He brought him outside and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your descendants be." And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness. --Genesis 15: 5-6
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old--and Sarah herself was barren--because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, "as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore." --Hebrews 11:8-12
I sometimes wonder what the patriarch Abraham must have been thinking when he submitted to following God. What did he think as he stared up at the sky and saw all those stars? Without light pollution to ruin the view, what went through his mind looking at all those blinking lights shining back at him, and the echo of that promise: count the stars, if you can; this is how numerous your descendants shall be? Did he try to count them? Or was this sight so marvelous, and his awe at these words so great, that he simply stared and stared and uttered a breathless, "Yes, God."?
This level of trust is what is asked of all people of faith. For, as it is noted in the reading from Hebrews, all that Abraham did in submitting to God, in that moment under the stars, was totally dependent on his absolute trust and willingness to go where God was going to take him. I know this is what is expected of me, too. And I tremble.
It's not like I haven't stepped out into the abyss before. Certainly, I did it when I left for college. I made the decision to leave the familiarity of New England, and go halfway across the country to the University of Missouri. I didn't know anything about Missouri, other than the University in Columbia had a Journalism School that was renown. I remember when my parents dropped me off and drove away as I stood on the sidewalk outside Brady Commons, one of the two student union buildings. I thought, "Oh, wow. What have I done?" Suddenly, and for a moment, I was panicked. Had I just done something really stupid? I intentionally put myself far away from everything I had known. And I did experience some bumps along the way. But fortunately, Calvary Episcopal Church was only a few blocks north of the Mizzou campus. And while their service was a bit "higher" than what I had been used to growing up, it was Episcopalian, and it felt like a touchstone to home.
Upon graduation, I did another wild and crazy thing: I accepted a job in Tallahassee, Florida. I had never been to Florida before in my life. I had one relative living in the Sunshine State, my dad's Uncle Fred, who lived over in a nursing home in Pensacola. But other than that, I was stepping out into a vast new territory, and again, having to make my way in a new place with new people. I didn't know how long I'd stay. And after being here a week, I was already applying for jobs to get me as far away from Tallahassee as possible.
Unlike in Columbia, I floundered, attempting to find a church that really fit me, the lesbian me. There was no place that felt like "home." I really was a stranger in a strange land where even the places of safety, such as the Episcopal Church, had figurative bars on the doors and windows. But, just as I had managed to navigate a path and make connections while I was in college, I was able to find a niche in Tallahassee through the Mickee Faust Club, a refuge of creativity and outlet for my frustrations with my work of coverning the state legislature. Nothing is more therapeutic than to write a satirical sketch about boneheaded legislation and the people who write the bills.
But bearing witness to such ugliness as executions by electric chair, and the heartless debates about humanity in the halls of government forced me to to take another leap into the great unknown: I left journalism to attend massage school in Gainesville, another place that was new, learning skills that were completely the antithesis of the heady work of public radio journalism, and delving into the hands-on healing of bodywork. This career switch was as much an act of faith as anything I had ever done, and I graduated with very little money left in my account, and the daunting task of building a practice ahead of me.
In all of these moments, I was operating outside of any acknowledgement of God, or God's promise to always be with us to the end of the age. In other words, I was one of those "unchurched" who was making these moves in the belief that I was alone. It was as if I was standing outside under the stars, staring up into the sky, only to have all those twinkling lights hidden behind a collection of clouds. But even then, even in a time when I wasn't aware of God's presence and purpose for my life, God was there. I just didn't realize it.
Since my re-entry into the church, and the deeper I go into this journey as I seek God, I feel that same sense of stepping out and heading off into a great unknown. I tremble, but I know that this is not a trip I'm taking alone.
"By faith" Abraham leaned himself into God, and allowed God to work out God's purpose on his life. By faith, I must do the same.