There is a form of tramping that doesn’t follow well-worn trails. Indeed the devotees of this form make their own trails. They head for the wilderness. Central Fiordland is a favourite. They delight in being out of cell-phone range, unsure of where they exactly are on the topographical map, and teetering on, or off, the edge of being lost.
One of the primary metaphors of faith is journey. This morning the Scripture reading (Genesis 12) has Abram being told by a travelling god to leave his country, kindred, and father’s home and go into the unknown. He is told that he will be blessed, and his enemies will be cursed. (Yes, this was told in a time when gods had favourites. And some people today, like Bishop Tamaki, still think they do[i]).
Abram was to go on a journey to a new land of blessing. It sounded very linear: go from here to there. Simple really. Yet the chapters that follow show that real journeys are far from simple. And journeys of faith seldom are.
A couple of things to consider: This was a time of gods, plural. Abram left his ‘stay-at-home’ Mesopotamian gods. Not because they were ‘false’ or ‘wrong’ or whatever negative value that a monotheistic mind-set would later come to superimpose on a polytheistic world. Those gods, or in my language, ‘those spiritual experiences of the Divine’, while living in his ancestral home were very different from his experiences of the Divine on the road (with the travelling god). Those stay-at-home gods were part of the baggage, part of the security, that Abram chose to leave behind.
Many of us also have spiritual experiences at a very different time in our lives when we believed very different things. To say those experiences or things were ‘false’ or ‘wrong’ is too negative a judgement. They were what they were, and we have journeyed on, hopefully becoming more tolerant, more compassionate, along the way.
Another thing to consider from the Abram saga is that Abram not only befriended the indigenous people of Canaan but he also befriended their gods – in Genesis 14:22 swore an oath and tithed to El Elyon. (Unfortunately most translations of v. 22 use the phrase “The Lord” rather than the names of the deities. All the deities beginning with El are Canaanite deities.)
So, I’m suggesting that like many of us today who undertake spiritual journeys, Abram had experiences and interactions with new peoples and indigenous cultures that affected how he understood the metaphysical world, and shaped his ongoing spiritual formation. As I’ve said many times before in reference to the judgement of Sodom in Genesis 18 it is Abram’s compassion that is so pronounced and so exemplary. How did that compassion grow? Was it by seeing truths in the cultures and gods of peoples whose lands he was travelling through? Maybe.
These days we take journeys by plane, boat, train, and car. We are often time-pressured. Sometimes we are part of tours, or with other people, and what we can do and when is circumscribed. What Abram and his party had, which we usually don’t, is time. Time to slow down. Time to stop. Time to notice. Time to listen.
The second reading today is usually called the transfiguration. To borrow a phrase from Dom Crossan’s this is one of those stories that never happened but always happens. It was constructed after Jesus’ death. Its genre is mythic/poetic. Three seekers are on a mountain top. God is up, unseen, where clouds are. The vision is of brightness, beyond-figuring-out, of the strange trinity of the law (Moses), the prophets (Elijah), and the crucified one who is vindicated (Jesus). And then there is the voice from above, and the touch and voice from beside.
Rather than spend time deconstructing this story by asking questions (like where were the women, and why were they excluded?), or by pointing out all the references to similar spiritual experiences of altered states of consciousness (called ASC for those who like abbreviations) in the Hebrew Scriptures, I want to look at its primary message.
Of course there is some humour in this story: It offers clear proof that Peter, contrary to what the Vatican might think, was a Presbyterian. Instead of being ‘lost in wonder, love and praise’ by this vision of Moses, Elijah, and the shining Jesus, Peter wants to get going, put up the tents, roll out the hospitality, get organised. The bold print slogan: ‘Look busy Jesus is coming’ is very Presbyterian.
I want to suggest that as we journey into God, learning the art and necessity of walking slow, that the primary skill we need to learn is, as the voice in the cloud said,: “Listen”. Listen not just to the conventional sources of wisdom and knowledge, but to also to the unconventional. Listen not just to what is legal (tested over time), symbolized by Moses, or what is prophetic (testing, pushing at the legal), symbolized by Elijah, but listen also to that which is nonsense, nonsensical: a crucified saviour who flips our thinking upside-down. This is why this story ‘always happens’. So listen deeply to the flippers, the dreamers, the de-constructors, those on the margins of acceptable thought, the living unsettling parables. And, as in the story, as you listen, allow yourself to be touched and healed by those alongside, who will help you quell your fears.
Blessed are those who stop
when the light turns amber.
Why risk, why rush, when life
is in the slowness.
Blessed are those who stop
when the sky turns amber,
whether at dusk or dawn,
and pause to listen.
Blessed are those who know
how to attune the ear
to the needs of the heart,
the beat of Earth.
Blessed are those who know
that the silence, the devices off,
the appointments paused,
invite wisdom in.
First and foremost Lent is a time of prayer. It is a time to sense the nonsensical ways of G_d. It is a time to be in G_d's time. Greek has two words for time: chronos (sequential time) and kairos (opportune time or moment). Prayer is more linked to the latter, to time beyond the normal boundaries of the time that is set by watches, phones, and deadlines. Prayer is a kairos time to be dis-orientated, dislocated, re-orientated, re-located. It is a kairos time to stand waiting for the G_d who comes in strange guises.
Lenten prayer is different from other prayer. To return to the tramping metaphor, it's prayer that moves us away from the surety of well-known roads and signs in order to re-orientate us in G_d. It is prayer that takes us off-track in order to question deeply the tracks we've been on and the signs we've been following. 'Wilderness' sounds wonderful to our urban ears, but it was in Scripture a place of fear. Hence the ongoing potency of the texts, like today’s, that say ‘Do not be afraid.’
Forty days – the time the liturgical calendar sets aside for Lent (Ash Wednesday to Maundy Thursday) - is a metaphorical time span used in biblical literature since the horrific tale of Noah to indicate disorientation. Whether your experience is of 40 days, 40 hours, or 40 minutes, it matters not… Being disoriented in G_d is a once-felt-never-forgotten experience. 'Disoriented' is a nice way of saying 'lost'. Most of us have some fear about being lost.
I used to have a regular visitor to my study called Joe who had God in a bottle. Rub the bottle and out pops this wonderful, I'm-here-to-please, genie God. Joe told me I'm wrong about the wilderness. Genie God will always be with us, holding our hand, and leading us in the right direction. Well… tell that to Hagar or Dinah or Moses or Job, or for that matter anyone who has suffered. I listen, and try to find something in Joe’s theology I can affirm.
I have a friend, Max, who understands G_d very differently from Joe. He ditched the anthropomorphic God who allegedly had the whole world in His (sic) hands back in university days. I guess he had a sort of genie God and when the bottle didn't work he threw them both away.
Sometime a couple of decades later his understanding of physics met his understanding of theology and they started courting.
“God,” he would say, gesturing expansively as we walked along, “is a transformative energy: 'God is light', 'God is love' – what do these mean if not energy?”
When I ask him about the purpose of prayer he uses phrases like 'recharging’ and 'getting the rhythm right.' Prayer is not about addressing a super-human-like deity, but about being still and letting the energy of G_d move in and through his life.
Max prays mostly as he walks. It involves his breathing, listening to what's happening within himself as well as in the world around, and tending his dog. What Simone Weil would have called ‘attentiveness’. Max has a nice dog.
I asked him about being lost in the wilderness.
“Let me tell you a story,” he says. “A rich, powerful guy came to a minister to learn about prayer. ‘Why do you want to pray?' asked the minister. 'I want to be in harmony with God.' 'Good,' said the minister, 'but I must warn you that in time you will discover that what you seek is achieved not through holding on to what you can control but by letting go of what you can’t.'”
Max too has experienced the absence of the theologically familiar and the disorientation that the unfamiliar brings. Control and surrender, holding on and letting go, are ongoing themes in his life.
Lent invites us to get off the right road, the right track, to get off all our well-worn tracks, whether we're travelling swiftly or slowly, and to listen (like Peter, James, and John) and to venture (like Abram) into uncertainty.