The story of Hagar and Ishmael being sent into the wilderness has as its backstory a great moment in biblical history gone sour. Abraham and Sarah have received a powerful, joyful promise that they will have many descendants. But what do you do when a promise from God does not seem to be fulfilled?
For Abraham and Sarah, the answer was to take matters into their own hands. Sarah sends Abraham to her maid Hagar, who bears him a son, Ishmael. This may have seemed a good solution for a while, but when Sarah conceives and bears Isaac, the relationships grow strained. Sarah perceives a rivalry between the boys and demands the first son of Abraham, Hagar’s son, be sent away. Abraham’s response, to send the two into the desert with scant supplies, seems rushed and cruel. The story carries a certain parallel to the story of how Abraham almost sacrifices his other son, Isaac. These stories raise the question: How do we fix the messes we make? Is repentance only a feeling of being sorry for a mistake, or should it involve action, reparations, and amends?
The spiritual practice of the daily examen helps us ask questions about where we go wrong and how we can move ahead in the knowledge of God’s mercy. A simple examen reviews each day and asks, “Where did I see God at work today?” and “Where did I turn from the way of grace today?” The point is not punishment for our flawed humanity but accountability for those places that need a prayer, an apology, a shift in perspective, or a renewed commitment. However you structure your practices, the examen is a tool that can help identify patterns and deepen faithful response.
Examine our hearts, God of mercy. Assure us of your promise of presence and compassion, which we can use to amend our ways and to mend broken hearts. Amen.
The story of Isaac and Ishmael resounds through human history down to today. According to Genesis, tensions between the descendants of Isaac and the descendants of Ishmael go back to the lifetime of Abraham himself. These are complex issues, and we are wise to understand them theologically, not just politically. The psalmist calls out to God from a place of desperation, yet even in desperation there is confident hope in God. Paul attacks a theology of “cheap grace” in Romans. Yes, God forgives us; but this does not give us license to do whatever we want. When we are joined to Christ, we die to ourselves. Jesus tells his disciples that following him is a sort of death. We sacrifice a life under our own control yet find something much greater.
Read Genesis 21:8-21. Consider an action you regret or wish you’d handled differently. How might a daily examen practice help you correct or move on from your mistakes?
Read Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17. With whom do you need to reconcile? How might this psalm help you begin that process?
Read Romans 6:1b-11. Consider the author’s question, “What does freedom from sin look like?” Allow the author’s suggestions and questions to guide your searching for an answer.
Read Matthew 10:24-39. How do you see the tension Jesus identifies between inclusion and separation in your Christian life today?
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