Genesis 16:1-6, 21:1-17
When I was studying for the ministry, one of the expectations was that each
week, the entire community would attend chapel (the worship service). Although I
had been a Unitarian Universalist for more than a decade, I was still healing
from the pain of my fundamentalist past, and I had not yet mustered the courage
to attend chapel in this United Methodist seminary. But with the support of
three Unitarian Universalist friends, one Friday toward the end of the first
semester, I dragged myself to worship.
I wasn't sure what kind of message I would hear, but it was a week before
exams, and I hoped for a place where I could center myself, and find some
internal spiritual resources for the days ahead. To my surprise, there was no
sermon. It was early December, and the entire liturgy focused on Advent, ending
with a celebration of the Eucharist. Now I had not attended a Christian
communion for over 20 years, but I tried to approach it with an open mind.
The prayer, offered by Dr. Mark Burrows, began with these words: "We, who are
the children of Abraham and Sarah. . ." I don't recall the rest of the sentence,
because in a split second, my mind went blank. It simply refused to be present
to this experience that was sacred for most others in attendance. I began to
weep-quietly at first-but a whimper soon turned to tears, then uncontrollable
tears. My friends sat beside me trying to be supportive, but didn't have a clue
what was so upsetting about that simple phrase: "We, who are the children of
Abraham and Sarah?" I had no harsh feelings toward Dr. Burrows, but the moment I
heard those words suggesting that I was a descendent of Abraham and Sarah, I
felt the pain of exclusion.
My rational mind told me that the I should not take it literally; that the
statement was merely a symbolic reference to our Jewish and Christian heritage.
But that rationale didn't help. I simply could not get beyond the complex
dynamics of race and class and gender in the biblical story. I knew the story of
Abraham and Sarah in the book of Genesis, but I also knew the story of Abraham
and Hagar, an Egyptian woman whose ethnicity and social standing made her an
outcast in ancient Israel, a stranger in a strange land.
As a woman of African heritage, I identified myself as one of Hagar's
children, and I wondered why she had not been mentioned in the prayer. Was she
not worthy of mention because she was a slave?
According to the story, when Hagar's son Ishmael was about 14 years old,
Sarah became jealous. Hagar had sacrificed her body and her beauty. She had
postponed her life in order to give this elderly couple the gift of a child. And
yet, Sarah was jealous. Here were two brothers, Ishmael and Isaac, whose
childhood play was, no doubt, innocent of any social or economic distinctions.
And yet, Sarah's worry about inheritance spawned her jealously, which led to a
crisis in the household. In the end, Sarah threw Hagar and Ishmael out of the
house-banished them to the wilderness, with no food and only a half gallon of
water. Two brothers were forced apart because of a fight between their parents.
Reason . . . is not at the top of the youth agenda . . . but love is.
Brokenness in the family. Brokenness in our communities. Brokenness in our
world. It is an old story, one we know well. When family and social discord
disrupts and threatens life, it is more than a social problem; it is a religious
problem, one that calls people of faith to respond. Born of the Enlightenment
Movement, with its abiding faith in the power of human reason, many liberals are
at a loss to understand or explain post-modern phenomenon such as the violence
our nation has witnessed in public schools in the past few years.
School violence in black, Latina/o and urban areas is an old problem. But
until the tragedy at Columbine High School, it seemed that parts of this nation
were asleep. Only when schoolyards in white suburban areas became graveyards did
people wake-up. Following the shootings in Paducah, Kentucky; Edinborough,
Pennsylvania; Jonesboro, Arkansas; Springfield, Oregon; Littleton, Colorado; and
most recently, in Santee, California, and Williamsport, Pennsylvania, we have
now begun to acknowledge that there is a deep crisis in our nation.
When it comes to our children, love is the answer, no matter what the
We ask what is happening in our schools-why is there so much violence? But
the real question is: what is happening in our society?
In a way, it defies reason. Reason, I suspect, is not at the top of the youth
agenda today, but love is.
All the evidence shows that "when children feel loved, typically, they do not
express themselves in acts of violence, regardless of the external factors"
competing for their attention. One expert put it this way:
"Children who make the decision to kill, or feel it forced upon
them, do so because they are already emotionally armed and dangerous. Finding a
weapon to express their rage is secondary to the primary fact of their being
emotional time bombs."
As a nation, we are in a deep cultural depression as well as a spiritual
Of course, we need to do something about the availability of hand guns. Of
course, media violence has an influence, and we adults bear a responsibility for
curbing both. That goes without saying. But this is not a problem from which we
adults can exempt ourselves. We cannot simply blame the youth or youth culture,
for we are they. They are our children, they come from our homes.
Cornel West described the problem with one of those big words: nihilism,
which simply means profound alienation that expresses itself in destructive
ways. West says that nihilism is a "monumental eclipse of hope (and an)
unprecedented collapse of meaning," or to say it in another way, it is "the
lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness,
hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness."
Lovelessness. We look for explanations. We blame school violence on the
availability of guns. Certainly, that is a problem, but if all the guns were
taken out of circulation, it would not stop the proclivity to some form of
violence toward others. We blame it on violence in the media-television, films,
video games, and violent lyrics in popular music. This too is part of the
problem, but it is time to see the picture from a wider lens.
When Cain killed his brother Abel in the biblical story, one of the first
recorded stories of family violence, modern mass media was not there to tempt
him. He did not replicate a murder he saw on television or learn how to make a
formula for death that he found on the Internet.
Our youth cannot make it alone! They need our love. They need to feel our
arms around them wherever they may be.
As a nation, we are in a deep cultural depression as well as a spiritual
crisis. What is not said very much by people in the helping professions (social
critics, preachers, sociologists, teachers or others who come into intimate
contact with youth) is that there is a crisis of the spirit, a crisis of faith
in our society. And here I am not referring to any particular religion, but to
faith in the self, faith in something higher than the self, and faith in one's
family and community.
Alienation (or nihilism) is not overcome by analysis or by programs, but by
love and compassion. I believe the emotional distancing we often see in youth
can be subdued by the love ethic-not expressed sentimentally, but by valuing
what young people have to say; by encouraging their participation in the things
that most deeply affects their lives.
...we are not here not to act as if we are brothers and sisters, but to
remember that we really are brothers and sisters whose very reason for being is
to love and care for one another.
Let us recall the story of Hagar and Ishmael where we left off. A family in
crisis. A woman and her son alone-out in the wilderness, homeless. No crisis hot
line. No overnight shelter. No abuse counselor. She needed someone to hear her
story, someone to help her figure things out-where she was going to live, how
she was going to feed herself and her son. But there was no pastor, no prophet,
no priest, no lay minister to help her figure it all out. According to the
story, in the depths of her despair, an angel appeared at Hagar's side, and
asked: Where are you coming from, and where are you going?
That, my friends, is a question we need to ask not only of our children and
youth, but of many parents and families as well. Where are you coming from,
and where are you going?
Families are complicated. Like Hagar and Ishmael, too many of our children
and families are out in the wilderness. Even though youth may show up in the
classroom day after day, teachers and administrators never know what they may be
facing in their families or communities. Our youth cannot make it alone! They
need our love. They need to feel our arms around them wherever they may be. And
they need a church that can help them to know that:
We just sang the children out, to their classes, but collectively, do you
know them by name? Do you have any idea what is on their minds? If only we could
commit ourselves to do the internal work necessary-with children, youth, adults,
and families-to recover and integrate the lost parts of ourselves-to find the
silences that lead to kids bullying kids, which leads to distancing-which leads
to alienation, which leads to hopelessness and despair. If only we could recover
those parts of the self that have been fragmented or suppressed. If only we
could be more hospitable to each other.
This is the work of the soul. Soul work is hard work, but it must be done if
we are to be fully alive. One thing that makes it difficult is that it is
transcendent-we must move beyond ourselves, to the place of empathy and
compassion; to the place of hospitality-hospitality of the human spirit. This is
what counters alienation, nihilism, and brokenness in the human family. Soul
work. Compassion. Hospitality. It is the work of the church. It is our
salvation. It is what ministry is-to save souls through hospitality of the human
spirit. So may it be.
Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association
member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship.
Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.
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Last updated on Tuesday, February 19, 2013.
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