Listen To Article
Watching the Olympics in the last month has brought me back to ten years ago when I had the amazing opportunity to travel to the Republic of Georgia—just a few hours southeast of the Olympic host city of Sochi—and join with a couple of friends who were finishing up their stint with the Peace Corps. There we spent some time participating in an environmental camp for Georgian youth, then traveled around the country with my friends sharing with me some of the best places and people they encountered while living and working in Georgia. Following this, we spent two weeks backpacking around Turkey, from the Black Sea Coast, down through the arid southeast, back up through the central region of Cappadocia, then east to Ephesus and Istanbul. About a month’s travel in all, it was an incredible journey!
One of the many highlights was a couple days spent in the city of Şanlıurfa, less than an hour north of Syria in the far south of Turkey. Şanlıurfa, more regularly just called Urfa, has a population well over 482,000 people and a written history that dates back to the 4th century BCE, but the city may actually date nearer to 9000 BCE. Tradition has Urfa as the birthplace of the biblical patriarch, Abraham, with Urfa having previously been seen as Ur of the Chaldeans. (This claim is firmly disputed, however, with another location in modern day Iraq.) There is in the heart of the city a cave that is identified as Abraham’s place of birth. Near the cave is the mosque of Halil-ur-Rahman and the Balıklıgöl or “Pool of Sacred Fish” (connected to a miraculous legend about Abraham and his faith), as well as the beautiful gardens of Gölbaşı. I can not over express how beautiful a place this is, the people included, and their warmth and hospitality especially.
Urfa is a pilgrimage site for many children of Abraham who come to journey to the place of his birth and recall his significant faith. (Remember that Abraham is seen as Father of the three great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.) From all over the world people travel to see the birthplace of Abraham, tourist and pilgrim alike. They line up, take off their shoes, and in single file stoop in to see the cave. In all honesty, I don’t remember much about that experience other than doing it. It was ten years ago now. Profound of a location as it may be, I don’t recall any great enlightenment or remarkable spiritual experience. (That happened on a different day in Urfa, in a different place, and for a different reason.) Still, the visit and the journey itself makes you ponder Abraham’s journey—both literal and spiritual.
Many years later I had the opportunity to travel with other Reformed Church members from around the country on a peacemaking delegation to Palestine and Israel and specifically to the city of Hebron in the occupied territory of the West Bank. Hebron too is a beautiful and ancient city, although the occupation makes for tragically profound challenges on its Arab residents. Hebron, called also al-Khalīl, is known as a place of great Judaic, Christian, and Islamic significance. There is much biblical witness and traditional lore built upon it, however the most significant is that it is the site of “The Cave of the Patriarchs.” The book of Genesis records the purchasing of property by Abraham that is later used as a burial place for Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah. Where now stands the Sanctuary of Abraham or Ibrahimi Mosque, tradition has the tombs of the patriarchs and matriarchs lie below.
I relate these places and instances here because I identify Lent primarily as a journey and movement of faith. On the second Sunday in Lent the lectionary reminds us of Abram, who would become Abraham, and his journey:
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. Genesis 12:1-4a
The epistle lesson for the day even more explicitly connects Abrahams journey—and his righteousness—with his faith. And ours.
For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) — in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.
Lent is a journey of faith.
But there is something else going on, and perhaps the reason why I’m rather fixated on Abraham and his journey is how it connects with ours and specifically the specter of death. Lent is a journey with Christ, as he journeys to the Cross, and certainly towards the celebration of Easter and the resurrection. But the very real aspect of death is part of that journey. We carry it with us. Abraham’s travels, from his birth, life, death, and reckoned righteousness are connected with our own. But—and maybe this is precisely the point of my fixation, if you will—the place where Abraham is laid to rest is not the end of his journey. Nor of ours. Our faith moves us on to something more. And it is “our” faith, a shared reality.
The Psalter lesson for the above passages is 121, familiar words that are proclaimed at almost every funeral I’ve ever been a part of: “My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth,” and “The LORD is your keeper” and “The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.”
Lent is so often a very personal and individual kind of experience and practice. “What are you giving up?” or “What spiritual discipline might you be participating in this year?” But last night as my congregation gathered and began our Lenten journey together with Ash Wednesday and the imposition of ashes and heard those difficult and somber words, “from dust you came and to dust you shall return,” I was not struct by how personally sobering that sentiment is, but rather, how profoundly communal this experience is, of how shared our faith can be. We journey with Father Abraham. We journey with Christ. We journey with one another.