Back in the early ‘80s, when Henry and I were training for the ministry in Boston, I wrote an article called God has Brought Me Laughter. I’d been studying the life of Abraham, but it was Sarah’s faith that intrigued me. Unlike Abraham, who heard the voice of God as he was promised, sent, and tested, Sarah heard nothing. (Except for God’s rebuke when she laughed at the news of a geriatric pregnancy.) Her faith was based on believing her husband’s reported conversations, no matter how outrageous the latest directive from God might seem. Apart from her inappropriate laughter and her attempts to secure a child through her maidservant, Hagar, she displayed great faith. Even Peter commends her as an exemplary model of trust and submission (I Peter 3:5-6).
If my memory is correct, I noted that she and Abraham moved at least 13 times in response to God’s call. 13 times! What a life of wandering and rootlessness! Little did I know our own number of ministry-related moves would eventually surpass theirs.
Here’s our path, in a nutshell: Toronto (1.5 years) to Boston (3.5 years) to Toronto (2 years) to Bombay (2 years) to London (6 months) to Lagos (3.5 years) to Pretoria (2 years) to Washington, DC (5 months) to Arlington (1.5 years) to Virginia Beach (1.5 years) to Indianapolis (2 years) to Philadelphia (6 months) to Norfolk (6 months) to London (2 years) to Vancouver (10 years, but 3 homes) to Kelowna (currently at 5.5 years). Lots of tears shed with every move. Lots of wonderful friends left behind. Lots of upheaval for our two kids. Lots of unwelcome surprises: in nearly every move, we went in believing our stay would be permanent. Ha!
I had a hard time with many of these moves because they weren’t my choice. Just when I’d start feeling settled and bonded in my new city and church family, we’d have to pull stakes and move elsewhere. Some of the moves were dictated by visa troubles out of our control. Some were moves to match our strengths with the needs of new or established congregations. Some were prompted by our own personal struggles. And some were based on big-picture decisions that eclipsed our own needs and desires—or so it seemed to me.
I should’ve paid more attention to this passage, our hiking portion for today:
By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob. For he was looking for the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. (Heb.11:8-10)
Like most people, I like to think I know where I’m going. Abraham grasped that his earthly life was meant to be lived as a sojourner, like someone just a’ passing through, as the old hymn goes. He chose to live in tents, ready to pack and move at the next call from God. He understood the temporal nature of life, early on, and kept his eyes focused on the “city with foundations”: the hope of heaven.
As I get older, it’s easier to view life this way. I feel closer to heaven and think about it often. I’m not as attached to staying in any one place, though I’m still unsettled at the thought of making another move. (For a long time, Henry got the jitters every time he saw a U-Haul truck.) As we’ve moved from a life of constant change and extreme busy-ness to one of stability and predictability, I’ve grown comfortable with keeping things the same—although even this, I know, is an illusion. Life will demand changes. I don’t WANT to be uprooted, but I want to be open to God’s call. As I ponder this, it seems I have to choose one side or the other: holding on or letting go.
The wounded part of me wants to hold tight to this little plot of semi-permanence we’ve recently acquired. The faithful and adventurous part of me wants to see where God might send us next. I wonder how Abraham felt, living his life with most of God’s promises far in the future. Because apart from Isaac’s miraculous birth, Abraham saw none of God’s promises fulfilled in his lifetime.
Here’s how the Hebrew writer puts it:
And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. (Heb. 11:12-16)
I’ve often felt like an alien and stranger on earth, and even pitied myself for not really ‘belonging’ anywhere. But this is how God’s people are supposed to feel. Whether we’ve lived in the same place for most of our lives, or lived a peripatetic life like mine, this world is not our home. Our spirits know this, as we inwardly long for a world of enduring love, peace, joy, and belonging. Once we realize this dream world exists only with God in heaven, we can truly start living by faith: letting go of our attachment to earthly places, and longing for our real home.
Because that’s where we belong.