Now officially retired, I'm the Director of a volunteer church outreach: Trinity-at-Waiake eLearning Centre. Our website and ePortfolio is kiwiconnexion.nz for lifelong learning and spirituality, creating an online community of best practice and resourcing for professional development, with an emphasis on Methodism. Read more
- First name: David
- Last name: Bell
- Blog address: http://trinitybells.blogspot.co.nz/
- Country: New Zealand
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Abram's faith journey
Abraham was 75 years old when he set out from Haran. I do hope you like that sentence as much as I do.
It is a wonderful sentence. It is a very wonderful sentence. It is saying that what counts in life is a sense of adventure, a sense of call to a great purpose, a sense of God calling us onward, imbued with a fresh, lively vision.
Now where is our sense of adventure today? Where does the journey begin, where does the trail start that will take us on a path that leads to the fulfilment of great and grand vision?
The world has changed since Abram set out. His name then was indeed Abram. It wasn’t until he fathered a son Isaac as an even older man of 99 did he get the name Abraham. And Sarai became Sarah.
What treasure troves of imagination are here. These great patriarchal myths and legends of Genesis are ripe for the mind's food. The saga of an elderly man setting out and fathering a nation, a nation of people of every tribe and tongue who hear the call of God.
But as I say, the world has changed. It is smaller by a long way. Now the tribes and tongues crowd in on each other and it is exceeding hard to find the start of a fresh trail, which leads on to an undiscovered land. Abram’s was a journey of long years, today in a plane the other side of the globe is but a day’s travelling time.
His was a world unpolluted by the vast industries of the industrial revolution. Ours is turning every country into a problematic geography, where waterways are not clean, vast acres of land are highly toxic poison dumps, and the air is hazardous to health. His was a world where life and death were at every twist and turn of the trail, where the balance between food and hunger was knife edge, and from most disease there was no recovery. Today we farm embryos for body parts, and the poor will sell a kidney to the wealthy for a few hundred dollars, because both want to continue to eat.
In fact, when we really think about it, the start of the trail of the great adventure is still to be found. In the numerous paradoxes, contradictions and puzzles, why is the world the way it is, why is life like that, what can we know about it, what can we do about it? The start, the numerous starts to the trail, are at every point of the compass. Most of all, it is in the world of thinking: we must get our thinking straight to tackle the issue of how life may continue on earth. We must get our ourselves thinking widely about many new possibilities or else there will be no children’s children, no future generations capable of living on this planet except under the most artificial and inhuman conditions.
If we were to ask the various generations here in the assembled congregation exactly what was the most momentous event they had lived through, I suspect the range of answers might be truly astonishing. For some it is war: they have survived war and yet find that peace did not offer what they longed for.
For many across the generations it is very simple and homely: the birth of their children. So there is a real start to the trail in that kind of event. What kind of world are parents creating for their children to grow up in? What sort of environment at home, school and in the community is this minute being promoted and participated in by the Church?
One of the great features of Anglican life in English country parishes used to be Rogation Sunday. On that day, the vicar would talk of turning the sod in preparation for the hoeing and sowing and tending of the crops. The ancient Church, our forebears in the faith knew our radical dependence on the good earth, the living earth. They might be amazed at how many of today’s Christians are too sleepy to worry about the environment, both in its micro aspects and in its macro aspects.
As our friend Professor John Morton reminds us, every living thing lives in a habitat. And the Church is the habitat of grace, where all habitats are protected by the grace of God through our participation. I like his phrase the Church is the habitat of grace. He borrowed from someone else, but in many respects made it truly his own. Despite the wars and despite the peace, despite the pollution and despite the green revolution, the Church has a pivotal role in the future: either it will really and truly become the habitat of grace or it will fade off the scene as irrelevant.
A second adventurous starting point for the journey of faith today is to focus on the rebirth of spirit. Let me explain. Many Christians think that to be born again is connected with a spiritual experience at a church or some kind of Christian meeting. I wonder why they think that: how did this notion arise that Christian spirituality is confined to Christian churches?
Somehow the 'born again' experience has got wrapped up in a 20th century packaging that is all chocolates and roses. Every recent President of the United States of America has claimed to be born again, to appease the powerful moral majority. This experience is strangely different from the blood, sweat and tears of Gethsemane or indeed the journeys of the patriarchs, beginning with Abram. Why do we not listen accurately to what Jesus said? Or the gospels? Or the epistles? Who do we hear but not comprehend?
The Spirit blows where it wills. It is as much alive without the Church as within the Church. It is the Church’s job as the habitat of grace to discern the movement of the Spirit and to affirm the Spirit where it genuinely manifests itself.
Do you want a universe of faith to explore? Begin by cultivating the opposite point of view. Soon it will become clear there is always twenty sides to every story. And every story signals the way to the trail.
My final point is a question: where will it all end? What is the outcome of starting on faith’s journey? And when we have explored our ethics, created our environment for love and compassion, and rebuilt the Church as the habitat of grace, will it have counted one iota?
The answer I believe is yes. Realistically what any one of us can do may count only for one iota, but the mark will have been made. As I see it, life’s experiences in faith are richly varied, densely packed with humour and excitement and the desire for goodness. If it hasn’t got those, then it’s not much of a faith. But at the same time, life’s experiences prepare us for life’s end. And that is where any path on the journey of faith must ultimately lead.
You see, whether the Biblical story of Abraham and Sarah is literally true or literally false, it is wonderfully mythically true, metaphorically rich, over-powering in its intensity of truth. Towards journey’s end, the purpose of the journey is known. Well, Abraham did have more travelling to go. But what he gained was far beyond what he had lost if he had stayed in Haran.
I think that is the essence of faith. To respond to the richness of the call of God, to hear the Spirit in the concentration camps and on the cross, and in the goodness of nature and even in nature's cruellest ravages of disease, there’s the mystery. It is faith that makes sense of the cruelty and insanity and disease. Without this, there is no point. Might as well stay in Haran and vegetate.