On by Stages

It was 2001, and Elizabeth and I stood at Ur. It was hot. Ridiculous hot. And the breeze, that hot desert breeze, just made it worse. But we were there, where Abram's people came from, where Terah first left for the land of Haran. I don't want to dwell on our trip too much, but I don't feel I can "visit" Iraq without saying a word about the Christian community there whom we came to know in our brief travels. The reason for going was a peace conference hosted by the Iraqi churches. They were a small minority, but vocal and active. We had the chance to visit the five Presbyterian churches there.

Since the war, the church has all but disappeared. Pastors and educated leaders have left in droves, marginalized and threatened in the Sunni-Shiite conflict that has come to summarize Iraq's political and religious dimensions. It is a mere shadow of its former self, paralleling Abram's travel into diaspora. Huge communities live as refugees in Syria and Jordan now. Our own Church supports them through the ministry of the Middle East Council of Churches; Rev. Nuhad Tomeh, who has spoken here at Oglethorpe, is a minister in their service.

I mention all this because so often we see the lands where these stories took place as just that: lands, backdrops for ancient tales of travel, faith, and struggle; however, they are all beset by their own struggles today. And while we need to be careful not to privilege one group over another, since God shows no preference, we do have particular concern for our sisters and brothers in Christ. For when one part of the body suffers, all suffer with it.

So having spent time with fellow Christians in Iraq, we spent some time among the antiquities as well. The centerpiece of present-day Ur, which is in the absolute middle of nowhere, is the ziggurat. It looks like a squared off pyramid, a stepped structure towering into the sky. It dates to 2600 BC. So by the time Abram would have seen this as a boy, it would already have been close to 800 years old.

Ziggurats were temples, meant to honor a particular deity in a particular region. And the steps represented just that: a giant staircase reaching toward the heavens. Imagine a large anthropomorphic god walking down the steps to connect with humanity; and amid these larger stones were smaller ones, representing our desire to climb toward heaven. The ancient ziggurat represented an eternal desire to connect heaven and earth.

Abram's family's travel would have been difficult, if not impossible. To go from Ur to Haran, from Iraq to Syria, would have been a trek; and then for Abram to pick up stakes in Haran and head into the land of Canaan, settling at first in Schechem, then the Negev desert, and finally being buried in Hebron, not to mention a time spent in Egypt, would have represented a tremendous sacrifice of movement. It's difficult enough to do nowadays even with the conveniences of modern travel. Imagine packing it all with you across the ancient world! The travels echo the near impossibility of the whole tale.

Why did he go? God spoke. He said, "OK." And that settled it.

Now, Abram's roots were back in Ur, in the shadow of that ziggurat. His father had already decided to leave for Canaan; we're not sure why, but there are always reasons for travel in the ancient world. But he only made it as far as Haran. Perhaps Abram saw this as just finishing what his father had already begun but could not complete? Maybe...but by the time this all happens, Abram is already in his eighties. He's amassed quite a fortune there in Haran. Why would he pick up and move at that point in life? Was Canaan the ancient world's equivalent of the house in Florida? Abram would have had eight decades, not to mention his father's legacy, to root him in place. Why would he pull up stakes? Can we see a parallel with our Iraqi brothers and sisters in the current context, rooted people forced into exile and wandering?

It may be moving us beyond the text a bit, but I like to imagine that maybe Abram wasn't the first one that God asked; he was just the first one who said, "yes." Maybe there others, dozens maybe, in very different circumstances, who would have been better candidates. Maybe they just all said no.

So what was different about Abram that made him say yes? Well, according to Paul at least, Abram had faith. And that's what set him apart. So what does that mean, to have faith? We can't really boil faith down to this one momentary exchange between God and a man and call that the whole of faith. Abram's story goes on for another thirteen chapters. And the whole arc contains pictures of what faith contains. Faith inhabits a land filled with promise: in Abram and Sarai's case, the promise of offspring. They wait patiently, and then decide that they must have misunderstood, so Hagar comes into the picture as they try to work around God. So in some ways, faith has this natural tendency to doubt or question. There is amusement, Sarah's laughter; there is sacrifice, and there is struggle. All of it together paints a fuller picture of what this "faith" is that Abram has.

But here, in this story, faith is simply response. God said, "Go from your country" and Abram goes. Faith means responding to God's nudge.

Can we do that? Do we have the kind of faith that could respond unconditionally in the way that Abram does in the first leg of his journey into promise? There is this notion in that relationship of God and humanity, that theological ziggurat, that God acts toward us unconditionally. God's love for us is unconditional. We don't need to do anything to deserve it; it just is. In the Psalm we sang and read, creation itself is God's act of love. Both creation and loving are these acts that are so central to God's very being and existence. Or as Paul puts it, it is not by fulfilling law that we receive any of these good gifts from God. Or if we take our ziggurat as an example of faith, which steps are the ones that are most effective for bridging that gap between earth and heaven? Is it the little ones, or the large ones? Or can we finally see that the cross, the means by which God frees us from all that weighs us down, that this cross is our ziggurat? That it is God who descends, period? Who comes to us, period? Who lifts us up, period? If so, then the unconditional response simply seems like a natural response.

Over the course of June, and on into July, we're looking at the broader context of Stewardship. It's a churchy word that we use largely to talk (or not to talk) about money. But really, it is a broader, much broader word, which means this: how do we take care of the gifts which God has given us? So in this context, could it be that Abram, by virtue of his response to God's call, is showing us something that is at the heart of nature of stewardship? Could it be that taking care of what we have been given means living into a willingness to let it go? Abram left his home to a land of strangers. Along the way, he spent his savings to fulfill God's desires for his life.

Could we do the same? What is it that we have that keeps us rooted in ways that make it impossible for us to respond? What would it mean to let go of that, to be willing to give it up in order to really take care of it and God's claim on our lives?

There is this falsehood, I think, in the way that we understand the nature of faith; that somehow, this responding to God comes purely naturally. That we can simply show up and live the way God intends us to live because it's part of our DNA. But the reality is that this faith thing doesn't come very naturally for many of us; we may have the possibility of it in us, the divine spark, the image of God, but it is with practice that it comes to fruition. And when that practice takes root, it becomes a part of our reality.

A simple example is prayer. How many of you prayed before every meal as a child? Then you probably grew up knowing that this is what you do. But for those same of you, how many of you prayed with your family when you ate out? It's as though there's this God-free zone in the restaurant industry. What would it mean to begin a practice of praying before meals in public? At first, it'll be strange. But soon, it develops into a practice that becomes second-nature to us.

We don't know anything about Abram's first 85 years. Could it be that he spent those decades in practice, such that this response to God in faith was second nature? Could it be that he had been asked before, but it was only at this age that he said, "yes?"

What are your practices? What is it that you would like to develop as a practice of faith, and how is it that you can move toward that practice, on by stages, through little practices to begin? And doing so, where will that journey take you?

Where is it that our journey will take us?