The Call of Abram
Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him;
Lost is a short, terrifying word. Someone sent me a link to aerial photographs showing before and after the tsunami pictures in Japan. As you moved your mouse from right to left, the “before” picture gives way to the “after” picture, almost as if you are causing the watery onslaught that scoured whole communities from the earth. 8000 people from one community alone still “lost”.
Such a small word, such shattering implications.
Some of you may remember an old evangelical bumper sticker and billboard campaign that offered the simple phrase: “I found it!” which implied, I guess, what “lost” persons could find if they looked hard enough for it. Not surprisingly, the “I found it” campaign spawned a counter-campaign that said: “I never lost it.” Within more orthodox understandings of Christianity, the word “lost” is used, rather harshly, to describe the bleak prospects of a person and their soul apart from a “saving knowledge” of Jesus. That grim view of people outside of the faith seems in jarring contrast with the story Jesus told of the shepherd who left behind 99 “found” sheep to go in search of the one “lost” sheep. That story says very powerfully that even when humans have given up, God does not give up.
One morning, a few years ago, I noticed I had a voicemail on my cell phone from our dear friend Elizabeth Murphy. I listened to the message and whereas Elizabeth is usually pretty unflappable and upbeat, there was a scared tremor in her voice. “Greg,” she said, “I’m calling because Michael is lost in the mountains.” At first I wasn’t sure if she was pulling my leg ... it almost sounded like a practical joke. But I listened a couple more times and decided that the fear in her voice was real and no joke. It seems that Michael and a couple of friends had gone on a short backpacking trip in the Trinity Alps. At the end of their trip, Michael started out for the car ahead of the others. But when his friends reached the car, Michael was nowhere to be found. They immediately called Elizabeth who had not heard from Michael ... and Elizabeth, thinking I had a keen sense about these things, called me.
Well, you know how the story comes out because we’re pretty sure the fellow who is still hanging around with Elizabeth is Michael ... but it gave us all a good scare when the word “lost” got attached to someone we cared about.
I have been slowly reading a book that I’m recommending to anyone who might be interested. “An Altar in the World” is the latest writing from well-known author, Barbara Brown Taylor. Taylor is an Episcopal priest who has left the pastoral ministry for farming with her husband, Ed, and teaching at a nearby college and seminary. My mentor, David Bartlett, for it’s worth, teaches with Barbara at Columbia Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. “An Altar in the World” is a book that suggests that we Christians have nearly forgotten how to encounter God beyond the walls of the church or beyond our formal religious practices. Taylor offers twelve “practices” which hold the promise of encountering God “out there” somewhere.
One of the practices is the act of walking on this earth which speaks of becoming more thoroughly grounded in God through the simple act of walking. That chapter and that practice have been enormously helpful to my own thinking about “Journeys of Faith and Feet”. On Ash Wednesday, Chris led us on a “walk of mindfulness” where we were invited to walk very slowly with great awareness of our feet, breath and bodies as we walked, as well as a deep awareness of the ground upon which we walked. Even though most of us prefer to whiz from one place to another in our cars, when we do walk, even that is often done in great haste and with little thought. Pump those arms, get that heart rate going, burn those calories. It is good that we do that kind of walking, but it is also good to sometimes slow down and walk in a far more mindful manner.
Last Sunday and again today we are taking “mindful walks” of a fashion and using the lenses of our cameras through which to better see the world that we so often rush by. A few of us strolled and sauntered around downtown Walnut Creek last Sunday looking for things we might ordinarily miss at a faster pace. People looked at us and our cameras as though we were weirdly dressed tourists from a far off land. But I have found that a camera is like the brakes on your car that forces you to slow down and take notice ... to pause, to focus, the frame and reframe your view. Walking and seeing that way is to experience a familiar place almost as though for the first time. Allowing a toddler to take you by the hand and lead you in a rambling perambulation of any locale can serve the same purpose. You are forced to see the world at their speed and at their level ... which is “up close and personal”.
Another practice Barbara Brown Taylor suggests is “the practice of getting lost”. Perhaps it was a spiritual exercise which Michael was engaged in when he gave Elizabeth such a start. The practice of getting lost is the practice of knowingly entering the wilderness. It is the practice of consciously leaving behind the known and the familiar for paths and experiences that are unfamiliar and unpredictable. There is, apparently, a common belief among women that men do not need to practice what is already thought to be well developed art ... the art of getting lost and the closely related art of refusing to ask directions.
But all joking aside, there is much to be gained in being lost ... much to be gained in the wilderness ... much to be gained in leaving for a time the utterly familiar for the largely unknown. We who are so self-possessed and so self-directed leave almost no opening or opportunity for the gentle, inhabiting breath of the Spirit ... or the Spirit’s leading. I think this is part of the allure of travel to foreign places ... that there is something we might almost describe as “sacred” in walking in a Mayan jungle, or snorkeling over a living reef, or eating rice and curried goat from a palm leaf in India, or watching elderly French men play “boules”. When we return home from adventures to foreign places and the experience of unfamiliar customs, our lives are not quite the same as before the journey began. We are changed.
Was it the prospect of exotic customs in far off lands that compelled Abram and Sarai to leave behind their family and their homeland to follow a God whose name they did not even know? The ancient storyteller in Genesis describes the commencement of this great, great journey in the sparest of terms: Now the Lord said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.
I don’t know about you, but I’d be tempted to ask to see a travel itinerary, kind of like the one Darby sends out when she and Dudley head north. But an itinerary doesn’t seem to be a part of the call to journey. There are several vague and absurdly grandiose sounding promises in God’s call to Abram and Sarai to leave it all behind. “So tell me a bit more about this “land that I will show you” ... could you be a bit more specific?” But in this terse description of the journey’s start, we are not left with the sense that a lack of details troubled Abram and Sarai ... God said “go” and Abram and Sarai “went”. There is something about their willingness to know nothing but the backside of the God they followed that is rather extraordinary ... they were willing to consciously become “lost” knowing only that they were following a divine presence they couldn’t quite see or name, a divine presence they had no particularly good reason to trust. It is, I think, the first “leap of faith” recorded in the Bible.
You probably remember the description of “faith” by the author of Hebrews:
faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. ... By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.
It is a leap of faith Abram and Sarai take that leads them to follow God into an unknown wilderness and an uncertain future. And here is where we come to that bit of a spiritual cliché that the destination is the journey. Whether it is Abram and Sarai’s wilderness journey, or the 40 year journey by Moses and the children of Israel ... there is a “proximity” to God in real or perceived wildernesses that rarely exists in more settled and predictable times. Routines have a way of stifling our need for an experience of the “divine mystery”, life’s ruts can dull our Spiritual receptors, strict adherence to convention can shrivel our souls. Surprise is the enemy and sameness is salvation.
But here’s the thing: anyone past the age of 6 months knows that you don’t have to choose to go to the wilderness ... the wilderness will often come to you. Perhaps you step out your front door one day, and instead of your front yard and your car parked in the driveway and all of life familiar and comfortable, some horrible event has snatched it all away or made it all seem completely unimportant. A job is lost ... an infidelity is admitted ... a diagnosis is gravely offered ... a wall of water washes ashore ... and suddenly the wilderness has arrived on your doorstep without your having to move an inch. And just as suddenly we realize that we have fooled ourselves into thinking that we could do it all on our own ... that our own spiritual strength that we have largely ignored and neglected to exercise is enough to float our boats on this new inland sea.
When Sandra lost Eldon, she described herself as feeling lost. My friend Polly describes herself as feeling lost without Steve. Watching the sea rush inland sweeping away everything in its path made me feel lost and disoriented ... imagine how it feels to actually live amongst such realities. It almost feels like a sin to speak at this safe distance of such awful realities, as though I have ANY idea at all.
But I have known other losses ... other calamities ... and I can only say that those wilderness journeys, those times and experiences of being lost did not end with simply stating that fact. Because I can join many others in saying that I was not alone in those times and places that felt like no time and no place. A presence that we should feel no need to rush to name or describe also inhabits any wilderness we inhabit. It is enough to say that when your journey veers sharply toward the wilderness, trust that you will not be alone.
And it is enough to say that the simple practice of allowing yourself to “lose your way” from time to time can gradually build the muscles necessary for radical trust, and open spaces for the inbreathing of that presence that will not abandon in the wilderness.
Anything can become a spiritual practice once you are willing to approach it that way—once you let it bring you to your knees and show you what is real, including who you really are, who other people are, and how near God can be when you have lost your way.
So ... turn off your GPS ... fold up the map ... put on your walking shoes, or take them off ... and set out for ... well, God only knows.