waiting for wonderful

I went to church last Sunday with a heavy heart. A few days before, there had been a shooting in Alexandria, VA, as well as a shooting at the UPS building a few blocks from where I live in San Francisco.  The officer who shot Philando Castile was found not guilty -- even though Castile's only offense was driving with a busted taillight.  A cholera epidemic is spreading through Yemen like wildfire.  Thousands of people in my city are living on the streets.  An opioid epidemic is claiming the lives of an alarming number of Americans.  (In his most recent column, Nicolas Kristoff wrote, "About as many Americans are expected to die this year of drug overdoses as died in the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.")  

And so I sat through the service with my head bowed, as if my shoulders were bearing the invisible weight of the world.

And then, during the Old Testament scripture reading, I startled, sat up, and smiled at the sound of a single word: wonderful.

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The reading was from Genesis 18, where the Angel of the Lord comes to Abraham and Sarah and tells them that, even though they're downright elderly, Sarah is going to conceive and give birth to a child.

This is not the first time the Lord has told them this.  Back in Genesis 15, God promised Abraham the same thing -- and, after waiting a decade with no results, in Genesis 16, Sarah and Abraham took matters into their own hands by having Abraham sleep with Sarah's servant Hagar, who gave birth to Ishmael.

So when we get to Genesis 18, we find that in spite of the decade-long wait, in spite of Sarah and Abraham's impatience and mistakes, God comes to them again and, once again, promises that Sarah will give birth to a child.

Sarah (understandably) laughs.

And the Lord says, "Is anything too wonderful for me?"

Is anything too wonderful?

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In every other version of the Bible I've ever read, the verse is translated, "Is anything to HARD for me?"  which feels like God (and us) have to struggle, persist and overcome in order to accomplish something. The word has a negative connotation.

But in the NRSV (New Revised Standard Version), the word is translated not as "hard" but as "wonderful."

I sat through the rest of the service, praying and singing and receiving communion and listening to the liturgy, but the whole time this hopeful, bright, promising word swirled through my head and breathed life into my heavy heart.  

Is anything too wonderful?

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I came home from church and did some research.  It turns out that the word comes from the Hebrew "pala" which means "to be marvellous, be wonderful, be surpassing, be extraordinary..."

It's the same word in the phrase "signs and wonders" that describes the miraculous works of God.

Is anything too wonderful?

It still echoes in my soul.

In Genesis, it's a rhetorical question.  "Is anything too wonderful for God to do?"  Of course not.

For Abraham and Sarah, God promises to do something extraordinarily wonderful for them -- in spite of their lack of faith, in spite of their mistakes, in spite of the messy situation they created by having Abraham sleep with Hagar.  God remembers to keep his promise to do something wonderful for more than a decade.  When they're tempted to give up hope, God shows up and reminds them that he hasn't forgotten them, that something wonderful is on its way.

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Today, I think God asks us the same rhetorical question. "Is anything too wonderful?"  Of course not.

In spite of the pain in our world, in spite of our heartache and grief, in spite of our weariness, in spite of our mistakes, in spite of our failings, in spite of the darkness, in spite of the evil, in spite of the suffering, in spite of the seemingly endless wait, when we're tempted to give up hope (like I was on Sunday), God shows up and reminds us that he's not forgotten us, that something wonderful is on its way.

Pope John Paul II said, "We are the Easter people, and Alleluia is our song!"

As people of Love, as people of the Resurrection, as people who are dearly loved by our eternal Parent and closely held by our divine Creator, we can lift up our chins.  We can breathe a sigh of relief.  We can let our weary faces relax into a smile. We can dry our tears.  We can trust that our acts of justice and compassion are not in vain. We can face the future with hope instead of despair.

Because we're not warily awaiting destruction.

No, my friends.

You and I --

-- and all God's children --

We are waiting for wonderful.

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