Carl Beresford Barkley, A.K.A. “Pop”
As all people do, biologically speaking, I had two grandfathers. My paternal grandfather, as you may have read, was born and raised right here at Christ Church Cathedral. His family have a storied history, and their heritage is inextricably linked with that of Texas. My paternal grandfather died young, and I never knew him. Someday, as we grow in relationship with one another, I’ll tell you the stories I know about him. But not today. Today I want to tell you something about my other grandfather, the one I did know, the one I and everyone else unfailingly called “Pop.”
Pop was not from Texas. He was born and raised in Eastern Arkansas, in the Mississippi River delta, that river bottom region about which the nicest thing Mark Twain said is that the mud only comes up to the top of a man’s boots. Specifically, Pop was from Cane Island, Arkansas, which holds the distinction of neither having any sugarcane nor being an island. Even the little hamlet called Oil Trough, Arkansas once had an oil trough, so it’s a mystery how Cane Island got its name.
Pop’s real name was Carl Beresford Barkley. (My first name comes from his last.) “Beresford,” Pop’s middle name, may seem a little too sophisticated for someone from Cane Island, Arkansas. The story goes that when my great-grandmother was pregnant she read a dime-store pulp fiction romance novel in which the dashing hero’s name was Beresford. I’m not sure what that suggests about her hopes for her son, but there it is.
As a child, I loved visiting Pop. I loved the things he could build with his two hands, the barbeque he could smoke, and the stories he could tell. Some stories were pithy and short. He was always partial to this one: “Algy met a bear. The bear met Algy. The bear was bulgy. The bulge was Algy.”
Mark Twain on the Arkansas delta: “All the streets and lanes was just mud; they warn’t nothing else BUT mud – mud as black as tar and nigh about a foot deep in some places, and two or three inches deep in ALL the places.” (From Huckleberry Finn)
Other stories Pop would tell about himself, and so it happened that one day I asked him, “Pop, what is the strangest thing that ever happened to you?” He leaned back in his chair and thought for a moment, and then he told me this story:
“When I was a boy, round about 1920,” he said, “I stepped out the front door of my granny’s house to go home for dinner. My granny was sitting in the rocking chair on her front porch, with a quilt tucked tightly around her legs. She was old and withered and pained by severe arthritis. She could barely move. But she loved me, and she kissed me goodbye before I bounded off the porch, headed straight for home. It didn’t take long to run from my granny’s house to my own, a few minutes at the most. And when I arrived there, on my own front porch there she sat. She’d beaten me there. I don’t know how. No one in Cane Island had a car. I never knew. I was too afraid to ask. But there she was. She’d been with me when I set out, and she was waiting for me when I arrived.”
The Genesis passage we read this morning is arguably the lynchpin of the entire biblical narrative. St. Paul relies on this passage for the crux of his argument about law and faith in Galatians. The great theologians St. Augustine, Martin Luther, and Karl Barth all lean heavily on this story as well.
Abram, who will soon be renamed Abraham, has already set out on the life’s journey to which God called him several chapters before. There, God visited Abraham and told him to leave his home in the land of Ur and move to a new place with the promise of blessing. God sees Abraham off the front porch, so to speak, and God sends him on his way.
Abraham then travels the road, and when he finally enters that Promised Land, he discovers that the same God who was with him when he set out is also there waiting for him when he arrives. Abraham doesn’t know how this is so, and he doesn’t know what to make of the presence of this God who saw him off in Ur. He fumbles to say the right things to God, but he’s too startled to make any real sense. So God speaks, and God reiterates his promise to Abraham.
And then we arrive at the verse that so captivated St. Paul, the fourteen brief words that led Augustine and Luther and Barth to write tens of thousands of words in response. These words: “And Abraham believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
What does it mean, that Abraham believed? That’s what the great theologians have pondered and argued about for thousands of years. All they really agree upon is that everything about our relationship with God relies on this moment. This is the moment in which Abraham’s faith is defined. This is the moment when the ancestor of us all—the very founder of faith in God—gets it. This is the moment when God looks at a broken and flawed man and nevertheless says, “I claim you as righteous.”
But what does it mean? It’s easier to recognize what it does not mean. Abraham’s faith—his belief—cannot be that he completely understands God, that he has all the right answers, which is, unfortunately, what is often meant by belief in our day. Abraham’s fumbling questions make it clear that he doesn’t have all the right answers about God. God and God’s purposes continue to be a mystery to him.
Neither can Abraham’s faith be about doing all the right things, about behaving and achieving in ways that result in God’s prosperity and favor, because both before and after this encounter with God, Abraham’s life is often a train wreck. In fact, in the very next chapter of Genesis Abraham makes a huge mess of things.
And finally, Abraham’s faith cannot be understood as an absence of doubt. Abraham does doubt, again and again and again throughout the Genesis narrative, both before and after today’s passage.
What, then, is Abraham’s faith that’s to serve as the model for our own? If it’s not having all the right answers, if it’s not about doing all the right things, and if it’s not the absence of doubt, what’s left?
What’s left—what is the sum of Abraham’s faith in God—is that from this moment forward Abraham never forgets, and always seeks, the God who set him on his journey and who also awaits him upon his arrival. Even when Abraham answers wrongly, even when he fails, even when he is riddled with doubt, Abraham always remembers that he travels God’s road, with God at its beginning, with God at its end, and with God met at rest stops all along the way. God is Abraham’s source, his strength, and his goal.
That is Abraham’s God. That is our God. That is the God who sees us off the front porch and sets us on the path with the promise to bless us, as he blessed Abraham, but not for our own sakes; rather that we may be a blessing to those we encounter on our journey through God’s world.
It is not always an easy journey. Even today, hot on the heels of his conversation with God, we are told that a “deep and terrifying darkness” descends upon Abraham. And that is why true faith is so crucial. When darkness and doubt and terror threaten us, by faith we remember that it is God who set us on our course, and it is God with whom and toward whom we travel. And that’s where we find our strength.
I suspect I know how Pop’s grandmother arrived at his home before he did. He was a boy. The straight path between her house and his probably wasn’t so straight. He likely wandered in the woods, became preoccupied with distractions, and even got lost a time or two. The journey likely took a lot longer than he realized. But when he finally arrived, the one who had set him off with a kiss was waiting for him in love. And so it is with us and God.
Beginning this Lenten season, we—you and I—walk God’s road together, and God beckons us forward. My prayer is that we’ll have the courage to walk in faith. Like Abraham, we’ll find ourselves startled and surprised to find God already waiting for us in unexpected places. Along the way, we’ll also meet those who are in darkness and those who are in light. We’ll meet those who think differently about God, and behave differently, and sometimes harbor desperate doubts. In other words, we’ll meet people a lot like us. We’ll welcome them, any and all who seek to walk with God. We’ll love them, and we’ll love one another. I am grateful to be your traveling companion.