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Thoroughly Alive

We must hunger after the beautiful and the good...

 

When God Laughs

I wrote the essay below several years ago, but found it recently as I wandered my old files, in search of projects for this year. I found it oddly encouraging - a sort of lesson from an earlier self to the present in the practice of trusting God for many unanswered prayers. With the close of my time at Oxford, I find myself testy as I face an uncertain future. Old prayers, old needs, old questions rear their heads and I find my heart tightening with the strain of trusting God. So these old thoughts on the story of Sarah and Abraham whispered again that I must hope... and trust... and keep on at the both of them every day. May their story bring you a bit of encouragement too.

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TODAY, I returned to the old, well-walked circles of Genesis in my devotions. I came to the story of the woman whose name I bear: Sarah, princess. This was a woman who knew the pain I carry today, the ache of many unanswered prayers. The story did nothing to reassure me at first. I struggled to suppress a sudden rush of bitter amusement, for the name seemed like a joke to me. What sort of princess is asked to wander the desert for decades, barren not just in heart, but in body, her arms empty of the son God promised her? I nearly stopped. I did not want to be reminded of how long Sarah waited for her prayer to be fulfilled.

But my eyes slipped down the page to the story of Isaac's long-awaited birth. There, staring up at me, was a single word, laughter. Isaac. The name of the promised child. What a name for such a baby. In the face of my own weariness, God's little boy of laughter seemed almost cruel, as if a divine joke had been played. For oh, I knew how hard the waiting must have been. Years of wandering, years of hoping, years of disappointment as Abraham and Sarah stumbled through barren lands and dreams and wondered what God was thinking.  After all those silent years without a baby, why would God give their child the name of laughter?

But as I read, I was wooed into the story by that one, ironic word. Laughter. Like a hidden code, a secret message, it caught me unawares and forced me on. I found laughter woven through the Genesis story like a counter melody, a quiet theme in the symphony of the tale. Both Sarah and Abraham laughed at different times with startling results far before their child of laughter arrived and was so named by God. And I began to see that there was an intricate truth, a woven song in the use of this strange, mirthful name to define the identity of the promised child and the tale that Sarah and Abraham both walked to receive him. I read on.

I found that Abraham laughed first, right in the face of God's promise. Out under the stars with the Spirit of God Almighty hovering over him, promising him descendants as myriad as the desert sand, he set his head down on the dry earth and laughed. He was, after all, nearly a hundred. And Sarah, his beautiful, grieving wife was but ten years younger and had always been barren. I wonder if it seemed half cruel to him, a promise from God that defied fulfillment. His laugh might have been of cynicism, or it might have been the catching of a sob, a willful turn from grief to a worldly wise acceptance. After that night of covenant, Abraham set his disbelieving laughter to action and decided, perhaps with resignation, that God's promise was symbolic and what he really meant was that Hagar, the maid, would bear Abraham's son. Yet God, with incredible patience, watched the child be born and then said "no". Very simply. A true son of Abraham and Sarah's blood would be born, and he, said God, would be the child of promise. Abraham didn't laugh that time.

Sarah laughed second; a harsh hilarity of unbelief that echoed with the ache of her barren years. All those wandering days of emptiness, punctuated by the scorn of Hagar and the whispers that rustled amidst the women of her clan when she walked by. Was she cursed? Had she sinned so that God had dried up the life within her? Perhaps she had counted the coins of her forgotten hopes that day when those strange men strolled into the horizon and up to her home. She must have seen a strange light kindled in their eyes, must have caught the bluster and excitement of her husband. Perhaps she tried to pray as her hands beat out the bread and formed the cakes. She must have hovered close as she served them, her shawl pulled round her head, close to her eyes so that her soul was concealed as she listened. Plying them with cake, meat, wine, her hands quick, her ears alert to the prophecies spoken. Her heart must have given an exquisite leap of joy at the words that she would bear a son. But then must have come the wrench of long-accepted grief, and then, the cold of incredulity. For she too, heady with a hope she could not allow herself to hold, stumbled back to her tent and laughed. Oh how she must have laughed and wept and when her tears were dried, laughed again. Her whole body must have ached with her laughter that day. She denied it when her husband's guests accused her. She could not risk offending the wild, desert God who spoke his crazy promises into her aching heart. Yet that God came near to her sorrow with never a word of condemnation and sang a promise, a beautiful prophecy over her grey head:

Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? When the time revives next year, I will return. And Sarah will have a son.

And then, it seems that God must have laughed, and his was the very last. God's laughter shook the stars with its glad finality as it ran to bring life coursing into the barrenness of Sarah's old body. For Sarah did, in the new life of the next year, bear a son that God himself named "Laughter" because God's life confounded her skeptical faith, renewed her fallen trust. The life of her child embodied the goodness of a God entirely unbound by human frailty or despair.

When Isaac was born, can anyone quantify the unbounded gladness that filled the hearts of Sarah and Abraham? They must have laughed again then, laughed without pain, laughed with abandon at the miracle of a baby that squirmed in Sarah's arms. I wish I could ask them if at that moment, they understood the waiting, the yearning, the pain through all those years of hope deferred. Did they forget it all in their joy? Did God ever explain himself? Or was his answer simply the child and that was all that was needed. Was God's grand answer simply a child whose very life echoed with Almighty laughter?

The laughter, I realized, rings on. For Isaac was the child of a far larger promise. Isaac was the answer, not just to Abraham and Sarah's desire, but to the promise God had made to bless all the families of the earth. Isaac's birth confirmed God's covenant to redeem us all, to bring eternal grace through another little baby, a promised, long-awaited child named Jesus.  I find it a thing of wonder that God gave the name of "Laughter" to the child who foretold our salvation.

For it seems that there is a mad impossibility in the way of God's redemption, and it reaches even into my own little life. His reality confounds all of my despairing surety of struggle as its gladness comes crashing into my life. His goodness bewilders my human wisdom with its illogical and undeserved grace. A grace that never follows my schedule. I am so tempted to tread my dusty circles with loud lament at the impossibility of grace, fix my eyes on the desert barrenness of hearts and broken bodies. I hear echoes of grand promises from this merciful God and yet want to hide in the small shadows of my tent and weep, like Sarah, with a barren laughter lamenting the impossibility of joy.

But into that comes God, laughing at the melodrama of my despair even as his gladness remolds my heart, my spirit, and sometimes even, my body. Unbound by despair, unbridled by human impossibility, God's goodness, begun in a child called laughter, courses new through the earth every day. It doesn't always make sense to me. I don't understand the waiting, the days and months of unfulfilled yearning when everything seems dark. But I am beginning to see that somehow there is a glory to God in the last-minute answering of prayers. Something grand and beautiful beyond my thought seems to happen when the people of God choose to trust him for the impossible promises he makes.

Perhaps its because it is so natural, so normal to assume that miracles won't happen. It would be quite reasonable to say that Sarah would never bear a child. Perhaps it would be reasonable to say that I may never get the answers, the help, the healing I crave. Yet there is some death-defying grace in our faith when we believe God's promises, whether for miraculous babies or daily bread. There is a wild gladness, a victorious laughter that sounds when we choose to believe in what we cannot see. To believe in a loving, tender God is to defy every assumption of this broken world. It is a crazy, laughing sort of faith.

So my laughter will join that of Sarah's and Abraham's and our voices will be one more affirmation of the God who lives and loves...and laughs. Forever.