by P.F. Caruso
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.” 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.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
Frederick Buechner wrote a novel, Son of Laughter, in which he imagines Jacob recalling how his father Isaac would speak to him about his father Abraham. In it God is called, “The Fear,” and Jacob processed his memories of these stories in these words:
“When I was a boy, he sometimes talked to me about his father – Abraham, the father of fathers, the Fear’s friend. Abraham was a barrel-chested old man, with a beard dyed crimson and the hooded eyes of the desert. He had a habit, when he spoke, of putting his hands on your shoulders and drawing you gradually closer and closer as the words flowed until at the end his great nostrils were almost in your face like twin entrances to a cave. He was rich in herds and flocks, not to mention also in silver and gold, tents and in women. He was the bane of many small kings and in many ways was more of a king than any of them. It is said that Abraham talked with The Fear the way a man talks with his friend. He would argue with him. They say sometimes he would even nag him into changing his mind. Perhaps that was why my grandfather was the one The Fear chose out of all men on earth to breed a lucky people who would someday bring luck to the whole world.
“All that and more was my grandfather Abraham, yet sadness always rose in me when my father talked about him. I pictured him laboring under his wealth and his honors like an ass under three hundred weight of millet. I pictured his eyes red and bleary from years of whipping sand. I pictured him groaning, as he heaved himself out of the pit of sleep at sundown to lead his precious train of kin, beasts, baggage, mile after moon-lit mile in search of pasturage and whatever else he spent his days in search of. I saw him as a homesick, sore-footed man. A wanderer. A broken heart.”
What I like about that portrait is the insight that faith – the only kind of faith the Bible talks about – is not an easy thing. It is a gift, yes, but a gift that we must struggle to receive our whole life long.
This text above from Genesis is one of the most important in the Bible. It is the story of how Abraham and Sarah, whom the Bible remembers as the quintessential models of faith, came to possess that extraordinary gift.
Of course, Abraham and Sarah had already demonstrated their faith long before this particular story. You may recall that years before this story happened, at the youthful age of seventy-five (!), the voice had spoken to Abram back in Haran and said, “I want you and your wife Sarai [as she was called then] to pack up all your things and set out for a land that I will give to you. For I intend to make of you a great nation.” And Abram packed up all that he owned into a Mesopotamian U-Haul and, along with his wife, set out for parts unknown with not even a map to guide them. All they had to rely on was a voice, which Abram took to be God’s voice; others may have thought it was undigested mutton.
Now, I suspect that most people – most of us – would probably call that faith. “It sure must take faith to do something like that.” Faith is the assurance of things hoped for but not seen, and all that. Following the lead of your heart and your belief in God not knowing what, where or why. Who knows why Abram and Sarai trusted the voice enough to do such a reckless thing. But they did; it’s still amazing when we think about it.
But, the day came when Abram lost that faith – or at least lost whatever it was that had brought him that far. Not that the two of them hadn’t been tempted to give up along the way; because, of course, they had. But God wouldn’t let them and, at strategic points, kept showing up to remind them just how many their offspring would one day be. Nevertheless, at one point Abram had finally had enough. Well into his eighties with his wife Sarai still as barren as the land down around Dead Man’s Gulch, he finally said, “What offspring?! I DON’T HAVE any offspring; and my servant Eliezer stands to inherit everything I own!”
That’s when, according to the story, the voice spoke again and said, “No he won’t. Go outside and look up at the stars. How many can you count? That’s how many YOUR offspring will be.” And Abram went outside and looked up – and believed. Really believed. Of course, this thing the voice was telling him was still ridiculous. It was still too good to be true. But for some reason that night Abram – looking up at all those stars – gave up deciding whether it could or could not be true. He just decided to believe what he had been told and to settle down and wait for it.
And the point of this ancient story is that faith is something that does not come easily. The real thing is not something you get all at once or lose all at once. It is the continuous, committed response to a promise in the face of real doubts, deep questions and painful struggle. That is why Abraham and Sarah are remembered in scripture. That is what the Bible calls faith.
When I was still in paid ministry, it was the thing I wished for every couple who stood before me to receive. There they were, making their wild and improbable promises to love each other for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and health – in other words, no matter what life brought. And I would often think to myself, “What could they possibly know about what lies in store for them?” Of course, as with too many couples these days, they had been living together before they got married “to get to know” each other beforehand; and now that they “knew” each other, they figured they knew each other enough to make such a commitment.
But they knew next to nothing! How can any of us know what the person we marry is going to be like, let alone what we will be like after five, ten or forty years of marriage!? How can any of us know what trials, temptations, successes, failures, tragedies and unbelievable challenges will lie in wait for us as we try to walk through life together. The truth is none of us knows much at all when we start out; and that’s the unspoken truth about marriage, the terrible risk of it for everybody, and there are no exceptions.
But, if we are lucky enough, if we work hard enough at it, if we keep believing in each other enough, if we keep picking ourselves up enough no matter how many times we fall flat on our face, if we keep struggling to live by those promises we made and somehow waiting for it to happen through all the roadblocks and heartaches and disappointments, then eventually it is given to us to see just how much we truly do need each other, not just to survive, but to be human and whole. That’s the kind of faith that I prayed for all those couples to find. The faith of Abraham and Sarah. The faith that comes from keeping your eyes wide open no matter what comes.
I sometimes fantasize about what it must have been like for that old couple – during the years when it looked like the promise would never be kept. Abram had finally made peace with God and had stopped throwing Sarai’s barrenness back in God’s face as a reminder. He didn’t even complain when God renamed him Abraham which means ‘father of a great multitude’. Nevertheless, surely there were nights when Sarah would find him standing outside in the dark, staring up into the night sky. She would walk up behind him and say, “What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” he would say to her with his star-filled eyes, wiping away a tear. “Nothing.” Then she would take her old lover’s hand and lead him back to bed.
Somehow, I don’t think it was an accident that the stars in the night sky were what finally convinced old Abram.
“When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them . . . says Psalm 8. It was the caring majesty of God for all of creation that finally convinced Abram. Convinced him to wake every morning and stay awake all night long, noticing everything, taking nothing for granted, but taking everything AS granted – as a gift, as a promise.
That is how Abraham and Sarah found faith and then held on to it for two dozen years –by living life reverently, deliberately and fully aware, by watering every seed that fell upon their path, by holding on to the delicate thread that was stitched through their hearts, and by never losing sight of where they were going and who was leading them. It is a hard thing to have such faith – to live it day by day, step by step, to see it in the night sky but not in your experience, to read it in the pages of a holy book but not in the morning newspaper, to hold it in your heart because it is not tangible enough to hold in your hands.
The Lenten season is not far off, believe it or not. And during Lent, throughout all the year, in fact, it is unwavering faith in the unseen mysteries of God’s plan of redemption, the incarnation of Christ, the glory of a Roman cross, the inexplicable wonder of an empty tomb. It’s not easy in this age of cynicism for our skeptical hearts and inquiring minds to accept and believe. But the exercise and regimen and discipline of keeping the faith is what sustains us through life’s changes of aging and tragedy and attack and betrayal from one year through the next, rather than allowing us to collapse in dread and uncertainty. With our eyes wide open, we walk the path of these forty days to ultimate triumph and certain victory. Because we are keeping the faith.