Saturday, 19 March 2011

All we can't leave behind

Reading: Genesis 12 v 1-9

Now 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.’
 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. And Abram journeyed on by stages towards the Negeb.

This Old Testament passage is one that many of you have heard often – the call of God to Abram, when Abram was 75 years old, to leave all that he was familiar with and travel to a new land.
God didn’t even tell Abram what or where that new land was. God just asked Abram to start out on a journey.
So Abram started out.
It would seem that he didn’t travel light – he took his immediate family, all the possessions he had gathered and all the people he had acquired.
At each stage of the journey, we read that Abram took stock of where he was, listened to God’s prompting – and moved on.
He built altars to God.
He spent time communing with God.
By all accounts, he left a trail.
But he kept on moving at God’s prompting.
And, it seems, though God didn’t give Abram a map, though God didn’t let him in on what the destination might be, God did keep on checking in.
God kept on affirming Abram’s faith and obedience.
And, often, that’s all we have to go on.
For Abram, it was enough.
Faith and obedience.

Most of you know that at the end of last month I went on a journey.
It was a journey to somewhere I’d never been.
To meet up with folks whom I’d never met.
But I didn’t take my family with me.
I went on my own.

For a few years now I have been part of an online blogging community, a community that has been informative and supporting.
Blogging, for me, started out as a way to journal.
It began- and continues – as a form of spiritual discipline.
A means by which I could write about everyday experiences and see where God was and is at work in daily life.
It’s a discipline that I’ve maintained for the last 4 years.
It’s a bit like a thought for the day – only written on the computer and posted online for folk to read rather than listen to.
Once I post the reflection, others are free to comment on those reflections and offer encouragement and suggestions or share something of their stories.
I realized fairly early on that blogging could be a useful tool for outreach – and so it has proved to be.
There are lots of folk locally as well as globally who read the blog.
Its always a bit disconcerting to meet someone I’ve never actually met before and be asked about something that I’ve written about on the blog.
After a while I discovered that there was a network of bloggers who were also women ministers and who had formed a supportive online community.
I’ve shared with you before how, every week, we look at the prescribed Sunday texts and share ideas for preaching and teaching, ideas and activities for telling the stories to children and young people.
Often, as we’re sharing resources we also share a bit of what’s going on for us and so a supportive community has grown up.
That’s how it came about that, at the end of February I flew out to America to meet up with some of these women.
How strange to meet face to face, folk that you feel you know well because of all you have shared together online.
But I have to tell you, although the planning was fun, when it came to making the actual journey, my nerve almost failed me.
If I could have turned back halfway across the Atlantic, then I probably would have.
Because by then the thought of meeting up with 40 strangers, albeit strangers whom I felt I knew, was fairly daunting.
I am happy to tell you that the reality was much better than even I could have hoped for.
The community that had been born online proved even better face to face.

Of course I had a distinct advantage over Abram.
I was able to find out about the folk whom I would be meeting.
Before we travelled, we set up a google group where folk could introduce themselves and share some details.
I also knew where I was going.
I had a map – which is more than Abram had.
And so the unknown territory I was about to encounter could, in many ways be anticipated.
We also had a purpose in getting together as well as meeting up.
We wanted to explore together the idea of Reframing Hope  - finding vital ways to reach out to a new generation of people both in and outside our churches.
We had with us the author of a book entitled Reframing Hope – Carol Howard Merritt, who shared with us her experience of involvement as a Presbyterian minister in Washington.
Carol shared her stories and affirmed, for many of us, the vitality of mainline churches in reaching out to a new generation of spiritual seekers.

Of course, being women ministers, we did things in style.
Our meet up was on a cruise ship in the Caribbean.
Often our seminars were held in the ship’s conference room competing with the noise of a party going on in the bar next door.
But when we broke into groups to discuss things we would take ourselves up on deck and find various quiet corners to share.

The conference started with a session where we could introduce ourselves face to face.
Each participant was asked to bring along something that told a bit about themselves and where they came from.
A lovely way of learning about each other.
Whatever we took along went home as a gift with someone else.

I took along some haggis and some whisky and spoke about coming from the land of Burns.
Julia, who received those as a gift went home armed with instructions on how to host a Burns Supper in Alaska.

This week, as I reflected on Abram and his family leaving all that they knew, I wondered what items they carried with them that would speak of where they had come from.
And of all the gifts that they left in each place they travelled through.
As well as the gifts that they received from the folk they encountered as they journeyed.

I wonder what, for Abram, became the things that HE COULD NOT LEAVE BEHIND?

I’d like us to think about that question here this morning?
What, for us as a worshipping community are the things that we can not leave behind.
What are the things that we consider priceless?
The things that must move on with us as we endeavour to reach out to a new generation?

Is it our style of worship?
Visiting folk often comment on how much singing we include in our worship.
Is that one of the things we couldn’t leave behind?

Is it our sense of friendship and fellowship, our welcome of strangers?
People feel included when they come here.
Is that one of the things we couldn’t leave behind?

Is it our bright and airy sanctuary?
A sanctuary that many of you still have fond memories of raising funds to build.
Is that one of the things that we couldn’t leave behind?

One of the things we discussed at the conference was the way we reach others in this age of technology.
An age where many people are more comfortable sitting in front of their computers than gathering in a building.
Where folk may be more comfortable writing about feelings than speaking them.
We can roll our eyes at the seeming absurdity of that.
Or we can choose to engage with it and offer appropriate forums for those for whom a different medium appeals.
I am not alone in feeling strongly that there can be as real a sense of community in the virtual networks as there is in face to face contact and, for many people today, virtual community holds a stronger appeal.

Research has shown that, though today’s generation might be reached in different ways from those of previous generations – though we might not, in the first instance encounter new members when they cross the threshold of the church building, still they seek traditional ways to explore and sustain faith.
And, in particular, what they seek is depth in their belief.
They may well come to faith by unconventional means, but once they have embraced faith, they want a more traditional sustenance – based on ancient practices and customs.

Contrary to many of the myths being perpetuated about traditional church, as we know it, having had its day, there is much to suggest that traditional church is actually regaining its place.
That folk are returning to tried and tested paths.
And the task for us is to become more aware of the new view that God gives us of the promised land.
It’s about journeying slightly differently.
Getting used to different surroundings.
Journeying on in faith and obedience.
Just as Abram did.
Abram discovered on his journey that God still surrounded him.

Abram’s task was not to re-create a faithful God but to rediscover that faithful God in new surroundings.
And so often that involved re-instating old traditions.
What we are called to do, in each generation, in each new time and place, is to sort through what we have, work out what is important, discover those things that WE CANNOT LEAVE BEHIND and use them in a new setting.
Yes, we do live in a different and changing world.
But much of what we have to offer is the very stuff that new generations are seeking.
If we are prepared reframe our hope for a new generation.
If we are prepared to take account of a changing landscape in which God’s presence and God’s guiding is still discernible, we can journey on in faith.

This is NOT about being trendy.
It is NOT about seeking a new relevance.
It is about valuing what we have and, in so doing, be assured that still God uses tried and tested ways alongside new ways.
What holds the two together is faith and obedience.
The sort of faith and obedience that Abram displayed when called and prodded and catapulted by God into a new landscape.

God has called and prodded and catapulted us into unfamiliar surroundings.
Will our response be one of faith and obedience?
Can we follow Abram’s example and become a blessing for the nations?

Can we respond to the different cultures to which we are exposed daily and, retaining the essence of our faith, journey on with renewed hope and vision?

I’m sure as Abram journeyed that he was changed by the folk he encountered.
God exposed Abram to new horizons.
New horizons that still contained the God with whom Abram was familiar, the God by whom Abram was known and loved.

For us, too, as we encounter new horizons, the presence of God becomes not blurry but clearer than ever.

And so the challenge is for us today.
Whether we are 75 like Abram.
Or older or younger.
God calls US to step out in faith and obedience, believing that even in a vastly changed landscape, as people of faith we have something to offer.
And we have much to learn from those we encounter.
But in all of it, we will see and be blessed by God.

Three things remain: Faith, hope and love.
We step out in faith.
We reframe our hope.
We rely on God’s love.
Taking with us on the journey all that we cannot leave behind – Faith, hope and love, ancient commodities for a God-filled future.


Anonymous said...

beautiful! you did a beautiful job of weaving the stories - challenging and encouraging at the same time - absolutely beautiful

Crimson Rambler said...

Lovely, lovely stuff -- and I'm glad I'm not the only one who is tempted to chicken out at the start of these great experiences!

Dot said...

Amazing! Thankyou...Dx

Songbird said...

Thanks for this!