Sunday, January 14, 2007

“The Gift to Go”

Genesis 12:1-9

Picture yourself on a journey. Perhaps you’re on the deck of cruise ship. You hear the water wash against the bow like friendly hands gently pushing you off and away onto a vast blue plain – well wishers and workmen become distant undistinguishable characters and the land you called home only holds shape and definition in memory – which fades quickly – the smells of your wood fire or the endlessly filled cat box are hard to re-imagine. Or perhaps less romantically, you board a train or drive away in a car or zoom up and away in the cramped confines of a jetliner. As you feel your back pressed against your seat upon take off you feel your life catapulted from familiar to unknown. Perhaps you watch out the window of your car - through rain drops and tears you watch trees and sign posts snap past and through the blur of it all – and the familiar turns to the unknown or yet to be known.
The train had just started to lurch forward and I settled down onto the hard aqua blue vinyl which would be my place for three days. I looked over to my beloved and saw the look of utter amazement – which at other times in our married life was something to look forward to - this time it originated in something quite different – something born out of disbelief sprinkled with exasperation and Sarah-like devotion. The berth included two tiers of side by side bunks of that same blue vinyl – shared by bunk mates so very foreign to us – different smells, different languages, and different food – we were so not home. She had caught sight of the stainless steel hole in the train floor and looked at me with more disbelief.
As we pulled from the station – the car rocked and lurched some more – we looked at each other – words were unnecessary and unsuccessful to anyone else – so we sat and looked through scratched Plexiglas at a world beyond anything we had ever imagined. There was nothing in our heads that could have prepared us for the wonderful gift of culture shock India. I had studied her for a year and yet met her as one totally unprepared. I watched people cooking on fires and living in tents, children and cows, camels and three wheeled auto rickshaws and workers carrying everything from clay blocks and five gallon pails and piles of cow dung on their heads and I knew - like Dorothy - that I wasn’t in Kansas any more. We never moved very fast for those three days and I watched sunsets on piles of huts and open savannahs and felt home so very very far away. I began to understand why adventurers for thousands of years had gone to India to loose themselves and find themselves – some like the folks we met in Goa – American refugees of the sixties – never to return home.
India was so perfect for us just because it is so absolutely different. We had set out on our sabbatical journey to have adventure and to rediscover ourselves and our marriage and our call to ministry. It was heading on thirty years for our marriage – the nest had recently emptied and a quarter century of ministry was soon to be passed. We had become so pleasantly settled in the Mayberry we call home among the friends who had become like family and in all of it – its so easy to forget who you are or who you were or who you dreamed to be and no amount of therapy or prayer (blasphemous as that may sound) no midlife crisis-like behavior was going to open those to us as long as we stayed in the thick and thin of it at home. We had to escape – run – get away – separate ourselves from all those precious things that made us who we are so that we could see ourselves – rediscover ourselves. As Donna Schaper in her book Sabbath Keeping reminds us – we needed to take ourselves off the easel and gain perspective on who we have become.
I think that’s at least a bit of what was going on in old Abram as we meet him this morning. Seventy-five years in any place is long enough to forget who you are and were and where destined to be. The Lord says; Lech, lecha …go or go forth or go your own way or get thee out depending on how you choose to translate it. The 13th Century Jewish text of Zohar translates it; go to yourself, know yourself, fulfill yourself. Hmmmm…could it be that this nationalist text also speaks to us of personal formation and transformation? Could it be that what Abraham and Sarah experienced was something akin to what Vaclav Hovel described as: islands of meaning in the ocean of our struggling, the meaning of lanterns whose light is cast into the darkness of our life’s journey, illuminating all the many meanings of its direction?
You know the old couple’s story – that’s the nice thing about a group like this – you know it all already; the bareness, the futility, the settling for what is and laying to rest the dreams of what had been hoped for. You know the still small voice that says go and how they go – it’s as simple as that. And amazingly the result is the legacy of three of the world’s great religions. All from the word go.
In their going Abraham and Sarah leave home and more important to the story (and hopefully my point). They leave most of what had given them their identity – their home- their nation and culture, their family - until its just the two of them on the road – two old soul mates rediscovering their own truest – deepest selves – no work or family or history to define them. Perhaps it’s true that leaving home is a valuable, fruitful loss.
For Donna and me our sabbatical journey was an opportunity to regain perspective. It’s perhaps in God’s humor that we have a son who is preparing for ministry – I wonder if any of you out east here heard the shriek of noooooooo coming out of the west winds when Kyle shared his plans with us! It’s been quite interesting to watch a new generation go through these early stages of the journey – testing his call – sugar coating it with idealism and passion and an amazing sincerity.
Those of you – who, like Donna and myself have been at this a while tend to forget what those days where like – we are sometimes in need of perspective. I figure that’s the first gift our story offers us this morning. A sabbatical journey offers us space to separate – go away and to go to ourselves – to get to know ourselves – to fulfill ourselves.

As God sends Abraham and Sarah off from the confines of Haran – God sends them with a purpose. God wants to do something with their old world and chooses them – calls them to be a blessing - calls them to ministry - in as much as ministry is service to the world. Blessing the world not in some silly pious way that the word is often used – but in the sense of transforming the world – shaping it – affecting it – helping it to be more like God had always dreamed it to be. And if we find that it’s been a long time since we thought about our ministry that way – perhaps we need to get away.
Our purpose in life gets so crusted over with cynicism, so deflated with the mundane, so diluted with personal politics – it becomes so difficult to recover it – or to find that passion without which we would never have started on this journey in the first place. So if we find ourselves with a sense of purpose frayed and worn about the edges – perhaps its time to step back – any way we can – gain perspective on who we are – and recover the purpose of these sacred journeys of ours.
In his book The Sacred Journey, Frederick Buechner writes:
Life itself can be thought of as an alphabet by which God graciously makes known his presence and purpose and power among us. Like the Hebrew alphabet, the alphabet of grace has no vowels, and in that sense his words are always veiled, subtle, cryptic, so that it is left to us to delve their meaning, to fill in the vowels for ourselves by the means of all the faith and imagination we can muster. God speaks to us in such a way, presumably, not because he chooses to be obscure but because, unlike a dictionary word whose meaning is fixed, the meaning of an incarnate word is the meaning it has for the one it is spoken to, the meaning that becomes clear and effective in our lives only when we ferret it out for ourselves.

When God calls Abraham to go the word is the imperative of halaka – the word for walk. God says; go get walking - journey – go on pilgrimage. And the text says that Abraham journeyed on in stages. Its interesting by the way that the landscape they cover is really a preview for all of the people of God’s journey to come…Canaan, Shecham, Bethel…. We also journey in stages. I don’t know about you but our life story is told and defined by the churches we have served. When we tell most of our story we say back when we were in Hudson or Holland or Philadelphia….. We journey by stages – chapters and each has its impact upon us as we pass by giant oaks and hillsides and lustful monarchs, and whining brother-in-laws…. All of it makes who we are – the journey defines us – even when we’re not much paying attention to it.

A journey can be a frightening thing. On a mission trip in South America one time I noticed the most startling thing a few days into the trip; a few of my traveling companions got to acting so terribly squirrelly– kind of edgy – impatient – controlling. At one point all hell broke lose among some of the adult leaders. I figured they had all gotten malaria or something. When we got back from the trip I was debriefing with a wise friend who pointed out that the displacement of travel is just that – we become out of our place and that’s uncomfortable and unsettling and can be to some down right frightening. I can’t imagine how frightening it was for Sarah and Abraham to leave everything for a voice in your head. Sometimes we wonder what was that voice that called me into this life and onto this journey. And sometimes it’s so frightening that we are afraid to make a move and we freeze in place shuddering at the thought of what might happen next.
To the fear and anxiety of Abraham and Sarah’s displacement The Lord offers a promise; I will bless you. It’s a covenantal sort of thing – a holy partnership. God calls and God provides. Of course some have from time to time taken blessing to mean something akin to special privilege and power. Go there at your own peril. What we can depend on is provision – care and guidance. Trace their journey and see how the one who called them also provides for them – even when they screw up from time to time.
So I leave you with this call: Go…get thee out…go your own way…get walking…. to go to yourselves – to get to know yourselves – to fulfill yourselves.

And enjoy the journey.

Now to the King eternal,
Immortal, invisible, the only God,
Be honor and glory for ever and ever.

Freedom in Ministry Conference
The Warwick Center
Warwick, New York
January 14, 2007


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