and he went out, not knowing

and he went out, not knowing (Hebrews 11:8, KJV)

Last night, our group was studying Genesis chapter 12, and the calling of Abraham. Such a remarkable story, the more you think of it. We were struck again by the radical nature of the call – leave everything, and go to the land I’ll show you – and the bold immediacy of Abraham’s response – and Abraham went out. The question, as always, is – how do we account for this?

Often discussions of this text center on the faith of Abraham, and certainly that is a central theme. But what a couple of people pointed out last night is the hope in the story. As one man said, the very act of Abraham going out is an act of incredible hope.

Think of Abraham – 75 years old and childless. We know this is hard for both he and his wife. We must imagine that they had given up all hope of children by this point. We must imagine they have reconciled themselves to their situation and have settled in to life as they knew it, with certain possibilities for their lives no longer even considered.

Indeed, quite apart from Abraham’s own personal circumstances, Thomas Cahill, in his book The Gifts of the Jews, writes that all the ancient cultures surrounding him rejected any hope for change or progress. The world envisioned by the wise ancients before and surrounding Abraham was a closed world, where a man’s fate was fixed, written in the stars and ultimately meaningless. Death rules, nothing can be changed, and the wisest thing we can do is realize this reality and come to peace with things as they are.

And yet: Abraham went out.

Whatever he imagined for his future, it is hard to think that before the call he pictured setting off for new lands, following a new god (who turns out to be THE God), on his way to having descendants as numerous as the stars. Surely he never dreamed of that being in his future.

But then, here comes the call of God. And with it, a whole new view of the present and the future opens before him, out in a new land, following after this new God. And so Abraham went out not knowing, but trusting, and hoping.

Cahill writes:

“Out of ancient humanity, which from the dim beginnings of its consciousness has read its eternal verities in the stars, comes a party traveling by no known compass. Out of the human race, which knows in its bones that all its striving must end in death, comes a leader who says he has been given an impossible promise. Out of moral imagination comes a dream of something new, something better, something yet to happen, something – in the future.”

Into hoplessness, comes the hope-giving call of God.

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Consoled by intelligence of their prosperity

 

John Chyrsostom, in his sermon “Excessive Grief at the Death of Friends”:
“Now is it not unreasonable, that, if you should have given your daughter in marriage, and her husband should take her to a distant country and should there enjoy prosperity, you would not think the circumstance a calamity, but the intelligence of their prosperity would console the sorrow occasioned by her absence; and yet here, while it is not a man, nor a fellow servant, but the Lord Himself who has taken your relative, that you should grieve and lament?
And how is it possible, you ask, not to grieve, since I am only a man? Nor do I say that you should not grieve: I do not condemn dejection, but the intensity of it. To be dejected is natural; but to be overcome by dejection is madness, and folly, and unmanly weakness. You may grieve and weep; but give not way to despondency, nor indulge in complaints. Give thanks to God, who has taken your friend, that you have the opportunity of honoring the departed one, and of dismissing him with becoming obsequies. If you sink under depression, you withhold honor from the departed, you displease God who has taken him, and you injure yourself; but if you are grateful, you pay respect to him, you glorify God, and you benefit yourself.
Weep, as wept your Master over Lazarus, observing the just limits of sorrow, which it is not proper to pass.

We get a completely new set of people

Thomas Long, writing in his book Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral, imagines a funeral for a wife and mother named Annette. The funeral he imagines is, like so many others, “sweet and nostalgic”, featuring readings of Psalm 23 and Proverbs 31, and celebrating that she “was a good woman, a good Christian”. He continues:
“we go to the grave where Annette now lies next to her husband and her parents in the family plot in the cemetery, and it will forever be this way. ‘We will always remember her,’ we say.
But of course it’s a white lie; we won’t remember her always. All of the pieces of Annette’s funeral were fine as far as they went, but the fact is, they were built on the illusion that this land is our permanent home. We get a completely new set of people every 100 years, and it will not be too many generations before no one living much remembers Annette at all. If history rolls on long enough, her church will disappear, the building will disintegrate, the congregation will be scattered, and the cemetery will be covered by the dust, the tombstones long disintegrated.
This is exactly the perspective on life and mortality that is so common in Scripture, and so uncommon today. Rather humbling, in fact, and sobering. And a perspective that even at a funeral is hard to get people to face. But that is precisely why a Christian funeral should not be simply nostalgic and sweet, but built on a more clear-eyed view not only of the reality of death, but also a firm proclamation of Christian hope. For:
“if Annette will be forgotten to history, she will be remembered by God, and she worships now in a building not made with hands. The funeral, then, should honor this land – the person Annette has been, the things she has done, the relationships she formed – but the funeral should not be consumed with nostalgia for Annette’s past nor ours, because our hope does not lie in this land alone, but in the city whose architect and builder is God.”

The necessity of contemplating beauty

Melinda Selmys, from her book Sexual Authenticity:

“Beauty is not largely an irrelevant addendum to the life of the soul. It is through beauty that we come to understand the appeal of heaven. The atheist can’t get excited about sitting around forever with the big man on the throne. The sexual sinner can’t imagine an eternity without sex. Almost everyone, at least on some level, thinks that this world is more appealing than the world to come. It is because we do not spend enough time contemplating beauty, because we do not take into our hearts the realization that all of the wonders and marvels, all of the joys and triumphs, of this world are only a tiny spark thrown from the fire of Beauty that burns in the mind of God.”

the glory that shall rise out of patient and triumphant suffering

other wise manFrom The Story of the Other Wise Man, by Henry Van Dyke:

“‘And remember, my son,’ said he, fixing his deep-set eyes upon the face of Artaban, ‘the King whom you are seeking is not to be found in a palace, nor among the rich and powerful. If the light of the world and the glory of Israel had been appointed to come with the greatness of earthly splendor, it must have appeared long ago. For no son of Abraham will ever again rival the power which Joseph had in the palaces of Egypt, or the magnificence of Solomon throned between the lions in Jerusalem. But the light for which the world is waiting is a new light, the glory that shall rise out of patient and triumphant suffering. And the kingdom which is to be established forever is a new kingdom, the royalty of perfect and unconquerable love.

“‘I do not know how this shall come to pass, nor how the turbulent kings and peoples of earth shall be brought to acknowledge the Messiah and pay homage to Him. But this I know. Those who seek Him will do well to look among the poor and the lowly, the sorrowful and the oppressed.'”

The Benefits of Providence in The Hobbit

the hobbit

At the insistent urging of my wife (who loves all of Tolkien’s books) and wanting to read the book before I saw the movie, I finally read The Hobbit this December. It was, of course, great.

Reaching the end, I was struck with the book’s final lines:

“‘Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!’ said Bilbo.

‘Of course!’ said Gandalf. ‘And why should not they prove true? Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!’

‘Thank goodness!’ said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco jar.

Besides being a fitting and sublime ending, the passage is a terrific illustration of the Christian doctrine of providence.

The doctrine of providence is the doctrine that God is the sovereign ruler over all of earth and all of history. He guides history and His plans for it are ultimate and unstoppable. There is plenty more you could say about this, but I think that’s a true, if brief, definition. It is this doctrine that The Hobbit as a whole, and the ending in particular, brings to life. Here are fulfilled prophecies, adventures and escapes that are not the result of “mere luck”, and the reality of a greater purpose at work in the world: providence at work in middle earth.

But what struck me most was the picture of the healthy balance in an individual life resulting from believing in providence.

Notice: the individual is very important!  The greater purpose at work in the world does not happen apart from human beings (or hobbits), but through them. Though God’s purposes are certain – so certain that He alone can speak truly about what the future holds – He accomplishes these purposes using us. He makes His plans and then He gives us a role “in bringing them about”. And so our adventures and our escapes are not the result of coincidence or dumb luck, but are the result of the work of God Himself on our behalf, as He gives us a role in the world’s great story. What significance! Meditate on this for long and we’ll be in awe like David: “What is man that You should make so much of him?

Yet notice also: the individual is really rather small and unimportant! Come now, Gandalf says to Bilbo – you don’t really believe it was your own goodness of character, cunning, and skill that caused all your accomplishments? And you don’t really believe that all your successes were really “just for your sole benefit?” I mean, who do you think you are? “You are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!’

The reader, after journeying with Bilbo through many adventures, there and back again, comes to the end only to see in these final lines the thread of providence that ran through the whole story. The thread is illuminated, and the doctrine springs to life. And whether or not you believe it is true, don’t you see the beauty of the doctrine? Don’t you see the healthy balance that comes from it?

On the one hand, your actions really matter as part of a bigger plan, and you are a subject of the attentive care of God Himself.

But on the other: you really shouldn’t get that big of a head about it, shouldn’t be triumphalistic, and shouldn’t walk around with the weight of the world on your shoulders.

You don’t really think the ultimate outcome for this wide world depends on you, do you?