A few weeks ago I resigned my pastorate and left professional ministry, the only career for which I have really prepared. Since then the two big questions for me have been:
1. So, what next?
2. Who am I, really?
These questions are not so easy to answer. I know the answers I give to other people, and sometimes I even start to believe them myself. I am unemployed right now, but I've never been comfortable saying that. Like most American men my self-identity has always, consciously or unconsciously, been tied to my vocation. So, when people ask what I do, I tell them something like "Right now I'm doing some freelance writing." A nice plausible half-truth, since I am in fact writing, and I am doing it on my own rather than in someone else's employ. But the only thing harder than getting someone to read what you write is to get them to pay you for it, and so, while I write, my writing, as of yet, brings in no income. [Note: I used to joke that my wife makes about 3 times what I make. Now she makes infinitely more, which as far as I am concerned is moving decidedly in the wrong direction, but thank God she's good at what she does!]
I've been trying to fix this by submitting everything I can to every magazine I can think of. I've even resorted to polishing up some older pieces - you know, scraping to mold off to see if its still edible - hoping they'll catch a bite. Last week I pulled out an old piece that I wrote in a Chinese philosophy course, The Tao of Relationships. I hate to toot my own horn, but its pretty good. It was the only philosophy paper (as far as I know) to win my university's writing competition (which really ticked off some English majors, always worth doing!). So, after revisiting it and making a few cosmetic changes, I decided to submit it to Shambhala Sun, one of my favorite magazines.
Problem: It has been brought to my attention that someone just published a book by that same title, on roughly the same idea.
On the one hand, it feels pretty good to have an idea so good someone got it published. Alas, on the other hand, it wasn't me who got it published, so that doesn't do me any good, does it? Bummed by this, I called a friend of mine who is a pretty good (to say the least) writer. She said the same thing had happened to her. She got a great idea for a novel, so she told it to a friend to get some feedback. Turns out it was such a great idea that her friend had just finished reading it. It was already published.
So, we commiserated for a while, and then got back to work. She has another brilliant idea, which I suspect is so weird that it hasn't been taken yet. And, after talking to her, my creative muse, long thought dead, woke up from its coma and started spinning out some ideas of its own.
One of my favorite biblical stories is found in Genesis 22. In it, God asks (?) Abraham to sacrifice the son that he and his wife Sarah had prayed for, had waited for, had been promised, and had doubted would ever come. So Abraham sets out with Isaac to a mountain in Moriah to perform the sacrifice, only to be stopped at the final moment by the voice of an angel.
In a seminary class I was once taught that the purpose of theology is often to recover lost voices. In this story, or at least in the telling of it that we have, there are a couple of lost voices. First, Isaac, the child to be sacrificed to God by his own father, has very little voice even though, by all rights, he ought to be the main character since he is the one threatened by the knife and the fire. In the biblical reading all he gets to say is one lame line, "Father? The wood and the fire are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" (NIV) Now I know a child about to be betrayed by both his father and his God would have more to say about it than that, wouldn't he? But at least he gets to say something.
Sarah, on the other hand, doesn't even get mentioned, even though it is her son being taken up a mountain to be sacrificed to God by her quite possibly crazy husband. After all, the man hears the voice of God and then decides to kill his kid! And she just has to take it, without having anything at all to say about it?
So I thought, wouldn't it be great if somebody set this story in the 21st century, retelling it from the point of view of the lost voices. My crazy idea for the novel I will never write is something remarkably like that. A retelling of the story of the "binding of Isaac" told by a modern day Isaac and his mother sitting in a shrink's office trying to make sense of why such a loving, doting, devout father would try to kill his own son in the name of God.
Of course, the idea is as much in jest as anything else. Because the story is taken from the Bible it comes with a great deal of baggage, and that baggage must be respected. But as I think of manipulating the story to fit some of our modern (or post-modern) assumptions, I am reminded by a challenge from Fredrick Buechner. He wondered how we would read the Bible, and what we would get out of the Bible, if we forgot for a moment that we were reading the Bible and just read it as a story, without all of the assumptions that we bring to it.
In his great sermon, The Magnificent Defeat, he said this:
When a minister reads out of the Bible, I am sure that at least nine times out of ten the people who happen to be listening at all hear not what is really being read but only what they expect to hear read. And I think that what most people expect to hear from the Bible is an edifying story, an uplifting thought, a moral lesson - something elevating, obvious, and boring. So that is exactly what very often they do hear. Only that is too bad because if you really listen - and maybe you have to forget that it is the Bible being read and a minister who is reading it - there is no telling what they might hear.
We all need to have an appreciation, I think, of the Sacred. But, when we sacrilize things we too often conform them to our expectations for the Sacred rather than allowing the Sacred to speak through them in new and surprising ways. The Bible is held by Christians (and I am still a Christian) as a Sacred text. Yet, as we sacrilize the readings from the Bible we limit them to our concept of the Sacred, and in so doing we still the voice of the Sacred which speaks through them.
In other words, we do not diminish God in any way to suggest that if Abraham was a real (by which I mean historical) person, who really did claim to hear the voice of God and then went out to kill his child, that might not be such a good thing. In fact, that might indicate that Abraham was a little bit off his rocker, and somebody should have tried to stop him sometime before an angel had to intervene.
There are too many people, sometimes including myself, who sacrifice their children to their religion, whatever it is at the moment. One of the reasons why I left professional ministry was to spare my son the fate of Isaac, wondering whether or not his father would really sacrifice him in the name of his God.
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