Signposts, Abraham and the Unknown (Genesis 15)

In her book Journey Inward, Journey Outward, Elizabeth O’Connor says of the importance of self-reflection: “We must be engaged with ourselves, if we are going to find out where are, and where it is we want to go.”

One of the ways that we know where we are, and where we are going is by landmarks and signposts. This is true in the natural world as much as it is in the spiritual one.

Spiritual signposts are often favorite stories we tell about your our life, pivotal moments where we have encountered God. Like a regular signpost or landmark, these spiritual counterparts are meant to mark our directions and remind us of where God is leading us. They help us in our journey towards wholeness.

The story I shared a couple weeks ago about going down into the basement of an old meetinghouse and finding studs and the supportive structure of that building as having names on it was a kind of spiritual signpost for me. That image came to me during open worship and has stuck with me as describing and reminding me what my work is to be about. And the idea of a church community made up of the names who helped build it is itself an image of signposts.

These aren’t just really important stories that I tell. These are moments in my life when I was given direction, reminded of direction, or reminded of God’s love for me. Signposts are often things we can go back to again and again and draw new insight out of them.

  • Share: What about for you? What are your spiritual signposts? Are you willing to share one with us?

The Unknown

And the reason why remembering our signposts is so important is that all of life is embraced by a certain level of uncertainty, of the unknown.

The fact that we start out in families we did not choose, countries we did not choose, with bodies, and abilities we did not choose is the first great uncertainty we all face.

ILL. The first time my family learned I had severe allergy-induced asthma was when I was four-years old and had been playing in a pile of fallen leaves. My mom found me outside a light shade of blue from asphyxiation and rushed me to the ER. The fact that my body had this special feature to it was unknown and a quite a surprise.

As young children we learn that life is uncertain in so many ways and coming to grips with this can be very unsettling. One question we face as parents: How do we teach our children about the uncertainties of the world without making them afraid?

But our acquaintance with the unknown doesn’t change when we get old, in fact it can often greatly increase.

As our bodies begin to age and change we wonder how much longer we will be able to work, take care of ourselves, our homes, our loved ones. We wonder what we should do with the rest of our lives and want to know how to continue to make meaning while in the middle of rapid change.

If signposts are God’s way of showing us where we have been and remind us where we are going, it is because the landscape of life is marked by the constant unknown.

There is a tension between these signposts and the unknown.

Abraham

Father Abraham, as our daughters – L. and M. like to call him because as L. told me the other day, we are all his children – knows this tension between signposts and the unknown.

Abraham is well past retirement age by our standards when God calls him on a mission to “get up and go” settle in a new land:

“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 you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.'” (Gen. 12:1-2).

Abraham at the age of 75 is called into a new uncertainty. He and Sarah are called to get up and go and leave everything behind them. I like how Karen Armstrong puts it.

“Abraham had to leave the consolations of familiarity and tradition far behind. He had to jettison his family, his homeland, and the old ways of worship. The destination was vague. Abraham was simply to journey to ‘the land that I will show you,’ with no guarantees” (56).

Reading this I am confronted with the question, how would do I do when God asks me to walk into the unknown with no guarantees?

Not only are Abraham and Sarah in the dark about where God was taking them, but God tells them they’re going to have a son. Hearing that at their age would have been quite a shock to anyone.

Much of Abraham and Sarah’s journey is a journey of wandering from place to place, sometimes hearing God and responding well, sometimes not so well:

“Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” And Abraham said to God, “O that Ishmael might live in your sight!” (Genesis 17:16–18 NRSV)

Abraham’s story, like ours, emphasizes the unknown, the struggles of getting it right, and that faith is about accepting a world of uncertainty. There are no guarantees in Abraham’s story and there is no way for him to bring about the things God has said to him. He has to wait and journey faithfully.

This should come as quite a stark contrast to our world that wants to guarantee safety and protection. A society based on technological advance, and the “guarantees” of economic analysis, scientific discovery, and whatever the latest “experts.” In our society mystery is denigrated while we become obsessed with “guarantees.”

But all these, and many others, fly in the of Father Abraham’s wisdom.

A story that emphasizes a faith where there are no guarantees is also the story of Jesus who called each of his disciples saying “follow me.” Their step was a step out into the unknown. They would find signposts along the way to help them, but they had to accept the uncertainty that comes with being a person of faith as the first step.

Again Karen Armstrong writes:

Religious people often speak of “faith” as though it were a matter of conserving the old and the traditional; they claim that it gives them absolute certainty and is not compatible with doubt. Genesis shows that in fact faith began by demanding a radical break with the past and facing the terrors and enigmas of the unknown (56).

Abraham gets up and goes. And along the way he builds altars to God to remind him of where he has been and where God has met him (Cf. Gen. 12). Abraham had signposts. He was not abandoned or left out to dry. God does indeed guide him on his way. But I think Abraham – like any of us – was still freaked out by the unknown. This is why tries to do things his way, this is why he lies to the pharaoh of Egypt and says that his wife is his sister. This is why he marries a second woman, Hagar — his wife’s maidservant, so that she maybe she would give birth to the promised baby. Abraham is a lot like us, when faced with the unknown we respond in ways that are not always faithful to the signposts we’ve been given in the past.

And this is why in Genesis 15 – and many other places in Abraham’s story – God gives Abraham a signpost.

“Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” (Genesis 15:1)

Here God reminds Abraham that he is with him, even in the unknown and that the promise that God has made to him will be kept.

Closing

My friend Robin Mohr wrote recently on her blog about the kind of experience I am talking about – she writes that every once in awhile a concern arises in your heart so much that it causes everything to be re-prioritized in light of that concern.

Here was her experience:

…An insight…came to me in worship this morning. A 100 year old Friend spoke about how grateful she is that 90 years ago, a Sunday school teacher made her memorize certain passages from the Bible. She still remembers the Beatitudes, for example. She was recently reminded of these because a couple of months ago she was temporarily blind after a surgery but she still had these verses, and some poetry she also memorized over the years. She is so grateful now even though at the time she wondered what good it would do.

She says that this was a signpost for her.

I want to…”consider what I’m going to care about 90 years from now. Ok, maybe 50 years is all the horizon I need to worry about. In any case, I need to ask not just what has the most heat and Light in it right now, but what will I care about later? What will I regret? What will my grandchildren care about? What does God care about? What will I be held accountable for in the long run?”

What are the signposts, the “special moments” in your life when God has met you and spoke to you as he did Abraham? Return to them and draw on them in your time of need. These signposts can lead us into the unknown and help us know which direction to head.

Those moments, like Robin expresses here where we are invited to re-prioritize our our lives, take stock of the direction we are on and respond accordingly?

It may require that we take a step out into the unknown, but we know that this is the movement of faith, and we hear God whisper to us: “Do no be afraid, I am your shield…”

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.