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The Exodus Revisited

 Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” Exodus 3:7-8

This is the story of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. It is revisited in seemingly every telling of their history. Pharaoh made them slaves because he feared their growing numbers. Moses was sent to deliver them out of Egypt, but Pharaoh was uncooperative. God sent a series of plagues upon the people of Egypt until Pharaoh relented, agreeing to let the people go in return for ending the plagues. As they were making their way out of Egypt, however, Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his army after them. Trapped between the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s army, God parted the waters of the sea to allow the Israelites safe passage through. Pharaoh’s army followed and drowned when God released the waters back into the sea after the people arrived safely on the other shore. Once out of the grasp of Pharaoh, the people wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, waiting for their promised entry into the land known today as Israel.

We can read stories in the Bible literally – in this case as a historical reading – or we can seek for an allegorical understanding. I will follow the latter course for this reflection because I believe the story has much to tell us about ourselves, regardless of its historical accuracy. More specifically, I believe the story of the exodus is our story.

Those familiar with the story’s details will recall that the Israelites’ joy of being freed from their oppression in Egypt was short-lived. Life in the wilderness was hard. They expected to be released into the Promised Land quickly, but it took 40 years. In Biblical terminology, that is one generation, meaning the majority of those finally entering the Promised Land had little or no recollection of their years in slavery. More than once, the people felt that returning to bondage in Egypt would be better than wandering aimlessly in the wilderness, waiting on the timing of a God they feared had abandoned them.

There is a story written by St. John of the Cross, a 16th Century Spanish mystic, titled The Dark Night of the Soul. Its simplified premise is that those sincerely seeking union with God will come to a time when they can glimpse what an awakened life would be like, but they are not there, yet. In fact, they are trapped between their old life, to which they cannot return, and the new life they have yet to attain. They find themselves in a no-man’s land that John of the Cross called the Dark Night of the Soul. There is no way out of the dark night except by going through it, trusting in God’s timing and provision.

We all go through various dark nights in our lives, from getting through a difficult week of final exams to finishing an uncomfortable course of treatment for a medical condition. We can see the goal, but we are not there, yet. Dark nights may last for days, weeks, or years. For the Israelites, it lasted a generation.

Many of us, as we pass from the first to the second half of our lives, notice that much of what we worked so hard to attain in our earlier life loses its luster. The image of ourselves that we struggled to build now seems shallow, transitory, and insufficient. The stuff we so desired to accumulate becomes a burden. As we transition into our mature years, many of us long to be unbound from the binds we once so ardently sought. We can visualize a “Promised Land” out there, but we are not there, yet. Like the Israelites wandering through the wilderness, we grow restless and impatient with the current state of our lives, but we feel powerless to change it.

Who and what will we be when most of what we have treasured is left behind? As we age, we seek eternal treasures and shun the non-essentials of earth. Relationships grow in importance. The transition is difficult and can leave us adrift in a wilderness of our own creation. The story of the exodus assures us there is a Promised Land out there, and we will reach it one day – not on our timeline, however, but on God’s.

This is the 17th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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By Bread Alone

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”   Luke 4:1-4

Accounts of the temptation of Jesus are recorded in Matthew (4:1-11), Mark (1:12-13), and Luke (4:1-13). After Jesus had been baptized by John, he went into the wilderness for 40 days. Matthew and Luke record that Jesus was fasting during that time. The devil met Jesus there and issued three temptations when Jesus was at his weakest from the extended fast. The first challenge was to turn a stone into bread. The second was to receive authority over all the kingdoms of the world in return for worshiping the devil. Finally, Jesus was encouraged to throw himself onto the rocks from the pinnacle of the Temple, knowing that God would protect him. Jesus refused each of the temptations, left the wilderness, and began his public ministry.

Whether one reads this account as a factual or a metaphorical account is beyond the purpose of this Life Note. What I address here is how the temptations of Jesus are about the use of personal power, and how these are temptations we too face, in endless variations, throughout our lives. If the life of Jesus is the standard for our life, we have much to learn from how he used, and refused to use, the power at his disposal.

Although scripture does not give a reason for the fast, it seems safe to assume it was a part of Jesus’ preparation for his ministry. The first challenge was to use his power to turn a stone into bread and end his fast. On the one hand, if I were hungry and had such power, it would be difficult not to use it in that way. Unfortunately, that would betray his purpose for fasting and nullify the benefits from the difficulties he had already endured. Jesus’ response is “One does not live by bread alone” (Luke 4:4).

The second temptation was to betray his lineage, as revealed by God at his baptism (“You are my son, the Beloved”). By reflecting anything less than the Father, Jesus could not fulfill his purpose of making God known to us. We are frequently encouraged to settle for something less than what we strive for, and we are given the power to settle through our free will. It is not that God will no longer love us if we settle for less, it is that we will disappoint ourselves for giving in, as well as failing to accomplish that which we set out to achieve. Jesus’ response is “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only” (Luke 4:8).

The third temptation was to do damage to his physical body on the assumption God would keep him safe. After all, God had a huge purpose for Jesus in the world. We know God takes us where we are, in whatever shape we are in, and uses us for purposes beyond our comprehension. Even if angels did not save Jesus from the rocks below, surely God would find a way to use him. This temptation was about showing how low we can sink and still have God lift us up. Jesus’ response is “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Luke 4:13).

It is in our most vulnerable moments when we are tempted to use whatever means are available to ease our suffering, regardless of whether we believe we are tempted by the devil, by human nature, or our own personal weakness. The end does not justify the means when it comes to personal holiness. Patience, trust, and faith are required. The way out is by going through the difficulty, not by taking shortcuts around it. Inevitably, at some point or points in our lives, we will find ourselves in a metaphorical wilderness: hungry, alone, and tempted. In our weakest moments, it is helpful to remember how Jesus handled temptation: by persisting after our prayerfully-determined aims, by being as faithful to God as God is to us, and by treating our bodies as God’s temple. God’s strength manifests in our weakness.

This is the 9th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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The Time of Trial

Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. Matthew 26:41

Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane with three of his disciples. It is his last night on earth, and he came to the Garden to pray. A few hours earlier, Jesus and his disciples were sharing his Last Supper. At this meal, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet and instituted the sacrament of Communion. In the Garden, Jesus is agitated, knowing what will soon occur. The disciples are tired – perhaps from the late hour, a big dinner, worry about what is about to unfold, or some combination of reasons. He asks them to stay awake while he prays, but they fall asleep.

Times of trial come to all of us – sometimes several times in a day! There are at least two ways to handle life’s challenges. First, we can avoid them as diligently and for as long as possible. Second, we can face them head–on, resigning ourselves to the fact that we are not going to avoid them. The first method makes us a victim, often reacting to our difficulties kicking, screaming, and fruitlessly begging for things to return to the way they were. The second method allows us to become a co-creator, or co-controller of the challenge. We face what we need to address with our eyes wide open and our senses fully engaged. This does not have to be a masochistic act. Rather, it is accepting what is to come and knowing, with God’s help, we will make it through. It is seeking help when necessary. Regardless of the trial – surgery, interpersonal strife, financial hardship, depression, serious illness, or job dissatisfaction – people chose to either run from the problem or to journey through it. Too often, the most destructive effect of a looming trial comes from our worry about it. Research consistently shows that most of our worries do not happen, and what happens is seldom as bad as we imagine. When we do not know what is coming, we imagine the worst. We make ourselves physically and emotionally sick from worry long before our specific challenge manifests itself, if it ever does.

I believe Jesus’ message to the disciples to “Stay awake!” was a reminder to remain present and faithful in each moment. Jesus knew he was about to suffer a horribly painful death. Jesus also knew that, with God’s help, he would make it through to the other side. We are assured of the same. Jesus wanted his disciples to be fully present to the events of that moment in time, for they would be establishing his church for the generations to come. It is in the moments of our lives that we find the power and strength to handle our times of trial, not in the pre-trial anxiety. We must learn to stay awake to those moments.

Come home to church this Sunday. Bolster your spirit, for the flesh is weak.

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Run, Forrest, Run!

But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

 Isaiah 40:31

 

The namesake of the movie, Forrest Gump, was bullied as a child. His schoolmates made fun of him, hurling insults and rocks. His only friend, Jenny, encouraged him to flee from his tormentors, saying, “Run, Forrest, run!” And so he ran. Running away from trouble was clearly his best option as a youth because he was always outnumbered. He soon discovered that he could often outrun trouble. Not only was he fast, he could run fast for a very long time. During one of her visits to Forrest as a young adult, Jenny bought him a pair of running shoes. When she left again, leaving Forrest heartbroken, he decided to run. He ended up running across the country, coast to coast, several times before deciding he was finished with running.

 

Many of us run from trouble because running seems to be our best option. In his childhood, Forrest ran from his tormentors. As an adult, he ran from the hurt of losing the love of his life – Jenny – repeatedly. The problem with running away from trouble is that we cannot run forever, and trouble usually catches up to us anyway. Obviously, most of us do not physically run from our problems, as Forrest Gump did. We do, however, let dreaded phone calls roll to voicemail. We commit to beginning the diet our doctor says we need – tomorrow. We avoid confronting and repairing dysfunctional relationships. These are ways to run that are not so hard on the knees, but they are hard on the spirit.

 

At some point, we must face our life challenges head-on. One of the reasons we avoid our problems is fear that we do not have the resolve or the resources to address them. We cannot see how to solve a problem, and so we avoid it for as long as we can, often making the problem worse. In that sense, avoiding our challenges is a faith issue. The author of the book of Isaiah writes that if we “wait for the Lord” our strength will be renewed, and we will “run and not be weary.” In this passage, waiting on the Lord refers to trusting in or relying upon the Lord. To trust in the Lord does not mean that we impulsively act on a problem without first researching and praying about our options. God sometimes provides guidance in obvious ways, but God’s communications are often subtle. For me, at some point, I begin to feel at peace about one option over the others. At that point, I know it is time to act. We prayerfully wait on the Lord for guidance, and then we act. There is no need to continue running away from what we fear.

 

Come home to church this Sunday. Peace does not run, it waits.

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