“Roxane and Joel pushed their baby brother Michael down the stairs in a laundry basket.” “Gina once put glue in her sister Rebecca’s milk.” “Normal, run-of-the-mill mischief,” writes Charlotte Alter in the September 8 issue of Time Magazine – a story called The Secrets of Super Siblings. Alter set out to look at nine families whose children “made it” in extraordinary ways. They come from immigrant families, poor families, middle class families. What are the common traits shared by each family, she wonders. Can we identify them?
She comes up with six traits. I want to narrow the list down to one, which I will get to in a minute.
This fall at First UMC Burlington we are taking a walk through the Bible, Genesis to Revelation. As I have been preparing for this whirlwind tour it occurs to me that we can really break the Bible down into three categories.
First, there are the events, those fantastical things like plagues, floods, the sun standing still, food falling from heaven, seemingly miraculous healing. I have been in situations where I have prayed that such an amazing event might take place. Once, right here in Burlington’s Memorial Auditorium, during a healing service, a little girl who couldn’t walk was brought to the stage. The Faith Healer placed her hands on the child as she was propped up by her father. He had tears in his eyes as his voice pleaded with the healer to bring about some miracle. After what seemed like far too short a time, the father and daughter were shuffled off to the side, and I remember praying: God, there would be tremendous faith born in this room if that little girl were healed and able to walk right now! It was not to be.
The Psalmist asks the question in a pleading tone: How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? (Psalm 13.) And in another place and time of great trouble, the Psalmist cries out aloud, calling to mind the “wonders of old.” With a “fainting spirit,” the author yearns for God to perform some life-saving, miraculous deed in the present. (Psalm 77.) Jesus, a performer of many signs himself, gets agitated when religious leaders ask for “a sign from heaven,” some event that will give them just cause to believe in him. “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign,” he says to them. (Matthew 16:1-4.) Still, we look for the next big event. Some have pondered with the Psalmist: God, why don’t you do today what you did of old?
Second, the Bible is a book with a very specific geography. When the prophet Samuel is said to be trusted by all Israel, the full extent of his “trustworthiness” is emphasized with the phrase “from Dan to Beer-sheba.” We are assured that there will be no hurting or destroying and that wolves and lambs shall feed together at the very specific location of “my [God’s] holy mountain.” (Isaiah 11:9 and 65:25.) Jesus laments over Jerusalem for all the things that did – and did not – happen there. (Matthew 23:37 & Luke 13:34.) The Mount of Olives – a place held sacred for the agony Jesus experienced and for the ascension to heaven from there. We are only eight chapters into the Bible when Noah, the Ark having come to rest on Mt. Ararat after the flood, builds an altar – something to mark the spot as being especially sacred. (Genesis 8:20.) The Bible is a book about very specific places.
Third, the Bible is about people. In a sense every person mentioned in the Bible is “chosen”. When my wife used to read one chapter each each day at the breakfast table before our children went off to school, we begged her to move past the names as she plowed through Numbers 1, 3, 13, and 26, but to no avail. These people are named in the Bible for a reason, and we are going to hear every one of them, she stated emphatically. As I would join our three children in giggling while Jan went through phonetic gymnastics, blending consonants with vowels such that we knew darn well there was no one in the Bible with that name, she persevered. I suppose it’s like the credits at the end of a movie – how many of those names could you remove and still have the same flick?
I’ve come to admire my wife’s insistence on what seemed at the time like an exercise in grammatical futility. While not every name merits the same attention, the fact is that more than anything else, the Bible is about people. And that brings me back to those nine families highlighted in the Time Magazine article mentioned above. Rather than repeat the six traits Charlotte Alter references, I will offer this simple reduction: People. It’s the people – especially the parents – who made the difference. Lots of reading; a willingness to let children experience conflict; political involvement; sibling rivalry. Whether dodging bullets on crime-filled streets or hobnobbing with theoretical physicists, it’s not the “events” of their lives or the places they grew up that mattered most; it’s the people who were responsible for nurturing and the extent to which – not as “helicopter parents”, but as those who provided the balance between guidance and letting children figure it out on their own – that was the essential common denominator among these families.
There is no guarantee that, just because your name is in the Bible it necessarily follows that you are the picture of success and happiness. You don’t need to go any further than Adam and Eve to figure that out. It’s that these people – these biblical characters – are so evocative of us. In them, with them, through them we discover our own foibles, faith, failings and callings. What is true for the Bible is true for us as well – that yes, the stories are full of events, places and people – these three. And the greatest of these? It’s the people!