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Stepping down from our tour bus at the visitor’s center, I found myself ankle deep in the finest, powdery dust I had ever encountered. My first thought was: No wonder Abraham so readily answered God’s call to go from Haran to an unknown place God would show him.

Of course that happened a long time ago, but what’s 3,500 years among friends? I was just glad it wasn’t raining.

A bit earlier we had visited an ancient village of “beehive” houses. Now I understood why they had two foot thick mud walls. They were quite dark inside, but remarkably cool in the one hundred six degree heat.

Our study group had arrived at Haran under the leadership of Dr. Donald Bruggink of Western Theological Seminary. I was increasingly amazed at the number of biblical sites located in the land that my childhood Sunday School Bible maps had called Asia Minor—places like Mt. Ararat, Tarsus, Antioch, Ephesus, and Haran — all now part of modern Turkey.

Abraham’s father, Terah, and his family had settled in Haran having followed the Tigris and Euphrates rivers northward and westward from Ur of the Chaldeans on what we now call the Persian Gulf.

Here we were being given an opportunity to imaginatively enter Abraham’s ancient world. Dotted across nearby hills were flocks of sheep and goats tended by shepherds. Cattle roamed the barren hillsides and a little group of donkeys were clumped together, seemingly whispering secrets to each other. Tethered to a rail was a large camel resplendently attired in colorful woven carpets and carrying a small empty saddle on its back. He was spitting and making unhappy grunts and groans. A sign around its neck advertised “Camel Rides, five American Dollars.”

We followed a path that led us to “Abraham’s” large black goatskin tent. Its floor, like the camel, was covered with intricately woven carpets. A few chairs and tables were set out for older guests less inclined to risk sitting cross legged while balancing a hot drink.

Tea was being served — an anachronism to the Abrahamic ambience, but welcome none-the-less. I was learning to drink tea like a local, filtering it through sugar cubes clinched between my teeth.

Our host spoke glowingly of Abraham as being both the ancestor of the Jewish people through his son Issac, and of the Islamic peoples through his son Ishmael. Christians too, claim a vital connection to Abraham via God’s expansive promise to Abraham, “through you shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” In concert with that, in the very first sentence of his gospel, St. Mathew anchors his genealogy of Jesus by calling him “son of David, the son of Abraham.”

Being at the place where Abraham had received God’s open-ended call, seemed both grounding and demanding to me.

I had grown up on the stories of Abraham and his family. As a child I learned that Abraham had lived a life of remarkable trust and faith in pursuit of following God’s call. As I grew older, I became aware that he had also had frequent lapses, when unfaith and fear had gotten the better of him. He seemed to have presented God with a whole chain of disappointments.

I find it strangely comforting that the New Testament writer to the Hebrews, in a chapter often labeled, “Heroes of the Faith,” gives a glowing account of Abraham’s life, remarkably naming him among those whom “God is not ashamed to be called their God.” (Hebrews 11:16). This means either that the writer was not paying very close attention to Abraham’s glaring sins and failures, or that God is capable of generous memory lapses, making God graciously understanding and forgiving.

Abraham’s story, and biblical scenarios like it, remind us in earthy and sometimes humbling ways, that God has a long history of incorporating frail, fallible, sinful, human beings to advance God’s purposes in the world.

Placing myself physically and imaginatively in Abraham’s world, I realized it was not so much Abraham’s faithfulness that comforted and amazed me, but God’s.

Heading back to the visitor’s center, I was startled to see that within spitting distance of the camel, was now another companion at the rail — a sleek and shiny red, BMW automobile. Here was a whole different way of moving through the world. The scene seemed particularly delightful because a day or two earlier, I had learned from one of the women on our tour that in her younger years, she had been a professional BMW race car driver.

A camel and a BMW. Abraham and us. Two worlds. Were they colliding or meeting? I’m reminded of Hans Urs von Balthazar’s insistence in his book titled Prayer, that we must never create a historical distance between ourselves and scripture. Rather, when reading it, we must hear the word of God in the present tense. God is patiently drawing the whole world into the story he is writing and continually inviting us to discover our place in it.

The invitation to follow Jesus is not a road that can be familiarly accessed. It involves discovering new ways of being, thinking, and living — informed by the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord. It means shaping our lives in concert with God’s dreams for the world. It means trusting against all odds that God has our best interests at heart. Like Abraham, we will be challenged and tested as we move into an unknown future.

Dare we think of ourselves as “those whom God is not ashamed to be called their God?” Might such naming give incentive and meaning to our lives? Maybe even start us on a risky journey?

Header photo by Aman Kumar on Unsplash
Sheep photo by Jose Lorenzo Muñoz on Pexels
BMW photo by Roman Khripkov on Unsplash

Norman Kolenbrander

Norman Kolenbrander is a “retired” pastor in the Reformed Church in America, living in Pella, Iowa.


  • David E Stravers says:

    Thanks Norman. Thanks for calling us to “trust God against all odds that God has our best interests at heart.”

  • Norman, great writing. Thank you for this.

  • RZ says:

    “Those whom God is not ashamed to be called their God.” Thanks for a deeper dive into Hebrews 11. Many of the sermons I have read are just shallow, even misleading as they reach for a takeaway. I am uncomfortable calling most of these Hebrews 11 characters heroes. These glossed-over depictions of faith can damage the image of Christianity. Samson? David? Jephtha? Barak ( why not Jael or Debora)? Warriors, yes. Empire builders. Yes. Examples of virtue, no. The faithfulness was all God’s, theirs was only occasional. That is my takeaway. “Heroes of the faith” is a dangerous pathway. Having said that, I do find the overall trajectory of Abraham’s life story to be virtuous: fair, generous, brave, loyal (Hagar the exception).

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