Barren. Jealous Sarai. Hagar Flees. The Promise of Ishmael. The First Commandment. Abram to Abraham (Sarai to Sarah). The Promise of Isaac. Further Disbelief. Three Visitors.
Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come.”
Genesis 17:9 (NIV)
Abram’s Counsel to Sarai by
I was attracted to Mr. Frank, but there was nothing sexual about it. For instance, I liked it when he dropped “Mr.” from his title, a sure way to gain the respect of a middle school student. Also, he said that Jesus was a “pal” of his, and when he prayed, he talked like one of us. Forget upward held palms and messianic imagery. Frank sat cross-legged and gestured while he prayed. Also, his height: I was tall for my age, and he was average, which put us on the same level. I just liked looking my mentors eye-to-eye. My parents hated his behavior – leaders pretending to be one of the guys – and they immediately grew suspicious. Adults were adults after all, and those that acted like kids must have had a screw loose or some questionable ulterior motives. Frank was already the most sought after leader at my church, but it wasn’t for any of these details. It was his culture.
Stories of Frank’s small group activities were infamous around the church, and for good reason. While most leaders provided the requisite fellowship with Bible studies and brownies, Frank went completely above and beyond. He didn’t check out when the cars pulled out the parking lot; instead, he integrated his “guys” into his day-to-day life. They e-mailed prayer requests next to funny videos. He would text them just to check in, as if they were adult friends of his. He even made house calls for Goldeneye and Perfect Dark. His shenanigans reached max during overnight trips: camps, retreats, leadership seminars. On an eleventh grade mission’s trip to Russia, for instance, he and his guys snuck into a community center after hours and went skinny dipping. That was absolutely crazy, and it made all the outside guys jealous. What camaraderie, and it even came with meaningful Christian fellowship. He made his guys be the example at youth church services: sitting in the front, brewing ice tea, folding up chairs at the end. And if he needed to talk to you about something serious – a pornography addiction or too many curse words – he did it over coffee, and he didn’t tell your parents. The culture of Frank was both accepting and demanding, and I wanted in.
And after years of waiting, I finally got the call. It was Frank. My leader’s law firm was relocating states away and so the church was shuffling up the groups and the leaders. Would I want to be a part of his group? Heck yes! Great, he would pick me up Saturday. We were going to go see Meet the Parents.
I was in.
It took 17 chapters of Genesis and thousands of years in order for God to lay down his first explicit rule (on paper, at least), and at first, it seems alarmingly inconsequential. In order for men to show God their dedication, they must be circumcised, preferably by their eighth day. The terms of this covenant are both clear and serious. “Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh,” God warns, “will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” What was so wrong with the way that God designed the human body that now it must be altered? The short (and only) answer is absolutely nothing. This is a symbolical action, even arguably arbitrary, one that is meant to show dedication to God through sacrifice. Perhaps even more significantly, it shows intent and a willingness to do anything that the Lord requires.
But it is not all threatening, as God also promises spoils to those that follow: a piece of the bloodline that will end up populating the entire Gaza Strip; kingships, lands, and peoples; fruitful legacies and power. These are pretty alluring rewards for a simple act of obedience, but in reality, God gives a much more lasting and encompassing gift. He provides Abraham and his descendants culture. Suddenly, they are distinguished both physically and spiritually. They are the chosen ones. And they know it.
Sacrifice must be paired with tangible benefits, or else it risks becoming fear-based and in my view, inherently abusive. A benignly founded fellowship can quickly devolve into a cult of personality when fear mongering takes control – when the threat of retribution inspires the sacrifice rather than a personal enhancement. This seems obvious from the outside – an impartial observer can easily spot the nefarious facets of a group when removed from the emotional atmosphere that surrounds those inside. However, to those within the confines of the group’s reach, reward and punishment get confused and feeling takes over. Ultimately, it feels good to be a part of a culture, and history tells us that humans will endure massive misconduct to remain a part of one. I remember the vast majority of the fellowships at my church having an obvious focus on genuine worship, study, and friendship. But something always felt off about Frank’s group – like rather than each individual adding to a cohesive unit, it seemed like everyone just conformed to being like Frank. But it looked like a blast, so I wanted to be a part of it. Everyone wants to be part of the club. It is just our nature. I imagine Abraham as a happy follower of God – he was chosen after all.
And so was I.
My mother called me last summer while I was traveling cross-country with an old friend Cate. We had just reached the giant cracker that is Nebraska when the call came through. She asked our whereabouts and where we were headed next – the cracker state and who knows. I asked about her and Dad, but she changed the subject immediately.
Do you remember Mr. Frank from church? She asked.
Sure, of course, I said.
What do you remember about him?
I listed some memories: the retreats, the dares, the camaraderie, the culture.
Why? I asked.
Nothing, we can talk when your trip is over.
The curt nature of the conversation disturbed me. My mother’s language was typically a fountain of adjectives and hyperboles; there was nothing concise about her. She excused herself and hung up. Cate asked what that was about. I said my mother was asking questions about an old leader of mine, Frank. She remembered him from the ski retreat back in eighth grade. Fun guy, young, charismatic, right? I said that’s the guy. Why was she asking about him?
I had absolutely no idea.