For the week of November 12, 2005 / 10 Heshvan 5766
Torah: Bereshit / Genesis 12:1 - 17:27
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:27 - 41:16
A Faith Journey
The LORD had said to Abram, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you." (Bereshit / Genesis 12:1)
These words to Abram (who would later become "Abraham"), explode into the narrative of the Torah. In these early chapters of Genesis, it is not until this point that we have any sense of plot formation. Until now we only have what appears to be a few unrelated, yet important, stories about the beginnings of human history. But now something new is beginning to unravel: God communicating to the man who will become God's chosen instrument of blessing to the entire world. This one man, Abraham, would become the father of all those who would come to truly know God.
It is Abraham's life that will always be a model of what it means for the rest of us to know God. As the truth of God is revealed to us through others in the Scriptures, whether it be Moses, King David, the Prophets, and ultimately the Messiah himself, it will always be helpful to return to Abraham in order remind ourselves what it really means to be followers of God.
The life of Abraham challenges our understanding as to what true spirituality really is. The things that make up what most people think is the essence of spiritual reality were not foundational in Abraham's life as we will see. The things that seem to be the most common aspects for many of us - whether we use these terms or not - are affiliation, ritual, morality, and mysticism. We will look at each one in relation to Abraham's life, and then discover how his spiritual foundation should be ours as well.
For many people, their affiliation is the cornerstone of their spiritual experience. For some that is the only expression of any spiritual or religious reality in their lives. Whether that affiliation is by birth or by choice, it is their association with what they think is correct that makes them right with God as far as they are concerned. Whether they call themselves Jewish or Christian or a member of a particular congregation, denomination or non-denomination, they find security in that affiliation. It is perhaps this that Abraham challenges most of all, for he was called to leave his affiliations and associations and embrace something completely new and different from what few, if any, in his day understood. He was called to follow God without the encouragement of a group. Yet not only was he in step with reality, his decision to break with the past and the familiar became the model for all faithful followers of God after him.
While ritual would eventually take a central place among Abraham's descendants, it played a minor role in Abraham's own life. He did build alters of sacrifice in his travels, yet these rituals were an expression of his spirituality, not the basis. This would become an issue that Israel in later years would struggle with as they would tend to reverse their priorities regarding the place of ritual in life.
For some morality is the essence of true spirituality. For them believing in God is all about following a set of dos and don'ts. Certainly true spirituality includes a moral component as it did for Abraham (Bereshit / Genesis 26:5), but like the place of ritual in his life, the moral component was an expression of something deeper as we will see in a moment.
The fourth aspect that seems to be foundational for many is mysticism. I am using this term to refer to spiritual experiences that supposedly result out of a direct encounter with God or other non-material forces. This can be anything from emotions arising from religious activities to visions, dreams, divine healings, and so on. I am not commenting here in any way about the legitimacy of these types of experiences. I am only discussing them in relation to their place of importance in some people's lives. For some these experiences are proof of spiritual reality. Whether some dramatic experience becomes what they hold onto in order to keep believing in God, or it is their desire for ongoing mystical experiences to keep them in faith, for these people mysticism is the focus of their spirituality, something very different from Abraham.
Abraham certainly had mystical experiences, but they were not the essence of his spirituality. Like the other aspects above, his spiritual experiences were but a part of something much greater.
Abraham's spirituality, while it included most of the aspects we have looked at, was not based on any of these things, nor were they his focus. What Abraham had was a relationship with God. These other things were but fruits of that relationship. Many people who focus on these aspects claim to have such a relationship, but they are working backwards. Right affiliation, meaningful ritual, godly morality, and true mystical experiences are the outcome of having a right relationship with God. It is having such a relationship that keeps these other things in balance. It is only as we attentively follow God as Abraham did - trusting in him and what he is saying to us - that we will truly know him and live life in the way he intended us to.
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