Going the distance

Pilgrim 18The season of Lent comes with a hard question. When do the gifts of God, meant to help us in our journey of faith, become obstacles that prevent us from reaching our destination? When do green pastures that restore our souls become soft couches on which we lie down into the sleep of spiritual death?

Unless we’re constantly vigilant to recognize the point where blessing can become curse, we may be like the little boy who fell out of bed one night – you’ve heard the story. As his mother comforted him, she asked how the accident happened. The boy replied, “I guess I just lay down too close to where I got in.”

If we don’t go the distance in our journey of faith, if we don’t go all the way in, we risk falling out of bed, never reaching the abundant life for which we are created (John 10:10). And the story of Abram and his father Terah becomes our story (Genesis 11:31–12:4).

Abram was not God’s first choice of someone to lead to the promised land. Genesis tells that when Abram was young, his father Terah gathered up his family, and they left their home in Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there. And that’s where Terah died.

What might have been a resting place in the journey became a settlement and finally a tomb. When Terah settled there, he sealed his fate, and he died without ever receiving God’s promise. It was left to his son Abram to hear the call anew and complete the journey to the destination God intended for them.

There’s a wonderful story by David Griebner (“The Carpenter and the Unbuilder: The Invitation”) that illustrates what was at stake for the families of Terah and Abram and what may be at stake for us, also.

“Once upon a time there was a man living in a certain kingdom who received an invitation from his queen to come to dinner. Something inside him was excited as never before by the invitation. Something was afraid as well. Would he have the right clothes to wear? Would his manners be good enough for his lord’s table? What would they talk about when they were not eating? Above all, the man was frightened by the long journey to the queen’s castle.

“By trade the man was a carpenter. He built small houses and extra outhouses and garages better than anyone else. After he had packed the clothing and food he thought he would need for the journey, he had room for only a little more. So he decided to pack a few tools, enough to permit him to build adequate overnight shelter on the journey. Then he started out.

“The first day he traveled through the morning and early afternoon, stopping only to eat some lunch. Then he set about constructing a rough shelter to spend the night in. After a few hours labor he had a small, safe, dry place to sleep. The next morning as he was about to start out again, he looked at the shelter he had built. He began to notice places where it could be improved. So instead of resuming the journey right away, he began to make improvements on his little dwelling. Well, one thing led to another, garage to kitchen to indoor plumbing, and so on. Soon, he had pretty much forgotten about the invitation and the journey.”

The queen became concerned that the carpenter failed to arrive for dinner and sent a messenger to check on him. As the story goes, the carpenter several times invites the queen’s messenger to stay with him in his comfortable house, and each time the messenger declines, choosing to stay outdoors. “You see,” the messenger said, “I am on a journey to have dinner with the queen of our land. It is important for me to stay on the journey.”

“’What you say sounds familiar to me,’ said the carpenter. ‘I think I too received an invitation to have dinner with the queen, but I have been a little bit uncertain of the way.’” The messenger reminded the carpenter of the queen and her invitation, and of the journey, and of the great dinner that waited at its end. Slowly the carpenter remembered, and at length arose, left the shelter in which he had settled, and resumed his journey with the messenger.

“Many of the days went just like that, new steps out of silent beginnings and pure desires. They simply waited until the sense of journeying wrapped itself around even their waiting, and then they were off without worrying whether they were on the ‘right’ path or not. In the stillness of their hearts they made room for the path and the path seemed to come to them.

“Of course the carpenter still felt the need to build a home from time to time. The unbuilder made sure he understood what he was doing and then let him do it if he really wanted to. While the carpenter labored, the unbuilder, his guide and friend, would continue the silent waiting in the yard under a tree, and soon they would unbuild yet another house and begin the journey again. In the meantime the queen kept the food warm, which she was very good at doing.”

The shelter we build for protection and rest on our journey can be an inviting thing, even seductive. After a while we can begin to think of it as the purpose of the invitation, and we lose sight of what we’re really about. The good times we’ve shared, the cushioned seats and comfortable surroundings, the excellent music, the conversations over dinner, the gains and losses we’ve celebrated together – all of these become the rooms of our dwelling, with their draperies and furniture and familiar appointments.

That’s when we forget the journey and its destination. We form committees and foundations, and establish budgets and endowment funds, and create reports, and we try to recruit others to help us take care of the shelter we’ve built for ourselves. And the goal of the journey becomes something we remember from long ago, like a primitive garden, or it becomes something so far in the future we’re sure we’ll never get there in this earthly life.

Meanwhile, the one who invited us keeps the dinner warm and the porch light on.

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