We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
—T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” in “Four Quartets”
Our oldest and best stories are about a journey. The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest story we have and it is about a journey. Some of our greatest literature takes journey as its theme. It is almost April, the time when “longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,” as Chaucer said about the journey to Canterbury in his tales. And Dante, too, takes us on a journey from hell through purgatory and paradise. So also Dorothy took a journey to Oz, so very similar in symbol to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress as Christian heads to the heavenly city.
Amidst all the many journeys recounted in the Bible, the one that stands out as perhaps the most mythically powerful, theologically loaded, and intriguingly personal is the journey of Abraham. We always get a snippet of Abraham’s story on the Second Sunday in Lent. One of the reasons why is that the story of Abraham’s journey is the first step in God’s creation of a people who will ultimately be the instrument of blessing for the entire human family. Another reason is that the figurative journey that the Church makes during Lent is, like all journeys, rooted in trust, in faith, in exploration of strange, new territory. Abraham’s—Abram’s—journey is the pattern of all such journeys.
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to a land that I will show you.” There is hardly a way to unpack that so that modern American people can possibly understand what a radical, preposterous, scary, perhaps even comical story that is. The average teenager in our part of the world cannot wait to leave home, though economic realities and the lengthening of adolescence seem to have blunted that impulse in recent times. In Abram’s day people did not up and leave tribe, kindred, and home routinely, nor did they for a good while after Abram’s day. This is the first clue that the journey Abram makes is frightfully novel. It sounds the initial warning bell that your journey in faith will very likely be just as startling, awesome, amazing, fearful, and ultimately transformative as Abram’s was.
When Paul and other New Testament writers pick up the Abraham story (incidentally, one of the features of Abraham’s story was a name change from Abram to Abraham, so from here on out, let’s go with Abraham)—when the New Testament writers take up the theme of Abraham’s journey they see in it the model of faith. For Paul, Abraham is the model of being made righteous—that is to say just, or in a right relationship with God—simply by his faith, his trust—not by keeping the Law, for there was no Law in Abraham’s time. That was to come later. Someone once told me that if you are going to depart from your family and tribe and all the people that have a stake in making and keeping you theirs, don’t expect for them to stand and applaud when you leave. They will take it as an insult and will do everything in their power in all likelihood to keep you exactly as you have been all along. There are exceptions, of course, but many of us can tell by chapter and verse our own stories of self-differentiation. When you chose a career that your parents counseled against; when you started dating and ultimately married a person that your family did not approve of; when you came out to your family as gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgender; when you identified yourself as belonging to a different belief system or political party; when you left the church of your origin or the faith of your fathers and mothers: not everyone, of course, but many can attest to the enormous strain (to say the least) that such decisions put on family relations, and sometimes friendships as well. Leaving the territory in which you were raised, striking out on our own, listening to your inner truth when it patently conflicts with what others define as truth are things so hard that it is sometimes impossible to believe that we can actually be right or justified, so weighty is the resistance that pulls us back into old, familiar orbits.
So that is what happens when another character comes upon the scene. He is a man who has embarked, but barely perhaps, on a journey that threatens or promises to take him to a very new and frightening place indeed. He has been schooled in the ways of his ancestors. He not only believes the stories, the lore, the symbols, the traditions of his people, he is a teacher of those things. He has a deep investment in the religious and cultural establishment of his time. And yet he, like Abraham, hears a voice calling. His name is Nicodemus, and he comes to Jesus out of darkness and in darkness, saying, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” That is quite a confession of faith by most standards. One would think Jesus would congratulate him for getting the point. But in fact he does not get the point, as the ensuing conversation reveals. Jesus begins to talk about what is in essence the journey of transformation that Nicodemus apparently knows nothing about. Anyone who takes the trouble to check Jesus out is probably on some level attracted to his message and challenge; but it is possible, even commonplace, to imagine that Jesus is just another teacher who can be jammed into an already crowded field of models, an already packed pantheon of gods and guides. Instead, he tells Nicodemus and us that one cannot even see the Kingdom of God without being transformed—born from above as it were. For that kingdom, or realm, is in fact the destination of a journey, not a synonym for an improved version of whatever life we happen to be living at the moment. How daring a thought! You have to start from scratch, be born anew, born from above. Elsewhere and in other gospels Jesus says, “Except you become as a little child, you cannot enter the kingdom of God.” That is tantamount to saying to all would-be travelers, “Leave your country and your kindred and your father’s house and go to a land that I will show you.”
Now it should be obvious that embarking on the journey of faith does not necessarily involve literally relocating, although it might. It does not necessarily mean switching careers, although it might. The journey is not defined by setting and scenery, but by plot and destination. The plot, if you want to call it that, is constantly and always being changed. Changed we are in all kinds of ways. We grow. We do stupid things. We form opinions and drop them. We experiment. We lose our way. We get back on track. We encounter dangers, losses, grief, sometimes torments. But the destination is worth all of that. For the destination is ironically what we already possess. You can call it heaven, if by heaven you mean where God is, and that is everywhere. You can call it life eternal, if by life eternal you mean being totally merged with the life of God. You can call it the discovery of your deepest Self, if by that you mean the truest, deepest, most honest part of you that you can also call the divine image that you bear. One of the prayers we pray in the Way of the Cross, which we do regularly on Fridays in Lent, is a collect from the Burial of the Dead, which goes, “Lord Jesus Christ, by your death you took away the sting of death: Grant to us your servants so to follow in faith where you have led the way, that we may at length fall asleep peacefully in you and wake up in your likeness;…” That is the destination. And the amazing thing about this journey is that we get a glimpse of the destination every so often along the way. You can see the outline of the place towards which we are moving when suddenly you come to, say, the top of a hill (a joy, a thrill, a delight, a moment of total bliss, a sudden rush of tears from being deeply moved), and there it is before you. When my daughter was about 2.5 years old, we were returning from vacation when in the distance we saw the skyline of Charlotte, which was home for us. I said, “There it is! Yonder is Charlotte!” And she replied, “That’s Charlotte? I’m so ’cited!” Yes. We wake up in his likeness, and that likeness starts to form in us even while we are on the road, in the desert, on the sea, or centered in the stillness of our own hearts.
We have a thousand questions, don’t we, Nicodemus? How can these things be? Can a person enter a second time into the womb and be born again? Keep going, Nicodemus. Let’s get all the questions out, yours and ours. Will we lose ourselves so much so that we’ll lose our minds? Will we get to the destination and find out that the Wizard is just a sham pulling levers and masquerading as powerful? Does the journey really deliver what preachers say it does? And how can we know before we buy our tickets and sign on?
Well, yes. We have lots of questions. Probably to have no questions means that you are not on the journey at all. The point, however, is not the questions we have nor the answers, if there are answers, to those questions. The point is whether we grow. We cannot grow without changing, and we cannot change without running some risks. We cannot move to a land we do not know and not be confused, confounded, even lost and in the shadow of death. But remember two things. One is that the journey is one of transformation, not conformation. “Be not conformed to this world,” wrote the Apostle Paul, “but be transformed, by the renewing of your mind.” The other is that the ultimate battle has been fought and won. God loved the world so much that God gave the only-begotten Son, that whoever lives and believes in him might not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.” Done. Accomplished. Won. This journey is not about your working for salvation or your trying to get into heaven as if you had to have a certain number of coupons to get in, or a password, or a pile of points. It is about being a child: inquisitive, playful, unabashed, maybe a little wild or shy, but at least relatively uncontaminated by the forces that squeeze you into the social mold, wasting much of your creative juices while you dry out and assume the shape that someone else thinks you ought to have. There is another way, and it is the way of him who, “though he was in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be seized and hoarded, but emptied himself, and taking the form of a slave, became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”
This Son of Man who was lifted on that cross left country and kindred and his father’s house to go to a strange land. That land is you. And the journey that is yours is his. And he is the journey itself, and the journey’s end.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2014