Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sarah's Story

At LNPC we're in a series, telling the old stories of our faith in many different ways. Today, we had a visit from Sarah, played by local performance artist, Julie Kurtz.  And Sarah shared her story with us firsthand...

The promise wasn’t to me. It was to Abram. He was to be “the father of many” – Abraham.  Clearly I was not part of that.  I was the mother to none.

The strangers said I would have a son. Me.  They didn’t say he would. They said I would. 
Of course I laughed.

What did they know of my womanhood? My time was past.  Besides, my womb had been closed my whole life. My arms were never to hold a little one, my breasts long past the days when they awaited a purpose, ripe and ready.  My body had always been an empty, aching vessel - once agile, but now deflated, comfortably worn and finished.  I had accepted my fate.  I always did. Even in the days when there was still some hope. The days when we would wander, always at the word of God – get up and go here, pack up and move there. 

And in some places, Abram, the spineless coward, would pass me off as his sister, and I would comply.  Because I love him. Because I trust him. Because I don’t want anything to happen to him.  He always was a worrier. 
And his God kept intervening.  Punishing the men who would take me as their own, driving them mad in one way or another until they would demand to know from Abram the truth and he would have to tell them I was really his wife and they would return me to him and we’d be on our way.  You should have seen the pandemonium it caused when I was taken into the Pharoah’s house!  Oh the misery on that household that would not let up until Abram and I were restored to one another!  Because I belong to Abram, and Abraham belongs to God.
Of course, It never occurred to us to just trust this God who had sent him there in the first place and be who we were without taking matters into our own hands, but then, that was never our strong suit.

Back in the day, before this all began, before the promise that turned everything upside down and sent us packing, blowing across deserts like tumbleweed from one place to the next, we were so young and strong and sure of ourselves. We could make each other laugh, and oh, the schemes we’d concoct!  We’ve always been a great pair, a clever pair. Life was comfortable and we were in it TOGETHER.  Abram & Sarai, everyone would say.  Oh that Abram & Sarai… Did you see Abram & Sarai…? like it was one word.  We could finish each other’s sentences. It sometimes felt like we shared the same brain.

Then the damned promise.  That uprooted us and gave us a mission, a calling. Or, him anyway.  And the hope, the driven terrible hope that lived in his eyes and grew between us like a tangled weed.  Father of nations!  Offspring like the stars! 
I could not conceive.  My body stubbornly refused to fulfill his God’s promise, to agree to the arrangement they’d come up with.  And it’s not like Abram could keep quiet about it, either.  Oh, the fretting that man did!  Every year added to my age was anguish; I was standing in the way of what he was meant to be, what God was supposed to do.  The barricade to fulfillment was me, my useless flesh, my barren self.

But every time he despaired and nearly gave up, something would happen to him out there in his God moment and he’d come back all fired up about the promise again.  Believing again.  Do you have any idea the pressure that puts on a woman?  I knew it wouldn’t happen.  While my sisters had all raised children, and their children had grown, married and conceived, I remained empty, yearning and ashamed. 
How was I to live in this belief of his?  This faith of his that pulled him somewhere I couldn’t follow?  I was not the one hearing these promises.  And I knew I could never be the one to fulfill them.  At least not in myself.  I was a liability, an obstacle.  And we’ve always trusted one another, through thick and thin, across more miles than could be counted, through more adventures and disasters and struggles and celebrations than I could ever describe, we’ve been Abram&Sarai.  Even with his damn obsession and the drive of this promise I didn’t understand, we’ve always been there for each other, sacrificed for each other, or at least been willing to take a hit for the other. 
So I made up my mind.  I would not stand in the way of this promise any longer. There was something I could do to help fulfill it. So I gave him Hagar, my slave.  Hagar, with her young, strong body, full and firm, latent with potential; a warm, ready place for a baby to grow. 

Oh, if I could take back that moment.
Oh, to remove that day from existence like scooping a worm from the flour bag!
But we must live with our choices, musn’t we?  

It was never the same after that.  After he had known her, who had only known me, I no longer knew him in the same way.  Somehow he was stranger to me.  My Abram – a divide now yawned between us that I couldn’t have bridged if I had wanted to. 
And I didn’t want to.

And she! Oh, how she lorded it over me!  As her belly began to swell she looked upon me, her mistress, with such contempt, as though I were less than worthless. 
The two of them… I could barely stomach the thought of it; it plagued me relentlessly!  That she would give to him what I never could? 
This child wouldn’t be ours; it would be theirs. 

I couldn’t stand the sight of her; the pain burned inside me into a molten rage and I “dealt harshly” with my slave woman. 
After she fled from me I regretted what I had done. Not only was I useless, I was wicked.  I should never have behaved in that way.  No matter what has happened, I am still Abram’s wife, I said, and mistress of this household. And it is incumbent upon me to remember my place and the duty I have to uphold the dignity of my husband and position.  I am the one who did this.  And I will bear the consequences graciously if it kills me. 
She did come back, and I swallowed my pride and struggled daily to push past my shame and anger and the gnawing, constant grief, and keep my head high and my emotions restrained.  But after that, part of me was dead.

The years went on and we managed.  We found a way, our odd little family.  Abram doted on Ishmael, his son, and I fulfilled my duty and cared for the boy for Abram’s sake and the sake of this project we were now in, living the dream for this God who had settled him here, anchored him in this boy, leaving only me to drift through the desert alone. 

For a while, I fought the hostility inside me every day; the regret, pain and confusion, and mostly the loneliness and isolation.  We were still together, he still reached for me in the darkness of the night, there was still some comfort in the familiarity of his arms and the daily patterns and unspoken rhythms of a lifetime side by side; we still shared language and even occasionally laughter, but what we’d had was gone. And sometimes I’d gaze at him and realize with a start that I’d no more know his thoughts than a perfect stranger’s.  We were closed to one another.  
But over time, the anger softened into defeat, and I accepted the life we had grown into.  I was no longer young, and my old age had worn away regret and gradually filled in the places with a not-unpleasant mixture of gratitude and resignation.

Then it happened again, this promise giving, this sudden burst of belief, and Abram returned one day, like he had the first time, seventy years before, flushed and luminous and filled with purpose.  He set about circumcising all the males in the whole place and going on about the promise once again.   He said God had changed his name, that he was to be Abraham now, ancestor of a multitude of nations, for through him were to come nations and kings.  And he announced that there was now a covenant, God claiming them all as God’s people forever. And this was fine. I’d grown accustomed to accepting this spectacular direction our lives had become oriented to and his breathless reports of God’s words, only a few days later he started in again on me. 

He stood as we were finishing dinner -  Ishmael, the continuously in motion teenager, had gone off somewhere in his usual flurry, and I was about to clear the meal, and Abraham grabbed my hands and pulled me down to sit beside him.  Sarai, he said, with a strange mixture of sadness and hope in his watery eyes, Ishmael is not the promise. 
Then he stood over me and laid his hands on my head, closed his eyes and said, You are now to be called Sarah, the princess of a people, for God will bless you and give to me a son through you. God will bless you and you shall give rise to nations, kings of people shall come from you.  Sarah you are and Sarah you shall be. 
His hands still heavy on my head, he knelt back down in front of me, and then gently slid them from my head to my face, cradling it before him.
I sat like a stone. 
I could feel his breath on my face, he was so close.  Finally I raised my eyes and looked into his crazy, hope-filled face and I felt nothing. 
There was nothing. 
I gave him nothing.

How could he? 
How dare he? 
I reached up and gently took him by the wrists, removed his hands from my cheeks, and lowered his arms away from me.  Then I turned away from this man, and slowly rose to my feet and walked out of the tent.

I was finished.

Some time later three visitors appeared in our camp in the heat of the day.
We don’t often have visitors, and Abraham was turbulent with hospitality, caring for their animals, offering them rest and shade, setting the whole camp into motion to provide respite and welcome to these travelers stopping in.  He rushed into our tent and told me how to do my job, always a sure sign of his nervous energy, and I set about making cakes for his guests, while Abraham, all ninety-some years of him, hiked up his robe and ran to the herd to select a calf and have it prepared for a feast. 
Once all was ready and they were eating in the shade of the tree, one of them said to him, “Where is your wife, Sarah?”

Inside the tent, my heart skipped a beat.  Abraham had not spoken my name; I had declined to come out of the tent and meet the guests.  (I had made it silently and unmistakably clear that these little projects of his no longer included me). 

I drew near the entrance to hear what they were saying.
“She’s there, in the tent.” Abraham answered. He seemed embarrassed.  Good.
Then one of them said, “I will return in due time, and I will find your wife Sarah with a son.”

When I heard that, I laughed to myself.
Oh, I am so beyond that! I thought.  WE are so beyond that.  He’s old, I’m old; he and I are FINISHED, and NOW, in my old age, when my life has been riddled with disappointment beyond words, NOW I am to have pleasure?  I highly doubt it, strange sir.  Nice sentiment, but you seem to have caught the illness that touches folks around here…there is to be no great happiness for me.  What you say is IMPOSSIBLE.

And I ask you, truly, What else could I do but laugh? 
The tears dried up long before my womb.  I had nothing left to weep. Nothing.

But somehow they knew. Somehow God knew.  I may have been hiding there in the tent, but these strangers had read my mind. 
Why did Sarah laugh? was the question. Why did she laugh and say, Shall I indeed bear a child now that I have gotten old?
I slipped outside the door, my heart pounding in fear.  They looked over at me and I at them, trembling.
Is anything too wonderful for God? 
And the visitor turned back to Abraham and repeated, louder this time, “In due time I will return and Sarah will have a son.”
“I didn’t laugh.” I blurted across to them.
And he stood and looked at me once again.  And a shiver went through me.
“Oh yes. You did laugh.” he said.

More time and drama came after that.  More moving, more of the same adjusting to the new. Lot came back into our lives for a time, we even had another “pretend you’re my sister” incident, like the good old days, complete with another household in upheaval until God alerted them that I belonged to Abraham and we were once again on our way, wondering at how we’d managed to repeat an old mistake so egregiously.  But it was nice to feel desirable again, anyway, to get back into the groove with Abraham, a little like our young selves, all this adventure and motion. 
And something within me had come back to life.  I could feel it healed over, like fresh, fertile soil in my soul, willing to begin anew with Abraham, willing to open myself to the possibility that life might hold something promising.  Even if I didn’t understand it.

That strange day with the visitors lived always in the shadows behind everything that happened.  It hovered there, without explanation, but also without disappearing.  And I had grown to treasure it for its inexplicable warmth.  If nothing else, for what it felt like to finally be seen. To hear my name as the opening to a stranger’s promise. To have my very self laid so bare for such a brief and shocking moment.  And to find, in some strange way, solidarity with Abraham in the holy, in the place he had always stood alone and told me of later. To feel the mystery electrify the air between us all, hear the voice of God together - it seemed to burn away the hardness between us, to fill the gulf that divided us and draw us close, and we could see each other again, reach each other again. 

And then one ordinary day, God did as God had said. 
One regular, uneventful day, unremarkable day, the Lord did for me as the Lord has promised.
I conceived.
And in due time, I bore Abraham a son in his old age,
just as God had promised. 

On the day he was born, when I held his tiny life against me, and felt the tapping of his new little heartbeat against the timeless thudding of my own, when I lowered him to my breast and gazed at the downy softness of his impossibly beautiful head, I said in my joy, the hot, fresh tears streaming down my face, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me!  Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children?  Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”

Abraham called him Isaac. Which means “laughter.”
 And on the eighth day he circumcised Isaac, to bear the mark of one held in the covenant of God, one belonging to the God who will never forsake the people of God’s promise. 
Abraham was one hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.
And I not much younger.

Is anything too wonderful for God? 
How could I not laugh?
I held in my own arms the promise itself, the sign of a God who will never forsake the people of God’s promise. The joy pours out of me yet, for my body bore the promise made flesh, and my breasts nursed not just my own fulfillment, but the future of God’s people: nations and kings, numerous as the stars, a people chosen and brought forth by God.  A people of God’s blessing, with God’s purpose.

This promise of Abraham’s, that guided our whole lives, it never belonged to him. 
Or to me.
We belonged to it.
The plan of God doesn’t come from what is possible; it comes from what is promised.
And nothing we do can hinder it or break it, can prevent it from coming. 
One could, I suppose, decline the invitation to participate, and I suppose I almost did, for a while.
But God is relentless and committed;
God will do what God will do. 
And blessed, oh so blessed, are those through whom God does.

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