At the moment I’m reading The Silence of Dark Water by Jonathan Wittenberg, Rabbi of the New North London Synagogue and Senior Rabbi of the Assembly of Masorti Synagogues.
The book is a series of thematic meditations on life experiences from birth to death and beyond. I’ve been moved by his wisdom and will write several blogs, starting with Wittenberg’s reflection on the Lord’s command to Abram in Genesis 12.1: ‘Go forth!’ or ‘Get you gone!’
Wittenberg says God speaks to everyone, but not everyone hears. I’ve learnt through time and patience to ‘hear’ God, though the hearing is subtle and I’m always tentative. Perhaps that’s characteristic of my particular Christian up-bringing in a parish with more commitment to liturgical tradition than wisdom about how we might listen to, and hear, God.
Abram, says Wittenberg, was one of those who heard. God is a presence which transforms the nature of the journey undertaken by Abram. He says: “It’s no longer only a form of wandering, of following a path half-plotted and half stumbled-upon amidst the exigencies of time. It has become a quest between the exigencies of the human and the other, between the transient and the transcendent. It’s the talking and the listening between them, the arguments, the long silences, and the singing on the way.” I can identify with that, even though it’s a tentative exposition – and that’s why I can identify with it, of course.
God’s imperative to Abram: ‘Go forth!’ is in fact a dual command according to Wittenberg, interpreting the Hebrew, and not simply a command to set out to go somewhere. It is also: ‘Go – to you!’ or ‘Go – to yourself!’ “The going and the self which we may become, he says, are integral in God’s command. Hence what we are is our life’s journey and to become ourselves we have to go. This is why one interpretation of the country to which God will lead Abraham is: ‘Go to the land where I will show you yourself’.” I wish I’d known that in the days of my preaching! Indeed, I wish I’d know that in the days of my setting out, before a bishop laid hands on my head.
Wittenberg continues: “The archetypal journey is to discover ‘you’, ‘you’ the inner self, ‘you’ the other, ‘You’ God towards whom all life travels. It’s a ceaseless process; there’s no homecoming, only a further setting out. For as the ‘you’ which I discern changes the person I become, so the ‘I’ who sets out is no longer the same traveller going forth. I am constantly on my journey, my new departure, until the end. Thus there is no final answer to the question ‘Who am I?’, only the process of discovery, a constant becoming, until death.
Of course! And that explains why I feel that so much Christian teaching and preaching fails to inspire and fails to communicate the potency of God’s call. I didn’t want explanations of what the Christian journey is about, or countless retellings of the story. I longed to know that setting out and expecting to discover myself on the way, and in the process discover other people and God, is what it’s all about. The back-up material is important, but the process itself is the essence.
What God has given, and what God always gives, is ‘the land where I will show you yourself’. So the vital question becomes: How do I travel through life? What must I become and how do I discover who is, or are, the ‘you’ who form the dramatis personae of my life? It’s a never ending journey. New horizons and new depths constantly restore our ignorance and create fresh opportunities to make discoveries.
Jesus, in John’s interpretation, described himself as the way and the truth and the life (John 14:6-7) and one of the earliest descriptions of Christians was as followers of “the Way” (Acts 9:2; 11:26).
I decided to Google ‘the Christian way’ and discovered articles saying things like:
Jesus was not just another signpost, but the destination to which the signposts had led [John Stott].
Being a follower of the way is not a path to travel, but rather a pattern to follow, an example, if you will.
The early Christians were called Christians (Christ-like ones) because they imitated their leader, Christ. They lived lives of compassion, love, humility, patience and virtue.
Being a follower of the way is a lifestyle of love and compassion spurned on by the love and compassion shown to us by our Saviour. We can live lives of compassion and love once we dig deeply into the life of Christ and set His truths as our benchmark.
Imitating Jesus and following him as the signpost, living lives of compassion, love and humility are familiar ways of presenting what it means in practical terms to be a Christian. But they only get you so far. We are not brought to birth just to imitate the life of another person, even if that person is the Son of God. We are brought to birth to journey into life in all its fullness, to live into the depths of ourselves and the heights of our creativity and vision.
May our journeys lead to the places, physical and metaphorical, where we discover our full humanity which is found both in the depths of you and in the depths of me, and on the journey to the country where God shows us who we truly are.ence, what we are