Faces in the Crowd: Ishmael
The Book of Genesis is, in large part, a family chronicle -- and the family whose stories it relates is one of history's most dysfunctional. This is good news, I suppose, for it shows that the grace of God is intended for people who live less-than-perfect lives, and that of course describes US. But it is also important to realize that difficulties and sorrows are part of even the best of families -- and those burdens are borne in disproportionate share by the children of those families
After all, if parents become sick -- or lose their jobs -- or move to another town, then the children inevitably wind up dealing with the consequences of that illness, or loss, or move. So much of what children and youth experience is beyond their control, but that doesn't mean they can opt out of those experiences; it just means that they don't have the means to deal with them that adults do.
The villain of this story -- if you want to call her that -- is Sarah, Abraham's wife. Sarah doesn't come off too well in the stories in Genesis -- and we have to keep in mind that Genesis was written by people who admired Sarah -- but even they seem to show her as a vindictive, jealous sort. She was many other things as well, of course, and no doubt an admirable woman in many ways, but she doesn't show as such in Ishmael's life.
To give her her due, life wasn't always easy for Sarah. She was Abraham's wife -- a great lady, the mother-figure of a growing, prospering tribe -- but she was also growing very old, and she had been unable to bear any children: a hard fate to bear in that time and culture.
Now, God has promised Abraham that his descendant would be as many as the stars of the sky or the sands of the beach, but he had no son -- nor looked for any from Sarah, and that worried her. So she decided to solve the problem in an unusual way: she arranged for what we would today call a "surrogate mother" to bear Abraham a child, whom Sarah would raise as her own.
Well, they didn't have all the clinical jiggery-pokery we have today to make that arrangement seem so detached and scientific, so Abraham had to get a child by Sarah's servant Hagar the old-fashioned way: Abraham took Hagar as his second-class wife (subordinate to Sarah, his first-class wife), and Hagar promptly got pregnant.
Then Hagar began to act "uppity" as we would call it -- or at least seemed so to Sarah, who was quick to seize on any slight to her status, however unintended. Sarah was so hard on Hagar that she drove her to run away. Running away was a desperate act, for Hagar had no resources of her own. And God turned her back, promising to look after her unborn son, and to make him the founder of a great nation. So Hagar went back to Abraham and Sarah, and when her son was born, she named him Ishmael, which means "God hears" -- for God had certainly heard her prayers in her difficult situation.
Well, Abraham was delighted with Ishmael, and wanted God to make him the heir of all the promises, but God said, No, there will be another. And we've all heard the story of how God's promise to make Abraham and Sarah have a son together in their old age made Sarah laugh, so that the child was named Isaac when he was born -- a name that means "Laughter."
But there wasn't much laughter in the Abraham household. When Isaac was weaned, Sarah noticed Ishmael playing with him, and frowned. Ishmael was now a youth of 15 or 16 -- soon to take responsibility as a young man -- and given Abraham's age, might be a more obvious choice as Abraham's successor if the old man died soon than his toddler of a son, Isaac.
Some people interpret the phrase, "playing with her son Isaac" to mean that Ishmael was making fun of the little boy or otherwise being mean to him. I'm not sure you can make the text bear that meaning; I think it's just as likely it just means "playing" -- but even if he was teasing Isaac, well, that happens, and it calls for discipline, not dispossession.
Yet Sarah immediately went to Abraham and demanded that Hagar and Ishmael be thrown out -- about as near a death sentence as you could name. Where would they go, this woman with no resources or connections and this not-quite-grown boy? But to keep peace in the house, Abraham sends them away. He's not happy, but God seems to tell him it'll work out.
And so Hagar & Ishmael are sent away, and when their food and water are gone, Hagar lies down to die. But once again, "God hears" -- this time hears and answers the cry of the youth, and shows them where water is, and gives them the strength to go on. Ishmael becomes the leader of his own tribe, and in after years, we occasionally read of Ishmaelites having dealings with the children of Israel.
Today, the Arabs of the Middle East claim descent from Abraham through Ishmael, though most of us are probably more familiar with the name because Herman Melville chose to name the narrator of his novel, Moby Dick, "Ishmael." He did so because Ishmael is the only survivor of the doomed chase of the white whale. He is abandoned and adrift (like the boy in the Genesis story), but he is also saved from perishing (like the boy in the story). "God hears" Ishmael the whaler; but we are left to ponder why God did NOT hear the pious first mate Starbuck, or the good captain of the ship who rescues Ishmael who has lost his own young son, or any of the others who get caught up in the madness of Captain Ahab.
Melville is into exploring the mysteries of whether God, or Fate, or Human Will really control our lives -- and we will leave him to it. I'm not exploring mysteries today, but I think I have some observations to share.
I see all too many Ishmaels wherever I look. They are everywhere.
Ishmael is the child who bears the burden of his parents' situation. For instance, it often happens when a parent becomes very ill that one of the children will begin to "mommy" the adult. It may appear cute, but it arises out of intense insecurity -- a fear that if I lose my parent, I will have no one to take care of ME -- and that fear can be a hard master.
Ishmael is the child who has to grow up too fast -- because of tragedy or poverty or the inability of adults to order and provide. I have a friend -- a successful businessman -- who took over the family finances at age 12, because his gypsyish parents couldn't manage money, and he liked regular meals and not being evicted by landlords; and while that's an extreme case, there are too many kids who have to take too much responsibility for their own lives because all the adults in their lives are too busy -- sometimes for good and plausible reasons -- to do it for them.
Ishmael is the child whose future is suddenly re-configured because of what someone else does -- as when parents divorce or remarry, or move abruptly, or stop going to church, or lose a job.
Ishmael is the child who is not expected to succeed -- so no one roots for him -- or believes in her. Someone else is allotted the prince's role, and Ishmael is left to be a frog.
Ishmael is the child whom nobody listens to -- or who is constantly put down for what he has to say.
Ishmael is the child who is blamed for everything.
I see lots of kids dealing with all sorts of family arrangements and parental choices. I see young people struggling to find people who won't disappoint them or dump them. I see teenagers who have so many things -- and yet are so emotionally needy. I see adults who are still dealing with the fears that came into their lives when they were small.
And I'm not talking about good families vs. bad families -- I'm not even talking about "good" kids vs. "bad" kids. I'm just pointing out that many a young person is carrying a load of fear, or disappointment, or regret, or worry that he or she struggles to bear.
Sometimes, as in the story of the biblical Ishmael, the situation that young person labors under comes very much from those who should have been his or her protectors and encouragers. But other times, the burden that young person bears has no obvious source -- no "villain," if you will -- but the burden is real, nevertheless.
The desire to find love, to construct meaning, to experience joy, to be relieved of suffering, to avoid pain is as natural to the young as to the old. And who will help them with this?
Well, God, of course. "God hears" their heart's cry -- and this is good news!
But when you have so much coming at you, it can appear that God, too, is not listening. So if those who are young are to know God cares about them, they are going to have to be shown it. That means the most important question is, "Will we hear?"
Everyone needs someone who believes in him. Everyone needs someone who will root for her. Everyone needs someone who will listen to you-- and everyone needs someone who will pray for you.
This is why I am such an advocate for the church doing more programs for children and youth: Not to "keep the kids busy" or even to "keep them out of trouble" -- but to bring them w/in the reach of people who can demonstrate that God hears them -- and will never desert them. Ministry isn't about the programs you do, but the relationships you offer: and Ishmael is looking for someone who will offer him the chance to belong, and be loved, and be listened to.
May he find his refuge here, among us.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.