Connections 07.02.2023: Here I Am

The white tree of the exhibit on grief in Lincolns’ Cottage. Credit: Nikki Finkelstein-Blair

Genesis 22:1-14

About three miles from the White House are the gated, green grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home. Today it’s a quick car ride to a place that feels a million miles away from the marble monuments and memorials of the National Mall, the politics and panderings of Capitol Hill. In Abraham Lincoln’s day, it was called the Soldiers’ Home. It was a 45-minute carriage ride from the White House and it felt a million miles away from the stresses of the city and the Civil War. Lincoln’s cottage on the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home offered the president’s family cooler breezes, safer water, and a retreat where they could grieve the loss of their child, Willie, in 1862.

Today the cottage is sparsely furnished, but it is full of stories. This is where the Emancipation Proclamation was drafted. Poet Walt Whitman regularly watched Lincoln commute to the Soldiers’ Home. Lincoln apparently read Shakespeare aloud to his guests in the parlor ad nauseum, and occasionally invited Union soldiers camped out on the lawn to play checkers with him on the verandah. But all this activity went on against the backdrop of the Lincolns’ terrible grief.

The museum in the visitor’s center addresses all the political issues of Lincoln’s day, and alongside all those nation-shaping concerns, it addresses this one family’s sorrow. And then the curators do something remarkable: they remember that the Lincolns’ tragedy, their pain and grief, their need to retreat and remember, is known by parents and families who experience child loss today. The museum tells the Lincolns’ story and then opens up to include all parents who suffer this grief. In a quiet, deep blue room, quotes about Lincoln’s son and his loss are displayed alongside historical and modern-day testimonies from parents who live with the same sorrow. In the center of the room, a huge white sculpted willow-like tree “weeps” with paper leaves that nearly fill the entire space. Pens and markers allow visitors to write on the leaves; the names of lost children literally hang in the air.

I know that in the biblical story of Abraham (Gen 22:1-14), there is a “happily ever after.” Isaac lives. But from verse 2 to verse 12, this is the grim future God commands Abraham to accept: the lifelong grief of a parent whose child dies. If we treat this story seriously—not just as an academic exercise or a morality tale, and not blithely skipping ahead to the happy ending—it raises questions we may not want to ask, much less have answered. Even though the story eventually gets around to salvation, it first suggests the unthinkable brutality of what we must be willing to do… and what God may be willing to do… in the meantime.

These are questions that cannot be touched in a blog post, a Sunday school lesson, or a year of sermons. Any more than the question “Why my child?” can be touched in a lifetime.

So what do we do as we sit with this unthinkably brutal story of faith? We ask unanswerable questions, with tears rolling down our faces. We build altars: maybe instead of a pile of stones for an offering, a papier-maché tree for remembrance. We speak names and tell stories and we let them hang in the air we breathe. And we insist, in a ragged whisper or at the top of our lungs: Here I am. Here I am. Here I am.



  • What is your instinctive reaction to this Bible story? How have you heard it preached and taught in the past? What has been the primary lesson you took away from it?
  • How do you respond to biblical stories that make you uncomfortable or that cause you to ask uncomfortable questions?
  • The reality of child loss is an incredibly sensitive topic. Even though Isaac’s death does not happen, for most of this story it is expected and Abraham is living with its reality. Whether you have experienced this kind of loss or been a friend to someone who has gone through it, your feelings may influence how you encounter this text. How can your Sunday school class explore this story with gentleness and grace?
  • Throughout the story, Abraham repeats the refrain “Here I am.” For him, it is a statement of responsiveness to God and to his son. What does it take for us to be fully present—to be able to say, “Here I am” to God and to one another—in the midst of grief?

Nikki Finkelstein-Blair is the lead editor of Connections. She is a graduate of Samford University and Central Baptist Theological Seminary, and as a military spouse has had nine (at last count) different hometowns in the past 20 years. She and her husband Scott and sons Sam and Levi live in the Washington D.C. area. In recent years, Nikki has written Smyth & Helwys curricula as well as devotionals for and Baptist Women in Ministry. She weaves clergy stoles, knits almost anything, and dreams of making her dreadful novel drafts into readable books. She blogs about faith and making things at


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