Indulge me, if you will, before I read from the Good Book as I read from another book.
Our church sponsors an annual children's camp each summer. Two years ago our theme was "The Gospel According to Dr. Seuss." As the camp pastor, I had the privilege of reading up on some of those classic stories from the pen of the great Theodore Seuss Geisel. It was to prepare for our nightly worship services at camp.
So before I read from the Bible's story I want to read a bit -- just a small bit -- from this piece Dr. Seuss first penned more than 60 years ago called On Beyond Zebra!
Said Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell,
My very young friend who is learning to spell:
"The A is for Ape. The B is for Bear.
The C is for Camel. The H is for Hare.
The M is for Mouse. And the R is for Rat.
I know all the twenty-six letters like that...
...through to Z is for Zebra I know them all well."
Said Conrad Cornelius O'Donald o'Dell.
"So now I know everything anyone knows
From beginning to end. From the start to the close
Because Z is as far as the alphabet goes."
Then he almost fell flat on his face on the floor
When I picked up the chalk and drew one letter more!
A letter he never had dreamed of before!
And I said, "You can stop, if you want, with the Z
Because most people stop with the Z
But not me!
In the places I go there are things that I see
That I never could spell if I stopped with the Z.
I'm telling you this 'cause you're one of my friends.
My alphabet starts where your alphabet ends!"[i]
"My alphabet starts where your alphabet ends," says that fellow teaching Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell to spell. Through the rest of the book he takes him on an imaginative journey of new letters the young lad never knew existed. He carries him way beyond the boundaries of the 26-letter English alphabet. At one point the boundary-breaking teacher practically shouts, "So, on beyond Z! It's high time you were shown / That you really don't know all there is to be known."[ii]
That truth -- that truth reminding us that all we think we know isn't all there is to be known -- is a clear echo of an older and even more significant story to hear and to hold. Today we hear from the lectionary text from Genesis 12, plus a few verses on beyond that.
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 of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed."
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother's son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to go to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, "To your offspring I will give this land." So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.
At 75 years-old, Abraham isn't planning on going anywhere. At this stage of the game, he has a lot of life to look at in the rearview mirror. There are places he has been, jobs he has done, good things he has accomplished. At 75, conventional wisdom says, there aren't that many moves left to make. Maybe downsizing to a one-story, two-bedroom with wider doorways and an option to move over to assisted living when the time comes. But truth be told, at the start of his story in Genesis 12, he has no plans of going anywhere beyond where he already is.
God, though, God has other plans. Abraham might not be planning on going anywhere beyond where he already is, but he goes on anyway. He may not have expected to put the house on the market, to haul all the boxes down from the attic, clean up, and clear out. But he does. That is precisely what he does.
And why? Well, the answer to that is as predictable as that there are always fewer socks that come home from summer camp than what go in the suitcase. Why does Abraham go?
Because God says so.
Now that is about as plain vanilla church-speak as it comes, I know. If God says do this then you do that. As long as I have been in church I have been hearing that lesson taught over and over and over again. God says go, then you go.
Only the problem for me -- and maybe you find this, too -- is that it isn't always easy to know when it's God doing the talking. Am I the only one?
You want to make the best decision. You want to take the right road that takes you to the right place. But it's awfully hard to tell sometimes when it's God speaking and when it's not.
Am I talking myself into believing it's God when, in fact, that might just be the voice of a parent whose approval I still desire? Is that God speaking to me through that song on the radio or the sign on the highway or the stranger in the elevator? Or is it just another song, another sign, and another random person I've bumped into?
It's so hard to know which voice is God's and which isn't.
I wonder if Abraham worried his ears were playing tricks on him. Do you think maybe he sat on that summons from God to go on beyond the life and land and home he had known for a while before he told his wife, Sarah?
Can't you see them sitting down to dinner one evening. There they are at the table that they've had in their dining room since her grandmother died 40 years ago. Sarah's just asked if Abraham wouldn't mind putting a little more tea in her glass when he says, "I've got some news for you, dear. We're moving. I know it sounds a little odd, but God called and said this is what we need to do."
Sarah sits there stunned. While he's got her attention, Abraham goes ahead and throws in the next part, too. "And by the way, God also told me that somewhere along the way we really are going to get pregnant. So, turns out, we just need to keep practicing."
I suspect Abraham had to think long and hard about how to have that talk with Sarah. This is one of those places I wish the Bible would tell us a little more; tell us how long it was between God calling and that old couple talking and then the whole entourage moving. I wish we knew how long it was before they wrapped up the dishes and loaded up the lamps and took down the pictures and watched the life they had known fade into the shadows as the overloaded U-Haul slowly rolled down the block. I wish we knew.
But the Bible doesn't bother to say. What the Bible does tell us, though, is Abraham and Sarah: they went. They went on beyond where they'd been. They went on beyond what they'd known because somewhere, somehow, they figured out the truth that all they knew isn't all there is to know.
Oh, sure, they could have played it safe. They could have stayed put. Goodness knows, anyone who has ever moved can attest to the fact that it's just really not all that much fun.
But just the same, anyone who has ever set out to know God, to love God with heart, soul, mind -- with all your being -- you know -- we know -- that ours is not a God content with the same old, same old. Ours is a God who is discontent with all the boundaries and borders we go around trying to erect in an effort to maintain something like order. Something like control. Something like a façade that says we have got it all in good shape.
God comes calling and God says something akin to what the good Dr. Seuss said: "Most people stop at the Z But not me!"[iii]
That's the way it goes with this God of ours who is forever calling -- and calling us all -- to keep going on beyond. Go on beyond all the truth you think you know and discover more. Go on beyond all the insights you think you have and find more. Go on beyond the friendships and relationships you've got now and discover there are more to be had, even in places with and among people you might never have dreamed of ever being with and among. Go on beyond your ideas of who's in and who's out, who fits and who doesn't. Go on beyond your comfort zone. Go on, go on, go on!
Go on beyond, God says, over and over again. Through the pages of the Bible and across the arc of time, God is forever saying, "Go on beyond!" Go through the Bible and see if you can find somewhere that it says, "Go on over to the outer edge of what makes you comfortable, but not an inch further! Go on and give the least you can give and feel okay about it, but not a single bit more! Go on and share enough to say that you have done something, but don't go beyond that!"
You know -- goodness knows, you know -- if that's the kind of message we're after; if that's the kind of security we're seeking; if that's the kind of God we're wanting -- that's not going to get found in our Bibles. Ours is a God who wants it all, you know. Just ask Abraham about that when he takes his one, beloved son up that fateful mountain where a sacrifice almost happens.
"In the places I go there are things that I see / That I never could spell if I stopped with the Z."[iv]
Doesn't that ring with something like Gospel truth? Gospel truth that tells us ours is a God who is forever and always calling us on beyond. On beyond where we are to where we might yet be. On beyond life as it's lived now, to life as it might yet be. On beyond. On beyond in pursuit of a holy life, wholly devoted to the One who patiently, persistently is leading us forward and on beyond.
Let us pray:
God who calls us on beyond our comfort zones and the boundaries we build in our living, lead us by faith to trust your sense of direction and remember that you are abiding with us now and always. Amen.
© Stephen H. Cook. All rights reserved.
[i] Dr. Seuss. On Beyond Zebra! (New York: Random House, 1955), 1-4.