Fr. Thornley is a Curate at St Marylebone Parish Church, London, England.
“God brought Abram outside and said, “Look toward Heaven and number the stars, if you are able to number them… So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
One of my earliest memories of school, was when I was seven years old, and during class one afternoon I was so bored that I leaned back in my chair and started staring at the ceiling. The teacher, noticing this, nudged me, asking what I thought I was doing. Another pupil said, “He’s staring at the sky miss!” The whole class started giggling. The teacher, utilising the ridicule from the class, as any “good teacher” would, announced, “Only babies stare at the sky…”
We live in a culture, in a world where simply looking around, staring, contemplating, especially in an upward direction, is considered nonsensical and dumb. A waste of time. Why would you simply look around, when you could be busy getting something done, accomplishing something? It is considered childish at best, to gaze upward, longingly and dreamily. For what could one possibly achieve by doing that?
Abram, later Abraham, the figure to whom Jews, Christians and Muslims all trace back their faith and hope, did not have most of the things that we today possess in order to have faith. Abraham did not have a liturgy, a history, a tradition. He didn’t have The Bible, or teachers, prophets, spiritual guides showing him how to live. Abraham had God. And the way he learned from and lived after God, was through the most humble and simple acts of listening, looking and believing. And to begin with, literally being invited by God to simply stare at the sky, by which he could realise his destiny.
Of course, this isn’t to say that those things we now take for granted are not necessary for us, or wouldn’t have been useful for Abraham. For this is how we know we have a lineage to trace back to the beginning. Scripture, tradition and prophecy is the very blueprint for how we relate to one another and ultimately to God.
But it is a blueprint, and one which has been translated and interpreted through endless generations. From wise and holy people to people like me. But what transforms all this history and narrative into real life is how we live, based upon but ultimately living out of the blueprint, into our own history. That was, in the end, how Abraham’s belief was reckoned as righteousness.
So I want to think, then, about four words; listening, looking, believing and righteousness.
The other night, after several… glasses of wine, Fr Warren and I, my wife Devon, and another parishioner were discussing this parish’s recent pilgrimage to Turkey. Although I am clearly a very young priest… I have not yet had the privilege of going on such a pilgrimage. So I asked those present what struck them most about their journey.
Fr Warren said, how when listening to scripture, looking at his surroundings, and rethinking Biblical moments in their location, he was reminded of how the prophetic method used by all prophets throughout the scriptures was twofold. Listening then looking. Listening is about the present, taking in and being attuned to what is happening immediately around you. Looking, on the other hand, is about the future. Looking ahead, not just at what’s around you now, but looking with vision, outwards, into the future, trying to understand what this all means and where it’s going. This simple pattern is found in the deepest teachings of every Biblical prophet. Listen now, and then look to the future.
This is how Abraham begins. He listens for God, then he looks out to the stars.
It was then that another friend at the table said that for her, this very listening and looking enabled her to truly see her environment, and then imagine, pray and engage more deeply with what she had read in scripture. Moving from story to experience, listening then looking. And from this movement between text and experience, past, present and future, she could then understand more about her faith; what she believed.
But the key aspect which struck her, and enabled her to feel that deeper sense of faith, was how in the process of prayer, she realised how she and her traveling companions, like every person who had ever dwelled on this story, was only a small figure in the landscape.
How tiny we are when compared to the size of history, of a cathedral or a desert, or to the enormity of the story?
Like Abraham, it is when we can step back and realise how small we are in the grand scheme, that we realise how much we can be loved. When we realise how small we are, yet how attended to we are. That the little details do matter, that even “little old me” is standing in the midst of history, acknowledged, welcomed and beloved.
It is in the overwhelming sense of being loved and known more than we could ever know, that we find we can relate to something greater than ourselves. And it is that openness, that vulnerability, that faith, and resultantly the desire to love and be loved in return, which turns listening and looking into belief, and makes it possible for belief to become righteousness.
In the Letter to the Hebrews, Paul speaks of how the prophets journeyed throughout the land, following Abraham’s example. How they journeyed on and on, many dying along the way. But their vision was set on a heavenly not simply earthly home. And so, although many died before reaching their destination, and they were, in many respects, strangers and aliens, they were one people, looking to the one home, and they could still sense it, even though they merely “greeted it from afar.” But they could offer that greeting, because they could acknowledge how strange and far off they were.
It is when you are stripped of your comforts, your preconceived notions, exposed among others similarly exposed, that you recognise how all identity relies upon relationship. Nothing is independent, and no one can live alone. Life itself is a matrix of myriad connections. A heart open to the world around, is a heart capable of accepting a greater love.
If only the whole world could live like this.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus makes it clear that in our being prepared for the Kingdom of God, we need to be focused on our heavenly not simply earthly treasure, for that is where our heart should be. And in this, we need to be prepared for Him, like servants awaiting a master returning home from a wedding banquet. And in order to be ready for this, we need to be as prepared as one who remains awake at night, to anticipate a thief who may break into their home.
This last image is strange, but strangeness is what Christians are about. Our faith is as much about anticipating, even yearning for those who we might not consider friends, as it is for those we love without question. At the heart of Jesus’ teaching is the love of stranger, without question, which we must pursue passionately if we are to welcome Christ into our hearts.
If only the whole world could live like this.
When you have those moments when you wonder what this all about, when you find yourself wondering, in a world full of scepticism, prejudice, violence and doubt, “Am I a fool for still believing?”
Listen to the world around you. To the voices, to the strangers, those who you didn’t hear at first. For that is where God’s voice is.
Look to the future. Think about what life might be like if you did something differently, or let go and let someone else show you.
And in that decision you will find the belief that you are loved, more than you will ever know. And what you don’t know is often what you need most.
There is nothing childish about staring at the sky, or at the world around you.
It is the world’s biggest critique of faith, and the pivot upon which faith becomes reality.
Hear Jesus say to you, “Don’t be afraid.” Don’t be afraid when they call you a fool, a fool for looking and listening, and believing.
Because foolishness is righteousness, and there is where we enter the heart of God.