A few of my friends suggested I post this sermon from a few weeks ago. It’s on Abraham, but it is really about depression or hopelessness and what these things can do to our lives. I wrote it with a few special people in my life in mind.
Do you remember what it was like to be a child and to be afraid of the dark? I can remember that fear. Sometimes at night I would be afraid to put my feet over the side of the bed—the monster hiding underneath might eat them I thought. When I got old enough to be left home alone, I would sometimes be afraid. Even though he never left my side, I’d put a leash on our dog Jake (just to make sure!) and make him walk all around the house with me for company and protection. Even as adults—sometimes we are afraid of the dark aren’t we? Last year I was visiting a high-conflict area in Colombia staying as a guest in a Pastor’s home. My childhood fears of the dark came back to me, even though I knew I was in a protected zone. One night I woke up and needed the bathroom, but the bathroom was an outhouse, many yards away from the house. I lay in bed a full hour debating my options before I finally worked up the nerve to go outside with my flashlight. The darkness can be scary sometimes no matter who you are.
This primal human fear is even recorded in the Bible. We are the not the first ones to have our fears play out at night—to think that something beyond ourselves is happening when the sun has set and the moon is in the sky. In today’s reading Abraham has just had another conversation with God, another time when God has promised Abraham all sorts of things. This time Abraham has been told by God what for a man in his time should be the best news ever! God says, “Abraham—look up at the night sky. Do you see all those stars? Can you even count them? See how many stars there are! That’s how many descendants you will have!” Now for some of us this would keep us up all night! That many children and grandchildren! That’s a lot of mouths to feed! Maybe that’s why Abraham was tormented in the night!
Or maybe it was this: The gravity and the seriousness of the situation facing him. After God tells Abraham about his plan—all of the descendants; God instructs Abraham to prepare himself for an ancient ritual—the ritual of sealing a covenant. Abraham gathers up some animals—a cow, a goat, a ram, a turtledove and a pigeon. He cuts each animal in half, right down the middle and lays them out on the ground—creating a path in-between the halves of the animals. In the time of Abraham, once you make a covenant you walk with the other person you made it along the path created by the halves of the animals. It is a public sign to the community of your solemn promises to each other. The unspoken threat is that if either side breaks the covenant—then you end up like one of the animals.
But Abraham has a problem. He’s got his covenant but has no one to walk the gauntlet between the animals with him. And from the text we can see that Abraham waited a while for God to show up to walk with him. Because vultures sniffed out the dead animals and descended upon them. It is a sad and a grim picture of Abraham. All alone. Waiting for God among dead animals while trying to dodge vultures. And the original reason for this covenant that God is making with Abraham about his decedents? It is because God hasn’t fully delivered on the first promise three chapters earlier. Abraham is not yet in the land God has promised him. God has changed the promise from land to children and a few chapters later God will change the covenant again. And Abraham by this point in his life is pushing 80 years old. And God still hasn’t shown up. And so the day draws to a close. It doesn’t sound like a lot of fun does it?
Maybe it’s hard for us to relate to Abraham and the customs and behaviors that guided his life. But we can relate to the feeling Abraham had that day as he waited for God and God didn’t show up. That feeling that the day is over, and yet your problems are still not solved and will still be there when you wake up in the morning. The person you were waiting for has not shown up. Ever feel like that? Ever feel like not just a person has abandoned you—but that even God has?
The writers of Genesis tell us that in the midst of this desolation Abraham falls asleep at the end of the day, next to the dead animals. In his deep sleep he is terrified. And then God comes and speaks to him—and tells Abraham that yes, he will have decedents but they will suffer, they will be slaves and be oppressed for 400 hundred years. But eventually they will get back to their land and eventually they will prosper. But Abraham will not have to live this reality. He will die in peace when he has lived a good long life. After all of this God does pass through the covenant-gauntlet…in the form of a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch. God finally shows up. But not before Abraham has been tormented.
One of my favorite commentators writes on this passage that what Abraham lived through—that night of searing darkness, loneliness and isolation is like those moments in life that we all have, when something terrible happens, or a series of terrible things happen and we feel like God has walked away from us. We have a covenant with God, a covenant we expect to be followed—that God will love and care for us. So where is God when bad things happen? When terrible things happen? And Abraham’s moment is like the moments so many live with for so much of the time, moments when depression, whether it is situational or long-term, rob of us of the ability to function or carry out our day-to-day lives.
One woman, her name is Harriet, wrote these words when she was forty-years old and struggling with depression:
I had this dream. I was standing on the beach. A tidal wave was sweeping toward me. It was massive—a massive wave crested by a rim of fire. I felt tiny. I knew there was no way out. I was about to be overwhelmed. As the wave hit I decided not to fight it. I decided to go with it, to let it take me. It caught me up, sucked me up to its crest and carried me ashore. I didn’t die.
That’s when I learned that my depression was teaching me not to fight it or try to defeat it. Now I consider my depression to be my ally. Which doesn’t mean I’m not afraid. I am. But I own the fear. I ride the fear. The fear doesn’t own or ride me. I listen to what it has to tell me.
Is this what happened to Abraham that night? Did he learn in that moment to trust God, even though God wasn’t showing up in the ways he most needed God to? Or did he learn to let go, even though the loneliness and the abandonment was still with him and still giving him pause as he struggled to follow God? We do not completely know. I suspect it was a bit more of the latter, that Abraham just figured out how to function with the uncertainties that life and God kept on handing him. He was told that it would take 400 years for his descendants to achieve their freedom and of course he’d died before all of that happened. How did Abraham live with the knowledge of this kind of a burden? How did he keep moving forward? How did he not lose hope? How do we keep moving forward when these things in life happen or when we know that there are still difficulties that lie ahead. How do we keep on trusting or even believing in God?
Following worship today Mark will be leading a class in the Parish Hall that I hope many of you will stay for. It is on walking the Labyrinth. The labyrinth is an ancient tool for prayer and meditation, and there is an example of a labyrinth on your bulletin cover. While there are lots of designs, the idea is that you walk along a path that winds in different ways around a circle and you end up in a central location and have to get out again along the same path. There are no blind alleys or dead ends. It is not meant to trick you but to be a way to take a journey along a path that leads you in and then leads you out. Many people pause in the middle of the Labyrinth and enter into a time of prayer with God. One spiritual practice is to leave something behind in the middle—a burden or a prayer, a worry or a joy. Another spiritual practice is to pray to God on the way in and then to listen for God on the way out. You move through the Labyrinth at your own pace. The Labyrinth is a spiritual tool; a way of helping us to walk with God even though the path is windy and sometimes might feel like a maze, or even might feel like abandonment.
Even though he is one of the most important characters in the Bible, a “hero in the faith”, Abraham’s journey with God was not neat, easy or tidy. God disappointed and confused Abraham on more than one occasion. Trying to understand God’s behavior, or our interpretation of God’s behavior could drive any sane person crazy very easily. We all experience those “dark nights of the soul” as Saint John of the Cross, a Spanish mystic, wrote 500 years ago. And there is no easy answer to the questions they ask of us or of our faith. The only thing we have is to keep on the path. Keep going with God and keep going with those who have come alongside us to walk along the path for a while. And keep on pushing at God; keep on asking questions. So far as I can tell this was Abraham’s method. And it seems a good one to me in this Lenten Season.
 Carl Wilton. Lectionary Preaching Workbook: Cycle C. Lima, OH: CSS Publishing, 2006. p. 125.