January 31, 2010

Whose Advice? Hagar is Found

An important step in planning any journey is getting advice. When going to the grocery, that may mean checking the ads to see who has the best sales. Perhaps a friend tells us that roasts are only $2 a pound someplace. We may decide to change our normal buying routine and go to a store that we don’t normally visit based on the advice we get. Sometimes we get good advice and sometimes we find out the information was wrong. (We get to the store to discover that roasts aren’t on sale after we fill our basket with other food.) On our journey with Hagar, we reach the point of the journey where we need to get advice.

Hagar did not get good advice before she left Abram’s camp. We don’t know if she talked to other members of the tribe or if she just decided to run away. In any event she found herself, as we saw last week, at “a spring of water in the wilderness.” She is at a fork in the road on her journey. Alone and confused, Hagar thinks she has nowhere to turn. She enters into a conversation with the “angel of the Lord” who gives her some rather unwelcome advice.

And he said, ‘Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?’ She said, ‘I am running away from my mistress Sarai.’ ’The angel of the LORD said to her, ‘Return to your mistress, and submit to her.’ The angel of the LORD also said to her, ‘I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.’ And the angel of the LORD said to her, ‘Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the LORD has given heed to your affliction. He shall be a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; and he shall live at odds with all his kin.’ (Gen. 16:8-12)

Hagar is advised to return to Sarai. This is not the counsel she wants. Often when we come to a turning point or crossroads on our journey we are confronted with unwelcome advice. Friends may point out that we need to quit some habit that is bad for our health or advise us to leave a job we are unhappy with.

“I don’t want to return to Sarai,” Hagar may have argued. “If Abram really wanted this child, he would have come after me. I don’t want to go back to the camp. It will be worse now than it was before. How do I know you are really from the God of my master?”

Hagar, like us, is hesitant to follow the advice. To soften the blow, and to encourage her, the messenger tells Hagar ‘your offspring [will be so many] that they cannot be counted for multitude.’ To start this dynasty, she will bear a son who will be named Ishma-el. The name means El (God) hears or listens and understands. Names were more important in ancient times than they are in the modern western world, so this name was assurance to Hagar that God knew about her “affliction.” Every time she speaks to her son, she will be reminded of this encounter.

Hagar is confronted, in the midst of her distress, by the active, present, all-knowing, loving God. She is given the assurance, through the name of her son, that God always sees and understands her situation.

“How can this be, I am only a slave girl?” Hagar’s confusion is understandable. “If I return to Abram, my son will no longer be mine, but will belong to him.”

Then the angel tells her that Ishmael will “be a wild ass of a man…and he shall live at odds with all his kin.” This is not necessarily a comforting comment to a pregnant woman who hopes for security for her unborn child.

Like each of us Hagar had to decide whether to accept the words of the angel and believe that God could accomplish what was promised or she could refuse to listen and obey. We have to be careful who we ask for advice and what advice we heed. We have the option of listening to caring friends or of taking no action at all.

There is always someone willing to tell us what we think we want to hear—comforting words rather than true advice. At other times good counselors direct us toward God (like my grandchild sharing the Bible with mom's guinea pigs). The same God who met Hagar, sends us good advisors for the big decisions we need to make. It’s up to us to listen and act on their advice.

Who do you listen to when you need advice? Friends? Scripture? The web? Co-workers?

How do you decide whose advice is good and whose isn’t that great? One way is to check with more than one source or friend. Another is to listen to what your heart tells you about the advice. Prayer is often our last option, esp. taking/finding time to listen to God’s response. I find one way to focus my questions and seek answers is:
SPEND time in prayer, laying your current questions and concerns before God.
THEN take time to sit in silence and listen for any answer that may come.
BE AWARE throughout the week of conversations, articles, or other ways that God may be speaking to you.
RETURN again to prayer again to “be still and know God”.

We only have a couple of more weeks with Hagar. Next week we'll see whether or not she listened to the advice of the messenger of the Living God. See you then.

January 24, 2010

Hagar is Lost

Last week we looked at how Hagar’s attitude affected her decisions and her journey. When we neglect to  the proper planning for our journey (to the store or in our life decisions) we can find ourselves at a dead end. Remember the steps of any decision or journey:

1. Decide where we are going.
2. Map the route to the goal.
3. Gather information.
4. Set out and see results.
5. Reevaluate your journey.

Hagar decided to use her pregnancy to become, if not Abram’s wife, at least a more highly favored member of Abram’s tribe. Her steps to accomplish this met with resistance from Sarai. Hagar found herself changing her route to the goal. She decided to run away, but she didn’t map out the path or get any advice about where to go. Hagar is pregnant, angry, and feeling overlooked. She leaves Abram’s camp and heads out. Perhaps she was plans on going back to Egypt or just blindly running away because “Sarai dealt harshly with her.” Because Hagar didn’t wait to really make a plan, she became lost.

Hagar is feeling very sorry for herself, saying, “I thought Abram would come after me because I’m carrying his child. I’ve traveled for lo these many days and he hasn’t come to get me. What am I going to do? If I go back to Egypt, I’ll be sold as a slave again and my child as well. I can’t crawl back to Abram, Sarai will yell at me and be cruel.”

She realizes that her unplanned journey has gone badly and doesn’t know how to get herself out of the mess she is in. Hagar is definitely re-evaluating her steps on the journey, but cannot see a way to map out a solution. However, she is not really lost, because, “The angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur.”

To put her trip in perspective, the “Wilderness (or Desert) of Shur” is the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula. There was a caravan route to Egypt that went through Shur. Many scholars identify the location of this scene as near Kadesh-barnea, 50 or 60 miles south of Beersheba where Abram often encamped.

She comes to this oasis and something amazing happens to this slave from Egypt. The God of her master finds her! When we are at the end of our ropes, God often steps in. In The Sound of Music, Mother Superior tells Maria “when God closes a door, He opens a window.” Sometimes, though, we find it hard to see the window until we have nowhere else to look.

Are you struggling with what seems to be a dead end? Why not step back and look around to see if you can see the window God has left open?

Sometimes we are stuck, like these cats in the baby crib, because we can't see beyond the bars to the opening at the top. When I have trouble seeing that open window or ‘thinking outside the box’, I sometimes draw an actual box and start putting down all sorts of ideas, even those that seem crazy or far out. Something about the act of drawing engages another part of the mind and new ideas come up. Maybe one of them isn’t so crazy after all…

This week we saw that even when Hagar thought she was lost, the “angel of the LORD found her.” Not only did the heavenly messenger find Hagar, the angel shared encouragement from God. Next week we’ll look at what happens when we listen to God’s advice. See you then.

January 17, 2010

Decisions on the Journey with Hagar

Last week we looked at the general steps for a journey of any kind. Now we are going to step into Hagar’s story and see how her decisions on her journey can inform us and guide us. You can find the story in Genesis 16. In perhaps the first recorded instance of a surrogate mother, Sarai, wife of Abram (later their names are changed to Sarah and Abraham), gives her slave girl to her husband because she is barren. [Note, there is a second time when Hagar leaves. After Isaac is born, Sarai sends her away. (Gen. 21:10-21)]

To set the stage--Ten years earlier, (Gen. 12:10-20) Abram and his tribe went to Egypt during a time of famine. Because of her beauty, Sarai was taken into the Pharaoh’s harem thanks to a little white lie by Abram, who said “she is my sister.” Pharaoh was pleased “and for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels.” Among these is probably Hagar. However, God sent plagues on Pharaoh’s household and Abram, Sarai, and all he had leave Egypt and return to Canaan.

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar, and Sarai said to Abram, ‘You see that the LORD has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.’ And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. So, after Abram had lived for ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife. He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, ‘May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my slave-girl to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the LORD judge between you and me!’ But Abram said to Sarai, ‘Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.’ Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her. (Gen. 16:1-6)
In this situation, all three participants had decisions to make about their journey in the relationship(s). Sarai’s goal is to provide an heir for her husband. She decides the best way is to use her maid as a surrogate. (It has been learned that this was a common practice during this time of history.) Abram decides to agree to his wife’s proposal because he, too, wants a son. Hagar, as a slave, probably had little to say about the initial transaction. When she conceives, she makes a decision that will change the direction of her journey, but differently than she anticipated.
“I have shown myself fertile,” she thought to herself. “My mistress cannot get pregnant. If I am wise I can become the favored one of my master.”

Sarai was not willing to let an arrogant slave supplant her role as first wife. Hagar’s plan starts to go awry when her attitude leads to Sarai’s exasperated and agonized cry to Abram, “May the Lord judge between you and me.” Abram’s response is designed to sooth his wife and get him out of trouble, “do to her as you please.”

Hagar planned for her journey to be ‘upwardly mobile,’ instead she finds herself treated harshly and decides to run away.

“That will teach them,” she tells herself. “I’ll leave with the baby in my womb. Then Abram will still be childless, angry with Sarai for sending me away, and I can return in triumph.”

One thing that surprised me in this re-reading of the story was Hagar’s attitude. She saw herself as the victim and it affected her actions—her plans for her journey. If Hagar had joyfully embraced the idea of being a surrogate mother and bearing a child for Abram, a wealthy and honored chieftain, she would have expressed a different attitude toward Sarai and the downward spiral of rage and running away would never have happened.

I realize that I don’t respond joyfully to all opportunities and journeys, either. In fact, I very often argue and complain when things don’t go my way. Like Hagar, I decide to run away to avoid the difficulties of ‘birthing’ a task. It’s all related to my attitude about the journey. If the trip seems onerous or boring or too long, I pout and complain. “Are we there yet?” becomes my plaint, like a small child.

What would it be like to live life looking forward to each new turn in the road as an adventure? This week, I challenge myself, and you, to look at the myriad experiences that cross your path as the basis for joy rather than reasons for complaining. Like these cats, I am going to try and see the things I call "obstacles" as fun experiences that stretch my (spiritual) muscles instead of frightening roadblocks that keep me from doing whtat I want...

Next week, we will continue to look at Hagar's story and see what happens when we find ourselves at the 'end of our rope.' See you then.

January 10, 2010

The Journey Begins

We are at the start of a new year and a new decade. Like me, you may have made resolutions for the direction of your journey this year. It’s easy to make a resolution, but if I don’t plan how to follow through and get there, it is easy to get lost. Over this next year, I’m inviting you to join me in a journey of discovery or re-discovery of Biblical women and men who can mentor us, even in our very different world, if we let them. Between now and mid February we’ll explore what Hagar can teach us about journeys and planning.

Hagar was the Egyptian slave maid of Sarah. She was one of the pieces of ‘property’ gained by Abraham in Egypt when he allowed Pharaoh to take his wife into the royal harem. A few years later, back in Canaan, Sarah decides she must use Hagar as a surrogate mother to give Abraham a child. However, when Hagar conceives, Sarah becomes jealous. She treats Hagar cruelly and the maid runs away.

Hagar is one model of someone who was disenfranchised from her people, as a slave; hated by her mistress, for her fertility; angry at God for allowing her exile. She did not plan prudently, but we will see over the next few weeks that God did not abandon her and doesn’t abandon us, no matter how poorly we plan.

This week we’ll look at the basic steps to take when planning a journey of any kind. Today we’ll see that whether it’s a trip to the grocery, a cruise, determining what job to take, or a new direction for your life, the steps are the same. All are journeys and all require some planning. Although you might not think through the process for something as simple as a trip to the grocery, you do review the steps in your mind.

First we have to decide where we are going—grocery, Alaska, new career, diet, etc.

Then we have to map our route to get to the goal—lists of what we need and streets to get to the store, airplanes and ships or driving to Alaska, schooling and resumes to get a new career, buying healthy foods and joining a gym to help our diet..

This means we must get advice from friends and experts—which store has the best sales, what should we see in Alaska, how to get the best preparation for a new job, is a trainer needed for weight loss…?

We set out on the journey and see results—buying the food needed, taking off for an Alaskan vacation, sending resumes, or starting our diet.

After we’ve been on the journey for a time, we need to re-evaluate our goal. This often happens naturally. We see something else on sale at the store or hear of a unique side trip on the vacation. Maybe a job offer comes from an unexpected source or we miss a week of exercise and diet because of visitors.

Every so often, however, we should stop and really look at our journey. Is the store we habitually shop at really the best for our needs? Would we take another Alaskan tour? Is our career choice or employer fulfilling our needs? Should the diet be adjusted in some way?

The same is true in our spiritual journey. We are all spiritual beings, by whatever name we call God. Each of us in on a unique journey with God and it follows the same steps:
Determining where we are going—finding a deeper relationship, for instance.
Getting advice from friends, the Bible, books, church, etc.
Setting out is something we’ve been doing since birth, but sometimes the journey is more intentional than others.
Evaluate where we are on the journey—do I feel closer or farther from God, do I need to change my habits or find a mentor?

Have you ever broken your life down into stepping stones and looked at the path you have taken? I would encourage you to take time to do so as we set out on this journey with Hagar. Break your life into 3, 5, or even 10 year sections and reflect on what was important to you in each of those times. Think about family, spiritual (not necessarily church related), environment (home, school, friends), and major life changing events for each of the steps of your life.

For me, a major stepping stone happened in 2000. I started down a new pathway that has led me to new friends and new adventures. In many ways it feels like yesterday, but it has been a decade. I didn’t really anticipate that my first book, It is I, Joseph, would lead to 6 other books, a blog, a website, speaking engagements, and several studies based on the books. Rather like Hagar in the Old Testament I jumped in without really knowing what I was doing or what I was getting into.

Next week we will start walking with Hagar and see what new directions it will take us in our journey together this year. See you here.

January 6, 2010

Epiphany--a Journey Begins

The days between Christmas and January 6 are traditionally known as the “Twelve Days of Christmas”. Common parlance has named any time between December 1 and December 25 as the “12 Days of Christmas”, but the actual liturgical season of Christmas is the time between Christmas and Epiphany. In the church calendar, several saints, like Stephen, the first martyr are remembered. The Feast of Holy Innocents recalls Herod’s slaughter of the boys of Bethlehem and on January 1, the Naming of Jesus is remembered. Then on January 6, we come to Epiphany when we remember the visit of the Wise Men.

For our final interview of Mary, Luke asks her about the visit of the Wise Men.

LUKE: I’ve heard that the shepherds were not the only people who came to see your Child.

MARY: That’s true. It was a while after Jesus was born. We had some astonishing visitors.

LUKE: Some people say they were kings.

MARY: No really kings, but they were important and wise men who had traveled a long way to see Messiah.

LUKE: How did they know about the birth?

MARY: Joseph asked them the same thing. It is not every day that a caravan of camels arrives in Bethlehem. “We are seeking the one born King of the Jews,” one of the men said. “We have seen his star in the east.” I was grateful that Joseph spoke to them. I was a bit frightened of the grandeur.

LUKE: They saw a star?

MARY: They were wise men who watched the stars for signs. “A new star formed in the sky,” we were told. “It foretells that a great One has been born.”

LUKE: I think it is amazing that they found you in such a small place as Bethlehem.

MARY: It surprised them, too. “We sought the Baby in Jerusalem,” the eldest of our visitors said. “Instead of paying attention to the sign in the sky, we deduced that a Child of such importance would be in a palace. We were wrong.”

LUKE: They must have seen Herod.

MARY: Yes, they told us that they met with King Herod. He was angry and frightened that there might be a child born who would threaten his dynasty. The wise men said, “We knew we were wrong as soon as we saw Herod. He called his advisors. One of them gave us the guidance we sought. He quoted the prophecy, ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel’

LUKE: I have heard that prophecy.

MARY: It is from the book of Micah. “As soon as we were able, we left Herod and hurried away from Jerusalem,” the Wise Men told us. “God is good, because the star was in the sky, low to the south, over Bethlehem. We followed it here.”

LUKE: What did they do after they found you?

MARY: The men brought gifts for the child. They gave them to us. I was astonished by them because they were more like offerings than the gifts the shepherds left.

LUKE: What did they give Jesus?

MARY: There was gold and frankincense and myrrh. Each was a symbol of my Son’s life and ministry.

LUKE: Gold for kingship, incense for priesthood, but why would they bring myrrh?

MARY: (smiles sadly) It was a warning that my Son would be anointed for burial. I had already been warned. When we presented Jesus in the Temple, two aged prophets met us. Simeon told me, ‘this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel.’ I nodded and he added, ‘A sword shall pierce your soul.’ When I saw the myrrh from the sages, I knew what it was for.

LUKE: Did they stay with you?

MARY: (shakes her head) No, they hurried away. ‘Herod will seek the Child,’ they warned Joseph. That night he had a dream of an angel who told him to take us to Egypt. Before dawn we had left Bethlehem. It was a long, hard journey to Egypt, although we were fortunate to find a caravan that we joined.

LUKE: Thank you for telling me all that happened. My readers will be interested to learn about this.

The Wise Men turned aside to Jerusalem when seeking the King of the Jews, because they assumed that someone so important would be found in the courts of Israel. They forgot to follow the leading that God had provided—the star they saw in the East.

How often do we think we know the way God means for us to go? How often do we neglect to watch for the signs along the way? Very often our journey takes us in a different direction than we expected. I hope your journey in 2010 will be filled with blessings and led by the signs God puts in your path to follow.

On January 10, I will start a six week series on Epiphany. During the season of Epiphany the Church remembers how Jesus was made manifest to the Gentiles and started His ministry. Perhaps you and I will find some signs for our journey in those weeks.

There is also still time to join the Dancing in the Footsteps of God Yahoo discussion. You can join here: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/dancinginthefootprints/