What I've Learned about Religion
Abraham and Sarah represent three shifts (or transitions) in religion. First, they are called by God to leave the cultured and comfortable urbane life of Ur. They travel south and west to a place where water is scarce. On the edge of the Negev Desert, Abraham has to pay to use the water well he has dug with his own hand. Here we see the truth behind all of the world’s great religions, that God is concerned about justice. Abraham and Sarah were immigrants and the established people took advantage of them. The Bible has been summarized as: God always comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.
If you are gliding along content with your life, watch out. Religion isn’t insurance. Worshiping the living and holy God isn’t the way to guarantee that you’ll have a life of ease. In fact, the opposite. As soon as we think we understand life and have our ducks in a row, a wolf appears at our door. For Abraham and Sarah, it was the command to leave the city. For us, it may be an illness or a disruption to the peace of our home. Spiritual growth involves climbing a staircase of higher and higher obstacles. God gives to us the courage and faith to meet our challenges in the midst of our challenges.
The second religious shift that Abraham and Sarah face involves worshiping one god rather than many. Islamic interpretations of this story place more emphasis on this, but it is the essential core of all three western religions; we worship one God, not many. Yet for most of us, life is full of competing priorities. We have to get ahead in our careers while not neglecting our families. We are so divided by competing interests that most Americans find themselves neglecting prayer and their spiritual lives altogether. We don’t have a center to hold us, so we fall apart. Sarah and Abraham intentionally departed from the many gods of the Chaldeans and traveled into the void. One God. All your heart. All your mind. All your strength and soul. One God.
The third shift involves moving from a religion of sacrifice to a religion of grace. Abraham took his beloved son Isaac to the mountain to slay him because he thought that was what his religion demanded of him. There he had the knife to Isaac’s throat when an angel stopped him. Said to him, “Don’t sacrifice your son. God has provided.” We try so hard to earn God’s blessing. We do all the things that we think our religion requires. I once had a church member tell me that it was the preacher’s job to make her feel guilty. Is that what motivates your sacrifice today? Guilt? Religion can either be about putting things of greater and greater value upon the altar, or it can be about living with compassion, curiosity, and a willingness to go where the spirit leads us.
PS: People always ask if Abraham took Isaac to be sacrificed without telling the boy’s mother, Sarah. Yes. I think the reason Sarah didn’t have to go to Mt. Moriah is because she had already learned this lesson. For Sarah, religion was about grace, not sacrifice. She never said to Isaac, “See what I’ve sacrificed for you.” Nor did she say this to her God. Instead, for her being a mother was a miracle. Life is a mystery and by grace we find meaning. Then we can travel the void and live on the edge of the Negev and say, “God will provide.”