I rode a camel once at London Zoo as a child, well, twice if I’m honest, when the zookeeper got mixed up with the queue so I got an extra ride for free – this time on the camel’s neck instead of between the humps. Both were rather itchy, swaying experiences but exhilarating.
The nearest I get to riding an animal now is in my Soda Yeti but I suppose camels were the cars of their day for Abram and Sarai, who this Advent symbol reminds us of and God’s call for them to leave home to go where only He knew where.
Leaving home for the unknown is an upheaval. I watched both my sons go through it in the last few years as they started university, each 200 miles away from their native Hampshire. I remember what it was like for me and how homesick I felt, although, to be honest, it was not so much the missing home and loved ones but the loss of the familiar that made me feel secure and therefore confident that threw me.
But at least, like my sons, I had a specific purpose, a defined timescale, and a designated destination to my leaving. How much more vague were Abram’s instructions: ‘Leave your home and go to a place I will show you’. More like a modern day refugee than a university student.
However, just as a student trusts that his degree will lead to the right career, so Abram and Sarai trusted that God would lead them to a better future. Trusting doesn’t make things straightforward or easy though. We know that Canaan was where Abram’s father intended to settle but he only got partway, stopping at Harran. Abram reached Canaan, setting up camp in various places, but detoured into Egypt when famine hit, as well as diversions to fight a battle and rescue his nephew before returning.
I think we should take this as encouragement when our own journeys don’t seem to be making much progress. Even when we’re careful to follow His directions, maybe God doesn’t always take us on the most direct route.
After John Henry Newman’s return to England from Italy was delayed first by sickness, then by lack of an available ship, and further by a week’s becalming, this led to his writing the famous poem ‘The Pillar of the Cloud’, or, as it is more commonly known, ‘Lead Kindly Light’. In it, he calls for God to lead him through the darkness but does ‘not ask to see the distant scene; one step enough for me.’ We need to remember (well, I certainly do) that God isn’t an atlas with the whole route marked out for us, more a trusted driving instructor sat beside us with those familiar words: ‘Follow the road ahead until I tell you otherwise’.