I would never call myself a scholar per se, on anything, except maybe pop music in the 80s. But I do find it interesting in the Old Testament where Moses leads the stubborn, incredibly cynical Israelites through the desert for 40 years. Seriously? 40 years is a crazy long time to be on a journey toward something you can’t see.
Turns out they were promised a kind of freedom, a land where they could be free from the tyranny they had lived under in Israel, a land flowing with milk and honey. Show me a land flowing with steak and ice cream, and I might journey toward it myself, but if I’m gone a week with no sign of nothing meaty or creamy, I’m out of there.
These Israelites, as much as they complained, must have had incredible determination and persistence to stay on the course. Still, I would’ve become tired, distracted, resentful. I would have to be reminded over and over exactly why we were doing this whole “wandering through the desert” thing. Probably several times each day.
I imagine having thoughts like: “Hey Moses, you sure you know where you’re taking us?” “Now, why exactly are we doing this?” or “This land here looks pretty good. I think I can smell honey.”
Why did God feel like he needed these people to not reach their Promised Land for such a long period of time? Why did so many people have to die along the way, never seeing the end of their journey? Should they have stayed home if they would’ve known how things would end up for them?
To me, this is an incredible story about not giving up, even when all signs are pointing for you to find the nearest exit.
This is what my time in Nashville has been like. There have unquestionably been awesome times of joy and significance. Relationships I have made which are rooted in tremendous joy and love. But, as you can imagine, there are also times of incredible drought and solitude. Times of extremely hard work and painful emotional suffering. Times I wonder if this road I’m on is actually going anywhere.
The best answer I can give myself to the question of where is all this wandering taking me? Where I’m Supposed to Be. Many days I feel like I’m going nowhere. And the quietness of the present feels like emptiness, more than freedom. But when I’m in my right mind, and resting in the love surrounding and within me, I’m convinced that even today, no matter how I feel or how bleak things look, I’m where I’m supposed to be. And that the place I’m heading is also exactly where I’m supposed to be, and chances are, it won’t look anything like I had thought it would.
One of my favorite people, Anne Lamott, suggested that God let the Israelites wander for so long so they would have a chance to redefine what they thought their Promised Land should look like. To me, it looks like they had to be stripped of all their expectations, they had to struggle, they had to watch their loved ones die, they had to be hungry and thirsty and tired, they had to be chased through the desert and the sea by ferocious enemies, they had to be blinded to their destination, all so they would better see how truly incapable they are of creating their own Promised Land, and how being able to receive the most beautiful gifts can only happen with completely empty hands.
I wish I could sit around a campfire one night with some of those Israelites. Especially some of the older ones, and hear what they might say to some of the younger ones, perhaps that had been born only after the journey started. I’d like to hear the stories, not of the Red Sea parting, or the fire cloud leading them, but of the silent times. The times when they wanted to give up. When they were convinced they were on a hopeless mission. And the times when they did give up, but a friend came alongside and kicked them in the butt to get them to keep walking. I want to hear what it was like to be told to follow Moses, and then be convinced he was crazy. I want to be told that while they know there’s a land out there they’ve been promised, that the stuff of real life, like meaning and significance and love, happens here in the desert, sitting around the campfire, laughing and telling stories. And carrying each other when you just can’t take another step.