Prayer Workshop - May-June, 2007

Our Children, God's Children

The Bible story of Abraham, Sarai (Sarah), and Hagar and their sons offers us lessons about families and our concerns for those we love. You may remember the story (found in Gen. 16-21). God promised to make of Abraham a great nation, to give him offspring as numerous as the stars, and to bless all the families of the earth through him. But after many years, Abraham and Sarai had no children. Wanting a son for her husband, Sarai gave her slave girl Hagar to Abraham as an additional wife. Then, when Hagar became pregnant, strife arose. Hagar ran away, into the desert. There an angel told Hagar that she would bear a son, Ishmael, and that she should return to her owner. Hagar returned. But in time, Sarah also conceived and bore a son, Isaac, and Hagar and Ishmael were cast out. Hagar found herself again in the desert, this time waiting for her son to die. She left the boy and wept. But "God heard the voice of the boy" (Gen. 21:17, nrsv) and intervened. And in that crisis moment, Hagar's eyes were opened to see that God was at work.

The story offers several truths. First, life in families is seldom smooth and simple, even families through whom God is working to bless the world. Even God's people can create tangled and painful relationships. Sarah and Hagar both love their sons; and Abraham apparently cares about all of them, trying to provide for Hagar and Ishmael even as he sends them away (Gen. 21:14). Like Hagar and Sarah, we want the best for our families; we want those we love to lead untroubled and untroubling lives. Yet the angel says that Ishmael will "live at odds with all his kin" (Gen. 16:12). Many of us know families and perhaps are part of families with a child of whom the same could be said. The yearnings, concerns and problems of these people are universal.

We believe, correctly, that God wants only good for us and for those we love, and so, out of love, we may "tinker" with the lives of those close to us. We try to help God along, to make sure that what we think God wills, is done. We may tell those we love what to do, to move them closer to what we believe God wants. We may manipulate feuding people to be together or pressure someone to take the path we think they need to take. But when we act on our own to accomplish what we think God wants, as Sarah and Hagar and Abraham did, we may cause even greater anguish for others. We cannot know how God will act in the lives of others, and our perspective on their spiritual journey is always an outsider's perspective.

This truth was made clear to me several years ago as I walked a labyrinth for the first time. Walking the labyrinth is an ancient Christian practice. The method is simply to enter the labyrinth and walk to its center, which symbolizes moving toward God, the Center of all that is, and then to walk out again. Pilgrims walk in prayerful silence, with pauses along the path to pray or to think. Others were also walking the labyrinth while I did, and as I looked around, I suddenly realized that I could not tell if they were moving closer to the center or away from it. In the same way, as I look at others' lives and actions, I cannot tell if they are moving closer to God and what God wants or farther away. This was a revelation to me; I have often been fairly sure that I knew what others should or should not do.

My insight has obvious applications to the way I approach praying for those I love. Like Hagar, I can always cry out to God with my concerns. Like her, I may even need to turn away from those I love when their situation is too painful to watch. But this does not mean that I have abandoned them. Even more, it does not mean that God has abandoned them. God has a separate relationship with each of us, and God is reaching out directly to each person I love. I am not in charge of their responses to God, and when I behave as if I am, I may actually get in the way of what God is doing.

God has resources and means that we cannot see, and God is dealing with each person we love. We cannot know where our loved ones are on their path toward God, but we can trust that God is walking with them, hearing even their unvoiced cries and responding. When we release them into God's care, we free our energy to do what God is asking of us.

Several meditations in this issue address family relationships. You may want to re-read the meditations for May 6, 8, 13, 18, 20, 23, and 26 and June 1, 4, 6, 8, 14, 16, and 21 before responding to the reflection questions.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Whom do you know who is dealing with a painful family situation? How can you offer support and encouragement? How can you pray?

  2. Are you ever tempted to tell others what they "ought" to do? When if ever is this the right approach?

  3. What other Bible stories of troubled relationships offer help for those concerned about the people they love? What guidance do you see in the stories for your relationships?

  4. When have you tried to influence someone and later discovered that what you wanted to bring about was the wrong course of action? What did you learn?

  5. What loving relationships have formed you and made you the person you are today? How do you see God's hand at work in those relationships?

- Mary Lou Redding

From The Upper Room® daily devotional guide, May/June 2007. Copyright © 2007 The Upper Room. All Rights Reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.

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