Hard Stories

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God made a promise to Abraham and Sarah.

God called Abraham and Sarah out of their home in the city of Ur to the land of Canaan. And God took Abraham and told him,

Look to the heavens and count the stars. Look to the desert and count the grains of sand. So shall your descendants be: exceedingly numerous. And this land will belong to them, from north to south and from east to west, for a peaceful day-to-day.

And Abraham protested and said, “But I am old. And Sarah is old. And we don’t have any children. And if we don’t have any kids, then our kids probably won’t have any kids, either.”

And God told him, “You and Sarah will have a son. And you will name him Isaac. And I will establish my covenant with him.”

And a while later, Abraham and Sarah had a son. And they named him Isaac. And they loved him.

Later—years later—God said to Abraham, “Take your son, Isaac, who is your only son and who you love, to the land of Moriah; kill him, burn him, and sacrifice him to me.”

And so, early one morning, Abraham put a saddle on his donkey, and gathered some wood for the fire, and took his son Isaac, and they went to the land of Moriah.

They travelled for three days. And when they got near the place, they got off the donkey, and they walked. Isaac carried the wood. Abraham carried the knife and the fire.

And Isaac said, “Father Abraham, we’re going to this place to make a sacrifice to God.”

And Abraham said, “Yes.”

And Isaac said, “It’s just that I’ve noticed that we haven’t brought anything to sacrifice.”

And Abraham said, “Don’t worry about it.”

And when Abraham and Isaac got to the place, in the land of Moriah, Abraham built an altar, and laid out of the wood, and wrestled his son to the ground, and tied him up, and laid him on the altar. And Abraham raised the knife.

And who writes a story like this? Who turns a story like this into scripture?

People have spent a lot of time with this story. People have struggled with this story.

There’s the version where Abraham knows for sure that God won’t really let him go through with it; where Abraham knows for sure that God will provide an alternative; where Abraham doesn’t really intend to kill his son.

There’s the one where God is waiting for Abraham to argue; where God is waiting for Abraham to say something; where God is waiting for Abraham to protest.

There’s the one that’s about why we don’t sacrifice children anymore. There’s the one that’s about what God will do when he puts his own son on a cross.

And none of those versions—none of those readings, none of those interpretations, none of those attempts to salvage this story—make this story okay.

Because there is nothing okay about Abraham building the altar, and laying out the wood, and wrestling his son to the ground, and tying him up, and laying him on the altar. And there is nothing okay about Abraham raising the knife.

And some stories are like that.

I have stories that I don’t like. Some of them are just embarrassing. Some of them are bad. Some of them include hurting other people.

And most of the time, I don’t think about them. But they are filed away in my memory. And, sometimes, my brain likes to take one of them out, and put it on a pedestal, and light it perfectly, and say, “Hey! Remember that time you did that thing? Let’s think about that for a few hours!”

And I wish that my brain would not do that. 

I wish that I could go through my memories, and find the ones that I like, and the ones that I need, and put them on pedestals and light them perfectly, so that they would always be right there… and find the ones that are okay but not so important, and put them in the archives… and find the ones that I don’t like, and throw. them. away.

But I also know that those memories are part of who I am. And I don’t know who I would be without them.

I am not the best thing I have ever done; or the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I am not the worst thing that I have ever done; or the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. I am all those things, and everything in between, and more. 

And, yes, it is jumbled mess. And, yes, there are parts that I don’t like. And, yes, there are stories that are not okay.

But that is who I am. And I am loved and worthy of love.

And it’s not just me. It’s you, too. And it’s our church, and our community, and our country.

We are not our best stories. We are not our worst stories. We are all of them, and everything in between, and more. And we are loved and worthy of love.

But it is important to remember that those stories… the ones that we don’t like… the ones where we build altars, or lay out the wood, or wrestle someone to the ground, or tie them up, or lay them on the altar… the ones where we raise the knife… are part of that jumbled, holy, beloved mess.

And that’s why I’m glad that this story is in the Bible. That’s why I’m glad that someone wrote this story, and someone decided to call in scripture. Because we are Christians. And we do not shy away from hard stories.

We put them on pedestals. We light them perfectly. We say, “Hey! Look at this! This is part of who we are.”

That’s not where the story ends, of course.

As Abraham steeled himself to do the thing—to kill, to burn, and to sacrifice—an angel of the Lord called to him and said, “Stop! Don’t lay a hand on your son.”

And Abraham looked up and saw a ram whose horns were caught in a thicket. And Abraham untied Isaac, and brought him down from the altar. And, together, they put the ram on the altar, and killed it, and burned it, and sacrificed it.

(Which is also a little troubling, but…)

And then they walked back to the donkey, and they went on their way. And it’s not in the Bible—no one wrote this story, no one turned this story into scripture—but I hope that, at some point on that journey, Abraham turned to Isaac…

…and maybe explained what he had done and what he was thinking… maybe said that he wasn’t ever really going to go through with it… maybe said that he should have argued, that he should have said something, that he should have protested…

…but even if he didn’t do any of that… that he told Isaac that he was deeply sorry… and meant it.

And that Isaac told Abraham that he forgave him, and meant it.

And that over the weeks and months and years ahead, they did the hard the work of restoring their relationship: their relationship that would always bear the scar of that trip to Moriah, and their relationship that could be more than that.

Because that’s the thing, isn’t it? We are not our worst stories. We are loved and we are worthy of love.

And because we know that we are not our worst stories… and because we know that we are loved and worthy of love… we are not so ashamed that we cannot apologize and make reparations… and we are not so broken that we cannot forgive.

The good news is that God’s love—God’s big, abundant, bold, reckless, wild, dangerous, full of grace, capital-l, all caps, big giant run-out-of-ink font LOVE—frees us from the clutches of our worst stories… and the seductions of our best stories.

God’s love frees us to make amends and God’s love frees us to let go. As individuals. As communities. As nations.

And that freedom—founded in love—opens up the glorious possibility of building God’s kingdom here on earth. A kingdom where we can embrace all of our stories—the good and the bad and the in between—and show each other that all of us are loved and worthy of love.

And that is good news, indeed.

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