My daughter tells stories about her daughter on her blog. But she had some of the same questions when she was a little girl, too. We lived at the edge of a wilderness, in Maine, when she was small. It was an old farm, with fields, and stream, and woods. The house was in ok shape, but needed lots of work, and the barn was dry, a nice place for exploring. It was a beautiful place, and looking back, one tends toward nostalgia. The thing is, it was bleak in many ways. Central Maine is one of the more impoverished parts of the United States. Though its deep woods beauty offered spiritual sustenance, and fed our sense of wonder, we were often distressed by the suffering of our neighbors nearby, and our own isolation. Eventually, the cold, the emptiness, and our lack of resources became too much for us, and we left for a more populated region in Maine, near Bangor.
People wander for many reasons–some invited by God to find the promised land, others driven from their homes by earthquakes or other kinds of disaster, and some to find better lives for themselves and their children. And some of us just love the nomadic life, rarely staying in one place for more than a few years.
In Genesis this week, we look back, too. And not with a tone of nostalgia. The Genesis narrator of the Abraham stories remembers the hard parts and the beauty. The God in the desert, the God of nomads, wanderers, and windstorms, is not in the least romantic, or domesticated. The God who meets Abraham is wild, unearthly, uncanny, outside human categories. When God takes up the terms of human covenant, working with the symbols of human agreement, a smoking pot, a fire, a ritual, he adopts our spiritual language to help us understand. The story of Abraham and the covenant God makes with him is an example of God’s self-limiting; he shows a willingness to enter into our experience, and use whatever’s there to communicate with us.
It’s also a gospel story of grace–Abraham didn’t go looking for God, God came looking for him, seeking him, tracking him down. Here is a God who comes to meet us on the way, and changes the directions of our lives.
In Genesis, before God settles down in Jerusalem–he went with the people–and met them at the edges of their campgrounds, on the border between desert and human community. The signs of presence were not bound to a locality. God of desert wanderers: he, too, was a nomad, a point we might remember when we get too tied up in trying to tie God down to a particular set of assumptions, or definitions, or speculations.
We, here, on Cape Ann, live far from the desert winds, but there is another wild, sheer beauty, an untameable, windy blue wilderness at our doorstep, always a reminder that God’s ways are not ours. I am astonished at Abraham’s presumption, his questions: “what will you give me? How am I to know?” If you read the passage you see God shift the terms of the discussion: first God comes as a vision, a great one, and announces “Do not be afraid, I am your shield.” Personally, I think this should have left Abram/Abraham on his knees quaking. But no, he’s focused on one thing–a son.
And then, God takes him out under the stars, as magnificent an experience in the desert as anyone can imagine–the whole vault of heaven wheeling in the deep blue darkness of an ancient sky. This time, Abraham believed God, but then again, as soon as God offers him the land, Abraham gets practical, wants to tie it down–“how am I to know that I shall possess it.”
And the thing is, I know we all do this. It’s not just Abraham–we are always trying to get God to act on our terms, agree to our ideas, instead of falling on our knees in gratitude and wonder for such beauty and grace. We want him to do this and that; we pray endless petitions for what we want, instead of listening on our knees or prostrate on the ground for what God wants. Toward the close of this amazing encounter, Abraham seems finally to feel the sheer magnitude of what’s happened; he falls into a deep sleep–perhaps unable to stay conscious in the face of God’s presence, and a deep and terrifying darkness descends upon him. Now that’s more like it–no more discussion of practical matters; instead he enters the deep darkness of the cloud of unknowing.
So, let God be wild. Let God be the God of desert wonder, the God of creation, of the deeps of the sea, of the vaults of starry heaven. Don’t try to make him into a comfortable image; let him come on his own mind-blowing terms, a whirling storm, a vision in the night, a tortured man on a cross, a risen Lord, breaking open the gates of death, in the garden of morning.