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.

From the Rector #58

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 middle of the summer always seems like a good time to contemplate a poem from Wendell Berry, who is not only a lyrical wordsmith but also a novelist, cultural critic, and a Kentucky farmer. From The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, here is his poem “The Vacation,” which is a good reminder to be present not only during times of refreshment but also in our day to day life:

Once there was a man who filmed his vacation.
He went flying down the river in his boat
with his video camera to his eye, making
a moving picture of the moving river
upon which his sleek boat moved swiftly
toward the end of his vacation. He showed
his vacation to his camera, which pictured it,
preserving it forever: the river, the trees,
the sky, the light, the bow of his rushing boat
behind which he stood with his camera
preserving his vacation even as he was having it
so that after he had had it he would still
have it. It would be there. With a flick
of a switch, there it would be. But he
would not be in it. He would never be in it.

— The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, Rector

Haiku Friday: Delis and Restaurants

Kenny & Ziggy’s New York Delicatessen is an amazing place to eat here in Houston. The 2014 documentary Deli Man is about the owner of Kenny & Ziggy’s and also reviews the history of Jewish delicatessens in the United States. Miracle of miracles, he opened a second location very close to our neighborhood. We could walk there.

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Everyone in our family can find something good to eat at Kenny & Ziggy’s. There are guaranteed to be leftovers for the next day too. The manager of that second location now recognizes the family of the Episcopal priest who wears a seersucker suit (i.e., me). And the husband of a woman who is a rabbi at one of the other congregations that also border Rice University stopped to introduce himself to me recently on his way back to his table. It’s an interesting place to meet people and to watch people. Even more interesting is taking a look at all of that wonderful food in the glass case.

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I’m hungry now! So let’s write haiku about our favorite places to eat a delicious meal with family or friends, like Kenny & Ziggy’s. Your one verse only needs five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line:

Sandwich #1:
“Fiddler on the Roof of Your
Mouth.” Yum! Thanks, Ziggy!

Haiku Friday: Hearts

Yesterday I was one of several parent chaperones for a field trip with my oldest son’s second grade class. We went to the Houston Museum of Natural Science and spent the morning in the Hall of Ancient Egypt. These are canopic jars that held the mummified and wrapped internal organs of a person who had died. But I was most interested in the winged scarab and the heart scarab in the middle. Those amulets are inscribed on the back with a spell that commands the heart not to betray itself during the judgement of the dead person on his or her journey to the afterlife.

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That’s an important insight into our human nature. The problem of being human is equally distributed, even across millennia. Here’s how I put it in a recent sermon:

“If our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things.” That is good news for those of us who are a tangled mess of the holy and the profane, which is to say all of us, no exceptions.

When our hearts condemn us, as they inevitably do, God is greater than our sin and our self-righteousness. Through the waters of baptism, we have been clothed in the righteousness of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. As my favorite Moravian chorale puts it: “Thus well arrayed I need not fear, when in his presence I appear.”

Traditional liturgies from the Book of Common Prayer conclude with a blessing that also speaks to the idea of shielding our hearts and is introduced with these words:

The peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God . . .

The New Revised Standard Version of Philippians 4:7, which is the source of those words, says that the peace of God “will guard your hearts and your minds.” What a wonderful image that is: God, who is greater than our heart, will also guard it. So let’s write haiku about our hearts — how they break, how they love, how they hold our secrets, how they make themselves vulnerable, how they need to be protected, etc. Describe something about those experiences in a verse with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line:

Nebseny, a priest,
was given this heart scarab
to live without fear.

Haiku Friday: Travel

The Rev. Henry Strobel, Ph.D., is not only an Episcopal priest but also a professor emeritus of biochemistry and molecular biology at McGovern Medical School in the heart of the Texas Medical Center. Over the last 30 years, he has taken Houston medical students to China to learn about the Chinese medical community through its schools and hospitals. Dr. Strobel, who has celebrated Easter Day more often in China than in Texas, will be my special guest on Sunday, May 8, at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church for the Rector’s Forum, which begins at 10:15 a.m. in Room A102.

My conversation with him earlier this week reminded me of my first encounter with a culture that seemed radically different than the world of my childhood. It was 1984, and I was 14 years old. I was on a mission trip with my father and others from Union Cross Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to Bethel, Alaska. Bethel is located 400 miles west of Anchorage on the Kuskokwim River and home to many Yup’ik people who are members of the Moravian Church, which dates to 1885 in that region. Bethel is only accessible by air or by river. When I was there, it was a dry town with a curfew from late night until early morning for children and youth.

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That experience changed the way that I looked at the world around me and my place in that world. I even met a friend named Adam, who was there with his father from Texas. They were members of the Unity of the Brethren in Texas, a family of Czech congregations that are related to the Moravian Church but with their own separate history in present-day Czechoslovakia that also looks back to the life and witness of the reforming priest John Hus, who was martyred in 1415. I’d never heard of them.

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Travel opens up new horizons, inviting us to see the world with fresh eyes, as though for the first time. So let’s write haiku about that. Compose a verse with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line:

My America
embraces many peoples,
many histories.

Haiku Friday: Parties and Receptions

Last weekend I officiated at another beautiful Saturday evening wedding at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas. There were lots of alumni/ae from Wake Forest University present, including me, the bride and groom, most of their parents, and most of the wedding party. I noted that in my remarks, of course, and also quoted the flamboyant Prince of funk, rock, and pop music, saying to all, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.”

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The reception after the marriage liturgy was held at the Houston Zoo, which is actually within walking distance of the church. My wife and I soon discovered that we got to sit at the fun table. Seriously, it was awesome. I’m so happy for this newly married couple and for the family and friends that surround them. Wedding receptions like this one, and many different kinds of parties, are ways of coming together in friendship and in community to get through this thing called life.

So that’s our haiku theme for this week — parties and receptions. Say something about an experience with those in a verse with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line. Here’s mine:

Sat down at the zoo,
pondering this thing called life.
It surrounded me.

“Still, still with Thee”

Today was the Fifth Sunday of Easter at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, where one of the readings came from Revelation 21:1-6. Those words speak of a new heaven and a new earth, when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes and “mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” I thought about that as I heard the sound of a flute, and later the pipe organ with it, accompany the voices of the choir singing a beautiful text of Easter joy by Harriet Beecher Stowe for the offertory anthem.

Still, still with Thee, when purple morning breaketh,
When the bird waketh, and the shadows flee;
Fairer than morning, lovelier than daylight,
Dawns the sweet consciousness, I am with Thee.

Alone with Thee, amid the mystic shadows,
The solemn hush of nature newly born;
Alone with Thee in breathless adoration,
In the calm dew and freshness of the morn.

Still, still with Thee! As to each newborn morning
A fresh and solemn splendor still is giv’n,
So does this blessed consciousness, awaking,
Breathe each day nearness unto Thee and heav’n.

So shall it be at last in that bright morning,
When the soul waketh and life’s shadows flee;
O in that hour, fairer than daylight dawning,
Shall rise the glorious thought, I am with Thee.

Haiku Friday: Fall of the Purple Reign

Yesterday a funky icon of pop music, especially throughout the 80s and 90s, died at the age of 57. Known to the world as Prince and, during a dispute with his recording company, as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, he was a favorite native son of the Twin Cities. Purple, of course, was his signature hue. One of my staff members at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston wrote a wonderful reflection, “. . . and the purple rain falls,” that’s worth taking a minute to read in order to appreciate the power of music to shape our lives and the world around us. Meanwhile, the Dean of St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis wrote these words:

For three nights, your cathedral tower will be washed in purple to honor and celebrate someone who was, for me and for many, our very earliest border-bender. Well done, good and faithful servant [Prince]. May you rest with the angels in peace and rise with the saints in glory.

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Did the songs of Prince shape your life in some way? Let’s write haiku about Prince or the music of other pop icons like him who created the soundtrack for high school or young adulthood or watching your children become little children no more. This time I’ll let Prince himself write a haiku and pray that his dream has come true:

Prince: “Dream if you can
a courtyard, an ocean of
violets in bloom.”

Haiku Friday: Wild Rides

The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is in full swing, and one of the events there is called Mutton Bustin’. An announcer gives the name of a kid between the ages of 5 and 6 and tells the audience what that kid wants to be when she or he grows up. We heard about cowboys and fire fighters and, interestingly, Secretary of the Treasury. Then a gate is opened, and that same kid tries to hold on tight to a sheep that bolts to the other end of the arena. It only lasts for a few seconds, but — wow — what a ride!

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I would image that Mutton Bustin’ is both thrilling and terrifying at the same time. There are all kinds of wild rides — race cars, roller coasters, a ship rolling with the waves, driving 30 miles per hour on an endlessly curvy road in the mountains, riding in a helicopter across the edge of the Grand Canyon as the ground below suddenly drops away from view, etc. Write a haiku about your experience with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line.

Saw bucking broncos
at the Houston Rodeo.
That’s not for me, y’all!

Haiku Friday: Political Chaos or TV Series?

The astute reader who is also a fan of science fiction movies will recognize at least a few details in this picture that come from Star Wars. An Imperial Star Destroyer is in the upper left corner, and two Imperial TIE Fighters can clearly be seen below it.

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My oldest son, eight years old, drew this recently. My favorite part is the quote: “Stop this party right now!” Although I’m not really sure about the origins, it might be a paraphrase of a quote from Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones. However, what I am sure about is the fact that a lot of people I know would like to shout those words throughout the galaxy because of the deterioration of our national political discourse in a presidential election year. As one comedian famously tweeted about a month ago, imagining that what we see on our screens is actually a television series:

So let’s write haiku about all of the political craziness that seems to be increasing daily. Craft one verse with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line. I turned to writers from across the pond:

Downton Abbey twist
could be: “Make America
Great Britain Again.”