I don’t know about you, but I’ve been there: “I didn’t laugh.”
“Yes, you did.”
No I didn’t.
Yes, you did.
…Yes, I did.
Sarah’s laugh is hard to interpret. Is it a laughter born of surprise or relief? Is it derisive or dismissive or bitter? What do you think? She is afraid. The text tells us that. But the writer refuses to tell us more. It is up to us to decide. The story becomes a mirror for our own stories, our own stuff, our own work. Is she ashamed? Should she be sorry for her lack of faith? Or is she right to be doubtful? A little angry, even?
I didn’t laugh.
Of course, you laughed. Of course, you doubted. Of course, you have a hard time believing. Are you surprised? It’s been a rough go. The promise has far surpassed its expiration date. Abraham was 100 when Isaac was born. If you do the math, Sarah was 90. I think that picture on the cover of the worship aid is about right then. If we could laugh at that point, we’d be doing pretty well. If we can imagine new possibility of any kind at that age, dream new dreams, then we’re doing well. That is faith, isn’t it? —to continue to hope for, to believe in what could be after the time has passed, when the odds seem stacked against it.
With a few exceptions, we in the West no longer stack our families with children to increase the odds that a few of them will survive to take care of us in our old age. We’re doing just the opposite, in fact. Birthrates, especially among those of us who are white and, by association, most privileged, are going down. The nuclear family with 2.2 children is a thing of the past.
By 2050 non-Hispanic whites are projected to become a minority of the United States population. That’s already the case among our youngest. Minorities are already the majority of the nation’s population younger than age 5.[i] Some of our most challenging struggles—over reproductive rights, for example—are born from our progress and our success: the tension that grows when we have plenty—plenty of food, shelter, plumbing—resources to get us by—when death is no longer a constant companion.
We face questions now that Abraham and Sarah and Jesus and his disciples would never have fathomed. The land is no longer a threat to our survival. Just the opposite, in fact. At the dawn of agriculture around 8000 BCE, the population of the world was about 5 million. At the time of Sarah and Abraham, maybe 10 million people walked the earth. When Jesus sent his no-name disciples out to bless others there were maybe 200 million. In 1970 there were roughly half as many people in the world as there are now.
Today the 7.5 billion of us[ii] that currently occupy the planet are a threat to God’s good earth and ultimately, of course, to our own survival. How many people can this earth support? Do you know? What are you willing to bet on it? How are we going to manage our population?
What about family planning? What about birth control? What about abortion? What we know about life now is so profoundly different than it was when these scriptures were given to us and the world’s population was 3 percent of what it is today. If we don’t do something, we’re in trouble. Many who know way more than I do say we already are.
The questions are different now. And we’ve got to allow our faith to keep up. This is important. If we continue to cling to the past, if we force this faith to conform to a different time than the present, it will lose whatever value it had. We’re going to have to be ready for some surprises. We’re going to have to learn to laugh a little as we try to adapt. There is no shame in that.
On the other hand, I suspect that at their core, the challenges we face are still the same. Life’s a mix. There’s a lot to laugh about. And laughter is this close to tears, as we well know. Life is a mix and a struggle—even with indoor plumbing.
Looking over the Genesis story, Karen Armstrong says living in the presence of God requires struggle that can bring us to the brink of despair. “The reality called ‘God,’” she writes:
could manifest itself as a friendly, benevolent presence but also as terrifying and cruel. In our desperate world, where we all struggle for physical or psychological survival, our glimpses of the divine can only be fragmentary, imperfect, and colored by our experience of life’s inherent tragedy. Genesis shows us a frequently shocking God, about whom it is impossible to make pious predictions. [iii]
Or you could say it like Matthew’s Jesus says it. We are all harassed and helpless—like sheep without a shepherd. And this shocking God who resists our pious predictions does, for whatever reason, seem to pay attention, and send out people like the disciples and us.
I love this section in Matthew that names the disciples because what it names are a bunch of absolutely underwhelming and troublesome people: partisan zealots, simple blue-collar fishermen, the son of that guy down the street that you were always a little suspicious of. Not a Giselle Bündchen or Jake Gyllenhaal or Stephen Hawking or Jeff Bezos among them. I mean, you guys look great. Don’t get me wrong. But it does seem that we’re the kind of folks that God seems to choose, to love, even—even as we struggle at the brink of despair to hold on and to laugh a little when we can and to believe what seems so impossible most of the time, and to show some compassion. God knows the world needs it.
For whatever reason, we are whom God chooses, whom God calls, whom God blesses, whom God empowers. Laugh if you need to. Cry if you need to. But believe it. Take some chances. Flex your expectations a little as you watch for what comes over the horizon. And take care of one another in the process. That’s how we’re going to make it through.
[i] See Pew Research Center. “Explaining Why Minority Births Now Outnumber White Births.” Retrieved June 16, 2017 at http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2012/05/17/explaining-why-minority-births-now-outnumber-white-births/ and “It’s official: Minority babies are the majority among the nation’s infants, but only just.” Retrieved June 16, 2017 at http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/06/23/its-official-minority-babies-are-the-majority-among-the-nations-infants-but-only-just/.
[ii] See http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/ for these estimates and others.
[iii] Karen A. Armstrong. In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis (New York: Ballantine, 1996), 69.