From the Rector #67

Weekly thoughts from the Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, where these words remind us that Jesus’ peace goes with us into the world.

Peace I Leave with You

These words from David Lose, Pastor of Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, have been on my mind. The invitation that he describes isn’t something limited to members of the clergy or professional church staff. It’s an invitation that you have the power to extend to a child of God . . . today:

Jesus’ whole life is centered on inviting into the presence of God those who neither expect nor deserve [that] invitation. And he expects us to do the same. He expects us, that is, to stop counting the costs, benefits, and rewards of our actions and live from a sense of abundance and blessing.

Counting. It’s so omnipresent in our lives that we almost forget it exists even as it exacts a tremendous toll on us. Whether we are counting the amount in our bank accounts or the opinions of our neighbors on what we wear or do, we are continually counting. Why? Because we live with the sure conviction that there is not enough. Not enough money, time, prestige, resources, recognition . . . you name it. And that conviction seems sure, even unquestionable, because so much in our culture – and particularly the advertisements we’re relentlessly subjected to – tell us there isn’t.

But what if there was? What if there was enough and more than enough to go around? What difference would that make in our own peace of mind and the way we treated others? . . . [Jesus is inviting us to] stop counting and start giving and blessing. . . . [What would it] be like to live into the freedom to stop calculating our social prestige and stop worrying about what others think and simply be kind to everyone around us, particularly those who are not often the recipients of kindness. What would it look like at work, at school, and at the places we volunteer or play sports or socialize, to look out for those who seem off to the margin and to invite them into the center by inviting them into our lives?

— The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, Rector

From the Rector #66

Weekly thoughts from the Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, where these words remind us that Jesus’ peace goes with us into the world.

Peace I Leave with You

David Lose is Pastor of Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, which is the largest Lutheran congregation in the United States and just down the road from my previous community of faith. I find these words of his about comparison, which I just ignored in my previous sentence, to be true for so many people that I meet:

One of the “life rules” I’ve adopted as I grow older . . . is that “no joy comes from comparisons.” Have you ever noticed that? Rather than be content with what you have or who you are or what you’ve accomplished, we so regularly look to those around us to decide whether it is enough based on what others have or are or have accomplished. I suspect this is part of being human – being animated by a deep-seated insecurity that makes it difficult for us to establish some sense of ourselves apart from an external reference. . . .

No joy comes from comparisons. Only envy and resentment and bitterness or, occasionally, a shallow and superficial pride because you’ve chosen to make yourself feel better by looking down on someone else. And not only do we not bring joy, but we unintentionally denigrate the actual present reality with which we have been blessed. . . . [D]o we take stock of what we think we deserve or of all the things we’ve been blessed by that we don’t deserve? Do we look for places in our lives characterized by lack and scarcity or do we name and give thanks for places of abundance. Do we reflect on what others have and we do not, or do we delight in the wonder of all that we have been given to which we had no guarantee or right to expect? Do we, in short, choose comparisons or do we choose joy?

— The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, Rector

From the Rector #65

Weekly thoughts from the Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, where these words remind us that Jesus’ peace goes with us into the world.

Peace I Leave with You

A couple of years ago, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams wrote a review for The New Statesman magazine of several books about violence, including Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Here’s part of that review, which I found to be profoundly thought-provoking as I consider my own place in this broken world and my relationship to others in that world as a follower of Jesus:

Again and again in Genesis, younger brothers overturn the legitimate expectations of older ones, and varying degrees of conflict result. At first sight, this reads as a catalogue of simple displacement, yet it becomes more interesting when we look at the verbal detail. Younger brothers discover that their privilege is to secure the future of older ones; or they discover that the blessing transferred to them from an older sibling is balanced by an unexpected blessing for the latter which benefits both. The trickster Jacob, when he next encounters Esau, the brother he has defrauded, says that to see his face is like seeing the face of God. In other words, the stories are not about favouritism and rejection, whatever the appearances: they are about the blessing of difference — the dignity of difference, to quote the title of one of Sacks’s best-known books. There is no firm ground for asserting that divine choice makes an enemy of those not chosen, because God’s choice is always purposeful, directed at a common good.

This reading is an ingenious and often moving turning upside down of a rhetoric of “chosenness” that has often blighted Christian as well as Jewish self-understanding, and has undoubtedly fuelled the anti-Semitism that Sacks rightly sees as resurgent in so many contexts today.

— The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, Rector

From the Rector #64

Weekly thoughts from the Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, where these words remind us that Jesus’ peace goes with us into the world.

Peace I Leave with You

Paul Hooker is the Associate Dean for Ministerial Formation and Advanced Studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He recently authored three hymn verses as he thought about the hurricanes in Texas and Florida that have “drenched and torn the lives of so many [he loves].” Perhaps his words will speak to you as they have spoken to me:

In the wind that howls, the deep’ning dark, when rains begin to fall
and the hopes we cherish most in life are shrouded in their pall,
then at last we lift our vision; then at last we strain our ear
for the word of sweet deliv’rance: our rescuer draws near.
Teach us, Lord, to rescue others, and to find as we are found,
until all your people reach the shore and stand on higher ground.

O that you, O God, would tear the skies and to the earth descend
‘mid the trembling mountain’s tumult, ‘mid fear that knows no end.
Though the stars may leave their places, constellations cease to be,
though the world we know and all we love lost to memory,
still we wait, Lord, rapt in wonder, ‘til morning’s sun shall rise,
‘til the clouds are rent asunder, and the tear of heartache dries.

‘Til that day, before the table spread, the font, the spoken word
we will gather as a people and let lament be heard
for your promised reign of glory, for tomorrow’s dawn of peace,
for the helpless and the hopeless, the prisoner’s release.
Quickly come, Lord, to your people! The night grows e’er so long!
We believe; help now our unbelief, ‘til all our hearts are strong.

— The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, Rector

From the Rector #63

Weekly thoughts from the Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, where these words remind us that Jesus’ peace goes with us into the world.

Peace I Leave with You

As I announced last Sunday and also explained in an email message to the congregation, Palmer hosted a free day camp this past week for children as a gift to the community in response to the fact that HISD schools delayed the beginning of the new academic year until tomorrow, September 11.

I want to thank Roger Hutchison, Director of Christian Formation and Parish Life, and a host of helpers from the church staff and church members who made this possible. There were more than a few tears shed by parents who were very grateful that we had created a safe place for their children to be.

Looking ahead, Palmer will be part of a coordinated relief system that has been created by the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. There are now eight hub churches in the network: Palmer Memorial Church, Christ Church Cathedral, St. Martin’s Church, St. Mark’s Church, The Church of St. John the Divine, Holy Spirit Church, St. Francis Church, and Trinity Church. Christy Orman, whom you are welcome to contact directly at corman@christchurchcathedral.org, is the Hurricane Relief Coordinator for this network.

Additionally, each hub church has a Parish Hurricane Relief Coordinator. Betty Key has graciously accepted the invitation to fill that role for our community of faith with the help of a support team. Betty and her team will be Palmer’s conduit with Christy as our church becomes a platform to help with the management of restoration projects in the City of Houston for the weeks and months to come. You can contact them via stormsupport@palmerchurch.org, which is the same email address we’ve been using to receive updates about assisting our own parishioners.

— The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, Rector

Harvey’s Wrath & The Problem of Evil

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 17, September 3, 2017

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. (Romans 12:9-13)

I love those beautiful words from the 12th chapter of Romans. And this community of faith has embodied them in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. You have embodied what it means to love one another, to contribute to the needs of the saints, and to extend hospitality to strangers. You have been patient in suffering. You have persevered in prayer. And as that passage goes on to say, you’ve shown what it is to “rejoice with those who rejoice” and to “weep with those who weep.”[1]

You’ve turned to God, although that surely hasn’t been easy for everyone. Even an elderly Christian who showed no fear as she was rescued from rising floodwaters inside a nursing home concluded her statement to The Washington Post by saying, somewhat ambiguously, “God promised he’d never do this again.”[2]

Certain things unfold in the history of the world or in our own personal experiences that cause doubts not only about God’s goodness but also about God’s very existence. And those who rush to God’s defense often make matters worse with hurtful words of false comfort. At times they dishonor God’s holy name more than ecclesiastical outlaws who raise their fists to heaven in moral outrage over innocent suffering.

That kind of rage is often felt in the aftermath of natural disasters, such as the human misery that we’ve seen in the wake of the storm here in Houston or recent news out of central Nigeria, where more than 100,000 people have been displaced because of flooding.[3] However, just like hurricanes and rains that seem like they will never come to an end, humanity itself belongs to the natural order. Our actions that allow others to suffer raise the same kinds of questions as natural disasters.[4] Why is this happening? How can this be? And, ultimately, where is God?

Lt. Jack Harvey of the Houston Police Department is also a member of Palmer
Memorial Episcopal Church and can be see in this video holding a small boy.

Whether looking in the face of nature’s violence, or sins of omission that make bad situations worse, or the flood of human evil that spreads inhumanity in every generation — in all these things people want to know where God is. And, in some cases, they want to know if God is.

But the truth is that it doesn’t take rising floodwaters to float such a question to the surface. Suffering that demands a response can be found all around us, all the time. Neglected children live unseen in many communities, including ours. Maybe friends we want to rescue have made decisions that place them beyond our reach. Battles with disease might be taking place within our own bodies. And all of us will face a time when someone we love becomes lost in the shadow of death.

These experiences compel us to wrestle with God like Jacob, who struggled until daybreak at the River Jabbok.[5] They force us to cry out and watch. And what we do next might make all the difference in the world for ourselves and for those whom God has entrusted to our care.

David Hart is an Eastern Orthodox theologian with some helpful thoughts about this. He’s the author of a book entitled The Doors of Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? Although written as a reflection on the tragic deaths of more than 225,000 people in Southeast Asia at the end of 2004, his reflections are just as important today in the midst of thinking about the disturbing headlines about Hurricane Harvey in the media, the destruction that we’ve seen with our own eyes, or whatever trials we might be facing ourselves. Surely he is right to suggest that we should all remain silent at first.

Acting in generosity as soon as possible is one thing. And without question we ought to stand close to those suffering the experience of Good Friday. Palmers have done both of those things in remarkable ways, for friends and strangers alike, over the last week. You’ve helped one another clean up flooded homes, brought food to those who’ve needed a good meal, and cried together. But it’s almost blasphemous to seek out a greater meaning for it all before weeping with those who mourn.[6]

The storm that killed those whose bodies have completely filled the city morgue, and whom we’ll remember in our prayers today, isn’t divine retribution. And it isn’t part of some divine plan, as a few streams of Christian theology might suggest, in which someone’s pain is required to show forth the glory of God. We aren’t better people because tragedy of one kind or another didn’t befall us. And we most certainly aren’t better Christians when we stand at a distance and affirm that “everything happens for a reason.”

Reflecting upon that kind of response in the face of a father who lost four of his five children in the tsunami, David Hart states the obvious:

Most of us would have the good sense to be ashamed to speak such words . . . And this should tell us something. For if we would think it shamefully foolish and cruel to say such things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them . . .[7]

At the center of our faith stands the cross. So it should come as no surprise that right in the middle of the Nicene Creed we declare that Jesus Christ “was crucified under Pontius Pilate . . . suffered death and was buried.”

This statement anchors our faith not only in the pages of history but also in every experience of God-forsakenness. It brings our faith into the suffering of the world, where God himself has led the way. Perhaps to the surprise of many, we stand beside those who raise their fists to heaven in moral outrage over innocent suffering. That’s because what they protest isn’t God but things that are the enemy of God.

In one of his less familiar stories, J.R.R. Tolkien retells the beginning of all things at Creation.[8] And he includes a helpful image, I think, about the relationship between divine providence and the chaos we encounter loose throughout the world, whether we’re driving down the street of a neighborhood that was flooded or just looking at the hidden messes in our own lives. It reminds me of the final words of our reading from Romans about “[overcoming] evil with good,” which we’ve witnessed countless times in response to the natural evil of Harvey’s wrath.[9]

In the literary imagination of Tolkien, God is represented by Eru, also known as Iluvatar. And Iluvatar first created the Ainur, the Holy Ones, who are like the host of heaven. Iluvatar taught them about music and was very pleased as they began to sing. The more they listened to each other, the more they began to understand one another and to sing in harmony. Iluvatar then spoke to them about a great theme that would bring forth Great Music. And so it did. This Great Music spilled out into the Void, making it no longer a void.

But one of the Ainur, who had spent too much time alone in the void places before the Great Music, wanted to increase the importance of his own part. And these thoughts became part of his music, disrupting the harmony that surrounded Iluvatar. As Tolkien describes it: “the melodies . . . foundered in a sea of turbulent sound . . . a raging storm as of dark waters that made war one upon another in an endless wrath that would not be assuaged.”

And this is where Tolkien provides a helpful way to think about God’s interaction with the world. Iluvatar arose, smiled, and lifted up his left hand. A new theme with its own beauty evolved in the midst of the storm, but the discord grew more violent than before. So Iluvatar arose with a stern countenance and lifted up his right hand. Yet another theme arose above the confusion. The music without harmony could not overtake the other. In fact, in the words of Tolkien, “its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern.”

But the strife continued and rippled out into the silences that had never been disturbed. For a third time, Iluvatar arose and “his face was terrible to behold.” Iluvatar raised up both hands. He brought forth a single chord “deeper than the Abyss” and “higher than the Firmament.” Suddenly . . . the Music came to an end.

Iluvatar explained that it was impossible to destroy the Music. Anyone who attempted to do so would become another instrument in creating things yet more wonderful. Finally, Iluvatar took the Ainur into the Void and said, “Behold your Music!” And before them appeared a new World.

For me, that’s a helpful way to think about not only the world as it is but also the new creation that awaits us. In Tolkien’s story, God isn’t the source of discord — the chaos in the world and within us. And God is not pleased with such freedom abused. Yet God is able to create anew, bringing good out of evil and the chaos to an end.

For those who prefer less indirect speech about such weighty matters, I turn again to the words of David Hart. His final thought leaves nothing more to be said:

God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable . . . he will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and . . . rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, he will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes — and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and he that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”[10]

AMEN

BACK TO POST Romans 12:15.

BACK TO POST Kevin Sulliavan, Arelis R. Hernández, and David A. Fahrenthold, “At least 22 confirmed dead as Harvey pivots toward Louisiana,” The Washington Post, August 29, 2017.

BACK TO POST Associated Press, “More than 100,000 displaced by flooding in central Nigeria,” The Washington Post, September 1, 2017.

BACK TO POST David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005) 37.

BACK TO POST Genesis 32:22-32.

BACK TO POST Hart 6.

BACK TO POST Hart 100.

BACK TO POST J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, second edition, edited by Christopher Tolkien (New York: Ballantine, 1999) 3-12. The quotes and the language that I adapted for the retelling of this story are taken from here.

BACK TO POST Romans 9:21.

10 BACK TO POST Hart 104.

From the Rector #62

Weekly thoughts from the Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, where these words remind us that Jesus’ peace goes with us into the world.

Peace I Leave with You

Last Sunday was supposed to be Serve Sunday, when when we are sent out at the end of our liturgies as teams in the name of Christ to serve the community that surrounds us. Although we did not worship within these walls last weekend thanks to Hurricane Harvey, I have no doubt that we said our prayers together as the church dispersed throughout the various neighborhoods that we represent. And I know that members of this congregation have “been the church” outside these buildings since the floodwaters began to rise. We’ve been checking on other Palmers and our neighbors, bringing people into our homes, providing meals, helping with flood remediation work that has to happen quickly in the subtropical climate of Houston, and volunteering at the downtown convention center and other official shelters for those who have been forced from their homes.

On Wednesday it was a joy hear the church bells “Ringing Hope after Harvey” in thanksgiving that Palmer’s doors were open to serve the City of Houston for the first time since the weather cleared. Prayers were offered as they “[rang] out,” in the words of Tennyson, “the grief that saps the mind / for those that here we see more.” Now we shall embrace anew, as we do each Sunday, Palmer’s mission to know and share the love of Jesus Christ, reaching out to those who are suffering and rebuilding. Please contact us at stormsupport@palmerchurch.org to pass along what you know about your own situation or that of others or what resources or volunteer time you might be able to provide. I’ve heard story after story of Palmers helping other Palmers and strangers and friends. That’s a glimpse of God’s reign, pun intended, in the midst of the storm. Today I’m grateful that we’re here together to receive strength for the journey ahead of us.

— The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, Rector

From the Rector #61

Weekly thoughts from the Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, where these words remind us that Jesus’ peace goes with us into the world.

Peace I Leave with You

Last Wednesday, I joined a diverse group of religious leaders and representatives from Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston and the Anti-Defamation League for a press conference at City Hall with Mayor Sylvester Turner. Beforehand there was an opportunity to write condolences for the family of Heather Heyer, who was killed last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, by a neo-Nazi terrorist. Another book allowed us to express our prayers for health and healing to Natalie Romero, a Bellaire High School graduate who was seriously injured in the same violent attack.

In response the voices of hatred and white supremacy that were on public display last weekend in marches through Charlottesville, Mayor Turner had this to say:

You cannot be complicit through your silence, and you cannot be complicit through your nuance. There comes a time when faith leaders, community leaders, leaders from all walks [of life], must stand together, shoulder to shoulder, and say that we respect one another regardless of our language, our faith, our ethnicity, where we come from, geography, that we stand as one. And so people of goodwill and faith must come together, and we must be the voices of reason that stand up and come forth in these very dark moments. . . .

And if you will allow this mayor to say this, prayer does work. . . . . It’s hard to tear down, to divide, and practice hatred when you’re praying for one another. So do pray for one another, do pray for our city. I do believe in that.
. . . It is important for Houstonians and others to see people standing together and being with one another. It’s important for them to hear this message. . . . This is our house, and we are all Houstonians. And let’s love and respect and appreciate one another, and pray for one another.

— The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, Rector

From the Rector #60

Weekly thoughts from the Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, where these words remind us that Jesus’ peace goes with us into the world.

Peace I Leave with You

David Lose is President of The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. But I first met him when he taught preaching at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. With that in mind, here’s part of his reflection on Matthew 14:22-33:

Peter doesn’t just flounder because he takes his eyes off of Jesus, but because he grows afraid. And, quite frankly, that fear is justified. It’s a storm, for heaven’s sake, raging powerfully enough to sink the boat, let alone drown a single person. He has, in other words, perfectly good reason to be afraid.

And so do we. Whether it’s a fear of the return of illness, of the stability of a fragile relationship, of loneliness after loss, of not being accepted by those we esteem, of whether we’ll fare well in a new chapter in our lives . . . You name it, there is a lot in our individual, congregational, and corporate lives that can make us afraid. And that fear is debilitating. It sneaks up on us, paralyzes us, and makes it difficult to move forward at all, let alone with confidence. Fear, in short, is one of the primary things that robs the children of God of the abundant life God intends for us, and for this reason I tend to take Jesus’ words to the disciples near the end of the passage [in Matthew 14:31] more as lament than as rebuke.

In response to Peter’s fear, however, Jesus doesn’t simply urge him to courage or instruct Peter to keep his eyes on him. Rather, when Peter begins to sink, Jesus reaches out and grabs him, saving him from drowning and restoring him to his vocation as disciple. And so also with us! Jesus will not let us go. Jesus is with us. Jesus will not give up on us. Jesus will grab hold of us when we falter . . .

To that, I say, “Amen, amen, and amen!”

— The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, Rector

From the Rector #59

Weekly thoughts from the Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, where these words remind us that Jesus’ peace goes with us into the world.

Peace I Leave with You

The Book of Psalms is the Prayer Book of the Bible. It covers the whole range of our human experience and emotions from praise and happiness and thanksgiving to anguish and despair and rage, which is sometimes directly toward other people and, yes, sometimes directed toward God. The psalms give us permission to be honest in our conversations with God, even if what we have to say is completely embarrassing or misinformed or hateful. Of course, the notion that we’ll be vindicated because nothing can be hidden from God usually omits the fact that the same applies to our own lives. Psalm 139, which is part of our liturgy today, acknowledges that God has examined us in the past and invites God, boldly, to examine us in the present:

Search me out, O God, and know my heart; *
try me and know my restless thoughts.

Look well whether there be any wickedness in me *
and lead me in the way that is everlasting.

Those words bring to mind one of my favorite prayers in the Anglican tradition. It comes at the beginning of our worship and is called the Collect for Purity. That name, however, can be more than a little misleading. The clean slate, so to speak, that it implies isn’t something that we bring to the Table on our own, as though we have no need for God. Rather, it’s the result of God’s mercy and graciousness toward us in spite of ourselves, in spite of what is unspoken and gripped tightly inside us:

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

— The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, Rector

The Akedah and the Godfather of Gloom

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 8, July 2, 2017

God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you. So Abraham rose early in the morning . . . and took . . . his son Isaac . . .” (Genesis 22:1-3)

Last fall the world mourned the death of the “high priest of pathos,” Canadian poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen, who was also known as the “godfather of gloom.” He was 82. Most people know him for his song “Hallelujah” from 1984, which was resurrected in the 1990s through a reverent version of it by American singer Jeff Buckley. “Hallelujah” became a kind of secular hymn.[1]

Not surprisingly, a deep and abiding spiritual life was important to Leonard Cohen. He believed that everything he wrote was liturgy.[2]

While some might recall his interest in Buddhism, to the point of becoming a Zen monk, Cohen himself thought of that as merely a discipline for meditation. “I’m not looking for a new religion,” he said in an interview in 2004. “I’m quite happy with the old one, with Judaism.”[3] Cohen’s paternal grandfather and great-grandfather were presidents of the Montreal synagogue where he was raised and to which he maintained a connection for his entire life. His maternal grandfather was a Talmudic scholar. “I had a very messianic childhood,” he once remarked. “I was told I was a descendant of Aaron the high priest.”[4]

His second album, released in 1969, included a song called “Story of Isaac.” Written by Cohen, it retells part of today’s first reading from the Book of Genesis:

Well, the door it opened slowly,
my father he came in,
I was nine years old.
And he stood so tall above me,
and his blue eyes they were shining
and his voice was very cold.
He said, “I’ve had a vision
and you know I’m strong and holy,
I must do what I’ve been told.”
So we started up the mountain,
I was running, he was walking,
and his axe was made of gold.

Now the trees they got much smaller,
the lake was just like a lady’s mirror
when we stopped to drink some wine.
Then he threw the bottle over,
I heard it brake a minute later,
and he put his hand on mine.
Thought I saw an eagle,
might have been a vulture,
I never could decide.
Then my father built an altar,
he looked once behind his shoulder,
and I guess he knew I’d never hide.

As someone with blue eyes who also happens to be the father of a nine-year-old son, I can hardly read those lyrics without shaking, whether out of fear or out of anger. Most Jews refer to this story about Abraham and his son Isaac as the aqedah — the “binding.” Leonard Cohen’s version takes us right up to the point in the narrative when Abraham is about to tie up his son and place him on top of the wood on the altar that he has just finished by hand.

Most Christians oddly refer to this same story as the sacrifice of Isaac. That’s, of course, the very thing that doesn’t happen in the end. Regardless of the title we give it, this is a story that is gut-wrenching for Jews and Christians alike. It’s difficult to hear, whether we’re strong in our faith or struggling to believe that God exists.

In spite of the grace that appears at the last possible second like a sudden, life-giving rain in the desert, we find the prelude to all of that barbaric. What was truly barbaric, however, was the fact that child sacrifice was a common practice in many cultures throughout the Ancient Near East. Believe it or not, it’s the end of this story that would have surprised those ancient peoples.[5]

And we have more in common with them than we would surely like to admit. Leonard Cohen knew that because his song shifts gears from the biblical narrative to our own narrative. Cohen doesn’t sing of the binding or the saving. Instead he addresses directly those who stand where Abraham stood, singing:

You who build these altars now
to sacrifice our children,
you must not do it anymore.

His words bring to mind the anniversary yesterday of the worst date in British military history when 19,240 men fell at the Battle of the Somme in 1916.[6] In a ritual that had become routine during the trench warfare of World War I, the whistles sounded, and they went “over the top” for the last time. A survivor said, “It was hell let loose . . .” Another witness said, “There was nothing but brown earth, shell holes, and death. Nothing else.” One Scottish veteran would later recall that “[his] company went over 230 strong [that day], and only 11 privates survived.”[7]

And Cohen’s plea reminds me of the time I officiated at a graveside funeral at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. Not only is the President of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis, buried there, but also 28 Confederate generals and more than 18,000 Confederate enlisted men, including some 7,000 bodies reinterred there from Gettysburg battlefield.[8] The anniversary of that battle is also this weekend.

To describe all of those enlisted soldiers as “men,” however, is not to tell the whole truth. I had arrived at the cemetery a little early for the service, so I took a short walk to the nearby Confederate section. I soon found myself surrounded by the graves of hundreds and hundreds of soldiers. The headstones with dates on them testified to the fact that too many of those buried in the ground had been teenage boys when they left home to fight. They had their whole lives ahead of them.

An important difference between the hills of Hollywood Cemetery that overlook the James River and the unknown mountain in the land of Moriah from Genesis is that Abraham wasn’t cut off from his future as he stared, surely with grief, at the body of his son. The promise that his descendants would bless the nations of the earth had seemed like a flickering flame that was about to be extinguished. Yet it wasn’t. But Abraham hadn’t always been so trusting in the God who had called him to step out in faith. As Ellen Davis, an Old Testament scholar at Duke Divinity School, puts it:

You might remember those stories of Abraham passing off his beautiful wife Sarah as his sister when they are traveling in foreign territory. So Sarah gets taken into the royal harem as a concubine, not once but twice . . . and Abraham gets protected status as her “brother.” God never told Abraham to do that. Abraham did it because he was scared; he might get killed if someone wanted Sarah, knowing she was his wife. Abraham put Sarah in that terrible situation because he did not trust God to pull them through the danger.[9]

Professor Davis, who would later reflect on the binding of Isaac in relationship to Jews who kept their faith during World War II in the ghettos and in the Nazi death camps, suggests that:

[T]his harrowing story exists to help people who already believe make sense of their most difficult experience, when God seems to take back everything they have ever received at God’s hand. . . .

This story appears front and center in Genesis, where no reader of the Bible can miss it, because the hard truth is that the world turns upside down for the faithful more often than we like to admit. . . .

The 22nd chapter of Genesis is the place you go when you do not understand at all what God allows us to suffer and, it seems, asks us to bear — and the last thing you want is a reasonable explanation, because any reasonable explanation would be a mockery of your anguish.

This story of Abraham and God and Isaac is the place you go when you are out beyond anything you thought could or would happen, beyond anything you imagined God would ever ask of you, when the most sensible thing to do might be to deny that God exists at all, or to deny that God cares at all, or to deny that God has any power at all. That would be sensible, except you can’t do it, because you are so deep into relationship with God that to deny all that would be to deny your own heart and soul and mind.[10]

Just before the Jewish high holy days last fall, Leonard Cohen celebrated his last birthday. His gift to himself and to the Jewish world was the release of a new song, hauntingly beautiful, called “You Want It Darker.” Some of the words come from the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning.[11] Others — and not for the first time in Cohen’s songs — might even hint at Jesus, at least to Christian ears:

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name,
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame.

Cohen seemed to acknowledge that he was in the sunset of his life as he sang:

If you are the dealer, let me out of the game.[12]

But he does so with a profound trust in the Lord, and looks back to the aqedah, which is read during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year Festival, at the beginning of the high holy days. The refrain for the song is the Hebrew word hineni, which means, “Here I am.” It’s what Abraham says to God and to his son and to the angel.

So Cohen sings:

Hineni, hineni,
I’m ready, my Lord.

Cohen lived through those high holy days and died a couple of weeks later. I, for one, expect him finally to see the face of the messiah for whom he was taught to long from his childhood. “Vilified, crucified, in the human frame,” Jesus embraces even those who stand where Abraham once stood and begin to wonder with fear and trembling if God will — or even can — make a way where there is no way.

As the prophet Isaiah says, “a dimly burning wick he will not quench.”[13] And that is good news not only for the “godfather of gloom” but also for each one of us, in the midst of whatever time of trial we may be facing. We’re neither alone nor unloved.

Hineni, hineni,
I’m ready, my Lord.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Ashly Fetters, “How Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah Became Everybody’s ‘Hallelujah,'” The Atlantic, December 4, 2012.

BACK TO POST Mordecai Finley, “Being Leonard Cohen’s Rabbi,” Jewish Journal, November 16, 2016.

BACK TO POST Gideon Zelermyer, “Leonard Cohen’s Temple Song,” The Globe and Mail, November 18, 2016.

BACK TO POST John Haydon, “Leonard Cohen releases ‘Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour,'” Communities Digital News, May 13, 2015.

BACK TO POST I’m aware of the fact that offering this as part of the interpretation of the story, although it does touch real history, is not embraced today by a majority of biblical scholars. That is say that I acknowledge that it might not have been what was originally intended when the story was first told, which is not to concede that peoples in the Ancient Near East would not have been surprised by the ending rather than the beginning of the story. That is true and worthy to be contemplated.

The Bible itself is a witness to the power of reinterpreting what has been received in light of the present realities facing the people of God. Prophetic literature such as Jeremiah 19:4-6 seems to put an emphatic divine thumb on the scale in favor of this part of the interpretation that I’ve offered. During the Babylonian Exile, which continued beyond the lifetime of Jeremiah, surely the children of Israel debated whether the Lord would sacrifice Israel or rescue his chosen people.

The Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament, believing wholeheartedly in the Christian witness to “the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead,” reinterprets the same story as God figuratively raising Isaac from the dominion of death by giving back to Abraham his son alive. In the same way, it suggests that we can always trust God, including those moments when the facts on the ground testify otherwise. The ultimate example of that, of course, is Good Friday. Neither sin nor death will have the last word, even if their shouting is the only thing we can hear.

BACK TO POST Matt Brosnan, editor, “What Was the Battle of The Somme?,” Imperial War Museums, undated.

BACK TO POST Christopher Woolf, “Why the Battle of the Somme sas the bloodiest day in British military history,” Public Radio International, July 1, 2016.

BACK TO POST “Hollywood Cemetery and James Monroe Tomb,” National Park Service.

BACK TO POST Ellen F. Davis, “Radical Trust,” Faith & Leadership, July 25, 2011.

10 BACK TO POST Davis.

11 BACK TO POST Zelermyer.

12 BACK TO POST Leonard Cohen sent a beautiful letter to his dying muse Marianne Ihlen, who was the inspiration for his songs “So Long, Marianne” and “Bird on a Wire.” She died in Norway on July 29, 2016, at the age of 81. Two days earlier, these words from Cohen were read to her by a close friend:

Well Marianne it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.

And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.

13 BACK TO POST Isaiah 42:3.