Sunday, February 10, 2008
Wide Open Spaces
I have to admit that I never fully appreciated the importance of Abram’s call until I moved to the wide open spaces of the Nebraska prairie. Nestled as I had been in the mothering arms of Tennessee’s Cumberland Mountains, it was very easy to settle into the comfort of a limited skyscape and a horizon that was more “up there” than “out there.” But all of this changed in August of 2001 as I traveled west across the Mississippi toward my new home in Hastings. The trees gradually became sparser, the grass a dustier hue of green, and the sky an unfamiliar and somewhat imposing shade of blue. It would take me several years before I could appreciate the prairie ecology for what it was instead of what I wanted it to be. More than once I found myself asking the same incredulous questions. Why would anyone choose to settle here? What were they thinking? After enduring several harsh winters on the plains I came to realize that those intrepid families who first came to this place a little over a century ago were taking a leap of faith no less fantastic than their spiritual father Abram. They came in hope, believing that they had been blessed by God, even as their lives became more and more precarious the farther they moved into the open expanse of the Great Plains.
Blessing is certainly the premise of Abram's call, but when we focus on this theme exclusively we can easily overlook some of its important and perhaps necessary precedents. In the United States we have become accustomed to the idea that we can actually get something for nothing. Advertisers are the first to employ this kind of wishful thinking – “no money down and no payments until 2010” – but the notion is also widespread among even our most stayed institutions, as the recent sub-prime mortgage debacle so tragically attests. We cannot, however, allow this cultural attitude to eclipse the enormity of what God calls Abram to do in Genesis 12: “Go from your country and your kindred and your family…”(12:1). In other words, leave it all behind. In Chaldea, Abram could take comfort in his ties to the landscape. He could find solace in the faces of his kinspeople or in the embrace of his parents and siblings. But in responding to God’s promise, it was necessary that he forsake all of these. God required of Abram that his fields be turned completely so that new seed might be sown, seed that would eventually be harvested in a land of promise somewhere in the west. In short, Abram was led by God to relinquish his former identity and walk naked, as it were, into a wide open space. God’s grace is surely unconditional, but it is often experienced in radically new and sometimes unpleasant conditions.
Ours is an itinerant culture and as such we are quick to minimize the significance of what Abram was called to do. Indeed, we rather like a little road trip now and then. Gather up the kids, fill the cooler with goodies, top off the tank of the minivan and we’re good to go. The ease with which we can pull onto the interstate and drive to our destination in a matter of hours inclines us all the more to romanticize what was required of Abram. We get a better sense of it if we recall the months of hardship endured in covered wagons by those early settlers on the Oregon Trail, but this still falls short of what Abram could expect to encounter in the desert habitat of the ancient Near East. Separated from his homeland and from the safety of his clan, he was fair game, a stranger wandering helplessly in enemy territory, at the mercy of both the elements and the enemies he would surely meet along the way. How vulnerable he must have felt amidst those wide open spaces of Canaan. But still he journeyed onward, led by hope and by faith in a promise.
It is with some ambivalence, then -- and with much anxiety about denying my Reformed heritage -- that I read Paul’s theological explanation of what is going on in this story. Ever conscious of the arguments proffered by his Judaic antagonists, Paul seems to downplay, if not ignore entirely, the significance of Abram’s life-changing decision to pack up the goods and start a new life elsewhere. “For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’” (Rom. 4:4). That’s it? His belief is what made Abram righteous? The little trek into the unknown was just gravy? No wonder Americans, with their Protestant theological heritage, believe they can actually get something for nothing!
I can imagine what the Jews and Judaic Christians must have thought about the Apostle's perspective on this narrative. We can get a sense of it at least in the one epistle that took Paul to task for his apparent abandonment of the tradition: "What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? …Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, 'Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,' and he was called the friend of God" (James 2:14, 21-23).
Ever since Augustine the effort to defend the sovereignty of God has rendered James' perspective on this matter inconsequential, if not entirely mistaken. I would hazard a guess, however, that Abram, if he ever thought about the question, would more than likely look back on his journey into the wilderness and throw his hat in the ring with the brother of Jesus.
These issues that occupy the minds of theologians seem to be most at home in an urban context, one with which Paul was very familiar. Here the lines of the thoroughfares and byways cut neatly across the cityscape and pay homage to the kind of exacting logic that brought them into existence in the first place. Here, of necessity, questions of faith, grace, and righteousness fit ever so neatly into little equations that can be systematized for the edification of the faithful. Here, everything adds up. And this is precisely why it is so important for us every year, for a period of forty days, to remove ourselves from such an environment and wander into the wide open spaces of a Lenten landscape, where the line between blue sky and distant horizon is blurred, as is every other facile distinction that keeps us afloat in our day-to-day existence. Removed for a time from the distractions of "our country and our kindred and our family," we can contemplate God's blessing while numbering the stars among the heavens. We can relish the freedom of knowing that in God's call all roads lie open to us as paths of promise. More than this, we can come to experience with Abram the strange logic of God's grace, where faith and works are of a piece. In the wide open spaces of Lent we can believe once again that all things are indeed possible, that we can get something for nothing, but only if we work for it.
Questions for Further Discussion
1. What are some of the features of your personal "Lenten landscape"?
2. Soren Kierkegaard said that life must be lived forwards but understood backwards. Can you think of a time in your own life when you felt the call of God to "leave your country and your kindred and your family"? What blessings did you experience as a result of your leap of faith?
3. Compare Romans 4:1-17 and James 2:14-25. Which perspective is most appealing to you and why?