Faith in Real Life Blog
“Finding New Life Whne None Seemed Possible”
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterian Church
January 26, 2023
15 Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord: “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. 2 The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him; my father’s God, and I will exalt him. 3 The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name. 4 Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea; his elite officers were sunk in the Red Sea. 5 The floods covered them; they went down into the depths like a stone. 6 Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power— your right hand, O Lord, shattered the enemy. 7 In the greatness of your majesty you overthrew your adversaries; you sent out your fury; it consumed them like stubble. 8 At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up; the floods stood up in a heap; the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea. 9 The enemy said, ‘I will pursue; I will overtake; I will divide the spoil; my desire shall have its fill of them. I will draw my sword; my hand shall destroy them.’ 10 You blew with your wind; the sea covered them; they sank like lead in the mighty waters. 11 Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders? 12 You stretched out your right hand; the earth swallowed them. 13 In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed; you guided them by your strength to your holy abode. 14 The peoples heard; they trembled; pangs seized the inhabitants of Philistia. 15 Then the chiefs of Edom were dismayed; trembling seized the leaders of Moab; all the inhabitants of Canaan melted away. 16 Terror and dread fell upon them; by the might of your arm, they became still as a stone until your people, O Lord, passed by, until the people whom you acquired passed by. 17 You brought them in and planted them on the mountain of your own possession, the place, O Lord, that you made your abode, the sanctuary, O Lord, that your hands have established. 18 The Lord will reign forever and ever.” 19 When the horses of Pharaoh with his chariots and his chariot drivers went into the sea, the Lord brought back the waters of the sea upon them, but the Israelites walked through the sea on dry ground.
The very first reaction to this text in FIRL was: “How could this be? It is a good story of liberation but I don’t believe it happened.” And the second was: “I don’t like this portrayal of God.” The price of liberation was the destruction of the Egyptians and the displacement of “all the inhabitants of Canaan.” These concerns made it difficult to get past the literal and into the story. We need to remember that this story was written to celebrate the core formative belief of the Jewish faith. “In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed; you guided them by your strength to your holy abode. A mighty warrior God was their advocate and protector. A group of nobodies became somebodies. They were transformed from chattel to children of God.
It is difficult to describe transformative experiences. There is always an alternative explanation. Outsiders see a scruffy group of people escaping through the marshland. They are pursued but the marsh proves impassable. After a few chariots bogged down, It was not worth the Egyptians time and energy to run down these inconsequential people. They will probably die anyway. The soldiers return. The event is a nonevent—lost to history. But the people on the run see the same event in an entirely different way. They had been slaves. They were the bottom tier of Egyptian society. They risked everything for a better life. The odds were impossibly great against them but they took the chance. Armed soldiers were pursuing them , but then, at the very last minute, the chariots were bogged down in the marshland. They did not know what lay before them. That did not matter. They were alive. It was a miracle—an event outside of their imagination. They had a chance at a new life. No matter what happened next, this moment was exhilarating. How do you describe such a moment? How do you communicate the relief and the joy?
This text, written hundreds of years after the events, celebrates this transformative experience. If you are a believer, the mighty hand of God has chosen and protected you. If you are not, an unfortunate confluence of circumstance meant you lost a small segment of your slave labor. The eye of the beholder changes what we see and how we tell the story.
The Exodus captures a human hunger for recognition and validation as well as the desire for a fierce advocate who can protect. The story celebrates the vindication of the downtrodden. The weak, after terrible oppression, are rescued and prevail. The theme is repeated in hundreds of movies. We love to see the mistreated find justice. We love to see a hero defy impossible odds to finally save the day. The Jack Ryans and the Jack Reachers sell tickets because their world is simple. They are the good guys. Therefore, anything they do to the bad guys is ok. It is cartoon violence. Nobody wonders about the bad guy’s life or his family. They picked the wrong side. They deserved to die.
Hopefully what captures us and sells tickets are the themes of redemption rather than the means to accomplish such ends. But even when that is the case, we can scoff at the improbabilities, but we can still enjoy the movie. If we get too focused upon details—did the waters really pile up and collapse at precisely the right time? Were the deaths that followed ‘justifiable’? —Was it ok for the Hebrew people to displace the peoples of Canaan?, we will enter a labyrinth. The questions are good ones, but they were not the concern of the writers of Exodus. The theme they celebrated was the belief that God is a God who loves and who protects his people—a God who creates new life. That faith claim persists. The way we understand the means by which God saves and protects has been a centuries long process that we believe culminated in Jesus. Instead of a God who vanquishes foes, we have a God who chose vulnerability to redefine power. (Humans are still struggling with that new understanding of how God saves).
Most of us are not in need of rescue from slavery but most of us are oppressed by the expectations around us and by the secular values that define worth. If we can notice those ordinary confines of human life and when we have been freed from them, we too can sing songs of liberation.
I asked our FIRL groups to share some of their ‘liberation’ stories. Some are ordinary and some are dramatic, but each person had a song of liberation on the other side of a stuck place. In each of these cases, new and unexpected life emerged from a circumstance that looked grim. I believe we have a much greater chance of that better life if we are willing to face it as it is rather than as we think it ought to be—or a holding on to what we have always known. This is not “Trust in the Lord” and it will all work out as we would prefer.. This is trust in the Lord, and she will be with you no matter how it works out. There is a big difference.
1. Linda LeBron spoke of deciding to move from the home she and her husband had built. Was leaving that home dishonoring her husband’s memory? She wasn’t sure what it would be like to manage on her own in a new place. On the other side of that risk, she has discovered a new freedom and new possibilities for her life. Whether she did it intentionally or not, she lived into God’s promise to love and protect. She sings a new song.
2. Ken Graff described a particularly difficult work relationship but there did not seem to be any way out. On vacation, while trying to regain his lost physique (his words), he heard a pop. He had a hernia that led to surgery that led to rehab that lasted long enough for him to find a new workplace. He could have bemoaned his injury. I’m sure he was not happy about it. But he turned pain into opportunity. (FYI That in no way reduced the pain.) In so doing he held on to his faith that God loves and God creates new life.
3. Mimi was quite happy in her teaching job when upper administration decided a percentage of the experienced teachers in North DeKalb would be transferred to South DeKalb. Mimi did not like the prospect of her work life being uprooted—but now reports it was one of her best teaching experiences.
4. Jim Hudgins had a harrowing liberation story. 10 years ago, while scuba diving with his wife, they decided to cut their dive short and started to return to the dive boat. Exhausted, he was holding onto the boat ladder until he could hold on to neither his wife nor the ladder. He started drifting. Meanwhile on the boat, there was only one person waiting for the other diver’s to surface. He managed to get Jim’s wife aboard, but he had to stay on station for the other diver’s. Jim, however, had drifted further from the boat and was out of sight. He didn’t know if his wife was alive or dead. He didn’t know if he would live or die. One to two hours later, a boat did find him. When he was pulled aboard, he kissed the deck of the boat. He was filled with gratitude; his life had been preserved and he has since tried to live a life of gratitude and service. I asked him how he was able to hold onto that gratitude when he learned that his wife was, in fact, dead. He answered it was his faith in God and three people who held him up and supported him. His grief could have gone in many directions, but he found a way to find new life. His journey has been difficult but today he sings a song of liberation.
Grief frequently is the struggle to go on when we lose someone we love. It often does not seem possible. But that drastic sense of disorientation is not limited to death. Divorce, threatened relationships, struggles with children and struggles with parents can all leave us feeling like we cannot go on. It is not a simple process. It is often so painful it can be hard to breathe. Living without what we thought we could not live without is unimaginable when we are in the middle of grief. Only when we discover we can go on, can we begin rebuilding our lives. Only then can we sing a new song of liberation.
Finally, our Presbyterian theology states that we are all sinners. We all fall short. That is the theology but if you have felt like a sinner—however you define the term—there is a good chance you felt miserable, lost, and unredeemable. You are forever trapped by your misdeeds. You are every bit as confined as the slaves in Egypt. You lose part of your life. But if somehow, you have experienced forgiveness, you are liberated. There is a new life waiting for you. You will be transformed. You will sing a song of liberation. You will be free from how you judge yourself and how others judge you.
None of these songs of liberation are one and done but we need to remember when we’ve been freed to help us make it through the times we feel trapped and lost. The Hebrews were to face many more times of disorientation, despair and hopelessness. But each year they remembered a God who loves and a God who protects. Each year they sing a song of liberation.
Remember when you have been lost and could not imagine a new life. Remember when you feel confined by the way the world sees you or how you see yourself. This was the plight of the slaves in Egypt. Then remember God’s liberating faithfulness that turned a bunch of nobodies into the chosen people. That Good News is for all of us.
Let it be so.