A Time to Separate
Sunday, October 1, 2017
There is an old joke about a little boy being prepped by his father for a school test. The father says, “now son, tell me, what are the four seasons?” To which the young boy replies, “salt, pepper, mustard and vinegar – those are the four ingredients that mom always uses to season.”
In honest confession, I resemble that little boy’s response. I rarely meet a food that I don’t think could use a little seasoning. In fact, many of you have shared a table with me at some point or another and you know that I have a tendency to salt and pepper first and taste later. This is one of my dietary achilles heels and I get it honestly. Both of my parents, and particularly my mom, has the same tendency.
Yet, I must admit that too much of a good thing quickly becomes a bad thing. As much as I love salt in my food, too much salt can quickly make something wonderful almost inedible. Salt, pepper, garlic, vinegar, mustard, ketchup, sugar and all of the other spices and condiments that we enjoy must be measured lest they do more harm than good.
There are behaviors too that the Bible at times seems to affirm, advocate and hold up but not in abundance but rather sparingly and occasionally. These are behaviors that must only enter our lives in measured amounts for too much of them is not good or appropriate for any of us.
One of those is the wisdom to know when it is time for us to go our separate way from someone who has perhaps been a long time friend, coworker or trusted ally but whose presence in our lives has now become toxic, unproductive and no longer healthy.
Three such examples quickly come to my mind. One is the moment in the gospels from Matthew 10 where Jesus, in the midst of advocating faithfulness, forgiveness and patience tells his early followers that when they have done all they can do and people in a particular village no longer listen to them or welcome them then they are to shake the dust off their feet and go somewhere else. The second comes in the book of Acts where the first great missionary duo Paul and Barnabas, despite all of their successes, realize that they have developed different philosophies about their work and that they have very different feelings about who should accompany them in their travels. In Acts chapter 15, as a last resort, realizing that they now see things differently, they part ways with Paul continuing his missionary travels with Silas and with Barnabas going in a different direction with John Mark.
The third example that comes to my mind is found in our passage for today from Genesis 13. It focuses on Abraham and his nephew Lot who had been with his uncle since the time he had left Haran for Canaan. He had also apparently been present throughout the brief sojourn in Egypt that we discussed last week. And, Lot now remained with Abraham as they returned back to Canaan again.
In spite of what we might think, I don’t believe we can dismiss how helpful Lot had likely been to Abraham over these years together. No doubt Abraham and Sarah benefited from having a member of their family travel with them. Likewise, with Lot obviously being younger he likely was also a huge benefit to have around not only as a companion but also as a fellow laborer.
Yet, Genesis 13 makes it clear that the relationship between Uncle Abraham and Nephew Lot had become incredible fragile. Both of them had developed some degree of standing particularly in terms of servants who now worked for them and the amount of livestock that they individually owned. But, they had reached a point where they were struggling to get along evidenced by the infighting between their employees and the fact that the land that once felt wide and expansive now felt cramped as long as both of them was in it.
Thus, after recognizing that things were not going to get any better, like Paul and Barnabas, they decide to go their different ways. In so doing, I think their story provides some things to think about for all of us when key relationships in our lives reach difficult moments and where the possibility of things turning around seem to know longer exist.
On the one hand, the Abraham and Lot story helps us to see that going our separate way is occasionally and in rare points in life the right thing for us to do but only after all other options have been exhausted. I cannot overemphasize the fact that Abraham and Lot did not come to this decision overnight or without much soul searching. Likewise, Paul and Barnabas don’t come to their decision to part ways immediately either. Nor do I think that we can support the idea that when Jesus tells his followers to knock the dust off of their feet that this should be the first, snap response to things not going our way.
Without question faithfulness even in the difficult times and a desire to stick with it, is the preferred model in the scriptures. And, yet, we must affirm, that there are these moments, sprinkled sparingly throughout the scriptures where separation – not as the best thing but as the acceptable and right outcome under the circumstances – is the only thing we can do.
At the same time, the Abraham and Lot story also puts its finger squarely on another aspect of this same issue. When Abraham and Lot make the decision to go their separate ways, they do so as graciously and with as much kindness and as amicably as they can.
Genesis 13 is very, very clear. Abraham allows Lot to choose which direction he wants to go. Abraham doesn’t choose the prime real estate for himself and then tell Lot he can just have what is left over while learning to live with it. Likewise, when Lot does go, it is obvious that Abraham still loves him, cares about him and wants what is best for his nephew. There is a clear desire here not to burn any bridges and thankfully so because in the upcoming chapters, we find that Abraham must rescue Lot on two different occasions. Abraham seems to have the uncanny ability to understand that he and Lot were separating for this season but perhaps not forever.
In fact, one can make the clear argument that Abraham and Lot go their separate ways in order to preserve their fragile relationship rather than allow it to completely and forever fall apart.
I recently heard the heartbreaking childhood story of a famous American author whose mother disowned both he and his brother. During their childhood, their mom had distinct, clear plans for what she wanted the two of them to accomplish with their lives. As they reached adulthood and it was clear that neither was going to go in the direction that she had hoped or prayed for, she made clear her disappointment and said in essence that she wanted nothing more to do with them.
With the oldest, she completely cut off contact and with the younger, while she maintained some degree of contact, refused to read any of his books or to affirm what he had become. In essence, when their plans for their own lives differed from her own, a clear moment of separation came. She was ready to burn bridges, send them away with her curses and no longer consider them her own.
But, life just isn’t that simple. Now in her older years, it is her younger son, the prolific author, who pays her bills, has provided her home and has seen to it that her needs are met.
So often, what is worse than separation is the manner in which we do it. It is one thing to make the painful decision that it is time for us to go in a different direction from a long time colleague, trusted friend or significant part of our lives. Sadly, however, on occasion those moments come.
But, when they do, by all means let us handle them with grace, kindness and out of desire to wish each other the best. For the truth is that so often going our separate ways does mean that our relationships are completely over or that life will never bring us into each other’s presence again.
Just like Abraham and Lot, we will likely continue to be a part of each others’ lives in some form or fashion. We’ll still see each other in the grocery. Our children will still end up on the same baseball team and we may still go to the same church. Truth be told, at some point, we may need each other again and life my bring our paths together once more as happened for Abraham and Lot.
In turn, far more critical than how we begin a relationship may be how we choose to end one. If we choose to do so using the grace, forgiveness and blessing that God invites us to offer each other and that God has at times shown to us, then we will choose the way of the Spirit which gracious and merciful. God will help us to make the best of some of life’s worst moments if we will only allow God to do so. Amen.