My name is Jeff and I'm a pastor of a small, local, Christian fellowship

It's a wonderful thing to love your work; to know that when you do it you are doing something that you were born to do. I am so fortunate to be both. I don't say I am the best at what I do. God knows that are so many others who do it better. But I do feel fairly lucky to be called by such a good God to do work I can only do with his help, to be loved by a beautiful woman, and to have a workshop where I can work my craft. These musings of mine are part of that work.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Led not lost: A meditation on Exodus 15:22-27 and disappointment

Ayun Musa, the traditional site of this site
Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness and found no water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter; therefore it was named Marah.” Exodus 15:22-23, NASB

Hope deferred makes the heart sick...” Proverbs 13:12, NIV

Philip misses his dad - as we all do
Several years ago, a 54-year-old man in our fellowship who didn't like the way the heart medicine he had been prescribed made him feel, decided to go off his meds and “trust God for his healing.” Within a few months of that decision he had a fatal heart attack and died while driving home one afternoon. While his wife has weathered the storm well enough, his fifteen-year-old son remains in the thick of it angry that he has been robbed of his dad before his time. In his own words pasted on his Facebook wall recently, “Obviously whoever said that it will get better has never lost their father. #goingdownNotup#missdad.”

They are an amazing couple
A young couple from Refuge, who have been trying desperately to have a child for over a year, with joy shared with all of us on a Sunday morning a few weeks ago that at long last they were with child. The woots and the applause were spontaneous as everyone knew they had been trying to conceive for some time. Last week, when they went to the doctor for a check-up, their joy was popped like a soap bubble in the summer air when the ultrasound revealed that their baby had died a few weeks ago.

The future is uncertain - but then, it always is
Back in June, my father-in-law went to see his doctor due to issues he thought had to do with his stomach. But after a series of tests they learned that he had a malignant tumor the size of a fist on his liver. Just the other day when he and my mother-in-law sat down to discuss the action plan with the surgeon they were informed that he had, in fact, Stage 4 cancer, and given that the tumor had already metastasized to his lungs the best plan of action was no plan whatsoever. Whatever news they were expecting to hear this was not it.

All of us who follow Jesus know that these vignettes are not extraordinary or unusual. Things like this – and worse! – happen to followers of Christ all the time. In fact, just as Jesus reminded his first disciples, stories such as these are fulfillment of his promise: “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33, NIV). Disappointment and hope waylaid are at times par for the course.

One theory of which way they went

I think of the Children of Israel fresh from their deliverance from Egypt. They had walked through the waters on dry ground and watched the liquid wall collapse like an avalanche upon the pursuing chariots of Pharaoh. The sight of some of the bodies of the men who but a short time ago were in hot pursuit of them now washing up upon the shore like so much flotsam and jetsam was certainly part of the inspiration for the song of victory that arose shortly afterward (Exodus 15:1-21). But now, safe on the the other side of the sea, what do they find there? Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

Author Thomas Cahill describes the Sinai peninsula as “one of our planet's most desolate places. It would be hard to conjure up a landscape more likely to lead to death – a land bereft of all comfort, an earth of so few trees and plants that one may walk for hours without seeing a wisp of green, a place so dry that the uninitiated may die in no time, consumed by what feels like preternatural dehydration. By contrast, the gentler Judean desert of John the Baptist seems almost an oasis” (The Gift of the Jews, pp. 132-33). Bruce Feiler adds that the Sinai has often been “referred to as '24,000 square miles of nothing'” (Walking the Bible, p. 203). When I hear the word, “wilderness”, something out of a John Muir sketch comes to mind, beautiful mountain vistas crossed now and then with sparkling glacier streams. But in the Sinai I should think the moon, desolate and empty.

In such a moonscape like the Sinai water is everything. So three days after the Red Sea crossing, at the limit that a normal human body can tolerate before risking death by dehydration, the sojourning people of God spy an oasis creep up over the horizon. Their spirits must have soared again knowing that soon their thirst could be slaked and their bleating livestock watered. Did some of them race ahead to get first dibs at the watering hole? But no sooner do they arrive than they discover that the water is undrinkable and bitter, like being teased by a mirage but worse because a mirage isn't wet. Their disappointment is palpable and the discontented murmur of thousands must have sounded like a hive of angry bees suddenly overturned.

Moses, the focal point of the people's ire and dissatisfaction, cries out to Yahweh and he provides an unusual solution: “God pointed him to a stick of wood. Moses threw it into the water and the water turned sweet” (Exodus 15:25). There are some commentators who write a lot about certain kinds of trees that have restorative powers when thrown into brackish water but personally it seems to me in their rush to demonstrate that what we are reading inside the pages of Holy Writ is scientifically provable they miss the point: once again, with their backs against the wall, God had provided for them in a miraculous way, just as he had at Pi Hahiroth (Exodus 14:1). Yahweh had asked Moses to take a step of faith – throw a stick of wood into the water – and watch what happens. The moral being that at the crossroads of disappointment and unbelief, trust and faith are always required.

But something else happens at the place that they would later call Marah: they learn something new about the Lord who had delivered them from the hand of Pharaoh:

That’s the place where God set up rules and procedures; that’s where he started testing them. God said, “If you listen, listen obediently to how God tells you to live in his presence, obeying his commandments and keeping all his laws, then I won’t strike you with all the diseases that I inflicted on the Egyptians; I am God your healer.” (Exodus 15:26)

As Karen Lee-Thorp paraphrases the same moment,

Trust me, obey me, and I will take care of your physical needs. Ignore me, and you are at the mercy of the climate, the food supply and of things called “germs” that you know nothing about. Yahweh must have felt like the parent of two million two-year-olds, with only one eighty-year-old nurse to commiserate with (Story of Stories, pp. 51-52).

Hundreds of years before at the top of Moriah Abraham had learned a new truth about Yahweh – that He was the God Who Provides. In the nick of time, He had provided the ram for the sacrifice in response to the Abraham's act of trust. Now at the bitter waters of Marah God reveals that He is the God Who Heals. Just as he healed the waters, he is able to restore those who choose to honor and hold true to him even when their hope has been waylaid. In fact, while obedience won't necessarily give us a free pass from hardship he promises that when it comes it won't be considered judgment. Rather, it will force our true colors to come out, revealing how deep our confession really runs.

There is something else I missed before but those more studied in these matters have since pointed out to me: they were led to Marah. That's where the Cloud, the physical manifestation of the Lord's presence among them, took them. They didn't stumble across the bitter waters of Marah by “accident.” Rather, it was by design to prove what was in them. As J.A. Motyer observes,Every move in whatever direction, every stop and start, every turn of the pathway was by the will of God. Whether they were in the comforts of Elim or in the dire straits of Rephidim, it was because the Lord had led them there.” (The Bible Speaks Today: The Message of Exodus, pp. 177-78).

As Lee-Thorp puts it:

This whole desert journey was the beginning of a school. Yahweh had trained Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jacob's sons as individuals; now he had to put more than a million people through the same course. Some of them weren't even Jacob's descendants and had heard of Yahweh only a few months earlier. Nearly all of them had grown up as slaves and children of slaves. This stage in Yahweh's plan was about transformation...

...To change from slaves into servants, the people had to learn fear – and at the same time trust – Yahweh more than any other gods or human. One might expect that the plagues, the Reed Sea miracle and the constant physical presence of the cloud would have convinced them, but dry mouths and growling stomachs proved otherwise. Hence, Yahweh deprived them of the sources of their basic necessities to force them to depend on him. Then each day he provided just what they needed, so as to reinforce an attitude of daily dependence (Story of Stories, pp. 52-53).

So trouble and difficulty is all a part of the journey and the story that God is writing with our lives. Whether the place we're at is Marah where our hopes have gone awry or at the copious springs of Elim (Exodus 15:27) where it is so easy to be at peace with our lot in the world God desires that we trust his goodness and his purpose to lead us through the harsh terrain ahead. I hope that fifteen-year-old boy finds comfort on the other side of his present rage. I marvel at the woman who just lost her baby as she expresses to me her gratitude that she and her husband could be parents. But I am not surprised when my father-in-law shared with all of us this past weekend gathered for his 80th birthday that whether he is healed or not of the cancer presently growing within him, he will “trust the Master.” It's the way he's talked for as long as I have known him, a confession that arises out of a habit of faith.