I learned the most valuable lesson in my Christian faith in one conversation. It wasn’t in seminary. It wasn’t in the last 19 years serving as a pastor. It was a conversation I had with an extraordinary Swedish Lutheran woman when I was a junior in college. Carla was the spouse of one of my religion professors, but she too was an astute scholar of the Bible in her own right, and a deeply mature and wise woman of faith.
She had a way of bringing depth to any conversation. Plus, she had that “Jesus way” of asking questions that seemed to cut right through to the heart of what was circling around inside you. She could look at you and you felt like time stopped for a few moments. You wanted to wriggle out of her gaze that was always loving, not judgmental.
The summer before my junior year I was in rural Mississippi experiencing some of the most gut-punching poverty. Being from Seattle, I was sheltered from that kind of poverty. I didn’t know it was even allowed in the wealthiest country in the world. Because of what I saw and heard from the extraordinary people who lived there, I was challenged to my core about what I believed, what I valued-and, most importantly, about what I knew-or thought I knew– about God.
Tectonic shifts of heart and mind happened inside of me. It’s astonishing what ten weeks in an unfamiliar place among unfamiliar people can do for one’s spiritual life.
Unsettling opportunities shake us up. New experiences unsettle us, disconcert us. Transformation came for Israel when they wandered around for forty years, uncomfortable and exposed. Any authentic call from God pushes us out of our safety boxes into a larger world.
After that summer, I shared with Carla why I asked her to meet with me. I wanted to grow in my Christian life, I told her. I wanted to take seriously all that I had seen and heard in that strange land. I wanted to be more spiritual. I was on a high and did not want to lose the zeal I was feeling.
A hunger to grow should never be taken lightly, especially when it is happening in a young person who has had a powerful experience-perhaps from a summer mission trip or an internship or a camp. The transformation of someone’s heart is an awesome process to witness. We older folks have to resist inflicting our cynicism on a young person’s idealism or their imagination about how the world ought to be.
This is one reason I believe that no matter what each of us feels or thinks about the Occupy Wall Street movement, our obligation is at the very least to listen to the young people involved, to hear the feelings they are trying to give voice to. We have to at least try to understand why they are camping out in city squares around the Western world. We cannot just dismiss them in our cynicism, or misunderstanding, or annoyance.
Carla took my earnestness seriously, and correctly discerned that I was in the midst of something powerful. I was shifting away from my more conservative upbringing and was looking for a way to reflect outwardly the difference I authentically felt on the inside. But, she also sensed that I had come to her sounding more like the young lawyer who came to Jesus demanding, “Just tell me what I need to do to inherit eternal life.” I wanted my new mentor to show me the so-called right path.
Carla answered me, “Clover, it seems you are trying to become a certain type of Christian. But you are not called to be a better Christian; you are not called to be more spiritual. You are not called to be more radical. You are only called to KNOW GOD.
“Being a person of faith is not about getting all the right doctrines, right behaviors or correct political views, worked out. Being a person of faith is to seek to know God more fully.”
I remember just staring at her dumbly. But I wanted to be challenged how to think, how to act, how to live out the LAWS of social justice that clearly God cared about.
Carla was teaching me that what I needed to do at that moment was to slow down, to wait, to listen, to pay attention, to be in God’s presence. She knew that the transformation of the heart must grow gently. Carla and her husband and four children lived what some would call a radical life. On their modest salary, they financially and fully supported another whole family out on the mission field. That meant they made tough choices about how they lived day to day.
Carla was pointing me in the direction of growing in the presence of God and allowing God to work from the inside of me to the outside of me; to be invited by the Spirit to wait, to be still, to grow into an intimate relationship with the Living God who would do the transforming work. Not me.
In my experience, the scariest part of growing closer to God is that in that relationship we become closer to our true selves.
Thomas Merton (Fr. Louis), the Trappist monk and writer, was speaking to a group of his novices and said this:
“There is only one thing for anybody to become in life.
There’s no point in becoming spiritual – the whole thing is a waste of time.
What you came here for is to become yourself, to discover your complete identity to be you….each one of us is called and graced to be our true self – the self that God has made us to be. (*from The Lure of Saints A Protestant Experience of Catholic Tradition by Jon M. Sweeney.)
On our journey to know God more fully and thus know ourselves more fully, Carla suggested that we start with the Bible…of course; that was no surprise. The surprise came when she said we would start in the book of Exodus. I had never opened the book of Exodus; I was a New Testament girl!
Carla wanted me to learn these stories. Stories about the God who led the people out of bondage from Egypt. She wanted me to know more about the God who made a covenant relationship with that people-a people who nonetheless broke their promises to God, time after time. But God forgave them, time after time.
She wanted me to understand a God who was beckoning the people to come closer, to be in relationship, to follow after the Divine Presence in a cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night, through the wilderness.
She wanted me to go deeper in my understanding of a God who provides nourishment for hungry and thirsty, whining and anxious, children.
Carla wanted me to enter into the stories of Exodus because above all it is a story of the powerful Presence of a Living God who is committed to sticking with me, come hell or high water. God promised She would be the cloud and pillar in my life no matter in what wilderness I would find myself.
At Forest Hill this fall, we haven’t been reading and studying and preaching on Exodus to find out what happened back then in a strange land 3000 years ago! We are reading it/studying it/wrestling with the story to ask, Who is this God? What is the God of the Exodus doing, and thus requiring of us today? How is this God moving in our lives right now?
Exodus challenges us to launch into unknown territory at the risk of losing what we hold dear: safety, security, our certainties about life.
God declared to Moses– and then Moses to the people-
“You have been chosen to show the world how my people are to live. Being in relationship with me will mean you are a people who are to care for one another’s well being.
A people who treat each other with respect and kindness;
a people who give preferential treatment to the resident aliens, the poor, the children who are at risk of being abused.
Why? Because you were aliens and oppressed in Egypt. You know the heart of a resident alien. That’s the community that I, your God, have called you into being.”
Moses was called up the mountaintop and back down to the people. Up the mountain and back down to the people. How many times did Moses go up on Mt Sinai? Did any of you count? It’s comical. I suspect that Moses was hugely relieved when the Tabernacle was finally finished so that God would reside among them at sea level.
Isn’t it wonderful to imagine though that God desires human presence as much as we need to be in God’s presence?
God said in vv. 9-11, Let’s get this party started; let’s invite more people! Bring seventy men, plus four more, to meet at the foot of the mountain. 73 of them joined God and Moses and the text says, “they saw God standing as if on a clear blue sapphire stone. And they beheld God; and they ate and drank.”
They beheld God meaning they ‘gazed’ upon God, and God gazed upon them, and they dined all together.
After dinner, for the umpteenth time, God said to Moses: “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you tablets of stone with the law and the commandment which I have written for their instruction.” Moses brought Joshua, but left Aaron and the others down below, and told them, “Just keep the people out of trouble until I return.” (Ha)
Moses climbed up that steep slope once again and waited for six days until God was ready to call him into the cloud.
When he was called, Moses walked with head high and shoulders back into that thick Cloud because a relationship with God had been established between the two of them throughout the tribulations of the wilderness. Moses knew God, and God knew Moses. Theirs was a relationship of trust, not fear. “For they spoke as friends,” the text says. And Moses was there for forty days and forty nights. A long time.
Just as Carla hoped I would grow to understand, we are learning about God and ourselves by paying close attention to these crazy, marvelous, family stories we’ve inherited–stories about this particular God in our Jewish and Christian scriptures.
On a practical note: here is a question for us… What is our church learning through our study of Exodus? Could it be that God calls us to be a church full of spiritual activists, OR active contemplatives?
That we are called to a church that cares about both the development of our spiritual lives through education and prayer, AND the living out of our faith in exercising justice and compassion in the world.
In Exodus, God gave both the Law and God’s very Presence.
Not one without the other. Not one over the other.
That’s our call.
Unto the fullness of God we give our glory, honor and praise.