June 14: Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7) and Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19 • Exodus 19:2-8a and Psalm 100 • Romans 5:1-8 • Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23)
This week's Genesis story has an exotic air about it. The LORD appears by the beautiful oaks of Mamre, where Abraham is resting in the hot noonday hour. Next, three visitors show up (with some suggestion that one is the LORD of the opening vision). Abraham asks them to stay and refresh themselves – a custom in the Mideast, where the gracious, cooperative hosting of guests might mean the difference of life or death to travelers in the harsh climate. Next, he rushes around to prepare a feast for them. Next there is a surprise announcement from one of the men that Abraham and his wife Sarah – both way past the age for having children - would soon be conceiving a child.
Their desire for a child – and God's previous promises along these lines – had long been a part of their life story. Over time, though, Sarah had lost any hope of bearing a child herself. Not only had she given up hope, she had actively made other plans, arranging for Abraham to sleep with her slave, Hagar. But during Hagar's pregnancy, tension between the two women had developed, and Sarah had treated Hagar harshly (Genesis 16). By the time of this story, when Sarah overhears the men talking about her having a child, she laughs.
I don't think this was a happy laugh. At best, maybe a wry chuckle: yeah right. Maybe a snort: I haven't had a period in twenty years. Maybe with bitterness: I have hated my life, hated not getting what I most wanted. In that laugh, one can hear a pattern of disappointment mingled with anger yielding a toxic blend of frustration, helplessness, and hostility.
What happens next – or actually, a couple of chapters later – is that Sarah does indeed conceive and bears a son. And they lived happily ever after? Well, not exactly, and next week's reading picks up there. For today, I want to take a closer look at Sarah's laugh.
Rueful laughs and broken dreams are part of the landscape of COVID-19. Hopes, dreams, plans, goals, work: a lot is on the table now; a lot that seemed certain before is now uncertain or unlikely to happen. A person has little control over these events, although a person can still choose her response to them. Unfortunately, under stress – and who among us is not feeling it now? – a person has less ability to regulate herself. Hopelessness can begin to rule the day.
If tempered by a reality-based view coupled with emotional reason, recognizing hopelessness can be a useful starting point. In Sarah's case, for instance, harnessing reality with emotional reason would begin here: I'm probably not going to have a child. That doesn't mean I can't have a good life. From there to emotional self-regulation would be a short step: I don't have to spend my days in bitterness. When it came to the tension between her and Hagar, she would find more options and principles available: I don't have to compare myself to Hagar. I won't be cruel to her. I will respect her, with the dignity owed to every human being. Hopelessness – and helplessness – do not have to rule the day.
While the coronavirus can destroy a lot of plans, it cannot destroy the human ability to cooperate, as necessary today as it was in Biblical times. Continuing to think about the challenges with one's family and friends from the perspective of the resources available – assuring that all resources are understood and accessed – is a start. Staying connected with family and friends while maintaining one's own integrity can make a difference, setting one's course both now and in the years to come.
Morning: How can I connect with family and friends about the challenges in our lives?
Evening: When did I feel helpless today? How can I start to engage the challenge?