Wednesday, March 8, 2017
First Steps: Speaking to the Soul, March 8, 2017
It’s been a difficult Lent for me so far, to answer a question asked yesterday in this space. Given the turmoil going on in community and country, I have been feeling unsettled, uneasy, and then Lent comes along and the message most people emphasize is giving up and sacrificing things that give them comfort or pleasure. It would be easy to let Lent be another layer of gloom in an already dreary time, which is not what it is meant to be at all.
This coming Sunday’s brief reading from Genesis 12 offers some insight here. Abraham abruptly makes his entrance in the biblical narrative, and it starts with an astounding challenge, followed by a promise. Verses 1-3 are such a brief description of this momentous event:
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.
Abruptly, almost nonchalantly in the first verse, God starts by telling Abram to do what even today would be unthinkable for many of us: “Leave everything you know and everyone you love, and walk until I tell you to stop. Once you get to this place I have in mind, I will give you everything: a nation of descendants, making you yourself great as the root and foundation of an entire people." But Abram’s greatness will be based not on his own glory, but on being a blessing for others—a point that will later be emphasized in the writings of the prophets, especially Isaiah.
Some would consider what Abram is being asked to do a sacrifice. But it’s also important to remember here that sometimes we have to let go of things in our life in order to make room for new things to have space to grow. And that’s a wonderful lesson to contemplate during Lent. Lent shouldn’t be about giving up things that make us happy just to deny ourselves pleasure or comfort. Rather, Lent can be a time of paring away, of making space in our lives for other things to take root. Lent is a time to be willing to step out in faith on the journey to a deeper, more intimate relationship with God.
That last half of a verse in our reading is actually probably one of the most astounding testimonies of faith in scripture, so astounding that the author of the Letter to the Hebrews makes this simple response the centerpiece of Hebrews 11. Genesis 12:4a states simply:
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.
Reading these nine words, reminds me of that later description in Hebrews 11, verse 8: 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.
Faith is that which gives us the courage and the strength the persevere and to dare. Faith is the thing that gives us wings to carry us over the times of distress in our lives. Most of us don’t have the heaping mounds of faith that Abram has in this passage. But the good news is: just a little is often enough. Just a little can get us through the anxiety and uncertainties of these times. Now that doesn’t let us off the hook. Abram had faith, but then he had to act on the basis of that faith. He had to dare. He had to trust in this unlikely promise that God offered to him, and he had to be willing to countenance great losses in the name of that faith.
Lent is a time to remember where our priorities are: with stripping away all the distractions and self-centeredness that separates us from God and each other—in other words, sin and idolatry of self. It’s also a time to relax into the promise that God gives all of us as our tender, loving mother, seeking to draw us back to our true natures as beings made for love, made to be a blessing for others just like Abram was promised. It is a time to quiet ourselves like a child upon her mother’s breast—that beautiful image in Psalm 131. In other words, it’s not so much a chance to make ourselves suffer, but to give ourselves the opportunity to live more deeply into the life we are all drawn toward in our very natures: a life rooted in the Most Merciful One, who created us for love and community. All it takes is having the strength to take the first step. In faith.
(This was first published on Episcopal Cafe's Speaking to the Soul on March 8, 2017.)