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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Baby Steps in the Wilderness

When we modern day Christians read about the rebellion and lack of faith of the Hebrews in the Wilderness of Sinai, we often shake our heads in judgment. Yahweh changed Jacob's name to Israel, meaning "Prince of God." He made promises of inheritance to their forefathers. He sent Moses who turned his own staff into a serpent and who opened the waters of the sea as a way of escape. Pharaoh's horses and chariots drowned before their eyes. At their complaint, water came gushing from a rock, and pigeons flew in by the millions and landed in the desert, too exhausted to escape the hungry mob. How then could they be so adversarial with the deity? There are several reasons that we could call forth to explain their ingratitude and unbelief. One: they are making a huge paradigmatic leap from polytheism to monotheism, a stretch so challenging that they struggled for hundreds of years with the concept. Two: day by day the whole community stood at risk of dying from hunger or thirst, being bitten by adders, being attacked by bandits, or dying of some dread plague. The constant strain of dread and need put the leaders at risk and required an abundance of divine intervention to keep them all safe. Three: I'll call the third reason the 'grasshopper complex.' When the spies went into the land they saw how impossible the task was. The city walls were high and strong. The militias were fierce, armed and supported by Egypt. The land 'devours its inhabitants.' It was beyond scary; it was terrifying. Trying to wrest space in Canaan from such entrenched ethnic groups was in fact...impossible. The realists were right about that.

Add divine intervention to the mix and the impossible became possible. But Israel's worst enemy was their lack of understanding as to who they were becoming. They had to undo a years of seeing themselves as just another group of exploited, polytheistic Asiatics who were enslaved by the Theban Egyptian pharaohs. "They are giants," they whined to Moses. "We are but grasshoppers in their sight." "No," rejoined Caleb, "We can do this. This is a good land and with God's help we can take it." But the people couldn't believe it, in spite of all the promises of God.

I have often wondered why, with all the promises that I had from God in my youth that I should seek a scholastic career, I didn't just get the government loan and get into any graduate school that would take me. I was married and had two young children before I started my scholastic endeavors from scratch. The answer is that I saw myself as just another grasshopper, trying to survive in a world of giants. I was sure that life would chew me up and spit me out. I had to experience, step by step, that I could navigate life and survive, that I could get a job and hold it, that I could pay back the school loan. I had to quit thinking that I was a loser and that no good thing would ever happen to me in real life. All that negative thinking was in spite of wonderful promises that I was sure were from the Lord.

Israel had only about 40 years to figure out experientially, step by step, challenge by challenge, that they, too, could be formidable. Rahab the innkeeper of Jericho told the second set of spies, "Our guys are peeing their pants over you people. We've heard what God did for you with the Egyptians. We know you have survived all these years in the wilderness. We've seen what happens when your God is angry. We're all fainting from fear. I want to join with you because you're going to win and we're going to lose. Your God is the real deal. I'll help you, but save me and my family."

Learning to be a disciple of Jesus Christ and not faint at the challenges of life often takes years. It is sometimes frightening to be 18, facing the Big Wide Wolfine World all by ourselves when we don't have a career plan or a sense of what we want to do in life. One of the things that we know in our head, but not experientially, is that God has a plan for our life. Our pastor, our parent, our Sunday School teacher tells us that, but until we get those first few jobs and see, step by step, who we are and what we are good at, it's hard to believe. It took the Hebrews a generation to morph from frightened, whining grasshoppers to a formidable lions of God. Sometimes it takes us ordinary people a few decades to fully realize who we are and to settle comfortably into God's call for our lives. But it will happen. It doesn't happen all at once. I took a little longer than the average person to implement the training I need for God's call in my life, but we can rest assured that God is with us and that the pastor was right. God does have a plan for our lives and we will find the right path in time. No failure is a waste. Each attempt is a lesson learned, no matter what the outcome. It will all come together in God's time.