Story of Abraham reminds us to open our hearts

Are we doing enough for others asks Jenny Black. 

I've always loved the story of Abraham. There he was camping with his wife Sarah under the great trees at Mamre when on a hot day he spied three strangers approaching. Abraham didn't wait for them to draw close and declare themselves; he simply rushed out and invited them to join him for a feast so that their hearts would be "comforted for their journey." Here's the moving part: in opening his heart like this, Abraham entertained angels without knowing it.

When I read about Abraham, I ask myself if my tent door is open. To such disparate folk as the newcomer who creeps into the back seat at church, the Asian dairy owner I see at least every week, the taxi driver quick to tell me his wife of 42 years is in hospital. Am I offering welcome and showing neighbourliness? In word and by my life? When I welcome others, I believe, I'm welcoming God.

I met a 20th century Abraham in South Africa when I was young. His name was George. I wrote this story to impress on my own heart an openness to grace. It's told from the point of view of his wife, Edith.

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The boy. We'd sit on the couch on the porch and he'd read aloud. He'd occasionally interject, usually providing literary comment for the benefit of his ancient mother. His ancient mother meanwhile might be some distance away, writing the name "Tommy" on her heart.

George. My husband George has walked upright all his life. He's had his hands stretched out to touch whatever part of the world has come drifting past our door. Hikers along the Wild Coast mainly; he invites them in, offers them cups of tea and a dinner of mealies cooked over an open fire on the beach.

But that was before, when we were still parents, and complete. Then we had strength and will to say, Welcome, to chat and make space at the table.

Not now. Those lives came to an end when Tommy tumbled into a death so violent and deliberate that I dizzy at the thought. So now it's just George and me, our shack on the veld and the restless sea.

And God's love of course, always God's love, but right now that's high and distant.

I look out of the window seawards. I see four figures rounding the corner of the house. He's done it again, in this year of years: George has said to these people, "come home with me". When there's nothing but a desert here and seeing others, making an effort, I just can't do it.

But I do, after a fashion, but I can't help turning away briskly when George says with a helplessness I'm familiar with, "They just appeared out of nowhere, Edith, walking over the veld." I know how it is: a solid human shape stepping out of the afternoon's liquid mirage, and then who are we to close our door? Except when we have good reason as now, when we're dragging our feet through a lopsided world.

I put bread to bake in the oven George has set in the base of an anthill. George brings in a bucket of cool rainwater from the tank. I make a stew of vegetables from the garden and point out the long-drop up the path. All of this with a smile but a tight throat.

In the evening we play Scrabble and after prayers the three visitors lay their sleeping mats on the porch. George blows out the paraffin lamp and says in his courtly way, "Goodnight, gentlemen." I don't have many words for George, but the briskness has gone.

The next morning I'm awakened by the smell of porridge. They're cooking on the primus, chatting as they ready their packs for the day. We sit in a row on the porch, drinking tea and watching the acres of sea.

They're keen to be gone, a full day's tramp ahead of them. I've held myself tightly, I've hardly caught their names, but the one with the greying hair, the elder statesman of the party, suddenly grips my hand.

"Blessings on this house," he says. "Blessings on its four walls. God lives here."

I stare. "Amen," says George, and then they start off down the path towards the beach, their huge packs swaying on their backs. Suddenly I don't want these strangers with their sinewy limbs to leave.

George follows them slowly and soon I can see him down on the rocks, mending his fishing rod. As for me, washing the porridge dishes and then cleaning the fog-smeared windows, doing this I know we will not die, but live.

A benediction was pronounced upon our house this day, and it started when George said, "Welcome", as Jesus walked towards him across the veld.

 - Jenny Beck is a member of the Dunedin City Baptist community.

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