This article was originally published in the San Marino Tribune on for March 2nd, 2018.
According to the narratives in Genesis, embellished through generations, Abram is given a new name by God at age ninety-nine, and his wife Sarai also. They had begun life in Ur of the Chaldees, a prosperous city in contemporary Iraq. It was most unusual for a first-born son to leave behind property-rights and the weave of supportive kinship to strike out for strange lands. Perhaps there had been a fall-out in the family, or perhaps Sarai and Abram were exceptionally adventurous people.
They travel first to Haran, a little village that still exists on the Syrian border in southeastern Turkey, and where I have been a few times. People there live in adobe homes that look like beehives, and the town offers vistas of an endless brown plain with a perpetual line of dust hovering in the air above. It isn’t prime real-estate. Perhaps Sarai determined that they would under no circumstance settle there. For whatever reason, we’re told the couple wandered down into Egypt, then back to Canaan in search of the Mesopotamian version of the American dream.
Perhaps it was because of their travel and exposure to such a variety of peoples and places that Sarai and Abram became the iconic mother and father of a new way of thinking about God. At ninety-nine years of age, God changes Abram’s name to Abraham, and Sarai’s name to Sarah. It is encouraging that people can make a fresh start at one-hundred. Surely it is not too late for any of us!
In 1884 a little book called ‘Flatland,’ written by schoolmaster Edwin Abbott, was published in England. It tells the tale of a two-dimensional world called, “Flatland” whose denizens are flat and without thickness. The narrator is a Square who receives a disturbing visitation from a three-dimensional Sphere. At first the Square is in denial about this alarming new way of understanding existence. Eventually, he tries to convince his fellow Flatlanders about this larger, mysterious world, but they are too constrained by their limited perceptions to give him any credence.
The thrust of the book is hard to miss. We’re all Flatlanders. The Hebrew and Christian Scriptures tell us that, in every generation across the grand swath of history, God’s larger reality will seem strange and foreign and challenging. Even at age ninety-nine, God can break in on us like a three dimensional Sphere entering a two-dimensional world, showing up our Flatland lives for what they are. When God comes crashing into our china-shop, we are not always appreciative. Change is difficult. No one likes to have their certainties upended.
Jesus had a knack for provoking crisis. The Hebrew people had suffered quite a lot under a succession of oppressors, though none quite so rough as the Romans. Judas Maccabeus had led a successful revolt against the Seleucid Empire in 191 B.C., and many thought the time ripe for a new liberator. Most of Jesus’ followers thought Jesus might be God’s chosen warrior, but Jesus was more rabbi than revolutionary. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus begins to “speak plainly” to his followers about the nature of the kingdom he had come to announce, and his followers, who had thrown over a great deal in order to follow him, are not at all pleased. Peter rebukes Jesus. He had signed up for a Messianic administration, and had his eyes on an appointment in the pending regime ensconced in the Jerusalem White House. Jesus rebukes Peter right back: “My followers must deny themselves. Those who want to save their lives will lose them….” (St. Mark 8:31-38).
Most who consider themselves spiritual today would be no less undone by the words of Rabbi Jesus than Peter that day. Like most everyone else, we are very much about trying to save our own lives. Our educations, careers, posh neighborhoods and 401Ks are all about the establishment of the independent and sovereign self and the realization of the good life here and now.
Lent brings a word of reminder to all Flatlanders; there is more to life than self-interest, self-advancement, self-improvement and self-fulfillment; more than being healthy and wealthy and wily. Two-dimensional perspectives come to us easily. Lent is meant to shake us up, as Rabbi Jesus shook up Peter. Hearkening back to the old tale of Sarai and Abram, we have received once more an invitation to leave Ur behind and strike out for Haran, press forward to Egypt, and arrive in some fresh Canaan. The journey itself will fit us for more than we would otherwise be ready for, and brand us with unexpected names and unanticipated, God-given identities. It took Abram ninety-nine years to become Abraham, but if we set out today, perhaps our arrival will not tarry so long as it did for him and for newly minted Sarah.