith– if I can’t deal with this story, do I need to find a new religion?
Yet for all of my angst (and with several days of distance), I’m not especially worried. I know that God is certainly capable of accepting my doubts and questions. And the Bible is a robust partner, too– it’ll still be there long after I’m dead and gone. There is a comfort in these deep anchors, even if it seems like my ties to them are really loose just now. The challenge for me will be to re-integrate my story in the Bible story. Or to at least find a way to manage this conundrum so that I can keep following God while I wait for better wisdom. So I’ll manage, and keep acting on what I know while I try to integrate what I don’t understand. I’ll remind myself that faith– even on the best days– is provisional. And I’ll let my friends remind me that faith is communal, too: they can carry the weight of my questions while I borrow a bit of their faith.
Like all great churches, Solomon’s Porch concludes with the true faithful convening at Chipotle for a post-church burrito. Still shell-shocked, I went through the motions of ordering a burrito and shuffling through the line. At which point my friend Doug– who had given me some kind and wise pastoral counsel after the worship service– tried to buy my dinner. He and I then enacted that very midwestern ritual where the two parties engage a stern debate about who should rightfully pay for whose food. I objected to his motion, reasoning that I should pay for both burritos, since I had been staying at his house for several days. He countered that this was true, but that I had lost my faith at his church, and so the obligation was his.
“Yes,” I said, “but if that’s all it took, my faith must not have been worth much in the first place.” He laughed, and we agreed that my faith was roughly worth a burrito.