“Prelude to Labor”
Pregnant on tomorrow’s side of middle age
bones already bending toward sweet earth
and autumn’s leaves released in silent sigh to death
you awaken half-born son of a mad God
who makes old men ascend sharp mountains in the dark
with just a twist of twine
enough to bind love’s one last hope
for sacrifice upon faith’s cold perfecting pyre.
What fool sets foot upon this agony trail
where despair’s extended hand feels like heart’s freedom?
Who answers this beating fear with unspeaking joy?
Something kicks against your soul again
and grows itself through steady ache
that reaches for the sighing Spirit of creation’s Lord
whose most daring deed is to let go dying
binding the whole tiptoed universe
and you in its center
to wait into the wee hours of longing
to discover that hope’s groans are only a-borning
in those who dare to let go seeing.
I wrote this poem in November, 1999, for my spouse, Richard who at the age of fifty was experiencing a call to ordained ministry. He was at the time a successful, well-paid academic dean. Adept at his work. Settled. Secure. Empty-nested. Exhaling from a life-time of submitting to the demands of institutions; of producing results that demonstrated his competence; of collecting accomplishments to ground a sense of worth. These labors were satisfying, but not deeply so. There were parts of him — musician, artist, spiritual seeker, iconoclast — that wanted to find fuller expression and fulfillment in his life.
And then it happened. While still working in academia, Richard enrolled for a couple of seminary courses just to explore and hang out with folks who were probing big questions about life and death, God and the world, meaning and purpose. He intended it to be a casual undertaking.
But it wasn’t long before an early childhood call was re-awakened — the memory of Jesus appearing in the night at the foot of his bed and calmly saying, “You could be one of my ministers.” No demand. No must be. No will be. Just an invitation. Only a poppy seed of a possibility. Planted by the One who is able, by the power at work in us, to do far more than we could ever think, ask, imagine, or even want for ourselves.
Richard couldn’t shake this sense of God’s call to full-time ministry. One day he felt, “yes.” The next his heels were dug in, pushing against the pull. Then one night, exhausted by the wrestling and the fear of losing the life he knew, Richard sat in the middle of the floor and sobbed like a four-year-old without words, without power, without a sense of control over his own life.
As I held my weeping partner, I thought about Abraham, Kierkegaard’s “knight of faith.”
How did he do it? How did he bear it? How did Abraham, already old, well-settled, apparently satisfied, say “yes” to leaving his homeland when, out of the blue, God asked him to?
Was it the lure of God’s promise that he would become great, that he would be blessed, that he would be blessing? Was it greed or love that moved him into this great unknowing? Did it feel like a kind of dying, or more like a rising? Was he losing his life or was he saving it? Was he sobbing inside as he set his face toward the far horizon? Did he balk in that moment when he learned that keeping God’s everlasting covenant would require him to cut his own tender flesh as a mark of God’s choosing and his choosing back? Did Abraham think, for even a split second, that God had gone mad in asking for the sacrifice of his beloved son Isaac?
We know so little about how Abraham feels because he is often silent. We do get glimpses of his fears and doubts through his actions. When the Pharaoh admires his wife, he hands her over to the king. At Sarah’s prompting, he takes the matter of having offspring into his own hands. Almost a century old, he laughs in disbelief when God promises that he and long barren, postmenopausal Sarah will have a son.
With all of his fears and doubts, Abraham ultimately emerges as a model of faith in God because, when God asks, he is willing to do what seems impractical, impossible, absurd, and beyond all human reason. “As good as dead,” says Paul in Romans, old Abraham makes love to his wife, trusting God’s promise. And “with just a twist of twine, enough to bind love’s one last hope” he climbs the mountain in the early morning darkness with son Isaac, assuring him that God will provide for the sacrifice. Abraham believes what he says, with heart, soul, mind, and strength.
As Kierkegaard argues, it is precisely the absurd and the impossible which bring us to the end of our own reason and our own normal agency, and put us in that delicate, pregnant place where a leap of faith is the only possible way to apprehend and be apprehended by God’s love and faithfulness. Human fear and trembling in the face of holy madness are inevitable.
All those years ago, holding my fifty-year old weeping husband, perched as he was on the precipice of God’s promise and call, I remembered Abraham.
Today, I remember Jesus in Gethsemane sweating drops of blood, praying for his Father to remove from him the cup of suffering and death. He leapt in faith. Lost his life and found it again in the life and faithfulness of God. To assure us that the “God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that are not” makes impossible promises and is absurdly trustworthy. And Richard leapt too.