Posts Tagged ‘religion’

Abraham Study: Ishmael and Isaac

June 29, 2017

I am a couple of weeks behind with the Abraham Study, so let’s catch up. Two weeks ago the chapter was about Ishmael, the son that Abraham had with Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian servant. Last week the chapter was about Isaac, the son that Abraham had with Sarah, his wife.

As the story goes, God promised a son to Abraham and Sarah; but they are old and Sarah gets impatient. They have recently lived in Egypt and acquired an Egyptian woman to serve Sarah, and Sarah decides that it is through Hagar that the son will be born. She seems to imagine that Hagar will give birth and just turn the baby over to Sarah to raise. Abraham is uncertain but when Hagar goes to him he sleeps with her and becomes pregnant.

This is where Sarah’s plan goes awry. Hagar now has status over Sarah because of her pregnancy, and the story indicates that she taunts Sarah with it. So Sarah tells Abraham to send Hagar away. Again Abraham is uncertain but does as Sarah asks. Hagar is sent into the desert, where God tells her to return. She goes back and Ishmael is born. Thus, he is the first born son.

Eventually Sarah becomes pregnant and Isaac, the second son, is born. Conflict arises once again between Sarah/ Isaac and Hagar/ Ishmael and Sarah once again demands that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away. Abraham is uncertain once again, but God tells him to do what Sarah says.

It’s interesting to note that here the Jewish scriptures, known by Jews and Christians, have one story, but there are other stories about what happens to Hagar and Ishmael. Of course the Christian tradition has the story that Hagar and Ishmael are sent away into the desert, where they nearly die of thirst. But God hears their cries and gives them water and then promises that Ishmael will be father of a great nation.

The other story is quite different– Abraham takes Hagar and Ishmael to Mecca and settles them there and even revisits them later. In this version there is a continuing relationship between Abraham and Hagar and Ishmael.

How does this story and our understanding of Ishmael as firstborn son inform our understanding of Abraham? To begin with, it seems likely that Abraham has some real affection for Ishmael because he is the first born son. At that time birth order was quite important, and the eldest was the heir of the father. The story implies that Abraham was born because Sarah went against God’s intent and that Isaac was intended as heir to God’s covenant with Abraham rather than Ishmael (the Jewish/ Christian traditional reading. One way or another Hagar and Ishmael are taken care of by God.

At this point I find Abraham to be a rather ambiguous character. On the one hand he seems to have this one-to-one relationship with God; on the other hand, when Sarah tells him to send Hagar away he does it. Regretfully, perhaps, but he does it. This seems to be at odds with his reputation as a man of great faith who took up stakes and moved his family at God’s behest.

We don’t hear much more about Ishmael in the Jewish/ Christian scriptures. At one point Joseph is given to “the Ishmaelites” by his brothers. Islamic tradition views Ishmael as a prophet and an ancestor to Muhammad. Over time the Ishmaelites became associated with the term “Arab”.  In Islamic tradition Ishmael seems to be seen as the link to Abraham and, as first son, a reason that Islam should be considered the ‘true’ or ‘primary’ religion; he is at least a partial source of division particularly between Jews and Muslims but also between Muslims and Christians.

For notes Bill Lindsay’s notes on the chapter about Isaac, click here.

 

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Abraham– Week 4: Call

June 12, 2017

We continue our Abraham study with the chapter entitled “Call”, about the beginnings of Abraham’s call to follow God. Once again, there are notes from co-teacher Bill that can be accessed here. If you’re reading along or following this blog I encourage you to add your own comments, and if you haven’t started reading the book, Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths by Bruce Feiler it is well worth the read. It is available on Amazon and possibly through your local library as well!

This chapter addresses the question of what it means to be called by God, particularly as it pertains to Abraham and particularly as understood by Christians, Muslims and Jews. We can also glean form this discussion what it means to be called on a more personal level; for, as Abraham is called, so are we called as his descendants.

The call of Abraham teaches us, according to Mr. Feiler, that God hears the cries of all of God’s people. God heard the cry of Abraham, who at an advanced age had no heir; God responds with a promise of not only more descendants than there are stars in the sky, but also land that will be his and theirs. In order to receive this promise Abraham must leave his homeland and go… somewhere. God isn’t clear in the beginning where Abraham will go, only that he needs to go. And Abraham, trusting God, goes.

This is something new; Abraham is breaking tradition with his father who is a maker of idols. For Abraham, God offers no physical manifestation; neither does Abraham seem to need it. We might wonder how to put ourselves in Abraham’s shoes: is God the still, small voice in Abraham’s head? Is there an actual conversation? We have reported interchanges between God and Abraham, but is this a conversation as we humans understand conversation? And if not, what was it that convinced Abraham to go?

In Mr. Feiler’s book he describes the differences in emphasis between Christianity, Judaism and Islam regarding the understanding of Abraham’s call. For Jews, Abraham’s call began as a call to migration, a call that will lead him (and his descendants) to the promised land. Later the understanding becomes more spiritual in nature as the exile sends Jews on a different journey, a journey away from the land to a place where they are the other. Now the task, says Mr. Feiler, is to “go to yourself…find your roots.” For  Islam Abraham’s response to God, that he picked up and went to another land at God’s instruction, is the ultimate submission and obedience to God. For Christians the Abraham story represents a “hoping against hope” (as Paul puts it)– he didn’t disbelieve God’s promise even though he was of advanced age and “his body was as good as dead” (again, Paul). Feiler’s friend Father John says that “the lesson of Abraham is that you have to be willing to risk it all. You have to give up everything for God.”

As Christians we ask ourselves “what is God calling me to do?” We beleive that all of God’s people have gifts and abilities that we are to use to fulfill God’s work in the world. Frederick Buechner describes the place God God’s us to as that place in which a person’s deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. It may be that we are called, as Abraham was, to pick up stakes and move to a new land. It may be that we are called to a a new ministry in which we are the other, the outsider who must form relationships before we can accomplish any change in the world.

 

 

 

Abraham Study– week 3 “Birth”

June 8, 2017

I am behind a week in writing about our study Bruce Feiler’s book, “Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths.” Sometimes life intervenes! So this is from Wednesday, May 31 and I’ll be writing about last night’s (June 7th) discussion later in the week. The lessons for May 31, June 7 and June 14 are led by Bill Lindsay, so I am including his notes in the writing for these weeks. Thanks Bill!

The chapter for May 31, called “Birth” is the first of two in a section that are about the historical Abraham and the question of whether or not he really existed, if it can be proven, and if it matters. To me, this is part of a larger question that encompasses the whole of scripture– what do we know, what can we prove, and does it matter? For Christians, answering this question runs the gamut from Biblical inerrancy– every jot and tittle is true and authentic in its authorship (God, through Moses and others) to the idea that the Bible is just a good book which, because it can’t be proven, carries truths but isn’t true, per se. 

To many people the question of the truth of scripture is very important. Some will read the Bible stories about Abraham and believe he was a real historical character. Some will see that there is no physical evidence and understand Abraham as a mythical or composite figure, borne out of centuries of oral tradition and helpful as a anchor for the faith, but not a real, historical figure. Either way, even though Abraham isn’t provable– as Avraham Biran says in Feiler’s book, All we know about Abraham is in the Bible …  In the ground , there’s nothing… But remember , archaeology cannot prove or disprove the Bible . I follow Albright , the founder of our field , in that the Bible as a book of divine inspiration needs no proof . At the same time , you can neither do archaeology in biblical lands nor study the Bible without being aware of the discoveries . 

The Bible is a book of stories, a mix of oral tradition and written history– though maybe not “history” as we in the 21st century think of it. When we read the Bible and study the ancestors of the faith, we do so from a place and time so far removed from its happenings that it can be hard to process it, it can be hard to know how it applies to our lives today–if it even does.

And yet there are truths there. Abraham is a figure of faith that we can look to in order to understand our own. In Christian and Hebrew texts we come upon Abraham as an adult, with little background information other than his father’s name and the fact that they all migrated from Ur to Haran over a number of years.

Muslim texts have more detail. Abraham’s father carves and sells idols, and people worship him. He is of the polytheistic age and forced Abraham, who even as a young boy didn’t believe in the power of idols, to sell them. Abraham is reported to have mocked his father for worshiping idols; he was threatened with stoning and was reportedly thrown into the fire for his alternate beliefs but was saved by God.

Abraham is the first monotheist– the first to insist that there is only one God. Abraham is also the first, if we believe the stories, to be martyred. There is no question why this man, this Abraham, became so important to three major religions of the world and remains the ancestor to us all. So the question becomes for each of our traditions, how can we each honor him without dishonoring the faith traditions of the others?

 

Abraham, Week 2: Home

May 26, 2017

Our discussion this week truly begins our study of the book, Abraham: A Story of Three Faiths. If you’re following along in the reading, the chapter we discussed on Wednesday, May 23 was called Home. In this chapter Mr. Feiler lays the groundwork for his investigation of Abraham, beginning with a visit to Jerusalem.
We began this week by reading Genesis 12:1-9 (New Revised Standard Version (NRSV))

The Call of Abram
12 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. 5 Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, 6 Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7 Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. 8 From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. 9 And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.

For background I put together a set of images showing various maps of Abraham’s journey as well as some modern day pictures of Ur, Haran, Shechem, Bethel, Ai and the Negev– locations given in the scripture passage of where Abraham had traveled. At the end are a set of pictures of Jerusalem, and it is easy to see how close in proximity are landmarks of the three faiths. In one image is the Dome of the Rock, a building with a golden dome, which marks the spot that each faith sees as a touchstone– the place where Mohammad was taken into heaven by Allah, the place where Jesus preached, the place where Isaac was offered by Abraham as sacrifice.

Jerusalem is a good place to begin to understand what it means to be monotheistic; understanding monotheism can help us understand the roots of the difficulty of coexistence that the three faiths have.

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church defines monotheism as belief in one personal and transcendent God. In simple terms, Muslims believe Allah is the one God; Christians believe God as expressed as Creator/Christ/Spirit is the one God; Jews believe that Yahweh is the one God. For each of these groups even acknowledging that the others have a god of their own is to acknowledge that there is more than one God. Thus, it becomes important to maintain an exclusivity or purity of belief in their particular deity. Over time each faith tradition has attempted to impose its own religious beliefs and practices on the others– which continues until today.

Below are some notes I pulled out of Mr. Feiler’s book, on which we centered our discussion:

Notes from Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths (B. Feiler): Home
A piece of land emerged out of the water [of creation]. That land is the Rock, and the rock is here.
Adam was buried here, Solomon built here, Jesus prayed here. Muhammad ascended here.
Abraham came here to bury his son.
The Rock is considered the navel of the world
Stand here, you can see eternity. Stand here, you can touch the source.
o Stand here, you can smell burning flesh.
Any panorama, any camera angle, any genuflection that encompasses one will necessarily include at least one of the others.
Jewish boy, Joshua’s, comment (re: waiting for the messiah to come and make all things new, but unable to imagine it happening with Muslims present.)

Abraham
Shared ancestor of Judaism, Christianity and Islam
History’s first monotheist
Found in Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Koran—which often disagree about Abraham’s history, even on basic matters
Even Abraham’s itinerary changed between generations and religions
]for we who study Abraham in this book, we are looking at] 3 religions, 4 millennia, one never-ending war.

Abraham’s offering of Isaac is a shared story, a shared touchstone for the three faiths.
Christianity—we read at Lent/ Easter– Isaac/ Jesus as ‘sacrifice’
Judaism—Rosh Hashannah
Islam—‘Id al-Adha—“the feast of the sacrifice” -climax of the pilgrimage
But can’t agree on what son was victim
Is that the model of holiness, the legacy of Abraham: to be prepared to kill for God?

Story from David Willna —the point of the story is that this degree of brotherly love is necessary before God can be manifest in the world.
“This (Jerusalem) is not only the spot where it is possible to connect with God, it’s the spot where you can connect with God only if you understand what it means to connect with one another” (David Willna)
“The relationship between a person and another human being is what creates and allows for a relationship with God. If you’re not capable of living with each other and getting along with each other, then you’re not capable of having a relationship with God.” (David Willna)

As we begin this study we see that there is a connection between these three faiths through the ancestor Abraham, but that each wants to claim the God of Abraham as its own one true God. Is the connection enough to say that we share one God through Abraham?

Please leave any comments or discussions in the comment section below.
For next week we’ll read the next chapter, Birth, and begin to seek out the ancestor we call Abraham.

Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths

May 19, 2017

This month we’re beginning a new study of Bruce Feiler’s book, Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths. In this book Mr. Feiler journeys around the Middle East, talking to believers of Judiasm, Christianity and Islam about the role that Abraham plays in their particular faith tradition. It is an interesting story and a very readable book, and if you can’t join us on Wednesdays at 5:30 for the discussion, I hope you’ll check in here and add your own comments!

I will be blogging each week about our discussion and I hope to hear from some of you as you follow along. If you are not a part of the COF family, you should know that we are a part of the Christian faith tradition. However, our purpose is to learn something about the heritage we have in common with Judaism and Islam, so hopefully we will have some discussion around those faith traditions as well.

We began this week with an overview of the book, a reading of the beginning of the Abraham story found in Genesis (11:26-12:9), and a discussion of what we know about Abraham as we begin. Abraham is first mentioned as Abram in Genesis 11:26: When Terah had lived seventy years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran. Before we get to this point we’ve had the creation story, Adam and Eve in and out of Eden, Cain and Abel, Noah, and the Tower of Babel. Right after the Babel story there is a listing of descendants of Noah beginning with Shem, through about 8 generations until we get to Terah, the father of Abram. Besides Shem there is nothing noted about these generational ancestors; there is little know even of Terah except that he lived in Ur and at some point gathered his family and set out for Caanan. Along the way they came to a place called Haran and settled there. Terah’s son Haran had already died before they left Ur, but along with Terah came Abram and Sarai, his wife, as well as Lot, the son of Haran.

Questions:

As we begin our study of Abraham and his relationship to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, what do we know about him?

As we begin our study of Abraham and his relationship to Judiasm, Christianity and Islam, what do we know about the origins and tenets of these three faith traditions?

Our discussion:

Abram and others in this part of the OT* are given ages of hundreds of years. Is this true? Did people really live longer then, or did they reckon time differently?

  • They reckoned time differently– years were shorter
  • This comes out of oral tradition, and a difference of understanding of “age” than what we have today
  • The numbers given as final age were largely symbolic and depended on the status of the individual named.

What do we know about Abraham?

  • His original name was Abram and his wife’s original name was Sarai. At some point God changed their names.
  • Abraham was ordered by God to sacrifice his son Isaac
  • He was given to lying; twice lied about Sarai being his sister instead of his wife.
  • Sarah his wife could not have children; thus his first son was Ishmael from Hagar. Ishmael and his descendants split off into a separate line of descendants.
  • Abram was rich.
  • Abram was nomadic.

What do we know about the origins of Christianity, Judaism and Islam (and about them in general?)

  • They are monotheistic religions
  • Christianity began when the apostles began to see themselves as separate from Judaism
  • Islam began when Mohammad had a vision which became the Quran (this is the faith tradition that we all know the least about.)
  • We discussed the idea that oral tradition played a large role in the beginnings of each faith tradition and that eventually things were written down. There are similarities in the stories found in each tradition– much of the wisdom that these three traditions are know for are found in other traditions around the world.
  • All three have a history of “winning” over the others, each tradition believes “we” will win the ultimate battle and become the one true religion (and each already has an element of believing themselves to be the one true religion.)

This study will take about 10 weeks. The book is divided into sections:

  • An introduction, called Home, in which we discover the Rock of Abraham, the beginnings and touchstone of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
  • God of Abraham, which will talk about the birth and call of Abram.
  • Children of Abraham, in which we learn about Ishmael and Isaac and how they factor into the development of the three faith traditions.
  • People of Abraham, with a chapter for the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith tradition
  • Blood of Abraham, in which the legacy of Abraham is discovered.

Next week we’ll begin with Home and the questions that led Mr. Feiler to decide to take this journey of discovery of how Abraham fits into each of the three faith traditions.

So what do you think? If you’d like to read along and join the discussion, the book is available in paperback on Amazon or can be downloaded to Kindle. Please share your thoughts below; keep it clean and civil please, comments will be moderated.

*Some Christians call this part of our Bible “Hebrew Scriptures” but to me that isn’t entirely accurate either, so for the purposes of this study OT and NT will refer to the Christian Bible, the Torah will refer to scriptures of Judaism, and the Quran will refer to scriptures of Islam.

 

 

 

 

Whose is the Church?

May 13, 2014

I read a great blog last week from a Lutheran pastor who was speaking to her denominational body. Her denomination, like the PCUSA, has been losing members for several years, causing leaders within the church and people in the pews to bemoan the “decline” of the denomination. And it’s true that, if you look  at the numbers, the mainline denominations are in decline– all of them, across the board, some more than others, and including the PCUSA. Of course as analytical beings who are also dedicated to keeping our lives as change-free as possible, we have spent lots of time and money over the last several years trying to figure out what’s going wrong, why the new non-denominational church down the street is stealing all of our members, and just generally angst-ing about the whole issue. We wring our hands (and I have done my share of weeping and hand wringing, I’ll admit) and we stay frozen in place because we simply cannot imagine that church can be any other way than what we’ve experienced.

But the message that Nadia Bolz-Weber had for her denomination is a good one for all of us to hear: Stop saying the church is dying!

The church has been around for a long time, people. From shortly after Jesus ascended into heaven until today, the “church” has existed in many different forms and permutations. From house churches who shared all their goods together for the common benefit of all, to the great cathedrals of the middle ages whose imperfect priests led congregations of the poor and wealthy alike; to the small family churches and large mega churches of today, “the church” has always been more about function than about form. Functionally churches began as a way for believers to come together, to share Christ’s love with each other, care for each other, and share the gospel with others (ok, maybe that’s idealized and simplified, but that was the purpose at it’s core.) These early churches seem to have been communities of support and care, of teaching about Jesus and learning to follow his way, of sharing the good news with anyone who would listen.

Now we do hear of unrest in these churches, and we do know that their survival was tenuous at times, for reasons both internal and external (and who knows how many of these worshipping communities disbanded without anyone ever even hearing about them?) But many of them did survive and thrive and on account of this perseverance we today know who Jesus was and what he meant to the people of his day and hat he means to people of our day.

If we look at the big picture, we see that church membership and attendance has waxed and waned many times in the 2000 years since Jesus’ death. There have been times, such as in the mid-20th century, that churches in America were thriving, while in the Soviet Union even attending church could get a person arrested. And yet today Russia has a thriving religious community, while in the US churches seem to be in decline. Christianity in Asia and South America is booming, while in the US it seems to be dwindling. People seem to have so many choices of ways to spend their time– and they’re choosing not to attend church– especially not younger people. And so we wring our hands, fearful that our churches will soon all be silent.

The thing is, what we’re really afraid of is that church as we know it, as we’re used to, is going away. The old familiar hymns aren’t played as much, and in some places the organ has been replaced with a piano or–gasp!– a band with guitars and drums and all sorts of unfamiliar instruments. To those who grew up with organ music, with the great hymns, it seems sacrilegious to play instruments that are usually played in bars and clubs in church.  The rhythms of new songs are different than we’re used to and we might find them hard to sing. And people don’t dress up for church anymore– it all seems so unseemly. We have also put a lot of time and money and energy into our buildings and programs, only to have the next generation seem unappreciative of our efforts. And our churches get emptier and emptier with each passing year.

But so what? Do we really think that this means the church is dying? Are we really so concerned with numbers that we are going to throw up our hands, rend our clothes and hair in despair? Because I have news for you– and it was news that Nadia Bolz-Weber shared as well: this is not our church. Whether the church as we know it lives or dies, it isn’t our church. This Church and all of the churches that make up the larger Church– belong to God– the God who created us and our world, the God who came to earth in the form of Jesus Christ, the God who is among us as our Advocate, the Holy Spirit. And even if we have to give up our buildings and meet in catacombs once again, even if we can’t display our nativity scenes on the public square anymore, even if we don’t understand what is happening and why it is happening, God is with us. Our churches belong to God, Christ, and Spirit– and God has done a pretty good job of keeping things going so far. Maybe not the way we imagine it should be, but let’s not give up. For God’s sake.

So I join Nadia Bolz-Weber in saying this: Stop saying the church is dying! Stop all the hand wringing! Focus on being church– loving one another, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, celebrating the sacraments, studying the word– for that is what a church does, that is it’s function. Form follows function, it doesn’t lead it. And if we have to find new forms to follow those functions in today’s world, why is that a bad thing?

 

 

Highlights from the 2014 Maundy Thursday service at COF

April 22, 2014

Choir, Readers Theater, and Solo from the Maundy Thursday worship service at COF on April 17, 2014.