Chapter 1: The Big Picture – An Exodus Story for Today
A disciple asks the Rabbi, “What does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? What does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The Rabbi answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day the heart breaks and the words fall in.”
(from “The Politics of the Brokenhearted,” by Parker Palmer)
Most of you know about the first Exodus. You’ve read the story, watched the movies, and memorized the plotline. It’s Sunday School 101. It’s the greatest story ever told. And it’s ancient history.
Or is it? I’m convinced that the journey Moses took along with a band of slaves is more than ancient history. I’m quite certain, as you’ll see, that it is our journey too. Think about it. Have you ever found yourself longing for freedom from some kind of bondage (a substance, a bad relationship, an obsessive way of thinking, depression, anxiety)? If so, you know the perils of Egypt. Or, have you known the hope of ‘doing the right thing’ and ‘trying a little harder’ only to fail again? Then you’ve known the futility of Sinai. Perhaps you’ve felt abandoned by God, or afflicted with unbearable suffering? In this place, you’ve gotten a taste of the wilderness God’s people encountered long ago. Suffice it to say, most of you know the road from Egypt to the Promised Land well. You know its high mountains, and you know its dark valleys. You just have not heard your journey described in these terms.
One Puritan guide who was familiar with this journey offered a prayer that describes the joys and perils this journey. He wrote
Let me learn by paradox that the way down is the way up, that to be low is to be high, that the broken heart is the healed heart, that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit, that the repenting soul is the victorious soul, that to have nothing is to possess all, that to bear the cross is to wear the crown, that to give is to receive, that the valley is the place of vision.
I love this prayer, because there is an acknowledgment of a journey involving a hard struggle. And the New Exodus way is, to be sure, a way of struggle and suffering.
It assumes that the way down is the way up, and that the road of downward mobility actually leads to glory. Indeed, this is counter-intuitive in today’s culture.
Now, for some of you this might raise a red flag. Many of us have been taught that faith leads to victory. Popular authors sell books promising blessing to those who commit their way to the Lord. And we buy them, because (truth be told) we’re all looking for something to give us quick relief for life’s pain. I was sitting with Laurie several years ago when it dawned on her that her bookshelves were lined with popular writings on the successful Christian life. She had tried to find the answer to her depression for a decade or more, but she said to me, “I feel like they’ve only set me up to fail, and feel even more low in the end.”
The New Exodus way is paradoxical precisely because it requires suffering. As I often tell my classes, if God wanted the Israelites to avoid the wilderness, he would have given them the miracle of a helicopter in order to fly them over it. But we’re all looking for helicopters. In fact, it’d be strange if we liked pain and craved suffering. Even Jesus said in the Garden of Gesthemane, “Lord, if it be your will take this cup of suffering from me.” This is a natural response for all of us. It’s why a good portion of Scripture is taken up with lament and complaint. The problem is that, despite our complaints, God doesn’t give us a helicopter to fly over the wilderness, but invites us to find Him in and through it.
(…this is NOT the end of chapter 1…stay tuned…)