Promises Better Broken

Promises Better Broken

There was a man, the story went, who wanted to be a leader of his people. He was from a humble background and had known much rejection, but now he had an opportunity. If he could pull off a victory, he would be praised and appointed to lead. He made a promise about what he would do if he was successful, and when he won, he kept his promise.

That promise was to sacrifice the first thing or person to meet him when he arrived home safely and victorious as a burnt offering to God, and the first to run out to meet him was his daughter, his only child.

The man’s name was Jephthah, and the story is in the book of Judges in the Hebrew Bible. Scholars debate what the text means and whether Jephthah actually killed his daughter to fulfill his vow, or instead dedicated her to serve God and never marry or have children, much like a nun. But I was taught a “plain reading” of the text, and according to that reading, Jephthah – heartbroken – kept his vow and killed his child as a sacrifice to God.

That way of reading the text is consistent within the book of Judges. One generation removed from their own slavery in Egypt, the Israelites have conquered the land God led them to and began using the former inhabitants as their own slaves.

As the generation who won those victories die off, the people forget. They go back to old ways and worshiping other gods, straying from the God who was teaching them that child sacrifice and the burdens of divine bargains were not what he was about. Raiders terrorize the people, and they are desperate to protect themselves and their own.

The “judges,” leaders who periodically appear throughout this time to defeat the raiders, are all flawed according to the understanding of the time. Some, like Samson, Gideon, and Jephthah, are morally flawed, and some bear flaws or curses of nature: Deborah is a woman, and Ehud is left-handed.

The moral of Jephthah’s story as I was taught it was to be careful what you promise God (and others), because such promises must be kept.

That’s not a bad lesson – avoiding rash promises is a good thing to do in any context. But the idea that bad promises to God or anyone else must be kept, regardless of the cost? That is a horrible lesson. I always found it deeply troubling that the same God who stopped Israel’s patriarch Abraham from sacrificing his son, Isaac, would consider it more important that Jephthah keep his promise even if it cost his daughter’s life.

I don’t believe that understanding does reflect who God is. I believe it reflects just how much his people miss or forget who God really is. The God of Israel is not a God who values the keeping of bad promises – to himself or anyone else. As Jesus shows us, the God of Israel is one who is willing to take guilt upon himself for the sake of loving others.

I’ve remembered this story a lot as I’ve listened to Republican lawmakers talk about why they want to repeal the Affordable Care Act – “Obamacare.” For so many, it just comes down to “because we promised we would.” Keeping that promise is more important than the lives and well-being of the most vulnerable among us. The principle trumps real people.

And I’ve realized, that’s just what I was taught (alongside many other voters), through Jephthah’s story and in so many other ways. We got God so deeply, tragically wrong. We believed in loving our neighbors, but we believed certain principles must guide and define that love regardless of the consequences to that neighbor (or ourselves). We were willing to die for those principles, but like Jephthah, we were also too willing to let others die for them. We just want that promise kept, regardless of the consequences.

Like Israel, those descendants of Isaac whose very existence was predicated on God refusing a child sacrifice, we so readily respond to fear and chaos and evil by embracing leaders who will make those sacrifices for the sake of principle. Principles are so much more straightforward than the messiness of loving people, of considering the needs of the most vulnerable before our own.

Some promises are better broken. Rash promises, surely. But even promises made thoughtfully and with the best of intentions can end up having devastating, unforeseen consequences. Those promises are best abandoned, but sometimes we want to cling to the principle we are convinced will work, despite all evidence to the contrary.

A wise and very humane person once said, “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is.” The principles that work in theory can betray us in practice, and it’s what happens in practice that really matters. Following God, loving others, is always harder and messier than following principles. Than just keeping promises.

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For the Ones Who Keep Going

For the Ones Who Keep Going

This weekend I ran twenty-two miles.

That’s a lot. That’s actually crazy. It’s the farthest I’ll run until the Chicago Marathon on October 8, which I’m running with the ALS Association in memory of my father, Karen’s sister, George’s uncle, and so many others who’ve suffered from that terrible disease.

Training for the marathon has been a lot of work. I’d never run farther than thirteen miles before this summer, and the second thirteen miles is a lot harder than the first thirteen.

I don’t enjoy running. I love the being-outside part, the seeing-the-Lake part, and the long-term-benefits-to-my-mental-and-physical-health part, but the running itself? It never really feels good. It’s just hard, sometimes miserably so. The best part is the hot shower at the end.

This weekend, when I finished the twenty-two miles (in 90 degree weather!), a friend told me how proud of me they were. That it’s no small thing to take on one’s first marathon, particularly at 45, and that they are really proud of me.

Hearing that meant a lot.

It also made me think about who I’m proud of for doing hard stuff.

I have a friend who is really struggling with life right now. Lots of things have gone wrong in the past few years, and he’s dealing with deep discouragement and depression. He’s struggling to get life to work for him and fighting to remember the reasons he has to stay alive. His kids, his mother, his girl, the friends who love him. They help, but it’s still so hard every single day.

And I’m so proud of him for every single day he stays alive and keeps going. Because when I run, yes, it’s hard, but I know where it ends, and you can get through most anything if you know when it will end.

But my friend doesn’t know where it ends – when it gets better, and he keeps going anyway. He keeps fighting for every day.

I learned a long time ago that I don’t live well without hope. But I also learned that hope can be so painful. When hope doesn’t come to fruition, it can break your heart and drain the life right out. That kind of pain is hard to live through, and unrelieved pain deadens us. I’ve known seasons of numbness, and I hate them. I’d rather hurt than have that kind of safety. You can’t be open to joy and life and love unless you’re also open to pain and loss.

That’s part of why I run – to help me believe that I can keep going. That I can endure the unthinkable. And that when the pain of disappointed hope is breaking my heart, I can send it down my legs and through my feet into block after block of pavement. And I can lift up my head to feel the sun, and know the relief of being done when I reach the finish line.

A marathon, 26.2 miles, is no small thing, but it takes so much more to keep going when you don’t know how far there is to go. And I am so proud of the ones who just keep going.

Other People’s Children

Other People’s Children

When I turned 30, I gave myself two gifts: a colorful 1940s era vintage dress handmade in Paris, and finding my childhood pediatrician.

Dr. Dunn was my doctor from the time I was born until we moved to a different city when I was 8. I was prone to ear infections, so he saw me around ten times a year on average. We lost a lot of the men in my life through those years – my daddy, grandpa, and great-grandpa, and my “adopted” Grandpa Duggins, among others. Dr. Dunn was one of the few men who was reliably there through all of those losses.

And he was a wonderful man. A gifted pediatrician, Dr. Dunn was also a Shakespearean actor, collector of African violets, and a musician in a local, old time style band playing the hammered dulcimer. He had a full white beard and twinkling eyes. He was unfailingly kind to me, and I always looked forward to going to the doctor.

More than twenty years later, back in the city I was born in, I tracked him down. When I called and explained who I was, he was delighted I’d found him and invited my mother and I to visit him and his wife in their home. It was a lovely time catching up, and before we left they invited me to join their family at a fiddlers’ festival in the Carolina mountains later that summer.

I took them up on that offer, and spent a wonderful weekend camping with their large family and enjoying the old time music of the region. (Old time is traditional mountain music similar to bluegrass, but while in bluegrass different instruments take turns with the melody, in old time, the fiddle always leads).

It was a beautiful weekend, but it was a conversation at a picnic table one night that shifted something in me.

I was sitting with Dr. Dunn and a couple of his grown sons as they talked. It was 2002, not even a full year after 9/11, and the war on terrorism was never far from anyone’s mind.

“If we want to end this,“ Dr. Dunn said passionately, “Every time a suicide bomber blows himself up, we will bomb their entire family.”

I was stunned. “But what about the children?” I asked. “They’re innocent!”

“Their children don’t matter if they are threatening my grandchildren!” he declared.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This man I had only known as kind and gentle, who had made it his life’s work to care for other people’s children, was ready to destroy children for his own grandchildren’s sake.

My head and heart were spinning, and for the first time in my life, I thought that maybe there could be something good in not having children of my own.

I always wanted children – at least one. I love kids. Nieces and nephews, my cousins’ children (one of their girls is the only child I’ve ever waited for in the hospital as she was born), the friends’ children who I’ve known and loved from birth, the neighbors’ kids playing on the beach a few blocks from my apartment.

None of the children I love are mine. And as I have come to terms with age and circumstances, I have accepted the reality that the children I love will always be other people’s children.

That’s something I’ve grieved, but there’s also a gift in it – it means that I can want for all of those children everything I would want for my own. There’s nothing I have to protect, nothing I have to lose, in doing so. Rather than having my maternal instincts captured by this one particular child of my own, every child calls out to the mother in me.

When I heard those words come out of my beloved doctor’s mouth, something shifted for me. Something opened up in the way I look at the world. I saw how the love of “our” children can become twisted into something that is toxic to “their” children.

And the world is full of endless “us and thems.” Once we begin, we will see the threat of “them” everywhere, and it is so easy to harden our hearts. It’s how we destroy each other – kill in spirit and then in flesh.

“Love your neighbor as yourself” must also mean “love your neighbor’s children as your own.”

The children of my friends and family. The children of the stranger. The children of parents who, like Mary and Joseph, brought their children far from home to a country where they could be safe to grow and thrive. The children of my enemies, even.

That day began a change in me – a change in how I look at the world, in how I understand and live out my faith, in my relationships, in my politics, in everything.

I don’t live and work to give a better life to my own children. I live and work to help give a better life and world to other people’s children. To children of every shade and nationality and religion. Children full of hopes and dreams and questions. Children I know, and children I will never meet.

But each of them is equally precious, all of these children who belong to other people.

Getting Through

Getting Through

Life is so hard.

I have friends facing so much right now. Friends with cancer diagnoses. Friends facing seemingly unending obstacles in their life’s work. Friends reading words of condemnation and rejection from former mentors and colleagues. Friends struggling with depression and despair. Friends wading through flood waters of many kinds, including the literal.

Friends facing so much that is discouraging, demeaning, and overwhelming.

All my life I’ve tried to fix problems. My brain sees puzzles everywhere and looks for solutions instinctively. Sometimes that’s helpful, but I’ve slowly (too slowly) learned that the things that really matter aren’t puzzles to solve or problems to fix. They are just life. Messy, painful, sometimes beautiful life.

And life is not meant to be fixed or solved. Life is meant to be lived.

I’m beginning to learn.

I used to feel so helpless and useless in the face of pain and problems I could do nothing to resolve. But I’m beginning to understand that even when I can’t fix a thing, I’m not helpless. I still have agency. There’s still something I can do.

I can choose life.

I can choose to sit with pain and confusion and still love in the midst of it. I can name what is wrong and refuse to redefine it as okay. I can have faith for and in friends. I can believe there’s always something more, that nothing has to go the worst way it could. That love is never wasted.

Don’t get me wrong, I still wish I had a magic wand to make everything better. And in its absence, I will still do what I can to heal the wounds of this world and intervene in the violence that creates them. But whatever else I can (or can’t) do, I can be present. Present to this world in all its chaotic pain and beauty. Present to my friends and neighbors as they wrestle with what life has presented them with. Present to each moment I am given.

And one moment at a time, we will get through.