BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE
The opening verses of Exodus 14 describe God as self serving and manipulative. God creates a crisis by directing his people to camp in a dangerous place so he can gain greater glory when he rescued them from the crisis he created. (3 Pharaoh will say of the Israelites,“They are wandering aimlessly in the land; the wilderness has closed in on them.” 4 I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, so that I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army; and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord. And they did so.”) Before we could enter the Exodus story in FIRL, we had to deal with how we could make sense of such a God. If we take the passage literally we have a God who is not only the grand puppeteer but is also willing to create considerable suffering in order to make his point.
We usually think of Pharaoh and Judas as bad guys but this passage suggests they were simply set pieces. If the main obstacle to the Israelites freedom was Pharaoh’s hardened heart and God was causing the hardening, did Pharaoh have any choice in the first place? The same question arises regarding Judas and Jesus’ crucifixion. If, the crucifixion was necessary as part of God’s ultimate plan, does Judas have any true agency? What about each of us? Can we hold on to the idea of free will and human accountability if this is a rigged game. And worse, God seems quite willing for thousands to die so that he might be glorified. This issue is not the point of this passage—but it was hard to get past the first verses of Exodus 14 in FIRL. So I will address it briefly.
We are created to survive and to preserve ourselves. It is true biologically, psychologically and spiritually. The evolutionary process of survival of the fittest is fundamental and primal. If we feel threatened, human beings and all other animals will fight to protect self. We are hardwired to be competitive and adversarial when we need food—or any other resource. Such a life requires constant vigilance and safety is a function of power and control. If we slip up for a second, we can become the nail instead of the hammer. Biologically we can be eaten instead of eating.
Psychologically, we can be replaced and lose the privileges of dominance. There are always egregious examples of people seeking to be noticed, people buying their children’s way into school, people exaggerating their self importance and people who get offended if it a deacon instead of a pastor comes to visit them. Our identities and self worth all too easily reside in how we are seen and where we rank.
And spiritually we are more likely to measure ourselves and others by how ‘good’ we are rather than how authentically ‘I am’ that we are. We try to live shiny side up even with two thousand years of God’s promise to meet us and love us. No matter how Christian we see ourselves or how mindful of others , these primal forces are deeply and ever present. Another way to say the same thing is that is really, really hard to trust God with our well being when we are threatened and when we are suffering.
Even when the handwriting was on the wall (after all,there were ten plagues), Pharaoh was going to try to hold on to what he knew—even if it killed him. I like to say that the times I most hate to fight with my wife is when I know she is right. I doubt there is a single human being who hasn’t stubbornly held on to an indefensible position. Our need to be ‘right’ is astounding. We will rationalize. We will claim privilege as if we deserve it. We will deceive ourselves that we are righteous and will seek a bubble of like opinions to avoid the conflict that diversity always brings. If you live in a small enough town, it is a lot easier to think of yourself as a tolerant person. The larger the circle the more likely that that competing and contradictory needs will have to be reconciled. That is hard work and I would argue, that is not a ‘natural’ choice. There is a reason we needed Jesus.
Real life as a Christian requires the supernatural. It requires us to surrender our hard wiring and what is natural to us. We are all inherently stiff necked and resistant to God’s way. And that finally brings me to the Exodus story itself. It is the communal remembrance of God’s intervention in human affairs to show us a better way. And it doesn’t pull any punches about how miraculous that truly is.
I asked the FIRL group what were the issues in life that beset them—issues that threatened them and issues that felt too big to manage. How do we live in a world when we do not feel safe and when circumstances and others mean to hurt us? Who are the Egyptians in our lives? When are we, like the Israelites, caught between a rock and a hard place? Here is the list from the people in attendance in roughly the order they were articulated:
Men thinking they know what is best for a woman.
Lack of Tolerance for differing opinions—tendency to dig our heels in–why in retrospect do we hold fierce opinions that later seem far less important.
Prevalence of insoluble problems—homeless, mentally disabled, climate change.
In church–how people get upset over ‘little’ things—I see people leaving and we keep going on with a theme of belonging.
Worry about where our nation is going—prison conditions, immigration, killings—we’ve lost our way.
Tired of the need to be politically correct.
And finally, the general theme of anxiety about the adversarial and polarized state of our public discourse.
I would add the experiences of soul crunching grief, chronic depression, sudden illness, increasing disability and living with addictions. If you have been in any of these situations, or a myriad of others, you will understand the Israelites cry: “For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” The problems are too big, our resources too small and moving forward seems impossible. We return to what we know. We despair, we blame and we try to explain. What we don’t do is face our limitations, vulnerability and helplessness.
When we do not feel safe; when fear and anxiety strike, people get crazy. We take everything personally. Sipping tea on a soccer field becomes an occasion for offence. We refuse to be curious and take offence at the people who take offence. It becomes nearly impossible to walk as Jesus walked—in the shoes of the ‘other.’ Even when we spend a lifetime hearing the promises of God’s steadfast love, we default to our human need to ensure our own safety. We build walls—and not just at the border. We do not want to know that the people who oppose us in a session meeting might be more than the caricatures we imagine—knee jerk reactionaries or judgmental idealist.
But God showed a way that was outside of human conceiving. He tells Moses to tell the people: ““Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today.” Though it is much easier said than done, God says lay down your self sufficiency, and I will give you a way forward when no way seems possible. Personally, as I have gotten older, I have come to understand this way of living. But please understand that knowing and believing just give me a mantra to recite when I am anxious and afraid. Memories and community have seen me through but in the moment, all I feel is visceral fear. And I don’t like it. The Israelites didn’t either. Even after God’s saving act, moving on meant forty years in the wilderness. In real life, we do not get a respite from the wilderness but we do get a way to move forward—a way to live in the present that God has given us.
The Exodus story is the corporate reminder of God creating a safe place in the midst of chaos. God’s redemptive act echoes God’s creative action in Genesis—he creates dry ground in the midst of chaos. As hard as it is to live, God is our only refuge and strength.
The story is repeated every year at the Seder meal and, in the telling, draws people together over generations and in every imaginable human circumstance.
We belong to God. Remember. Tolerate your fears. Trust him. There will be a way. Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.