Some of us this past week saw an outstanding TV program called, “The Amish.” I was born in Iowa near an Amish community called the Amana Colonies. From an early age I was fascinated by these men with the long beards and straw hats, the women with their long “pioneer” dresses and hats. It was always an event to see horse-drawn buggies on the roads of eastern Iowa.
When young Amish people reach adulthood they decide whether or not to be baptized. For the Amish, being baptized means deciding to become a member of the church and to accept the rules and practices of the Amish church: Bible study, worship, and faithful obedience to the ordnung, or, rules for Amish life together. Although the Amish way is not easy, 95% of Amish young people choose to accept this more difficult way of life.
Those young people who decide not to be baptized into the Amish church separate themselves from the community. This is painful for everyone concerned. But in the end it’s best for everyone. On the one hand, the spiritual strength of the Amish community is maintained; on the other hand, the ones who choose to leave are much happier. Those who find that they’re not cut out for the Amish life find not shame but joy and freedom in discovering their true identity. Those who stay in the Amish community have found their spiritual home. Those who leave find a different spiritual home.
In the spiritual life, sometimes staying home is God’s will for us. Other times leaving home is best. This is what we find in today’s first reading, where God appears to Abram. Like most people, Abram had his own tribe to which he was loyal. But God said to Abram, You will be the father of not one but many nations. This meant that Abram would take on a new identity. He would be called by a new name. He would leave his homeland for good, to take up residence in a new place. God offered Abram tremendous new opportunities, but only if he was willing to leave home.
There was another good program on TV this past week, a documentary called I’m Not Les. This is the true story of a man named Les who is transgendered, feeling more comfortable as female than male. Since the time he was a young boy he’s preferred wearing women’s clothing; he has always believed that he was a woman trapped in a man’s body. Les grew up to be a welder; he was a husband and a father but the whole time had to keep his identity secret. Finally, at age 69 he had surgery to transition from being male to being female. Les, like Abraham and Sarah, like some Amish young people, left home. In his case it wasn’t a matter of moving from one place to another but moving from one gender to another, where he would feel at home
All of us face times in our lives that require us to make a decision, whether or not to leave home. One of the highlights of my ministry here at Lakeridge was last Sunday’s annual meeting. Before the meeting we were treated to Velma Mullen’s extravagant hospitality—wonderful, delicious food, lovingly prepared and joyfully served. During the meeting we were treated to her passionate faith testimony. Here is someone who, having previously been part of other faith communities, has found her spiritual home here at Lakeridge. Velma is joyful, hopeful, uncomplaining, purposeful and with a laser focus on her God and the good work that God has called her to in this place.
When Jesus urges us to take up our cross to follow him—as he does in our reading from Mark–we tend to think of this as a command to suffer. Well, following Jesus will probably involve suffering, but sometimes taking up our cross may mean leaving one place where we are unhappy for another where we find joy, where we find our true home. Taking up our cross may be the difficult decision to break with habits and places and relationships that are no longer life-giving.
Over the past 20 years I have been with many people near the end of their lives. Some die peacefully; others struggle. Those who are least at peace near the end of their lives tend to be those who never learned to leave home during life. But in the case of those who struggle, sometimes all it takes at the end is for a loved one to say to the person who is dying, It’s okay to go. That’s another way of saying, “It’s okay to leave home”—to leave this familiar life for something better.
We Christians need to get a whole lot better at telling people that it’s okay to leave home; and not only okay but necessary. For example, the church has done a lot of damage to people who really need to be divorced but feel pressured even for a whole lifetime to stay with their spouse or partner. Although it’s true that sometimes we give up on relationships too soon, we need to be able to say to the person who’s been in an unhappy or distant relationship for many years, “It’s okay to leave home.” Or, to say to the person who’s clearly unhappy in their church, “It’s okay to leave home.” It’s okay to find another church, or no church at all. Or, to say to the person who hates their job, “It’s okay to leave.” Or, to say to the person who is dying, “It’s okay to leave home.” You don’t have to hang on to this life.
It’s not only okay–it’s necessary! This is the lesson we learn from the story of Abraham and Sarah. God’s will is not for us to be miserable.
No, to Abraham and Sarah God says, You will be blessed if you leave home! Sometimes there are good reasons to stay put but, given the choice, why would anyone stay where they are if it means being forever unhappy?
Well, we know why. Setting out in a new direction is hard, risky—it can even feel dangerous. We are always tempted to settle for the devil we know rather than the devil we don’t know. But the gospel is that we don’t have to settle for any “devil”! God said to Abraham and Sarah, I will bless you mightily. But God also said, First you have to go through the desert. It’s the very thing Jesus meant when he said, “Those who find their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake and the gospel will find it.” New life awaits us, but to get there we have to take up our cross.
In this season of Lent we ponder what it means to leave home. God’s Word invites each and every one of us to prayerfully consider what it might mean to take up our cross and follow Jesus. I’d just as soon avoid the deserts and the crosses. But we have real-life examples all around us of lives that have been transformed by the simple courage to leave home: to leave church, or job, or relationship, or whatever keeps our lives joyless. Following Jesus often means leaving home. Where might he be leading you, and, will you follow?