September 24, 2017

Abram, the late bloomer

Genesis 12: 1-4
The Call of Abram
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. Abram was seventy five years old when he departed from Haran.

Abram, the late bloomer

If the word is the Word of God, this word is Christ for you and me, for “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.” (Rom 10:17)
Now, this is what is called a late bloomer. The man was 75 when he finally packed up and left home. 75 years old was Abram when he finally left the nest. We should not blame him, however, for it is better late than never. And, after all, the man still had one hundred years in front of him. Home is always home, the place where one has a name and a set of relations which build around a person a sense of belonging and recognition. Home is the name of a place in which the heart is best placed. Home is not simply a dwelling, but can also be a place that is brutal and abusive. Home is a word that should be saved from the mouth of those who traffic self-interest, abuse and exploitation. Home is the place we come from and has made us what we are. And home is the name of a place to which we seek to return. As Robert Frost put it: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Coming home is hardly a theme that has been missed by any great poet, since Homer made it into the classic motif of his Odyssey. But coming home can be a frightening experience because it might not be the return to the life left behind if there ever was one. Emily Dickinson said it well:

I Years had been from Home
And now before the Door
I dare not enter, lest a Face
I never saw before
Stare stolid into mine
And ask my business there—
“My business but a life I left
Was such remaining there?”
…..
I fitted to the Latch
My Hand, with trembling care
Lest back the awful Door should spring
And leave me in the floor—
Then moved my fingers off
As cautiously as Glass
And held my ear, and like a Thief
Fled gasping from the House—

This is the fear of having a home turned into a bare house. Home is the name of the place that we long for but are afraid to know whether it is still there, whether it ever was. There is anxiety in homecoming, the anxiety of re-encountering a past long gone–memories rekindled by rooms, smells, and familiar touches. But fear arrives when there is no longer the home longed for, nothing that triggers that which memory resurrects. So tells us Langston Hughes in his poem “Homecoming”:

I went back in the alley
And I opened up my door.
All her clothes was gone:
She wasn’t home no more.
I pulled back the covers,
I made down the bed.
A whole lot of room
Was the only thing I had.

Homecoming is such an inspirational motif to depict the bliss of a haven for the weary soul because, and only because there is “home-leaving.” In English, “homecoming” is a noun, “home-leaving” is not. Home-leaving is a description of our existence. It conveys, rather, a condition. Home-leaving is a predicament. It tells us that we long for home while we do not belong in the walks of our prodigal lives. From Adam and Eve to Jesus
the biblical story is one of home-leaving. The couple leaving the Garden, the other one being sent from home to be born in a barn among beasts, flies and manure and having no place to lay his head, but a cold stone in a tomb somewhere in Jerusalem.

Between Eve and Adam and Jesus, we have this story of the home-leaving of Abram. It is the same motif with similar fates of restlessness and homelessness. Home-leaving is our condition. It is, as it was for Abram, what we have to do. Willingly or unwillingly we have been thrown out. Leaving home is the law, the law in its all encompassing sense: it is a demand, it is a requirement, it is a judgment and no one escapes from it. Even if you remain under the same roof, you leave home. You have already left home. I am not a prophet of doom but this is what I need to tell you: we are homeless. But we fancy a return, a home coming. We all plan for next Sunday, the next vacation, the retirement plan which are nothing but homecoming economics. The discussion about provident fund, social security, is so charged because we suspect someone might be meddling with
home.

But not all can even afford to be into homecoming economics. There are those who don’t even dream of home anymore, for whom home is an abstraction if there ever was one. What distinguishes some of us from others is that there are those who don’t have a roof over their heads. Others don’t have a legal ground under their feet. Many had to cross national borders; they are the scores of migrants that live under laws and regimes they have not chosen because they were already left without a choice. Others are institutionalized or else living in a railway station/park close by.

We don’t know the circumstances under which Abram had to leave home at the age of seventy five. We only know that he also did not have a homecoming economics. At seventy five, the so-called father of three monotheistic faiths is known to have had a call. We don’t know whether he went through some sort of a psychological evaluation, a confessions class, or a candidacy committee to confirm his sense of calling. It is rather irrelevant. We only know that Abram had to go. He had been sent. He had a mission. Yet it was not a mission to be accomplished and then come back home armored in an aircraft carrier. As beautiful as this story may sound today, there is nothing romantic about it.

Abram had to go without a strategy for a return. God had sent him, and he knew it. So, unlike Ulysses, this fictional character who would have been a close contemporary of Abram, Abram was not given a return ticket. There is no homecoming in Abram’s story. His mission was not to be accomplished. In this he shares the story of so many migrants, homeless folks, the institutionalized that have no idea what is to come tomorrow, no
Penelope waiting for them, no home to go back to. Abram went wandering to lands he did not know, toward a place he would only know once he had reached it. Like many of the displaced people of this world, Abram knew that once he left home there would be no home anymore, only other fences to cross, other closed doors to knock at, other languages to learn, other accents to be acquired, other strangers to befriend, other foes to be hurt by, other expectations to be met, other laws to be obeyed, other laws … and the law is always something that is the inescapable other that condemns us to homelessness. Unlike Ulysses who was bound to come home, or so he thought, Abram was not. Abram was sent off, and that was it. This is why Abram’s story is called a story of faith, while Homer’s Odyssey is a story of fate. Abram had a mission the end of which he did not even know. If you are heading back home, meet fate as Ulysses came to know it. But if you are leaving home without a return strategy in place, it is by faith alone. Fate is the destiny of those who believe in homecoming only to find “a whole lot of room.” But faith is the lot of those who know there is no homecoming. Faith is a venture to the unknown, to the frailty and vulnerability of being homeless and alone. Faith is a mission whose end you will only know when you get there and you will not be responsible for its success, for you will not find it, it will find you. In the twelfth century a monk called Hugh phrased this journey of faith rather well when he said: “persons who find their own countries sweet are rather naïve, those for whom every other country is like their own are good people, but perfect in faith are those for whom the whole world is a foreign country.”

That is the Abrahamic faith. Take the road and know that the end of your mission is not something you will not achieve but is already waiting for you, waiting in the embrace of others who welcome you as one of their own and you will be for them a blessing as Abram was. Your mission is not yours, it is a pro-missio, a promise that will lead you to places you had never known or ever expected to reach. And once there, you will know
what coming home really means for those who like Abram leave home without a return strategy. Home is a stranger’s smile, an unfamiliar couch to seat on, a bench in the park shared with a friend. In faith we leave home as if never to return again in order to know that if there is a real homecoming it is to be blessed by those you never met before, and to be a blessing to those who you might never see again. Then even old home might be home and not simply a “whole lot of room.” This homecoming, for those who walk in faith, is to be back to places one has never known before. It is to be welcome and welcoming of others. It is to know a stranger and call her sister, call him brother. All of this while being what the early Christian communities were often called: those of the Way or those of the Road. Yes, homeless we are, we hit the road and if we only give up trying to do homecoming economics we will not miss the blessings of the promise that we have all inherited from our common ancestor in the faith: we will be blessed and be a blessing for others. And we will not, will never, walk alone.

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