February 25th, 2018



There is nothing I enjoy more at night than a good campfire – the smell of the smoke, the way the stars dazzle like diamonds in a coal black sky, the songs and laughter punctuated by long period of silence just listening to the cackle of the flame.   But because I live pretty much in the middle of urban Miami, I have to be willing to travel to get to a really good campfire. Sometimes to far away places. Even to far away times.

Which is what I did last week when I circled around the edges of a dim orange fire outside Jerusalem around 700 years before Jesus was born…. give or take a century. It wasn’t a big fire. Even from a distance I could tell it was one built for warmth and safety rather than a party.  But as I drew nearer, the actual grimness of the scene became more apparent.  The sheep and goats nearby looked thin and the dust they kicked up when the moved made my teeth feel gritty.  The men had their heads together speaking in hushed, somber tones. The women scraping out the bottoms of the dinner pots looked especially haggard and chapped.  I thought this might not be a fire that I wanted to hang out at, until I spotted a group of giggling, wiry children squirming around an elderly woman. I’m guessing it was their grandmother by the way the littlest ones were climbing on her.

She was patting the ground next to her, encouraging them to settle down by promising a story.  This looked encouraging… I love campfire stories.  So I moved in that direction, unaware that the promise of a story in itself could become a contentious matter.

“Tell us about Lot’s wife,” pleaded one child.

“No, we heard about that one last week,” said another. “I want to hear about the great flood.”

“A story about lots of water sounds good in times like these,” admitted the grandma.

“Noooo,” whined the other children.  “We’re tired of hearing about Noah.”

“You are right,” said the grandma scanning the somberness of the camp, her eyes narrow with worry. “There is another story I want to tell you tonight, and it’s an important one… maybe the most important one I know.  It was told to me by my grandmother and her grandmother before that.  So, I want you to listen up and remember it.  Remember it, no matter what happens in the days and weeks and months ahead.”

The seriousness in her voice brought the children and me to rapt attention.  What was the story that was so important for these dusty, bone-thin children to remember?

She began: “God put Abraham to the test.”

I immediately knew where she was headed, but I was befuddled.  This story had scared the bejeebers out of me as a child.  What kind of God would ask a parent to do something like that?  I remember asking my own mom whether she would kill me if God told her to do so.  She laughed and said I didn’t need to worry because God doesn’t talk to people much anymore.  As if that was supposed to be consoling.   And I could tell these children might be having some nightmares soon also.   As the grandma set the scene—the long walk up Mt. Moriah… the gathering of stones… the placing of the wood—the children seemed to inhale but not exhale.  When she got to the part where Abraham prepared for a fire like the one right before our eyes, but with his son in the middle… well, one child had his hands over his ears.  And as Abraham raised his knife, another’s hands jumped over her eyes, with her fingers splayed just enough to peak thru.

There was a long pause.

And then the grandma’s voice rang out loud and sharp: “Abraham!  Abraham! Stop!”  We were all frozen in place. And not just us but the others near the fire as well.  The women stopped scrubbing.  The men looked up.  No one moved as she finished the story…. about the ram from the thicket going into the fire instead. And the stars—the millions and billions of stars. And the sand—the millions and billions of grains of sand. And Abraham having even more descendants than that because God was so, so pleased with Abraham’s faith.”

“God was pleased that Abraham was willing to make an offering of his son?” asked the girl with the splayed fingers.

“Hmm,” said the grandma.  “Throughout all of history, from Abraham’s time till now, some have thought that if they offered to God the best they had—their children—maybe God would end the drought or the famine or the flood that was making their life so hard.  Abraham wasn’t the first person to feel gravely tested.  Others have had that kind of faith.”

But then she leaned in as if to tell a great secret.

“What makes Abraham’s faith different… is that Abraham was listening so attentively, he could hear God say ‘Stop!’ and he obeyed God’s command.  He found out that the God he followed was not a God who wanted death, but a God of life.  And all the way till this day, no matter how bad things get, no matter what our neighbors do, we who are the descendants of Abraham—the offspring of Isaac—know that God never wants us to sacrifice our children.  Our God abhors such a thing.”

There was a long silence.  I doubted things were so bad that they had ever considered doing such a thing as sacrificing a child in a desperate move to regain God’s favor, but then I remembered that this was seven centuries before Jesus and such things were not totally unknown at that time.  The situation of this camp did seem pretty dire.   Had such a gruesome thought crossed anyone’s mind?  We all sat and listened to the fire crackle.

As I stared into the flame, I was feeling glad to know that I didn’t live in this century, but in 21st century America where child sacrifice is no longer even a consideration. Thank God.

But as soon as I had that thought… another little voice began to surface in my mind… is that really true?  I think of just this past year.

I think of the way that we as a nation have opted out of the Paris Climate accord, uncommitted to protecting the environment for future generations.

Is it true that we are utterly unwilling to sacrifice our children?

I think of the tax changes that our bishops spoke out against—a “reform” that will raise the debt of coming generations while cutting benefits for poor families.

Is it true that we are utterly unwilling to sacrifice our children?

And, I think of our inability to pass meaningful gun regulation in the five years since Sandy Hook.

Is it true that we are utterly unwilling to sacrifice our children?

And while none of these “sacrifices” is made in the name of God, we don’t seem to think that God is very upset about it.  That God has anything to say about it at, truth be told.  Do we believe in the God of Abraham?  The God of Life who abhors death?  Or do we still worship some god other than the one our Jewish ancestors tell us about?   Do we worship the God who with great urgency yells, “Stop!”?

Perhaps the most we can say is that this is a campfire story we’ve not forgotten.  Haunting though it might be—2700 years later—we still know and ponder the tale, even if we have a hard time putting its core message into practice.

I wondered if I should try to tell the old woman that.  Would it give her hope to know that we were still holding onto this story and telling it anew in our preparation for lighting our Easter fire in 2018?

But by the time I came out of my reverie, the silence around the campfire had already been broken as one of the men had brought out a flute and another had begun a rousing song.  The women had begun to collect the littlest ones to bustle them off to sleep and the older children began rolling around in the dirt again laughing.  And the grandmother was leaning back with a smile on her face, looking up at the millions and billions of stars, each of which seemed to be winking back at her like distant cousins gone before.   She was going to be okay.  I think they were going to be okay.  The God of Life was still with them and rooting for them.

Just like God is for us.

(photo credit https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/how-build-perfect-campfire-180955564/)