Sarah was a mother like all mothers, except for one splendid difference. Her baby came into the world after decades of infertility, an impossibility so far-fetched that she named her son, 'Isaac'. Isaac means 'laughter', and indeed how truly appropriate the name. For after all, when God had revealed such a preposterous promise, that she, well past natural child-bearing years, would yet have a son, she had broken into disillusioned laughter, hard sounds rattling in her chest like pieces of shattered pottery. And then oh how she had laughed, wave upon wave of gratitude ringing out like bells, when the midwife handed him into her trembling arms-- this treasure, her beautiful, beautiful boy--given to her when she had no longer the strength to even wish.
Sarah thought that she would teach this boy everything, and that her fierce love was capable of keeping him in the golden fields of home forever. She forgot, in the blinding rush of wonder fulfilled, that she was only a human being, and that even the strongest of us cannot keep the thunderclouds from brewing, the storms from pounding, the darkness from descending.
For some reason, the bright sunshine didn't warm her that particular day. Her husband Abraham had said that it was just another father/son outing, but was there something stricken in his eyes--just a flash--something just slightly shell-shocked about his smile? We can only imagine her, waving at the chattering excited boy as he grew smaller in the distance, running distracted fingers through her hair as she went about her tasks, finding herself stopping often to peer out, straining her eyes to see them return, feebly chiding herself about worrying.
The Bible does not indicate if her husband told her the real reason for this outing, and it seems to me that if he had, her maternal instincts would have turned her into a wild animal, clawing and biting and fighting in every way possible to get her son away and safe. For how could any mother watch passively as her son is being taken off for human sacrifice? Yes, you read that right. That's what Abraham was being called to do by God, not knowing that God from the very beginning intended it simply as a test, a means to illustrate the prophecy of what his precious Son would someday do for us all, a means to reveal in the starkest way possible, that trusting Him is always right, even it feels completely wrong from our limited human point of view. For Abraham, sobs racking his body, could have no idea that at the very last moment, with the knife poised ready to plunge into his dear boy's heart, that God would stay his hand.
I know this sounds like such a cruel story; it seems like God is playing mindgames, that He is taking unnecessarily drastic measures to illustrate a point. But think about it for a little longer. Think about how many dark altars are out there upon which our children are sacrificed every day--drug addiction, promiscuity, a world-view where only 'me' and 'more' matter, just to name a few. And there comes a time, for even the most diligent and devoted parents, where, in the lives of our children, rehab won't heal them, another loan won't bail them out, our best intentions are not enough, and the lessons we have tried so hard to teach are the source of biting mockery. There comes a time when we parents must come face to face with the fact that we are flawed people parenting in a flawed and vicious world, and that we can lose our children, even if they live with us under the same roof. Only Jesus can spring all of us from the trap, only He can stop us from murdering the loveliness He sees in us. Only He can bring us back home, holding our Father's hand, back home to safety and a warm dinner.
This painting is from Sarah's point of view. She presses her hand to her face... as blessing spills forth from seeming senseless tragedy. For her son, the child that was concieved 'impossibly' from an elderly womb, the child that was rescued from harm to prove God's inescapable love, this child cups the seeds in his hands that are the beginning of a great nation. They symbolize, along with the blue figures in background field, the souls waiting to be born, the souls that rejoice in their future existence, souls that celebrate that God can indeed overcome anything.
Women like Naomi work inside the splintered doorframes of Great Depression farmhouses, bending shuttered faces as they sweep up the ravages of yet another freak of nature dust-storm. They are the women in the clicking grainy footage of World War II films, combing through the bombed-out wreckage of their front parlors, piling bits and pieces into battered baby carriages. Women like Naomi are in sterile white rooms, refusing to let go of their baby's tiny hands, staring down at little faces through the tubes, at little bodies far too small for hospital gurneys. Women like Naomi are the shattered ones, the ones who don't think they can go on, but somehow do.
So much was wrenched away from Naomi, it's a miracle that despair didn't drive her to end her own life. Her husband, her two adult sons, her home, her sense of family, community and security--even her faith in a God who loved her--were all dead and buried in a foreign land. She believed God was punishing her, and she racked her starving mind for the reason why. Even the devotion of one daughter-in-law named Ruth, who refused to leave her side on the long trek back to her hometown of Bethlehem could only be seen through her eyes as another burden in her rocky, barren world. She tersely greeted those who knew her by telling them to no longer call her 'Naomi' which means 'sweetness'--instead to call her 'Mara', which means 'bitter'. One can almost imagine their shock, trying to reconcile the gentle Naomi they remembered with this hard woman, harsh lines carved around her mouth and strands of brittle gray hair loose under her black mourning veil. Tragedy had been especially greedy with Naomi.
Throughout history, the story of Ruth, and her devotion to her mother-in-law, has been a celebrated subject, a staple of cathedral masterpieces, Sunday School sermons for centuries. However, I believe that Naomi's story is every bit as overlooked by our world as the desperate, worn-down women she represents. Her hope was small, just a glimmer, but it was powerful enough to change the course of her life and ripple out over vast stretches of generations, so much so that her name is not forgotten, even today. For, you see, even though it is not mentioned in the text, there had to be a point when she peered at the inky horizon of her future, and underneath the hopelessness, spotted just the smallest bit of color. The reason I suspect this is because Naomi's care and concern is pivotal to the story of her daughter-in-law, Ruth. People lost in anguished grief do not extend themselves to others, and Naomi not only helped Ruth to marry, she took care of Ruth's children and is in the human lineage of Jesus Christ. This painting is about that moment, when Naomi discovers that maybe, just maybe there will be something to live for again, after all. Perhaps a breeze felt kind on her cheek that day, or she caught herself smiling, caressing a memory in her pocket like a smooth, cool stone. Perhaps despite the often senseless barbarity, cruelty, and ugliness, God has a plan, that this life is only a small part of it. That better is coming because despite famine and graves and weeping, there are still sunflowers and sunsets and blooming in the world, too. This painting is about when, with nothing left, she picked herself up by keeping her eyes on Him. Like all women who don't think they can go on, but somehow do.
When I think of the Canaanite woman, rightly or wrongly, I think of a woman with cancer. The Bible says that she had a gynecological disorder where her menstrual bleeding was continuous. What a horror that would be. I picture a dear lady who is wasting away, someone who sleeps and sleeps and yet just gets more tired. What must it have been like for her, the shame of something so private so uncontrollably obvious, the odor and the pain, the slow seeping away of any sort of normal life? Did tears pour as easily as the blood? What was it like just to get through the day? Was anyone around to care for her? Perhaps she had grown thin and lost her hair; perhaps she had submitted herself to remedy after remedy, doctor after doctor, potion after potion, only to have hope drain away, too. We find no answers in Scripture to these questions, but there is one major clue about this woman who is nameless--yet far from invisible.
We know one thing. This woman was desperate enough to search out this strange healer named Jesus that everyone was talking about, sometimes not so favorably. She was desperate enough to climb out of her stale bed and her bleak gray existence, and risk going out in public, alone. She was willing to walk far and face the jostling of large crowds, to find him. And when she did find him, she was desperate enough to work her way close enough, by this time crawling from weakness, just to try to touch him. She told herself over and over that if she could just touch the tiniest bit of him, just brush up against him in a way he would not even notice, that that would be enough to heal her. She didn't even think she was worthy to meet his eyes, much less try to have some sort of grand dramatic exchange with him--as so many did. Her thin fingertips stretched so far, stretching, stretching, barely brushing the hem of his dusty garment. But even in the crowds pressing and surrounding him, he felt her and turning said, "Woman, your faith has made you well." In a split second, she saw that he found her worthy, that somehow he always had. The bleeding stopped and her life began.
For nearly six months, I slept on the couch, hooked to an oxygen machine, following a hospital stay of a week after a bout of bi-lateral pneumonia that nearly killed me. The infection had spread to my blood, and because of my 60% oxygen level, I had been at the verge of a full cardiac arrest. It took over a year to get somewhat normal, and my hair fell out completely from all the massive doses of anti-biotics. This painting had been done the year before, and I propped it up close where it was always in view.
I needed it around to remind me that I may be thinking I was only touching the hem of his garment, but, in reality, he had a firm grip on my me, and would not let me go. I needed it around to remind me that being weak and desperate is often its own gift, because we no longer have to rely on the illusion of our own strength. When we have nothing left to lose, there is nothing in between us and him.
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