Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Many Faces of Farewell

One of the many privileges of my position is that I get to teach people about the Bible.  It's fun to introduce folks to stories they've never heard, but it is infinitely more rewarding to illuminate an old story in a new way.  At my first call, I did a long running Bible Study series called "The Women of the Bible", wherein I took the least known (and eventually the best known) women of Scripture and presented with fresh eyes.  To this day, Hagar is my favorite woman to bring to a group.  She gets so little attention, and her story is so deeply, painfully tragic.

Hagar had the unfortunate luck to be Sarah's handmaiden when Sarah and Abraham took their fertility struggles in their own hands.  Sarah offered up Hagar as a womb for the filling and Abraham took her up on the offer.  Hagar eventually got pregnant but then ended up running away, preferring to die in the desert rather than be abused by Sarah anymore.  In time she goes back to Abraham's camp and raises her son Ishmael with him, but then she and Ishmael are turned out when her son was only 13.  Sarah had Isaac by then and would brook no competition, even if it was a competition that SHE HAD CREATED.  So Hagar and her son are forced away from the camp, out in the desert to die.  They don't, but only because God intervenes.  

Like I said, it's tough.  Hagar is truly a victim,  Ishmael is abandoned, Abraham is mindlessly guided by his genitals and Sarah appears to be an abusive, manipulative wretch.

One of the ways I like to examine stories like these is with art; paintings, sculpture, song, movies, etc., are all at their essence acts of interpretation.  By examining artistic representations of scriptural stories, we can gain a window into how these stories have impacted their listeners, how generations of people have parsed out the heroes, villains and themes of a story.  This is no less true with the story of Hagar.

The sculpture below is a giant piece called "Abraham's Farewell to Ishmael" by George Segal.  All those figures are human sized, and the sculpture changes as you move around it.  From one perspective, Sarah is a hidden hooded figure out of sight.  In another, she is merely in the background, coldly looking upon the banishment of her handmaiden and her husband's older son.  Hagar, though, from any perspective is vulnerably alone.  She cannot look at her child and his father saying goodbye, she does not face her abuser, she merely clutches herself tightly and gazes away towards what she can only assume is her death.

The sculpture is breathtaking.

"Abraham's Farewell to Ishmael" is a study in how we say goodbye, how we take leave of former lives.  Some of us clutch tightly to those we leave behind, unready for separation.  Some of us merely observe the breaking of our families, emotionally removed from the pain of others.  Still more of us stand alone in the crowds, just trying to hold ourselves in one piece while we grapple with our fear and loss.

Perhaps I am so moved by this sculpture because I see the goodbyes of my life within it's boundaries. My life, a sculpture to study, my path observable from whatever perspective you choose.

  • I was desperate, clinging to Cliff before the truth of his betrayal was made clear.  Ishmael & Abraham.
  • I was raw and afraid, clutching myself tightly as I faced a cruel and unexpected future alone with my son.  Hagar.
  • I am removed, remote from every goodbye my son must make to his father.  Sarah.

But maybe I am deeply impacted by Segal's masterpiece because it reminds me that to truly understand someone's story takes a commitment to see the whole tableau of their life.  That to truly be understood is to stand vulnerable before another and let yourself be wholly seen.  I am out of sight now, but a step to the left will show you my face.  It happens so rarely that we meet someone with whom we can lay ourselves bare.

This is the dangerous and beautiful and tragic task of Christian living: allowing ourselves to be seen and choosing to see the fullness of others.  Every angle, every ugliness, every transcendent kindness.  We are known and we know and we are loved no matter the perspective by which we are perceived.  That is my definition of grace. This is also the desperate hope and mystery implicit when we take the risk to love another: Do you see me now? Oh no, you see me now!  Please, see me always.

I pray for you, my friends, that one day you will stand revealed before another.  You will be as beautiful as a Segal, I promise.

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