SAFETY AND SELF SUFFICIENCY
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
11:31-32 Terah took his son Abram and his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife, and they went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there. 32 The days of Terah were two hundred five years; and Terah died in Haran.
Genesis 12:1 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. 2 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. 3 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.”
4 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. 5 Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, 6 Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak[b] of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7 Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. 8 From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. 9 And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.
10 Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land….
20 And Pharaoh gave his men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had.
In the original worship planning, all of Genesis 11 and 12 were listed. The stories are rich and describe the transience of human self sufficiency and the call to walk by faith. I encourage you to read both chapters in their entirety.
The first narrative in chapter 11 is the Tower of Babel. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” There is hardly a more human desire than to ‘make a name’ for ourselves. When God scatters humankind across the earth and confuses human language, it makes it significantly harder to work together. That is the predicament of real life. Change and diversity are all around us. The world is threatening and we seek safety. We want to be settled in our homes, secure in our neighborhood and our livelihood. The ancient story explains that difficulty as the will of God. The foundational belief throughout the Old Testament is: God’s hand is every bit as involved in our hardship as in our good times.
The story is written as if God is threatened by human potential and needs to knock us down a peg or two. I do not have that understanding of God. For me, the salient point of the narrative is the description of the world as we know it—diverse, challenging, uncertain and sometimes frightening. In real life, we must leave the security of our homes and venture out into the world. In real life, when the diversity of the world is overwhelming, the human desire is to create our own safety. We want to build walls. We do not want to try to reconcile the validity of different cultures. We want and need to find bubbles of agreement. Life is harder for us when it includes diversity and change. The Tower of Babel describes the real world—four thousand years ago and today.
The story moves on with a genealogy of wandering people and concludes with the father of Abram, Terah. On the way to Canaan, Terah stopped, settled and stayed in Haran. In fact he stayed for the rest of his life. Then, God calls Abram to leave this established stable life to move toward a promise. “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
This is a huge ask. Leave the family business, take what you have and journey into a ‘place I will show you.’ That is not very helpful for those of us who need a defined destination. How are we supposed to know we’ve arrived? And, as we are to read, that journey included several false starts, was sometimes driven by hunger, and included moving to a foreign nation as an immigrant. The promise of God—”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.” —is both a wonderful promise and frustratingly vague. Abram’s status in the world took some serious downturns. He is even reduced to lying and chicanery in order to survive when he and his wife agree to be brother and sister instead of husband and wife.
The call of Abram extends the reality of the Tower of Babel. God’s call routinely leads us out of our comfort zone into an unknown future. Instead of our own agency (Let us make a name for ourselves”—Gen 11:4), it is God who will make ‘your name great’ (Gen 12:2). I’m not at all sure, however, Abram felt that way when he left all that he knew, when he could not find food or when he and his wife traded their relationship for survival. But these 2000 year old predicaments are present in today’s real life. In today’s world, very few of us stay in the same city as our parents. Few of us can rely on the family business. We must strike out to create our own careers. And all too many of us sacrifice relationships to the need to create financial security. The first thing that is put at risk when both partners are working is time together. And it only gets more complicated when you add children—and worse still when you add Covid. Many, many parents are doing whatever it takes to survive. If an hour of sanity means letting the kids stay on their screens—so be it.
Our church faces similar predicaments. We’ve known for a while that changes were coming but now our familiar nurturing practices have been interrupted. We cannot meet or sing together. We are hungry for connection and spiritual nurture. Famine is in our land. If we are to survive, we must move from what we know. The spiritual harvest must come in new places. What will that mean for our worship moving forward? What will that mean for the ways we gather and support one another? What will that mean for our budget?
An image I have found helpful is that we find ourselves in a pitch black labyrinth. We have a candle bright enough to see the terrain for one step. Beyond that tiny circle of light could be boulders, chasms or paths. Our job is to take the step we can see. We can’t see the next step until we take the first one. We like Abram, are called forward trusting God’s promise. We don’t quite know where we are going. We are called to do what we can do.
In our church and in our lives we cannot ensure our own safety. In fact, in the stories and in real life, standing still will probably mean we will starve to death. But moving forward is frightening—and the hell of it is, we may even move in the wrong direction. Our faith claim however, is: our job is to keep moving toward God’s promise. Live like love matters and live like love will prevail.
We can do that only when we realize it is God who has made us and not we ourselves. Our church is our mission not our building. Our church is the way we love. We must find new ways to experience and offer that love. In real life the church is a lot more ephemeral than a spire on the corner of Sycamore and Church street. We know how to build buildings. It is harder to know how to be mindful, inclusive and loving—especially when our meetings are virtual. But as with Abram, our faith journey may take new direction only when our old ways are blocked or when our hunger drives us to new places.
One of those new places is to return to ancient practices. We are building “Praying Together” into our FIRL meetings. (I have attached a copy of the directions for your use.) This is a practice of prayer designed to help our relationship with God and each other to grow. If you can read and follow directions, anyone can learn this type of prayer. It may not be very Presbyterian because it is personal and it is shared together but it has been quite powerful for those of us who have tried it.
In a year dedicated to transformation this is a practical discipline that will transform you. Where it will lead you is above my pay grade. But that is the promise and conundrum of faith—for Abram and for us.
May we have the courage to trust God’s call. May we Be transformed. Let it be so.