There is No Comparing! Rule Number One in Bible Journaling: A Talk with Karla Dornacher

Another guest post by Lisa Nichols Hickman!

Each week on “Journaling the Bible”, we’ll feature the story of creative and amazing individuals who have found hope and joy and strength in the process of Bible journaling. This week, we talk with artist Karla Dornacher who has a line of adult coloring books featuring her artwork.   Her most recent one Garden Blessings: Scriptures and Inspirations to Color Your World pairs scriptures with garden images.

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Before Bible journaling – what was a joy and challenge in your devotional life?

The greatest joy of spending time with the Lord has always been getting to know Him better… and hearing Him speak personally and intimately to my heart… especially in the moments when it’s so unexpected… like when you’re struggling with something and you randomly open the Bible and the verses jump off the page with just what you needed to hear! Or you’re praying and a verse pops into your mind and you know, without a doubt, it’s God.

The greatest challenge of having a devotional life has always been letting other things sneak into my life and steal my time… all the normal too busy kind of things.

What ‘a-ha’ did you discover through Bible journaling? What did it feel like? How did it help?

I’ve been doodling in my Bible, art journaling, and illustrating God’s Word in a variety of ways for a very long time so I think my “aha” moment came the first time I saw an actual journaling Bible with wide margins on social media and someone creating art in the margins! I believe my heart skipped a beat and immediately did a happy dance! I ordered one right away and love it because it gives me another good reason to really read and delight in the God’s Word and another avenue to worship Him.

What tools are important to your journaling?

I’ve kept it pretty simple. I sketch my designs with pencil, ink them with micron pens, and color them with Prismacolor Premier pencils.

Often times I will sketch in a separate notebook… especially if I’m having a hard time visually seeing how I want to express myself or the layout of the words. After I’m happy with the design, I then transfer it either freehand or by tracing.

Someday I want to play with other mediums but right now happy with pen and ink and colored pencils.

What tips would you want to share about Bible journaling?

Bible journaling is all about spending time with God in the Word… hearing His voice and meditating on His Word while being creative in the margins… so just be you and don’t worry about being being perfect because nothing is apart from God! Oh yes… and no comparing yourself to others!

For instance… even though I love looking at… and am inspired by the scrapbook style of Bible journaling… it’s just not me. I’ve never scrapbooked… I don’t even own stamps. As for me… I am a designer, illustrator and hand-letterer… that’s who I am… so I personally love to hand-letter and illustrate the verses themselves. I also love to study the Word, so this style gives me time to really focus on the words of the verse, to meditate on it, talk to God about it, and sometimes even memorize it and hide it in my heart.

The great thing is that there is no one style that is better than another… and Bible journaling provides a wonderful opportunity for every artist… from beginner on up… to learn and grow and develop her own skills and style in creatively worshipping the Lord.

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How has Bible journaling transformed your daily life – and the way you serve God in this crazy world?

I have been passionate about sharing God’s Word and encouraging other women in their faith through my art and hand-lettering for a long time. It has been both my full-time ministry and business for a lot of years now and I love how Bible Journaling has opened yet another avenue for me to do that.

I am a “keep-it-in-the margin” Bible journaler… again, it’s just who I am… and shortly after I started I realized it was the same format as the Bible Bookmarks I had been offering in my Etsy shop for years. So… I began to format my “margin art” into “bookmark art” and now offer them in my shop as digital downloads in both the finished color version as well as the Color-Your-Own version. This gives women the opportunity to either glue them directly into their Bibles or use them as traceables or templates.

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I also offer free downloads for Bible Journaling through my FB page and blog. Being able to offer products that help women in their own creative relationship with the Lord gives me great joy and I am blessed by the relationships I have with this incredible community of Jesus-loving women!!

Our Birthright

If I could stand up on a soap box and say one thing to the world it would be this:  Don’t despise your birthright!  Read your Bible; learn about the faith of those who have walked before you.  If you live in America, freedom of religion is your birthright!  Access to public education and the Bible is your birthright!  Many people fought and died to give it you!!!  Feeling filled with gratitude this Memorial Day weekend!

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The Bible is the best book ever written, filled with truth about what it means to be human, about relationships, about life together.  The characters and their struggles are timeless.  The words of the Bible resonate with the hearts and souls of so many; they easily leap into song!  Wisdom and stories from the Bible have informed literature, music, art, and history to such an extent that it is simply not possible to be a fully literate person without some knowledge of the Bible.  More than any other book, it is part of our shared human experience.  It astonishes me that the Bible finds itself on a list of the top ten most challenged books!  The Bible is treasure!  I can see how promoting a specific reading or interpretation of the Bible is problematic–that’s why there are so many different churches.  But if you read Moby Dick in school, for example, it simply makes sense to talk freely about the Biblical story of Ishmael.  Melville assumed his readers ALL knew the Bible, something once taken for granted.

Time spent in the Bible is always well-spent. So break open the book!!!  Do whatever you need to bring it to life for you.  Grab study materials if you prefer or bust open a box of colored pencils and grab some stickers or washi tape!  No matter what, you will be a richer, better, more educated person for the effort, and you never know, you just might encounter the God of Jacob.  (Just don’t be like Esau!)

Of the many Bibles I have, my journaling Bible has become my favorite.  After a year of using it as an art journal and dragging it all over the place, it is still in great shape!  I’ve been so pleased with both the translation and also the construction of the Bible itself.  I love the wide margins and being able to integrate my notes and doodles with the text.  The Bible comes with a number of different options for the cover, but any of the ESV single column journaling Bibles from Crossway are great choices.  The cover may vary, but the inside remains the same.

Many people shy away from religion because of differences of opinion.  I find a lot of hope in the knowledge that Ishmael and Isaac were able to put aside their differences to honor their father Abraham at his death.  May we all do the same, especially the many around the world who trace our spiritual ancestry to Abraham and Sarah. This is my prayer for peace and also for freedom on this Memorial Day weekend!

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The Servant Seeks a Bride

I’ve always seen this Bible story titled “Rebekah at the Well” and I have a bit of a confession.  My first concept for this page was Snow White at the wishing well.  It is such an iconic image, and I find it endearing that a woman at a well is included in Walt Disney’s first full-length animated movie.  I believe that the stories of the Bible loom so large in our collective imagination that they just pop out in unexpected places!  One of the many reasons I love the Bible so much!!!  I looked at many pictures of women by wells as I pondered this passage.  And I read all the stories from the Bible about women by wells, too.  So it was a bit of a surprise to me how this page turned out.  I had one of those “whoa!” moments:  If you put the story of Abraham’s servant seeking a bride for Isaac together with the encounter that Jesus has with the Samaritan woman at the well, the story told through the Bible seems to all come together in the most beautiful sort of way!  But the story needs a new title to pull it all together:  “The Servant Seeks a Bride!”

After Sarah’s death, Abraham asks his servant to go to his homeland to find a bride for Isaac.  On my first reading of the story, I was touched by the sweet prayer his servant offers as he begins his journey.  What a lovely way to honor the request of another.  The servant prays for success as a way of showing God’s steadfast love to the one who asked!  I began thinking of Abraham’s servant as one of the great unsung heroes of faith!

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Upon reading the story for the twelfth time, I read the servant’s words in a new way.  I realized that when he speaks of the steadfast love that God shows to Abraham, he is also reminding us of what we are to offer back to God.  After reading the story of the binding of Isaac, I can experience with greater appreciation that I worship a God who desires steadfast love not sacrifice!  The servant says, “Behold, I am standing by the spring of water!”  Not just any spring, the spring!!!  Abraham’s servant finds a beautiful and strong woman, who has never known a man.  Later, at possibly the same spring, the woman whom Jesus meets is more unexpected, a Samaritan woman who has already had five husbands and now lives with a man she has not married.  The servant offers Rebecca gifts:  a gold ring and two bracelets.  Likewise, Jesus offers the gift of God to a woman:  living water, a spring that wells up to eternal life.  Jesus tells her that what the Father seeks is not one perfect, strong, beautiful woman, but all kinds of women and men who will worship in spirit and truth.  And we learn through Paul’s letters: Those who respond to the Father with steadfast love and the desire to know Him become the true church, or the bride of Christ.  It’s at Jacob’s well while speaking to the Samaritan woman that Jesus makes one of the clearest declarations about his role as the Messiah, and in doing so, he reminds us all that what God began at the well by helping the servant find a wife for Isaac is complete in the person of Jesus Christ:  “I who speaks to you am he,” the messiah, the one through whom all nations of the world are blessed.

My favorite thing about Bible journaling is how thinking through how to illustrate a passage helps me to see old familiar stories in new ways!

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Earlier I added a printed copy of Marc Chagall’s painting:  “Abraham Weeping for Sarah.”  The love and grief expressed in Chagall’s painting always brings me to tears.  As I stepped back and looked at the two-page spread, I saw that in Abraham’s grief, he was supported by a good servant and friend, and I could imagine his own tears feeding the stream, becoming hope with a future.

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From Margin in Scripture, to Margin in Service

Part three of a guest-post by Lisa Nichols Hickman!

Melissa’s Story Part III

For the past two weeks, we’ve been learning from Melissa Brumbelow Noren about her Bible journaling journey. The beautiful thing about her journey is that her margin time in scripture leads to service. When she needs further encouragement, to continue and deepen the service she is called to do, she returns to her margins for further guidance and discernment. I love this about Melissa.

After her first Illustrated Faith workshop, she knew she had to “go and share.” She called her pastor’s wife to tell her about the workshop and to brainstorm ways to help kids in the community and ladies in the church.

She knew, without a doubt, what she had learned would allow people to connect with God in new and creative ways.

Her first step was to collect donations of Bibles, journals, colored pencils, colored pens, stickers, small glue sticks and pictures from Pinterest and magazines that could be used for collaging. She kept a box by her desk at work, outside the walls of the church, where folks knew they could leave any Bibles no longer needed in their household.

With an eye toward reaching out to kids in the community, she created pencil pouches per child with colored pencils, colored pens, stickers, small glue sticks, ABCs of Faith and a few pictures from Pinterest on Illustrated Faith to get their gears turning!

The “Winter Camp” her church hosts for 12 – 18 year old youth was the perfect place to introduce Bible journaling. I loved seeing Melissa prepare illustrations and examples that were perfect for young women, and a second set designed to catch the eye of young men.

Camp Crazy Faith Bible Journaling

I appreciate how Melissa adapted some of the activities taught at the Illustrated Faith/Writing in the Margins event in Springfield, Virginia and made them work for the theme of the camp that addressed the work of the Holy Spirit to guide you through temptation.

For the opening activity to explore temptation as a theme in a young person’s life, Melissa had them turn to 1 Corinthians 10:13 where they did a “3-2-1” connecting activity. The group wrote down 3 recent temptations in their life, 2 ways Jesus helped them through those temptations, and a 1 sentence prayer thanking Jesus for his help in that tough situation.

On Saturday, the group looked to the Holy Spirit as a guide through temptations. The group focused on Galatians 5:16-21. Melissa’s instruction was for them to write down the clear signs described in verses 19-21 and then had the individuals consider a time they had experienced or seen one of those signs. Then the group wrote down ways the Spirit helped them make a decision Jesus would love to see come to fruition.

Finally, on Sunday morning, the group studied the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23. Melissa’s instructions were clear: write down each of the nine fruits, write down the name of a person who has revealed each of the fruits to you, and then consider a person to whom you can model that particular fruit to in a time of need. I love picturing all the names that would begin to emerge in the Bible margins through an activity like this. Nine fruits. Eighteen different names.

For Melissa, her emphasis was clear. Connect to scripture first. Doodle, paint, draw and write responding to that scripture second.  They discussed their interaction with scripture in small groups that were a safe space to share.

Camp Crazy Faith Bible Journaling teaching

The fifty kids at the retreat absolutely loved this and the results were awesome. Even months later they returned to Melissa during church and asked for ideas, more supplies, help in connecting, or told me about another piece of ‘fruit’ they had shared with classmates.

And that, is only one of the circles to whom Melissa is called to share her love for Bible journaling. She finds herself ministering more and more to a larger and larger community.

After posting on Facebook, photos from her Bible, a long-lost cousin of sorts reconnected with Melissa after seeing the Facebook posts. They hadn’t truly spoke or had a relationship with each other in almost a decade until the cousin spotted Jesus at work in Melissa’s life. Now, they were able to pick right up where they left off and they have been journaling and sharing and reconnecting ever since.

Men on Facebook are also seeing the posts and asking me questions or sharing with my husband how ‘connecting’ has either improved their relationship with the Lord (and even with their spouses) or how it’s helped their wives relax more at home and therefore there is peace in their house they hadn’t experienced in a while. This made Melissa and her husband both cry when that was shared with them by a coworker about his home and wife.

Women are picking up the journaling at first because they like the ‘adult coloring book’ craze and trend at the moment, but when Melissa shows them deeper connection activities their lightbulb goes off and that ‘Ah-Ha’ moment emerges. I love how Melissa describes her joy, “It just fills my heart up seeing them connect with Jesus!”

Once she shows some of the women the connection activities and journaling techniques, they’re paying it forward to their kids and others they know of who are interested and wanting to grow deeper in their faith.

In the past few months, a man from another church reached out for Melissa’s help. He’s a Sunday school teacher and wanted a new way to involve his middle & high school boy’s classes. Melissa found several ‘boy’ and ‘manly’ type verses about strength, war, fathers and sons, outdoorsy activities such as sports and hunting, and leadership. He chose a handful he liked best to fit their themes, then he and Melissa applied connecting activities to the verses and made an activity sheet. One of Melissa’s favorite male Bible journalers is Wes Molebash – a pastor and cartoonist in Ohio. And she loves seeing other men on Facebook who are also journaling and sharing.

Other churches in the area are hearing about the Bible Journaling and seeing the kids come back from Sunday School / camps / etc. and are reaching out to Melissa about coming to teach at their church. Melissa reflects and gives thanks, “Connecting and Bible Journaling are spreading by word of mouth and Facebook and it’s fantastic!”

Her public witness continues to teach, for example, this recent post when she depicts what it means to “turn the other cheek…”

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Melissa engages the margin in scripture, and then the margin in service. Once she has exhausted her energy out in the world, she returns to God’s word to find strength and renewal and guidance, once again, in the margins.

Jehovah Jirah

In selecting passages for Bible Journaling, I’ve been working through my favorite Children’s Bible.  This next story is not included in my children’s version of the Bible and yet it is so sacred, I can’t imagine skipping over it.  At the same time, it’s a hard story to know how to tell.

God asks Abraham to offer up his son Isaac as a sacrifice, a burnt offering.  It doesn’t make sense that God would ask Abraham to do this, and it makes even less sense that Abraham would do this without protest.  After all, Abraham argued on behalf of Sodom.  Why does he not argue on behalf of his own long-awaited son?  Maybe both God and Abraham know that this can never happen? The story ends well with an angel stopping Abraham and a ram showing up as an acceptable alternative, but what does this whole experience mean for the relationship between Isaac and Abraham going forward?  What will this do to Sarah when she hears of it?  The Bible account tells us Sarah dies soon after this event.  Does this break her heart?

As I thought of how to illustrate the verse, I considered three images.  I thought about Abraham and Isaac walking up the mountain, and how Isaac carries the wood for the altar on his back.  I wondered about how old Isaac was.  When I heard this story as a child, I always imagined Isaac as a boy of about nine, but I’ve heard from various sources that Isaac may have been older, like in his 30s, which changes the story for me somehow—he begins to look more like Jesus carrying the cross.  I thought about the poignant conversation between Abraham and his son, and how Isaac wonders where the offering could be.  I thought about Abraham’s strange answer:  “God himself will provide the lamb, my son.”  When Abraham says “my son”, was he addressing Isaac or telling him that he would be the offering?

I couldn’t bring myself to paint the image of Isaac bound with his father holding a knife above his throat, ready to slaughter his son, but this is another vivid image that comes to mind.  Was Isaac willing to be sacrificed?  Or did he fight it?  What was the look on Isaac’s face?  Was there fear?  What was the look on Abraham’s face?  Was he determined or hesitant?  Was he stoic or weeping?

Ultimately, I settled on drawing the ram that just shows up in the story. I traced a photograph of a ram onto tracing paper with a black Sharpie marker and then placed the traced image under my Bible page.  I cut out the tracing paper Ram and used it as a mask when I applied the blue gelato to the background.  Illustrating this verse made me ponder the connection between this story and the shofar, the sound of victory, and of how Christ ultimately conquers sin and death through his own substitutionary sacrifice.

As I read this story, I wondered if God tests Abraham to see if a human exists willing to see his own beloved son sacrificed.  (Abraham’s love for Isaac is the first use of the word love in the Bible.)  Was God questioning his own willingness to do the same?  God must see how humanity needs Jesus to show us the path to life and how to love.  At this point, God must also know what will happen to Jesus, given the strong human tendency to misunderstand the good.

I also thought of how God often brings us to experiences that don’t make sense to us and yet when we continue to walk in faith, God provides.  There’s so much more that could be said about this story, but I’ll stop with this thought!

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Painting Others With God’s Grace

Part two of a guest-post by Lisa Nichols Hickman!

Part II of Melissa’s Bible Journaling Story

Last week we met Bible journaler Melissa Brumbelow Noren and were quickly charmed by her Southern graces. Melissa teaches us all the joy that is to be found in the Bible journaling journey. Melissa exudes joy, and she embodies grace.

“Grace” is a life-giving word for Melissa. Grace is one of those words that sparkles and shines in Melissa’s life.

We learned how eager Melissa was to begin Bible journaling and couldn’t wait to attend the “Illustrated Faith” event in Springfield, Virginia to learn more – only to learn the first two hundred spots were taken and Melissa was on the waiting list.

When Melissa got the call that a spot had opened she was thrilled! She packed her bags and journaling supplies and set her alarm clock so she could make the three hour plus trip from Southern Maryland.

All this toGrace say, when she arrived at the workshop and finally had an opportunity to learn more techniques in community she promptly, as she says, “messed up” her Bible.

Just when the page looked dismal and disappointment swept across Melissa’s spirit, she learned the “swipe paint” technique from Shanna Noel. She covered up the mistake and took a deep breath.

And then, divine inspiration met her disappointment. She describes it this way, “When I’d messed up so bad in my life, Jesus paints me with Grace and renews me! I realized I was painted with his grace.” Melissa reads Colossians 3:10 to remind herself of this truth, “Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like Him.”

 

Having found that renewing spirit, and being charged by a friend to share that same grace with others, Melissa formed a once a week Bible Journaling group at her workplace that meets for 30-45 minutes once a week during lunch break.

In the next few weeks, Melissa is looking forward to sharing these scriptural disciplines with her small group.

First, she’s looking forward to sharing scripture tea with the women in the group. Since the tea bags are individually wrapped, it’s a mystery what verse is on the tags until they are opened.Tea1

She is planning to bring a box of teas into the ladies group next week, toss the bags on the table, and let everyone choose a flavor. She’ll also bring a pitcher of hot water, cookies and cakes so the group can have a lunchtime tea party. Each person in the group will then connect with the verse on the tea tag and journal their engagement with the verse.

Melissa will rely on Doodle 101 from Pinterest to help them draw a tea cup or whatever design calls to their heart for their connection to the scripture verse.

The second activity Melissa is looking forward to sharing in the group involves using a product by “Creative Girl” she found on clearance recently. Cards, seemingly blank, come to life through applied water to reveal lovely watercolor designs and inspirational words and images. The shapes and sizes range from “tags” to “hearts” to “3×5 cards” all of which can then be inserted into a Bible journal once an appropriate verse has been matched to the revealed image.

Once the women watercolor their shape or card, Melissa will show them how to dig in the index of the Bible to find applicable verses and then they will connect with the verse and decorate the page with their watercolors and cards.

I love Melissa’s creativity. Even more so, I love Melissa’s big heart that cares so gracefully for others.

Melissa has been through some tough times. Her husband John is still in recovery for a back injury that occurred when a tree fell on him and broke his back in four places. And yet, Melissa chooses to look for grace, to paint grace, and to share that grace with others.

Psalm 1, “to be like a tree planted by streams of living water,” became a restorative verse through that difficult injury. Now, its painted – by God’s grace – into her Bible.

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Painted with His Grace

It has been on my heart to feature other artists journaling in their Bible.  It felt like an answer to prayer when Lisa Nichols Hickman contacted me about writing this post about a lady she met at the Illustrated Faith event in Virginia.  Thank you Lisa for this guest post!-Sally

Journaling the Bible with Melissa by Lisa Nichols Hickman

If you’ve ever seen the pink-tinged petals on the Georgia state flower, the Cherokee Rose, then you’ve caught a glimpse of what the margins of Melissa Brumbelow Noren’s Bible look like – they are painted with grace.

Grace

I met Melissa at the Illustrated Faith event in Springfield, Virginia last November. As soon as she began to share her Bible journaling story, I knew this Georgia gal was something special.

After languishing on the waiting list for week, she got up at the crack of dawn to drive to the event from southern Maryland when she learned twelve hours earlier a coveted spot opened up.

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Prior to Bible journaling, her faith life was solely dependent on the tiny little church where she and her husband worship in the pastor’s basement with a community of believers. They found the church once they decided to stop bar-hopping and go church-shopping.

Finding that church wasn’t easy. One Sunday when visiting a more traditional church community, a congregation a member asked, “What is it that you are looking for in a church?”

Melissa answered, “I’m not quite sure I know what we’re searching for but we’ve been moved in our hearts to get back to church and find a church home.”

“Huh.” The woman responded.

A friend at work was much more helpful in the search. Rabbi Nick, a Messianic Jew who works with Melissa at the power plant, gave here a challenge. “Melissa, I know you are searching. I want to give you a challenge. I want you to spend as much time reading the Bible as you do fixing your hair in the morning.”

“But wait, what’s wrong with my hair.” Melissa responded.

“I love that big southern hair of yours,” Nick replied, “but try it and see what happens.”

So now, every morning, Melissa journals with her Bible for forty-five minutes in addition to her usual routine before going to work.

Looking back, Rabbi Nick was the one who painted the way for Melissa’s Bible journaling. “I want you to highlight throughout your Bible and get to writing. Write down your questions in the margins. Write down what speaks to you. Then, we’ll meet for lunch at work and talk about what God is saying to you in scripture.”

Melissa says, “I didn’t get nervous. I just started doing it. And I loved it!”

As she continued in the margins, she logged onto Pinterest and discovered the images from Shanna Noel’s Bible. Then she read Writing in the Margins: Connecting with God on the Pages of Your Bible and started doing the prompts. Now, Melissa’s go-to Pinterest site is Doodle 101.

Her favorite journaling Bible is simple, but perfect for Melissa’s southern spirit, a plain Black ESV journaling Bible. In its margins, she’s found a bit of what she was searching for in her faith development: the opportunity to have a conversation with Christ and deepen that relationship.

Psalm 139

After months of back and forth sharing, Bible journaling is as natural as breathing.

Breathing

Nick gave her another challenge. “Now, Melissa, you’ve found a ministry. You have to go and serve.”

Next week, we’ll hear the beauty of what unfolded when Melissa began to share Bible journaling with others both in her workplace and in her larger community. That story, prompted by Nick’s challenge, involves a large collection box surreptitiously placed by her desk at work for co-workers to donate extra Bibles for a Bible journaling retreat with kids at risk.

Tools:

If you want to paint your Bible with a little bit of Southern charm, check out these chalkboard style paints with names that ooze Southern hospitality: Butter Pecan, Gulf Dreams, Carolina Fields, Mississippi Mist, Buttery Grits, Georgia Peach, and Magnolia.

Melissa learned the ‘paint swipe’ technique at the Illustrated Faith event. Squeeze the paint onto a flat surface, then take a credit card and dip it into the paint. Swipe that across the margin of your Bible. The first time is a little wild, but trust the spirit and go light on the paint at first. Much better use for your credit card and the freestyle technique always reveals something lovely and surprising– not unlike that grace with which we are all painted.

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The Birth of Isaac

When I teach Sunday school, I typically follow the story of “The Call of Abram” with the story of “The Birth of Isaac.”  As I reread the story of Isaac’s birth in the Bible, I was struck by how much happens between these two events and what a painfully long wait Abraham and Sarah had for their son.  Personally, this story has always meant a lot to me as we struggled with infertility for six years before our first son was born.  During that time in my life, I read a study that said women facing infertility go through the same level and kind of stress that a woman facing a cancer diagnosis goes through.  But it is such a lonely experience!!!  As we approach Mother’s day, my prayers are with all those women hoping for a tiny miracle.  For most people children come easily, for some too soon, but for those who know the long wait:  The unfulfilled longing for a child is among life’s deepest human anguishes.  I think the story of the long wait for Isaac captures it well.  This story, of course, has a happy ending.  My prayer for those dealing with infertility this week ahead of Mother’s Day is comfort and peace and a resolution in God’s perfect timing.

Shortly after Abram is called by God and receives a promise of divine blessing and protection, he and Sarai travel to Egypt in a time of famine.  Abram begs his wife to say that she is her sister because he fears for his life to say she is her husband—she is that beautiful!!  The Lord afflicts Pharoah and his house with plagues because of Sarai and the Pharoah sends Abram and Sarai away with great riches.  The story foreshadows the journey into Eqypt that their descendants will make much later.  It also sets up to know that Abram is not perfect—he gets scared; he stretches the truth.  The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with less-than-perfect heroes!

Abram ends up doing very well, but he finds that he runs into conflict with his nephew Lot, who God has also prospered.  Abram says, “Let there be no strife between you and me…” and gives his nephew the first choice for resettling.   Shortly thereafter, Abram receives the first promise concerning the birth of a son:  “I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted.”  We begin to see Abram as a man of peace, reason, and faith.

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On the next page, Abram learns that Lot is in danger due to regional conflict, and he takes 318 men, a regular battalion, and goes to rescue him, beating the superior armies by taking advantage of the forest conditions and the darkness of night.  We learn that Abram is a brave and smart military leader.

Then Abram encounters Melchizedek, a mysterious priest who appears out of nowhere and has no back story.  In a generous move, Abram gives him a tenth of everything he has.  But when he encounters the King of Sodom, he takes nothing from him.  He never wants it to be said that the king of Sodom made him rich.

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After financial and military success and a blessing from a priest, Abram still has no son and he calls out to God in anguish:  “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.”  The unfulfilled longing for a child can make other accomplishments feel meaningless.  Next God makes him a second promise:   “Look toward heaven and number the stars if you are able to number them…So shall your offspring be.”  Abram believes, which God counts as righteousness.

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Sarai, however, is a little impatient.  She sends her servant Hagar to Abram.  And I know why (or at least I think so!)  This is not in the text, just my hunch:  She does not want Hagar to conceive; she is simply engaged in old-fashioned fertility testing.  She wants to confirm that the problem is Abram, not her.  But Hagar does conceive, and I totally get Sarai’s frustration.  I hate to admit it, but I watched with great envy as women easily had three children before my first baby was born.  Hagar does not seem particularly happy about being pregnant either.  The Bible says she looks with contempt upon Sarai.  Things did not go well between the two of them.  Sarai deals so harshly with Hagar that she runs away, which would have brought almost certain death, I imagine.  But God intervenes.

In one of the most amazing moments of the events leading up to the birth of Isaac, God repeats the promise he makes to Abram to Hagar, a female servant, someone who could be considered marginal, but God hears, sees, protects, guides, and blesses her.  We learn that God cares for her.  If I could pick a hymn to go with this story it would be:  “His Eye Is on the Sparrow, and I Know He Watches Me.”

(As an aside:  Curiously, Islam traces its spiritual ancestry to Abraham through Hagar’s son Ishmael; it seems easy from a modern point of view to read the prophecy regarding Ishmael as foretelling a strained relationship between the Jewish people and their Islamic neighbors, but I’m not sure how others read it.  Isn’t it amazing to consider how the future of the world is changed forever when two people have a baby?!?)

Years after Hagar gave birth, God gives Abram a new name and a fresh start.  God repeats his promise that he will be the father of a multitude of nations.   Then Abram gets this strange request from God:  “This is my covenant, which you shall keep between me and you and your offspring after you:  Every male among you shall be circumcised.”  Maybe after the incident with Hagar, God gave Abram a reminder where he needed it?  Particularly as a woman reader I’m not sure what to make of this.  I just know, it must have been a bad day at camp when Abram fulfilled this directive!  Sarai is given a new name, too, and once again, it is promised that she will have a son.

My husband said, “I can’t wait to see how you illustrate this passage.”  I guess I took the easy way out, turning to St. Paul who tells us something that I relate to more easily:  “Circumcision is a matter of the heart by the Spirit, not the letter.”  I believe that God does continue to mark us.  He writes His Word in our hearts as we mark up his Holy Word (and yes, God’s Word is sharper than any two-edged sword!).  And Revelation tells us that the mark which was in Abraham’s flesh, but private, also in the heart, but private, will one day be on our foreheads for all to see.  All these marks are simply signs of in invisible reality!  We have a covenant relationship with God.   And is God is marked, too:  God’s hands and feet are marked, when God comes to us as the person of Jesus.  We belong to God, a God who loves us and wants to be in a real relationship with us.

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Three heavenly visitors come to see Sarah and Abraham.  And Abraham offers generous hospitality.  The angels give this message:  “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.”  Sarah overhears this and laughs.  I’ve read some commentators suggest that she laughs in disbelief, but I know that she laughs just to protect herself.  She has had more monthly disappointments than can be counted, and I know too well the roller coaster of emotions that a woman faces as a month comes and goes with yet another disappointment.  I would have laughed, too.  It would ease the pain of remembering all those disappointments.  But we have to leave room for God to surprise us!!!  I love the question:  “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”  When I read it, I am reminded that the author of the Gospel of Luke answers the question:  “Nothing is impossible for God.”

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As we turn the page, Abram learns that God will destroy Sodom and he argues with God on their behalf:  If there are fifty righteous, wouldn’t you save the city? Forty-five?  Forty? Thirty? Twenty? Ten? God assures Abram he would save the city if ten righteous could be found there.  Then God prepares to destroy the city, but God is faithful to Abram’s nephew Lot.  God sends angels to move him out of harms ways, even though Lot is reluctant.  I love that God’s angels have to take him by the hand and drag him in order to save him and his family.  It shows the extent God’s faithfulness and mercy to Lot, even as God executes justice on Sodom.  I have to think that Abram’s prayers and petitions and past personal efforts to save Lot made a difference, but God had to carry Lot like a mother cat carries her kittens!  Some of us go more willingly!!!

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Lot’s wife was not so lucky.  I remember feeling quite traumatized as a child by the story of Lot’s wife, who looked back at Sodom and was turned into a pillar of salt. For some reason, I distinctly remember lying in bed as a child rehearsing this exact situation in my head, thinking “I will not look back.  I will not look back.”  What’s the moral of this story:  We should listen to our angels!  They said not to look back!  When we leave a bad situation, we need to move forward confidently without hesitation and keep looking toward our shepherd Jesus and to the better future that God has planned for us!

There’s a strange story on this page that I did not try to illustrate about Lot and his daughters.  After pondering it in light of the rest of the saga, it seems to illustrate how strange and frustrating fertility can be:  The two sisters decide they want to have children.  After one try with their drunk father, of all things, in a cave, and both women become pregnant.  It’s curious how God uses this less than ideal situation:  The first born daughter’s son becomes the father of the Moabites, and the heroine of the Book of Ruth is a Moabite, who is also featured in the genealogy of Jesus.  Our decisions have long-lasting consequences!

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And finally at long last, Isaac is born.  It almost feels anticlimactic after the long wait and all the events that led up to the moment.  For this post, I originally planned to illustrate this one passage, but I couldn’t think of what to say, other than a child was born, something rather common.  Sarah announces:  “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.”  And she said:  “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children?  Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”  Sometimes the biggest, most incredible, amazing miracles in life are the tiny ones right before us.

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In quieter moments, I like to reflect on the marriage of Sarah and Abraham and the impact their union continues to have on all subsequent generations of their family.  Thousands of years later, the story is remembered of Abraham’s faith, of just how long it took Sarah to get pregnant, and of the miracle of Isaac’s life.  The stories of our ancestors become part of who we are.  Marriages are part of the intricately woven fabric of human life and help answer on a basic level questions regarding our existence and how we came to be.   Sarah and Abraham remind me that when God brings two people together a whole new world is created; the future is changed forever.