Thursday, February 28, 2008

Theology in Crayon

In the beginning God created . . . and God saw all that he had made and it was very good (Genesis 1:1, 31).

Some of the first things I ever learned to do in church were coloring, drawing and singing. That was the way I came to know who Jesus was and what it meant to be one of his followers. My teachers taught me songs – songs about how Jesus loves little children and how Zacchaeus climbed up in a tree and how the B-I-B-L-E is the book for me.

And while we were learning all those songs we made things. We colored pictures and formed things out of construction paper and Popsicle sticks. If nothing else, drawing was what I did to pass the time during my Dad’s long sermons. I didn’t draw religious images, but somehow the words of scripture and scripture stories and songs of the faith got connected with drawing – whether in Sunday school or in the pew.

Then I got older. The changes were gradual. In middle school and high school we still sang. We sang on retreats and at camp; the songs were a powerful part of our faith experience. But we didn’t color or finger paint or draw. That was for kids and it wasn’t cool.

It didn’t take long for the singing to slow to a trickle. Most of us stopped singing except for the two, maybe three, Sunday hymns. Back in the day, there were churches that had “hymn sings” on Sunday night. A few still do, but not many. Most grown-ups sing begrudgingly and self-consciously.

As for the drawing and coloring and finger painting – that became a distant memory unless you agreed to work with children in Sunday school or teach VBS. Adults abandon those creative exercises for more cerebral learning methods. We formulate discussion questions. We read a book together. We secure a guest speaker.

Seminary doesn’t help things either. The institution that conferred two theological degrees upon me was structured around three educational tracks: Theology, Church Music, and Christian Education. The running joke was that you earned a degree from the school of education by mastering skills with scissors and construction paper. Theologians didn’t have time for that kind of thing. We were too busy parsing Greek verbs and diagramming sentences.

But maybe our theology suffers for that very reason. Could it be that our doctrines are emaciated and crusty because somewhere along the way we started thinking about God without engaging the imagination? I’ve heard laments about biblical illiteracy, and I’ve spoken my own now and again. Maybe the problem isn't with people or the Bible they don't read. Maybe the teachers and preachers bear some responsibility in this. Is it possible that we’ve managed to vacuum pack our teaching? It’s tightly reasoned, but you can’t breathe in it. Perhaps some of our best theology is done in crayon.

In his book, Scribbling in the Sand, Michael Card writes,

The imagination is the bridge between the heart and the mind, integrating both, allowing us to think / understand with our hearts and feel / emote with our minds. It is a vehicle for truth. Through the use of images, metaphors, stories and paradoxes that demand our attention, it calls for interaction. The imagination is a powerful means for communicating truths about God, and so God shows an awesome regard for the imagination in his Word. (Michael Card, Scribbling in the Sand, 55)

After plenty of theological education and twenty years of ordained ministry, I’m feeling a desire to rejoin what the years have put asunder. I want to recover the connection between the arts and faith. That doesn’t mean I’ll become a painter or a sculptor or a poet – but it does mean embarking on a search for God in all of those things. I want to go back to the start of things: to the start of my own faith journey where crayons expressed a love for God and told God’s stories. And even back further than that, to the start of creation when the supreme creator looked at all the things his glorious imagination had done and said “it is good.”

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Enemy of Soul

Deliver me from my enemies, O Lord! (Psalm 143:9).

David had enemies. Real enemies. The kind that lurk in the dark with both the intent and the capacity to do you harm. The kind that draw blood and leave you for dead; the kind that lie to smear your name or cheat to leave you bankrupt. There’s nothing theoretical about the damage they can do. From the moment David heard the cursing taunts of the Philistine giant, David knew he had an enemy. From the moment Saul hurled his spear at David’s singing face, David knew he had an enemy. This was simply a part of life, and he learned this early on. It never changed.

When you know you’ve got enemies you learn to keep your eyes open. You discern their presence intuitively because your life depends on it. To listen to David’s prayers it seems that he had grown adept at naming his enemies, and not just the cursing giants and half-crazed kings. David knew the insidious presence of other enemies, and we would do well to learn from him. The soul has enemies. Real enemies. And they are alive and well in metro Atlanta.

I’m reading Psalm 143 this week. There’s plenty of standard enemy language here, but reading it this morning I started to wonder about who this enemy is. What is the prayer dealing with? The enemy language blends with prayers for the well being and preservation of the soul. The soul, the deepest part of the self, is being threatened. That’s what Psalm 143 is about. Or is it? Sure, the enemy that wants to cut your throat can also play havoc with soul and spirit. Soul health isn’t abstract and ethereal. The steely blade that opens your jugular can also tear at your soul. But the language of Psalm 143 suggests a particular concern for the dangers confronted in shadowy interior places.

For the enemy has pursued my soul (v. 3)

My spirit faints within me (v. 4)

My soul thirsts for you (v. 6)

For to you I lift up my soul (v. 8)

Bring my soul out of trouble (v. 11)

Every Monday morning I meet with a group of men for prayer and talk mingled with Bible reading. Yesterday we were joined by Maqsood Kamil, the head of the Presbyterian Church in Pakistan. He is also professor of theology at the seminary in Gurjanwala. Yes, there is a seminary in Pakistan. Maqsood’s presence with us for an hour, the chance to listen to him and ask questions, this was a great gift to us. He lives his faith in a very difficult and hostile setting. He understands enemies. Real enemies.

And as he talked with us I think we all became increasingly aware of how easy it is here. We have our stories about gunmen who storm into schools and churches; we know that terrorism is a real threat in our land. But in the conduct of daily life we still assume safety. This is the “normal” we insist on maintaining even in the age of terrorism. It is an assumption so closely connected with our notions of freedom that we cannot let it go. We walk the streets and go to school and drive our roads with the assumption that we will accomplish whatever we have on our to-do list for the day.

In some ways the absence of enemies is itself our great enemy. Maqsood remarked that when every meal is provided for and easily obtained, the prayer “give us this day our daily bread” doesn’t have much meaning. Of course, we can pray it in our wealthy churches, but those who have little food, or who don’t know where a meal will come from, they pray it differently. I don’t have answers to the questions that confront the church given its affluence. Folks like Ron Sider have thought long and hard about it. Not me. I say that to my shame.

Right in the center of Psalm 143 are the words “my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.” Thirst and hunger are by definition rooted in some kind of lack, a deprivation. It may seem that in a place like Pakistan the enemy has the upper hand. Perhaps, in the land of plenty, where there is little or no hunger and thirst of soul, the enemy has in fact already won.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Yesterday in the Pew

I open my mouth and pant, longing for your commands. (Psalm 119:131)

My son wasn’t listening to the sermon. At least it didn’t appear to me that he was. I know that what he was actually hearing was probably beyond observation. My ability to fully ascertain what he’s grasping is admittedly limited. All I know is he didn’t appear to be listening. Those types of listening behaviors – clues you look for when you’re the one speaking – those acts of attention weren’t evident to me as I sat next to my son in church yesterday.

But it didn’t matter. Just before the sermon my son, along with about 50 other fourth graders, had been presented with a new Bible. We do that every year in our church. The presentation of Bibles to our fourth graders is a marker on their journey to student ministry – “youth group” as I used to call it.

Marnie and I had highlighted a verse in his Bible. So had our senior pastor and our children’s minister. The verses were not disclosed to John. This meant that during the sermon my son was foraging the pages of his new Bible looking for the verses that we had highlighted for him. During the pastor’s prayer he leaned over to me and whispered, “Where is John the Baptist born?” Maybe I should have shushed him, but I leaned over and whispered back, “It’s in Luke 1.” Safe to say my son wasn’t really praying either – not as far as I could tell.

But again, I’m not complaining about that. In fact, I’m pleased. I treasure the sight of my son rummaging through the Bible with an appetite; exploring its contents the way most of us plunder the fridge late at night. It seems that the years have a way of taking the edge off of that appetite. Sadly, it’s often the grown ups in church who most noticeably lack it.

These days I’m learning a little more about prayer with the help of a Methodist pastor, Thomas Steagald, and his fine book Praying for Dear Life. A couple of days ago I read a passage in which he describes coming to the pages of scripture in the practice of midday prayer. Steagald writes:

I open my Bible to near the middle, but very gently as the gold-edged pages that faithfully cradle these good psalms have all but lost their grip on the binding’s spine. I have turned to these pages so often, and most often when I needed a word only this Word could provide, that they are wounded for my many transgressions and bruised with my iniquities. Some verses I have highlighted so many times and in so many different colors that the pages seem to have developed age spots. Other places the pages are all but sliced through on account of my many underlines, but by these stripes I have been healed time and time again. My Bible: a suffering servant. (Steagald, Praying for Dear Life, 109).

The passage reminds me of a quip Vic, our senior pastor, likes to use when he presents Bibles to children. “Worn out Bibles belong to people who aren’t.”

So I don’t know how much of the sermon my son heard yesterday (and his Mom was preaching!). But I think of that powerful image of a worn and fragile Bible. A Bible weary with use. I pray that someday my son will own a Bible like that. And maybe someday, by grace, I will too.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Losing It

After yesterday's post I received an email from someone asking, "what was Moses' 'one rash act act of disobedience'." Good question. The story is in Numbers 20. Last summer during the series of meditations on the Fruit of the Spirit, I wrote about this story with a view toward the matter of self-control. As the Moses series ends, I thought it might be worth posting here.


Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank (Numbers 20:11).

For the rest of his life he would remember that moment; he would play it in his mind again and again with a faint hope that at the critical juncture something else might happen and the story would unfold differently. It never did. No matter how deeply we reach into our memory we can never grasp a moment and change it. Pictures of time can be retrieved; time itself cannot.

Were Moses here to tell us the story he might explain to us that he simply ‘lost it.’ The quarreling and complaining had become too much. This time it was the lack of water that provoked grumbling and accusation from among the people. “Why did you bring us out here to die?” Moses handled the situation wisely. He laid the matter before God, and there at the tent of meeting God assured Moses and Aaron that he would provide water for the people, and he told them what to do.

But even after his prayer session, Moses was wound tight, edgy and seething. God had told Moses to speak to the rock and the water would flow. But Moses lost it. He lashed out at the ingrates, named them for the rebels they were, and then he raised his staff and swung it twice against the rock with a sharp slap. And from the rock grace flowed, gushed wet and abundant for the people to drink.

As the water made mud on the dry earth and people cupped their hands beneath the impossible fountain, something inside Moses dried up, shriveled and twisted. He knew the moment had unfolded badly; the great irony was that now Moses was the rebel. God had said ‘speak’ but Moses had felt compelled to ‘strike.’ What should have been an act of obedience had become a loss of self-control.

This story has always troubled me because of its consequences. Moses was told he would not be allowed to enter the land God had promised. After the burning bush, after ten plagues in Egypt, after the waters parting at the Red Sea, after the manna and the quail, Moses was not permitted to cross the finish line. And all because of that moment; the moment of lost self-control, losing it with the people and taking it out with a stick on a rock.

All of us have had moments when we lost it; did something we wish we’d thought about before we did it; said something we shouldn’t have said; spouting off, lashing out, knee-jerk reactions. Every one of us knows what that’s like. This story tells us honestly that lost self-control has consequences, but it is not a story about punishment. If anything we see that God remains faithful. God gives water. God continues to lead the people and fulfill the promise made to them.

This story is a story about trust. What God says to Moses is “you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites” (Nu. 20:12). At root, self-control is about trusting God. Self –control asks “can I stay out of the way long enough for God to act in this situation . . . Can I hold my tongue, can I get a grip on my anger, can I stop indulging this fantasy?” To say “yes” in that moment honors God as holy.

For Today: In what area of your life are you most often tempted to ‘lose it’? What will it mean for you to trust God with that part of your life today?

Prayer: Gracious God, I want my life to show that you are worthy of trust; I want to live every detail of this day knowing that you really have everything under your control. Knowing that your control is sure, my self-control is then possible. Help me to live this way today. Amen.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Two Endings

Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo . . . there the Lord showed him the whole land . . . “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.” And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said (Deuteronomy 34: 1, 4-5).

The Moses series ends this Sunday, and I’ve got to be honest. I wish the whole thing ended better.

The sermon series itself has been a great ride. We’ve been included in the Exodus journey, feeling the heat of the walk, the fear of leaving the familiar, the gratitude for daily bread, the challenge to live well and whole in response to God who delivers us. The series will conclude on Sunday morning with robust worship, Dr. Vic Pentz and Rev. Marnie Crumpler preaching, and then at 4:00 that afternoon with children telling the Moses story in song as they present Moses and the Freedom Fanatics.

The Moses series will end well. The Moses story ends on a less celebratory note.

There’s something tortuous, almost cruel, about what happens on Mount Nebo (Deut. 34). Moses climbs the mountain alone, a solitary figure ascending with God, ascending to God, as he has done before. Only this time he will not be returning. He will not make the climb back down to speak God’s words to the people. From the top of this mountain God allows Moses to see what the past forty years have aimed at. Moses is shown what his heart has yearned for, what his mind has dreamed of. Moses is shown what he will not be allowed to have. His eyes see the Promised Land, but he will not enter it. One impulsive act of disobedience and this is his sentence.

Except for the death part, some of you know exactly what it’s like to be on Mount Nebo. You know what it’s like to want something, to plan and dream and work and pray for it – and oh how you’ve prayed - only to have it denied you. A promotion, a family of your own, plans for retirement, a winning season, children who call you occasionally. Sometimes we stand on Mount Nebo and see what will not be. As we say, “It ain’t happnin’.”

I’m reading a book on prayer that has just gone out of print. This morning I found the author’s blog site and read a post he had written about the dismal sales of his book. He used the word “heartbroken.” He had poured himself into that work, rejoiced at its publication, only to see it crater badly. That’s a Mount Nebo moment.

But the ending of the Moses story reveals a tragedy far greater than what happens on Mount Nebo. The greater tragedy is what happens down below and in the land that people eventually enter. God had told Moses, “Once you’ve died and these people enter the land, they’ll start chasing other gods. They’ll keep repeating their same stubborn faithless mistakes” (Deut. 31:16).

That Moses dies on Mount Nebo without entering the land is a major disappointment, but it isn’t as tragic as it seems. Moses ends his days in God’s tender presence, buried by God. Not bad. The real tragedy is the other ending. Tragedy is getting what you’ve always wanted and then forgetting the God who gave it to you.

These weeks of keeping company with Moses have really been about keeping company with God. To keep company with God means we’ll participate in what God is doing in this world. In the end, that’s what living is all about. In the end, that’s all that matters.

“Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. Teach us to number our days aright that we may gain a heart of wisdom. May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us.” Amen (Psalm 90:1-2, 12, 17).

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Distance and Darkness

The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was (Exodus 20:21).

So the Ten Commandments are an invitation; God’s invitation to a life lived well and whole. The Ten Commandments bring us into dialogue with the God who has claimed us and delivered us from those things that held us captive. That’s been the core of the message we’ve gleaned from the Ten Commandments so far this week.

But one can’t help but notice that when the commandments were given, they didn’t seem too effective in drawing people closer to their God. The people remain at a distance. They want Moses to be a mediator – a buffer between them and the God whose voice they fear. To say that the commandments are an invitation sounds nice, but there’s not much happening on Mt. Sinai that looks cozy and affectionate.

In the commandments God has spoken to us. When it comes to our response it seems we have two choices. We can remain at a distance, or like Moses we can approach the thick darkness where God is.

Finding God in the thick darkness is hard for us. Maybe we prefer to stand off, hearing the commandments, doing our best to keep as many of them as we can, but never dealing with God. Maybe we’re not sure that God exists in those dark places. We’re afraid we’ll approach only to find God isn’t there.

We’re not so different from the Israelites. They much preferred a god they could see, a god who would go before them in way that made sense. A manageable deity. That’s why they melted their jewelry and fashioned a calf. That, as we saw, was a big mistake.

But God can’t be managed. We don’t figure God out. We can’t live a life a faith and bleach the mystery out of it, try as we might. We either stand at a distance, or we draw near and approach the unknown and unseen, finding God in the dark places of our lives.

Maybe you’re familiar with thick darkness. Those moments when you have no idea what’s next or what you’ll find tomorrow. Sometimes the darkness settles on you like a mist or it seizes you like cellophane around your face.

But the thick darkness is where God is. Don’t be content to stand at a distance.

God of light, you conceal yourself at times in dark places. Help us to find you there. We don’t want to stand a distance. Make us bold in approaching you with every circumstance of life, and grant to us the light needed to live this day. Amen.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Six Words

“I am the Lord your God . . .” (Exodus 20:2)

Economy of words is a daily struggle for me. And I mean daily. If you receive these reflections each morning there’s a good chance that the first thing you do is scan your screen, sizing up the length of the piece. Maybe you read. Maybe you move the cursor to that little ‘x’ in the upper right hand corner of your screen, planning to come back later. Maybe you simply ‘delete.’ My defense: I really do try. My confession: I’m prone to wordiness.

Deeply aware of my lack of verbal restraint, I was fascinated by an AJC article about a book titled Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure. The book is co-authored / edited by Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleiser. The premise of the book is simple: People were invited to write their life story in six words. That’s it. More than 15,000 submissions were received. It’s surprising what you can say in six words.

Some of the responses, as you might expect, were quite amusing:
New Jersey to California: thank God.
Became my mother. Please shoot me.
It was embarrassing so don’t ask
It’s pretty high. You go first.
I think. Therefore I am bald.
Made a mess. Cleaned it up.
Must remember: People, gadgets. That order.

Others were not so amusing. Six words can cut deep.
Found true love. Married someone else.
Was father, boys died, still sad.

Old Testament scholarship has given us an impressive word for the Ten Commandments: the “Decalogue.” Decalogue literally means “ten words.” The Ten Commandments are God’s ten words to us – ten words that capture what life looks like when it is lived well. The first half of the Decalogue talks about life before God. The second half deals with life with our neighbors and families. Naturally, we are inclined to give our attention to these ten words because they tell us what to do, how to behave.

But before being told what to do we are reminded to whom we belong. In the English Bible, God did that with six words: “I am the Lord you God.” Before we get to the ten words, we get six words that define and shape all that follows. Yes, the ten words are important, critical even. But if we skip the six words, we won’t understand the ten.

These six words tell us that God isn’t giving us rules so that we can become his people. God is inviting us to live life whole and well because we are his people. Maybe God’s message to us in the commandments can be captured with these six words: “You belong to me. Live well.”

And with that, I’ve said enough.

Gracious God, remind us today that we belong to you – not because we have behaved well, but because you have loved us freely. Empower us by your Spirit to live well; to live in accordance with your words to us; to live every moment of this day so that you will be pleased and honored in all things. Amen.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Learning Our Lines

They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen, but do not have God speak to us or we will die” (Exodus 20:19).

My ten year old son is learning Shakespeare. He’s doing “The Tempest” in his drama class at school and he has the role of Prospero. I just finished helping him go over his lines for scene 10. I’ve got to admit I’m impressed, and not just in that proud father kind of way. I majored in English literature back in my college days, might have read some Shakespeare in high school, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t know who the man was when I was ten years old.

My son’s script may be to Shakespearean English what the Living Bible is to the King James Version – but still . . . we were working with words like “bedimmed” and “abjure.” That’s Shakespearean enough for me. My own enthusiasm for words might have gotten in the way of our rehearsal time. I kept asking John if he understood what “bedimmed” meant. I took a dictionary and had him look up the word “abjure.” It was plain to me that my interest in such matters far exceeded his.

John just wanted to go over the lines. And not all the lines. Just his lines. This was interesting to me for two reasons. First, it was clear that he was simply trying to meet the bare minimum study requirement: 15 minutes of script review. Second, meeting that 15 minute requirement didn’t allow for context. Skip the dialog. The fullness of the conversation was sacrificed on the altar of time efficiency. Just 15 minutes with the lines, that’s it.

Say “The Ten Commandments” and most people see lines; lines chiseled in stone. The lines are written in all caps as if God was shouting English at Moses. Each line is designated by a foreboding Roman numeral. What God expects, we assume, is that we will learn these lines. Learn them well and then do them.

And so we try. But we do it the way my ten year old son does Shakespeare. We set about learning our lines without the trouble of the whole dialog. Just give us our lines. Just tell us what we need to do to be decent people.

What God had in mind goes beyond that. The Ten Commandments aren’t simply lines we learn, but our place in a dialog. Oddly, we learn the commandments, but these are God’s words. God speaks, and we live in response to what we hear. The Ten Commandments cannot be understood apart from this dialog; like it or not, we’re involved in a conversation.

To truly know the Ten Commandments, to learn our lines well, we’ll need to do more than just read. We’ll need a discipline that goes beyond memorization. To know our lines we’ll need a dialogue, a conversation with the God who authored these lines.

Maybe people who best know the Ten Commandments are not those who behave well, but those people who pray honestly. We learn our lines by listening. Read the Ten Commandments again, but this time hold conversation with God as you read. God isn’t barking orders; you’re not memorizing rules. The Commandments are an invitation to dialog. The way you live this day is your chance to be a part of the conversation.

There are times, Lord, when following the rules seems easier than dealing with you as an active presence in our lives. But you give us more than rules. You invite is to join you in your very life, your work in the world. We thank you for the lines you gave us through Moses. Help us today to listen to them, to learn them, and to live in response to what we hear. Amen.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Said and Heard

And God spoke all these words. . . (Exodus 20:1)

You said one thing. Something else was heard.

Ever had that happen? That gap between what was intended and what was interpreted, that hairline fracture between what was offered and what was received, that tiny little space is plenty of room for hurt feelings to breed and fester into full blown alienation.

Spoken to the driver: “Why did you go that way?”

Heard by driver: “This was a bad choice and you’re stupid for choosing this route.”

Spoken to cook: “How long did you grill the burgers?”

Heard by cook: “You messed up my meal.”

Spoken to spouse: “Is that what you’re wearing to the party?”

Heard by spouse: “You don’t so look good in that.”

Of course, not every conversation is marred with these miscues. There are plenty of times when what was meant is what was sent, and what was sent hits the bulls-eye. But the ease with which we miss each other is remarkable. The slightest expression, a peculiar tone of voice, a question asked with implications attached – next thing you know someone is withdrawn and quiet or defensive and combative.

And if this kind of thing happens so easily with the person who lives under my roof or offices just down the hall, how much easier does it happen with God? So it is with the commonly known mantra that designates the Ten Commandments: “You Shall Not.”

Our first mistake is thinking of the commandments as being framed entirely in the negative – no, don’t, can’t. But the greater error has to do with how our perception of the commandments shapes our thinking about God. The prohibitive rules come from an angry God, or so it seems. In his book The Ten(der) Commandments, Ron Mehl makes a case for understanding the Ten Commandments as an expression of God’s love for us. Mehl is fighting an uphill battle, and he knows it. He writes

Some people, of course imagine it to be the exact opposite. They don’t hear love in these statements at all. What do they hear? They hear the clank of chains and the rattle of padlocks (p.15).

In the Ten Commandments God said one thing. We tend to hear something else. God spoke love. We hear anger. God gave a gift. We sense God taking something from us.
God intended to give the keys to wholeness. We feel the weight of guilt.

God spoke all these words. The question is how do you hear what God has spoken?

We give you thanks, O God, for you great love and for the variety of ways in which your love is shown to us. You provide for our needs. You lead us out of difficult situations. You hear our prayers. And you tell us how to live. You instruct is in the art of living well. Help us to hear your instruction as you intend it to be heard, as an expression of your love. And help us to love you in return by following what we hear. Amen

Friday, February 15, 2008

Trust Fund

So Moses said to Aaron, “Take a jar and put an omer of manna in it. Then place it before the Lord to be kept for generations to come” (Exodus 16:33).

I’m trust impaired. My beliefs are built on terra firma, anchored by two degrees from a seminary and a decent grasp of biblical theology. Raised with the sights and sounds and songs of the Church as a natural habitat, believing comes fairly easily. But trusting is a different matter. Honestly, there are times when I wish I didn’t have to trust God – or that I could at least pass enough trust-tests to graduate, putting the struggle to trust behind me. But that’s not going to happen.

If we look at the story of the Exodus with a wide angle lens we’ll begin to see that trusting God is never an accomplishment; God’s people never seem to master the simple act of trusting. When God rains manna from heaven the shower falls after the repeated demonstrations of power in the plagues. The people grumble after the parting of the Red Sea. They go out to gather the daily bread after God has turned the bitter waters to sweet at a place called Marah. They’ve been well schooled in God’s sufficiency. Still they are slow to learn. Even after the gift of manna and quail they will grumble again – this time about what they’ll drink. They’ve walked a long way, but they haven’t come very far. Not where it really counts.

The apostle Paul made a statement in his letter to the Philippians that suggests that believing is a gift. “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him” (Philippians 1:29). Belief is granted to us; it is a gift. But trust is learned. Every day presents us with moments and circumstances and events that confront us with a basic question: can God be trusted? Every day gives us a new chance to answer the question. Last year’s answer doesn’t carry over to this moment. We practice trust continually. Hopefully, from year to year, we’re learning how to trust God more. God is a patient teacher.

Moses told Aaron to keep a jar of manna. Typically, canned manna would rot – but not this time. This handful of heaven’s bread would be kept for generations to come. It would remind the people of how God provided, of how God came through when they thought they would starve, of how God showed mercy when they grumbled. This jar of manna would be an object lesson in teaching trust, long after the wilderness journey was over and Moses and Aaron and every desert pilgrim was gone.

That’s not a bad idea, keeping a jar filled with the memory of God’s faithfulness. Maybe your jar isn’t glass or pottery, just a collection of stories and memories that you keep and pass on to the next generation. What kinds of stories do you tell to show your children and grandchildren that God can be trusted? Every such experience that you treasure up and pass on is a kind of trust fund. A reservoir of trust and faith. What are you passing on to the generations to come?

Faithful God, the question comes to us again today: will we trust you? We give you thanks that you know even now where we struggle to trust. You know what we fear, what we desperately try to manage. We also thank you for patiently teaching us that you can be trusted. Help us to rest in you with the details of this coming day. We will remember your faithfulness and tell it to the generations to come. Amen.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Be Mine

“Nevertheless, some of the people went out on the seventh day to gather it, but they found none. Then the Lord said to Moses, “How long will you refuse to keep my commands and my instructions?” (Exodus 16:27-28)

Printed on candies and cards, exchanged in classrooms and carried home in decorated paper sacks, this little message is arguably the central theme of the Bible.

God created us to be his own. This isn’t a complicated arrangement. “You will be my people and I will be your God.” That was the design from the very start.

But that didn’t sit well with us. We chaffed at the idea of “belonging” to anything or anyone but ourselves. “I am my own,” sounded far more appealing. Words like “master of my fate, captain of my ship” sounded high and noble and enlightened. So this is what we chose. It happened quickly in the biblical story; first book, third chapter.

And the rest of the biblical story is about God’s ongoing endeavor to bring us back to himself.

“Be mine” God said as he led his people out of slavery in Egypt.

“Be mine” God said as he parted the Red Sea.

“Be mine” God said as he rained manna from heaven each morning.

“Be mine” God said as he gave them water from the rock.

“Be mine” God said as he gave them his law and showed them the best way to live life.

“Be mine” God said with every prophet.

“Be mine” God said in his son Jesus.

“Be mine” God said finally and definitively from the cross and the empty tomb.

And someday, when the final pages of this story are being turned and every element of tension and discord in the plot is finding resolution, God will say “You’re mine” and people from every tribe and tongue will respond with sung exultations, “Indeed, we are yours.”

“Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs. Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us and we are his. We are his people, the sheep of his pasture . . . for the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.” Amen (Psalm 100:2-5)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


“. . . The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions” (Exodus 16:4b).

The tests don’t stop after school. Even after we earn that final degree, life has a way of giving us the “third degree.” If you’re out of school you know this. Those still in school may know it, but are still refusing to believe it. We’d like to think that someday the tests will end. But they don’t; professional certifications tests, annual reviews with a supervisor, blood tests and eye exams as we age. Every test bumps our anxiety up a notch. At every stage of life, in every setting, the same old question lingers. Did I pass?

We associate testing with struggle, even pain. The exertion of sustained mental energy involved in study, the mixture of affirmation with blunt feedback about our work – tests are generally unpleasant. And when it’s God testing us, we assume this means suffering. God tested Job and we know what happened to him.

But God surprises us as we join the Israelites and make the wilderness journey out of Egypt. There in the desert God tested his people by “raining” blessing upon them. Literally. God told Moses “I will rain down bread from heaven for you.” Part of the surprise, as we saw yesterday, is that God responds this way to a people who grumble against him. But even more surprising is the fact that this shower of blessing is given not simply to ease their hunger; it is more than a cause of joy and relief and celebration. It’s a test.

Sometimes God tests us with blessing. Sometimes God tests us not by inflicting pain, but by providing for our comfort. Sometimes we are tested not by loss and deprivation, but by the abundance we receive. So it was in the desert. God rained down bread for his people. “In this way I will test them.”

Every good gift that God gives us brings with it a test. With every blessing something is at stake. The test is basically this: will we treasure God more than we treasure God’s gifts? Sounds simple, but this test isn’t easy. In fact, most of us will fail it a time or two, maybe more. Our hearts have a hard time with this test, the same way our minds might have a hard time with organic chemistry.

This test isn’t asking us about our thoughts or our beliefs or our worldview – it’s asking about our hearts and what we truly love. Do we love God or do we love what God gives us? Will we honor God by being obedient to his word, or will we simply rush out and cram our tents full of food so we won’t get hungry again?

God tested his people with bread in the desert. When you’re stomach is growling, sick on empty, that’s a hard test to pass. Will the bread simply be a way for me to sate my hunger? Will the bread move me to love and worship God, the bread maker, the bread giver?

We give you thanks, Gracious God, for the abundance of blessing that you rain down on us. Your gifts speak to us of your goodness and the depths of your love. May our love for you grow with every blessing we receive. Guard our hearts from becoming attached to the comforts of this life – as if you owe us these things or as if we deserve them. Make us a people who treasure you and worship you above all earthly gifts. Amen.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Grace and Grumbling

The Lord said to Moses, “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites . . .” (Exodus 16:11-12)

How long did it take? At first there were only whispers. Murmurs exchanged in private conversation. Everyone was thinking the same thing but words were still being carefully guarded, remarks tempered and measured.

Finally the whispers gave way to openly shared “prayer concerns” as small groups of Hebrews gathered in tents for times of mutual support; group members nodding their concern over the shrinking food supply. Eventually, well, forget about those piously spoken prayer concerns. They’d had enough. The whispers were now full blown complaints. The people grumbled, their words a blend of venomous accusation and pathetic whining.

As much as I hate to admit it, I’m a skilled grumbler. Raised in the South, I am practiced at grumbling with a polite smile. I’ve grown adept with remarks spoken sideways, slipped in with just enough edge to scrape without drawing blood. I know how to lob a comment into mid-air, aimed at no one in particular, a hail-Mary kind of sentence thrown out for anyone willing to reach up and grab it. My grumblings often begin in silence. They don’t stay that way for long. They morph into innuendo and interrogative. Finally they bloom as bald complaint. Usually my wife is the lucky audience in these moments.

Please understand. I don’t grumble all the time, just enough to keep my skills sharp. From time to time a circumstance arises that can easily be blown out of proportion or obsessed over until the grumbling bubbles to the surface. Maybe you struggle with this too. Scripture tells us to give thanks in everything, but gratitude and grumbling compete for air time. Too often gratitude loses.

Amazingly, the same God who hears the cries of his people in Exodus 3 also hears their grumbling in Exodus 16 – and responds to both with grace. The cries of the people reached God and God delivered them from slavery. Their grumbling also reached God, and God gave food, manna in the morning and quail in the evening, day after day.

The story of how the people grumbled in their hunger is not meant to show the pettiness of the people. This is a story that shows us the mercy of God. We can understand how the cries lifted up in slavery would move God to mercy – but the grumbling? Still, the response is the same. “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites.” And God gave them food. As the Psalmist says, “God spread a table in the desert” (Psalm 78:19).

Why does God tolerate our grumbling? Why does God agree to fill his people with heaven’s bread? Here’s why: “Then you will know that I am the Lord your God” (Ex. 16:12).

God’s intent is clear, whether we’re grateful or grumbling. God wants us to know who he is, and to know ourselves as a people belonging to God. There’s plenty of grace even in our grumbling; we get what we don’t deserve. And maybe, we get more of God.

I ask you, O God, to make me grateful and forgive my grumbling. Teach me to look for you – not only in the blessings you give, but in the disappointments as well. Reveal yourself to me, even as I complain. As I learn more of you, may grumbling fade and every part of my life be a response to your goodness and grace. Amen.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Sleep Well

Then Moses said to them, “No one is to keep any of it until morning.” (Exodus 16:19)

The story is thousands of years old, but little has changed. God still does what he said he would do. And we still do what God told us not to do.

As for God, he has forever been and always will be our provider. God knows what you need. God gladly listens to what you want – but he knows perfectly what you need. And what you need will not be withheld. Even in those moments when our needs and wants overlap, and we express our wants with impatience and speak of our lack with resentment. Even in those moments God graciously provides. That’s the way it was in the wilderness. That’s the way it is right now.

And as for us, we cheat. With our worry we scoop up tomorrow’s bread. Not content to gather Monday’s provision, our minds are already plotting Tuesday. Gratitude for what we find on the ground today quickly withers in the heat of our anxiety over next week, or next month. We pray on Sunday as Jesus taught us: “Give us this day our daily bread.” But on Monday we break the rules. We try to gather for Tuesday or for March. That’s the way it was in the wilderness. That’s the way it is right now.

When God provided manna to the Hebrews he gave some clear instruction on how it was to be gathered. They were to collect only what was needed for that day, no more, no less. The manna could not be stored overnight; they could not carefully ration out one days allotment so as to be sure that there would be breakfast the next morning. If they tried, they’d soon detect the stench of rotting manna filling their tents.

These instructions were given in order to teach them. With every new morning they would learn something about God. Their boldness in his goodness would grow with each sunrise as the dew lifted and the day’s provision lay on the ground. They were learning to trust, to let go.

One can easily imagine that in the darkness of the night, after the day’s manna had been consumed at supper time, after the children were sleeping, some fathers were lying awake and wondering if it would be there again in the morning. Having been schooled in trust that morning, the darkness of night brought the moment of surrender. Could they depend on what they were learning every day about their God? Could they let go of their anxieties about feeding the family and know that God would provide? Could they sleep?

Surrender is what your soul does in the dark of night that allows you to sleep, at rest in the care of God. We spend a lifetime learning to do this. Every new morning is a chance to learn again or perhaps to learn more. Two questions to guide your praying this morning: How did you sleep last night? What will you learn today?

Gracious God, you have always been faithful to provide what we need. You know what we need before we ask. And yet, we brood over tomorrow as if, for some random and unknown reason, you will forget us. Forgive the fear that keeps us awake at night and the pride that drives us to gather as much as we can each day. Teach us trust you more with every new morning, we pray. Amen.

Friday, February 08, 2008

The Rock

Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by” (Exodus 33:21-22).

Long accustomed to the sight of desert sands, Moses welcomed the chance to stand on rock. This rock in particular was a good place to be. This rock was near God and God had placed Moses there. Sometimes our dealings with God are like this. We’re exactly where God wants us to be. We’re close to God and there’s something solid beneath us. It feels good to stand on a rock that allows you to get your bearings, examine the landscape, get a feel for what’s going on around you. A rock you can stand on won’t easily be jerked out from under you. You can stand there with confidence.

But when it came time for God’s glory to pass by, Moses was no longer allowed to stand on the rock. That’s a little odd. Seems like the rock would have been the right kind of perch for seeing the glory of God. At least it seems that way to me. God thought otherwise. When God chose to reveal the afterglow of his glory to Moses he placed Moses in a cleft in the rock. A cleft is a fissure in the rock’s face, a wide crack or split, maybe a little like cave. A tight spot. A dark spot.

Try to recall the places where you’ve had a faint sighting of God’s glory. My mind goes straight to Sarasota, Florida and a sunset witnessed from a sugar-white gulf coast beach. From there I move diagonally to the exact opposite corner of the country and a mountain range in central Alaska. And there are some places in between. Two delivery rooms, one in Houston, one in Raleigh, make the list easily. Add a place across the ocean where I worshipped with Christian brothers and sisters from Iran. What you won’t find on my list are those dark places, the seasons of my life that felt tight and oppressive and gave rise to a low grade panic in my soul.

If I’m looking for the glory of God, I won’t choose to look in a cave. I don’t want to be in the cleft of the rock. But that’s where God placed Moses. God placed him in the crevice, and then covered him with his hand. Funny how God’s hand can either seem to us like a protective shield or a smothering weight.

This is God’s way with us. In those tight dark places; in those places where vision is limited and we appear to be trapped, the glory of God is not far from us. You may be in such a place today. The danger is that in such places we’re so busy looking for a way out, we fail to see the glory. But it’s there, moving like breeze. Hints of glory surround you today, even in the cleft of the rock.

He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock
that shadows a dry thirsty land;
He hideth my soul in the depth of his love
And covers me there with his hand,
And covers me there with his hand.
(Fanny Crosby, He Hideth My Soul, 1890)

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Glory

Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18)

I like saying “yes.” Saying “yes” often enough tilts the odds in my favor when it comes to being well thought of, known as a great guy. This feels good to me. So I say yes quite a bit; sometimes I say it when I ought to say “no” or “sorry.”

Just last night my son poked at his mac and cheese, sullen in his refusal to eat. It had nothing to do with the mac and cheese. The folks at Kraft make it almost impossible to mess that up. The pouting had to do with a song that we won’t download to the iPod he just received for his birthday. “You’re too protective,” he said. Two thoughts immediately came to mind. First, I was pleased with his proper use of the word protective. Second, I admitted my guilt. “Maybe so,” I replied. “But we’re still not downloading that song.” Period. Like I said, “yes” is much more fun. When it comes to parenting, it’s not always possible or wise.

The long conversation with God that spans Exodus 32-33 shows Moses before God in a gutsy act of intercession. He’s shameless in his requests. He makes no excuses, he offers no rationalizations. God is justified in his anger at Israel – but Moses prays on their behalf anyway. He does more than pray. He keeps raising the stakes with every petition, growing bolder, willing to test the limits of mercy, unafraid to push the envelope of grace. His prayer finally culminates in one go-for-broke petition. “Now show me your glory.”

And God said, “no.” A “yes” simply wasn’t possible because God’s glory, 100 proof, would have killed Moses. No one could look at God’s face and live. Tomorrow we’ll reflect on how God did cause his glory to “pass by” Moses – but for now it’s the request itself that holds our attention.

While all prayer is directed to God, there is a kind of praying that is aimed at something other than God. We pray for health. We pray for rain. We pray for a baby. We pray for a raise or a new job. We pray for our children. We pray for others to know Christ. We pray for our spouse. We pray to find a spouse. All of these are good and worthy prayers. Jesus himself taught us to ask and seek and knock, to pray for our daily bread.

But there’s another dimension to prayer that seeks nothing more than God, and God alone. There’s a kind of praying that yearns for God, to know God, to be in God’s company. We get prayers like this from the Psalms: “My soul thirsts for God” (Psalm 42:2).

This may be the highest form of prayer. The challenge for us is that we are far more aware of actually wanting other things. We ache to have the job or a baby or a clean pathology report – and if God can’t come through, well then . . .

What are you praying for today? What are the most pressing desires you bring to prayer? Try this: for a few moments, borrow the words of Moses’ brash prayer. Get bold and ask for a fresh glimpse into God’s character, God’s love for you, God’s goodness, God’s power and strength. Linger a while with that prayer, and it might impact how you pray for everything else.

We acknowledge, O God, that our prayers are often small. We give you thanks for the way you invite us to bring our needs and requests to you. And we know that beneath all of our desires is our need for you. Reveal yourself to us today in a new way; teach us more of who you are. Give us just a glimpse of your glory, we pray. Amen.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

What We Can't Do Without

Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you . . . Then Moses said to him, if your presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here (Exodus 33:3, 15).

Let’s be honest. It’s hard to find real encouragement for our prayer lives by looking at the example of Moses. What Moses experienced with God is extraordinary. Yes, Moses himself was unremarkable – but God chose to connect with Moses in some remarkable ways; ways that are not often repeated, even in the Bible.

I doubt that many of us will ever experience anything that remotely resembles the prayer life of Moses. There goes Moses, climbing a mountain and disappearing into a cloud of mystery for weeks on end. Here comes Moses, back from his mountain retreat, veiling his glowing face. There goes Moses into his tent of meeting, the pillar of cloud coming down and guarding the entrance. This is all great stuff, but it doesn’t happen at 2265 Old Orchard Drive.

When it comes to the way Moses prayed, I’m left in the dust. But when it comes to what he prayed, I’m with him completely. I get it. I understand what he’s after because Moses wants what we all want. Moses desperately wants to know that God is with him. At a basic level that may be the reason why we pray. We don’t pray to get things or to get our way. We pray because we need to know that God is present.

After the golden calf debacle, Moses engaged in some intense intercession on behalf of Israel. God was ready to hit ‘delete’ on the file named “journey to promised land.” Moses pleads with God not to do this. After some lengthy back and forth, Moses secures this concession from God. “Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey, but I will not go with you.” In other words, God will allow them to reach their intended destination. Only when they arrive, God won’t be there. What’s more, as they journey they’ll be on their own as well.

This is what Moses cannot accept. The removal of God’s presence makes God’s gifts empty and hollow. Moses grows bold in his prayer: “If your presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here.”

The presence of God makes all the difference, no matter what life brings. The worst life can throw at us, the things we fear most, are bearable when God is present. And if God is not present, the best things in life, the things we strive for, the “promised-land” – these turn out to be a mirage. No substance.

The presence of God is the one thing we cannot do without. God may not answer our prayers by granting the outcomes we desire – but we will not pray unless we know that God is near to hear our request. God’s presence pulls prayer from us. God’s presence keeps us praying, patiently asking, humbly confessing. Our prayers are deeply rooted in the presence. That means we can pray boldly today because Jesus has made this promise: “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

There are times, O Lord, when we wonder if you’re with us. There are times when we know you are present, but we fail to be present to you. Remind us today of your faithful presence in all things. Let our awareness of your presence shape who we are and how we live. Walk with us, and help us to walk with you. Amen.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The Tent

Now Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the “tent of meeting.” Anyone inquiring of the Lord would go to the tent of meeting outside the camp” (Exodus 33:7).

Whenever the people of God broke camp to wander yet a few steps more in the wilderness, the ritual would have to be repeated. How many times did Moses unpack the bundled fabric and throw it over his shoulder, carrying poles under one arm, making his trek away from the clutter and chaos of the encampment; how long did it take to build the frame that gave shape to the tent; how hard was it to drive stakes deep enough into the desert ground so that the structure would stay upright? Tents are hard work, but those simple shelters have often been the site of something sacred.

When my dad was in college he and his brother Earl held a month long tent revival in Emporia, Virginia. They secured a tent from a Pentecostal preacher who had decided he’d had enough of the tent revival business. They set it up and started holding services. During that particular August two hurricanes hit the east coast, making it necessary for the preachers to sew and patch the tent, raise it once more, and empty the upright piano of several gallons of rainwater.

Tents are hard work, but the labor is worth it when God shows up. My dad tells me that during that month-long revival there were more than a few people who came to faith in Jesus. There were some souls for whom that tent was truly a “tent of meeting.” Maybe that’s what kept Moses diligent in pitching his tent. God showed up and met him there.

We can pray anytime in any place, we’re told. It’s true. After all, Moses pitched his tent in more than one place. But maybe there’s something to be said for identifying a sacred space in our lives, a place where we go to meet with God. These days church sanctuaries are about as close as most people come to a sacred space. But Moses pitching his tent suggests something more than a formal worship setting. Nahum Sarna observes that the Hebrew verb used for “pitch” is a word that connotes personal use. We need a tent, as it were. Jesus gave us a similar image in his Sermon on the Mount when he spoke of entering the prayer “closet.”

With the lives we live and the schedules we keep, pitching a tent isn’t easy. It’s as labor intensive for us as it was for Moses. Prayer requires some preparation, intentionality. Haphazard utterances won’t sustain a life of faith, at least not one of depth. Whatever your tent looks like, learn a couple of things from Moses.

First, he pitched the tent “some distance” away from the camp. A life of prayer needs some distance from the noise and banter that dominates our waking hours. Prayer needs the kind of stillness that allows your pulse to slow just a little.

Second, the people who needed to inquire of the Lord came to the tent. Prayer isn’t escapist; it’s not a way to ditch tiring people and their exhausting demands. Though pitched at some distance from the camp, the camp finds its way to the place of prayer. Prayer brings the needs and struggles and anxieties of real life before God.

What would it take for you to pitch a tent – far enough from the clutter of your life, but close enough to bring every part of that clutter before God? Where is your sacred space?

We give you thanks, Lord, for the many different ways in which you meet us. You find us in offices and airports, in parks and malls. Help us in our efforts to find you; help us to create a sacred space where we enter your presence and bring our lives before you. Give us grace that we might be willing to prepare ourselves to listen in obedient faith. Amen.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Face to Face

The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend (Exodus 33:11).

Howard could barely get out of bed for class. I left the apartment most days wondering if my roommate would manage to roll out of bed to grab lunch. The excellent grades he maintained were, in my mind, a feat worthy of Houdini. I don’t know how he did it. Few people loved sleeping in more than Howard.

Until deer season started. On opening day of the season, Howard would be up and gone by 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. I doubt he needed an alarm clock to do this. There was something about deer hunting that literally woke Howard up. This endeavor summoned forth life and energy. Simply put, he loved it.

I have a book on prayer, the introduction to which was written by Daniel Taylor, professor of English at Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Taylor pens a sentence that captures what prayer ought to be like; it gives us something to aim for even if it is an elusive target. Taylor states:

I can admire a person who gets up early in the morning hours because prayer is important, but I hardly know what to make of a man who gets out of bed in the dark because the act of prayer is so pleasurable. (Ben Patterson, Deepening Your Conversation with God, p. 8)

What would it be like to pray that way? What would it be like to get up every morning and begin the day with prayer simply because we love it? What would it be like to pray because prayer is pleasurable; to set aside the day’s beginning for God not out of obligation, but out of sheer delight? I’d love to have that kind of prayer life. As much as I hate to admit it, I’m not there yet.

My ritual of daily prayer begins with an act of resistance. The clock rudely interrupts whatever is happening deep in my sleeping brain. I want to get back to that cozy blurry place. Just 6 more minutes. With only a slight stretch my fingers find the snooze button. The clock and God patiently stand by and accommodate my sloth. When time’s up, the clock starts chattering again. Sometimes the negotiating continues, but on good days I’ll lay off the snooze after two rounds and make my way downstairs for coffee. For me a good morning begins with the night before. Prayer comes so much easier when the coffee maker has been set to auto-drip and that hot cup of grace is ready, no waiting.

I often wonder what it would take to transform prayer from performance of a discipline to the pursuit of a pleasure. To watch Moses at prayer, there’s something going on there that would cause anyone to bolt upright well before sun-up, no clock needed: Moses was meeting with God, face to face, like a man talks to a friend.

When prayer is something we do for God we’ll go as many rounds as we can with the snooze button. But if we know that we’re meeting with God in leisurely and direct conversation, that reality changes everything. Don’t move to the next email too quickly. Keep this one open a while longer. God wants conversation with you.

Lord Jesus, your disciples asked you to teach them to pray. But we need more than that. Teach us to love to pray. We give you thanks for your patient presence, your unhurried willingness to hear us. Transform our daily discipline into a deep delight, and begin that transformation now. Amen.

Friday, February 01, 2008

The Angel behind You

Then the angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them . . . coming between the armies of Israel and Egypt (Exodus 14:19-20).

Long walks through the desert are hard and risky. The wilderness route is void of exit ramps and clean rest areas. There’s not much to see; the desert is numbingly dull and redundant. But there’s one thing that can make the most arduous desert journey a glorious venture: the very presence of the living God.

When the Hebrews left Egypt they didn’t simply scurry away in an exuberant escape from oppression and slavery. The Exodus from Egypt was guided; the people were led. “By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light . . . neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people” (Exodus 13:21-22).

This pillar was the presence of God, and it was visibly placed at the head of the line. God was showing the way, guiding their steps, giving direction. When you know without a doubt that God is in front of you, you’ll go just about anywhere.

And then the day of trouble came; chariots and horses and battalions kicking up sand and narrowing the barren gap that separated the Hebrews from their would-be captors. The day of trouble came, and the presence of God that had been visibly up front withdrew and moved behind them. There is much the story leaves out at this point. Did the people see and understand what was happening? Perhaps they did. As for us . . . well, that’s a question to ponder for a moment.

We hit the day of trouble and often become painfully aware of God’s absence. God no longer seems to be leading us, we don’t know where to go, we’re not sure what’s next.

Typically, we look for God in front of us. Faith is best exercised as we look forward. So much mystery lies ahead of us, our lives cloaked in a future we don’t yet know. We search for God’s presence in the not-yet-revealed.

But as we strain to see what’s ahead of us and agonize over the presence of God that we used to see but can no longer detect, that very presence remains with us. The presence withdraws from our point of focus and moves behind us. God is working powerfully in the places we’re not looking.

Yes, it’s clear that God formed a buffer between the Egyptians and the Hebrews; God was buying time, giving them a huge head start through the walls of water. But perhaps something else was happening at the same time. Maybe God moved behind them to protect them from their urge to turn back; God moved behind them to teach them that what looks like his absence, his withdrawal, is simply his presence surprising us. Sometimes, before the waters part in front of us, God goes to work behind us.

Ever present God, we are quick to complain of your absence. As we take a few more steps today in our own journey of faith, surprise us with your presence. We thank you for your faithfulness that surrounds us on all sides. Work in the places we tend to overlook. Move in behind us; guard us from the threats of the past. Keep us from turning back. Amen.