Don’t flee wilderness; God is there, too

Is the Lord among us or not?

As we read the story of the Israelites in the book of Exodus, we wonder how they could question that God was with them every step of the way.

After all, didn’t they get to witness first hand all of the plagues God poured over Egypt to get Pharaoh to let the slave Israelites go? Weren’t they paying attention when God, through Moses, parted the Red Sea and allowed them to walk across on dry land?

When you have bread and meat pour down upon you from the heavens, that ought to be a pretty good sign that the Lord is among you.

And yet, at every turn the Israelites grumble and complain. They are forever wondering if maybe, just maybe, they might have been better off remaining in Egypt as slaves and being oppressed.

Is the Lord among us or not? It’s a question we cannot imagine how they have the nerve to ask, and yet it is a question we too know as well as we know our name.

It is a question asked by a world that seems to face natural disasters at every corner of the planet. It is a question asked by a continent as it sees country after country diminish from the scourge of AIDS.

It is the question of a nation that sees airplanes made into bombs and rammed into buildings representing its financial freedom and liberty. It is a question asked by a state as it sees its Gulf coast destroyed after one of the most devastating hurricanes in history. It is a question asked by a city as the levees break and what was once a thriving seaport becomes a ghost town.

It is a question we ask when the doctor tells us the X-ray has a shadow on it or when a loved one dies or leaves, forcing us to fend for ourselves in a world you never imagined you could face alone.

It is at times like these we long for “the good old days,” days that were never really that good but in retrospect seem better than what we are living through now. That was the case for the Israelites, and that is the case through all the many generations that have followed.

There is a lot of tension here. I don’t mean to judge. But the reality is when you are stuck in the middle of the wilderness of change, it often seems better to go back to Egypt — even if it means slavery — because at least you knew what was what. A return seems like a good move because certainty and stability seem better than freedom. Certainty and stability appears to be safer choices than even faithfulness.

It is a fact that when you feel adrift in your life, uncertain in your love, insecure in yourself — I believe the midlife crisis is the perfect example — typically there is either a rush to move on, or a rush to retreat. It’s a rush to do something that makes you feel young again — anything to ease the panic.

Most of the time, though, the place of discovery is not to rush forward or backward but inward. Be honest about your landscape; name the panic, admit the wilderness.

There is much in modern culture that is strange and some that is sick. It is natural to want to return, to go back. But that is not the faithful solution.

This is what is at stake in the Exodus passage. The children of Israel are stuck in the middle of the wilderness. They are feeling thirsty. The original Hebrew syntax of the sentence suggests the people quarreled not because there was no water, but because they were scared there would not be enough water.

So, not only do the children of Israel fear change and mistrust the future, but they also fear scarcity. There isn’t enough to go around; let’s go back. The two great worries that cause us to pull our necks in and long to return to the time when we thought the grass was greener are fear of the future and fear of scarcity — not enough time, not enough energy, not enough faith, not enough grace, not enough, it seems, of anything except fear.

These are the two great sins of our day. I struggle with these things all the time. There is nothing worse than feeling I am lost in the middle of nowhere without resources.

Trust me, it doesn’t bring out the best in me or anyone else I know. It causes folks to remain in boring jobs and abused women to return to the abuser.

But we have to consider another, more faithful option and a more hopeful witness. Both of these fears, fear of change and fear of scarcity, are shaped by an even deeper problem: a lack of trust that God loves you, that God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, that God is present. That each of you has more than enough to see the passage through. Exodus 17:7 points this out.

The passage ends with the articulation of what got God’s sadness and anger kindled. The Israelites asked not for water, asked not for guidance, but “Is the Lord among us or not?” They did not trust God was present.

But the compelling and powerful story of our faith is that God is always present — at the beginning and at the end, in the wilderness and in the captivity, and at the cross and at the grave.

There is no place where God is not. All ground is holy ground, so we had better take off our shoes.

In chaos, in exodus, in prison, in temptation, in sickness, in death — all these places where it seems God is not are really places where God is at his best.

So the question is not “Are you there, Lord?” but rather “Am I willing to be in relationship and trust God, who is present even in the midst of the desert?” That is the transformative question.

God is nowhere closer to you than right here, right now. It comes down to trust — trust that God is present, trust that there is enough of the resources for God to do what God wants to do with you. Even if it is a living hell right now.

More certain about our fears than our hopes, more concerned about the speck in our neighbor’s eye than about the plank in our own, it becomes rather easy to believe that the Lord just can’t be among us anymore. Look at the expanse of the wilderness; let’s go back!

The point is this: If you want to encounter God, don’t return to a place, time or condition. Don’t cling to a certainty or to an interpretation, dogma or doctrine. Don’t seek after the stability of a circle of like-minded friends.

The call to faithfulness has always been and will always be an invitation to a relationship with God who is in the midst of the wilderness, always creating, always calling you from the bondage of whatever, into the freedom of being a beloved child.

You see, the problem with the children of Israel is that they forget that the very wilderness is proof of liberation; they are no longer in slavery. The desert is proof that God is among them, calling on them to use their best to press on.

There is a movement in Christianity these days that wants to go back to a time when things were purer, simpler, better, narrower and clearer. Maybe they are right. But I believe it is a fool’s enterprise because this concern to return (that we hear from commentators and the media) is based not on a love of God in the midst, but a fear of God. It is centered not on Christ who calls us to come and die, but on a concern to keep a tradition pure. It is grounded not on the biblical witness of hospitality and inclusive liberation but a concern to identify who is in and who is out. It is a misguided movement, scared of the wilderness, fearful of scarcity. It is a call, I think, to return to Egypt.

But you cannot turn the clock back or the odometer. There is no choice but to press on, squinting to catch a glimpse of what in God’s name God is doing.

You do choose how you walk the road: mumbling and quarrelsome, or faithful and expectant. You know which of these two choices God enjoys.

Each of us faces our own wilderness experiences, times of illness or losses, seasons of feeling meaningless or without direction. We cry out, “God, why did you bring me this far to leave me here?” We may long for the past, remembering the hopes, joys, and celebrations of the before times.

The Hebrew people could only see God in the good times. They believed that if things weren’t going right, God must have walked away from them.

Today God asks us to press on through the wilderness. Your present wilderness is holy, even if it doesn’t feel that way. God is present. God will provide.

There are resources all around, fellow companions all around. In trust, in hope, in faith, in joy, in love, in community, we will get to the other side. The Promised Land is ahead, and Egypt is fading in the distance.

David Wise is pastor of Otterbein United Methodist Church. This weekly column is written by local clergy members.