Saturday, March 22, 2014

Not By Sight



‘Your path led through the sea;
Your way through the mighty waters.’
Psalm 77:19

Enslaved in Egypt was bad enough.  But the order from Pharaoh’s office that all baby boys were to be collected and thrown to the crocodiles in the Nile turned oppression into misery.   Later as a punishment for paying attention to Moses, the slaves' straw rations would be cut off, making them scour the countryside for stubble, all the while forcing them to produce the same quota, slaves were pressed to the breaking point. And these are just a few of the pictures we have of what it was like to be a slave in Egypt 3500 years ago.  The day to day reality must have been appalling.


After having witnessed the slow-motion ten-act triumph of their God over the gods of pharaoh and Egypt’s elite, culminating in the night of death for Egypt’s firstborn, but of the angel of death’s flyover of the Israelites’ blood-marked homes, Israelites young and old, strong and feeble, carrying a child in one arm whilst holding the hand of another, driving what livestock they had before them, carrying on their backs what possessions they could, put their life in Egypt behind them and set out for what they hardly knew.

God himself leads them.  They can tell because of the ‘pillar of cloud’ by day/’pillar of fire’ by night that went before the slow-moving miasma of newly liberated slaves.  From a group that would become notorious for its ‘grumbling’ and second-guessing, it is striking that nobody questioned the fearsome manifestation out there in front.  Must have been a rather persuasive presence.

Imagine the confusion, the distress, the upset when the Persuasive Presence leads them, not up the coastal highway straight north towards their Canaanite destination, but west northwest, across a barren wasteland, straight onto the beach of the Yam Suph, the Sea of Reeds.  WTF!?
Nobody is happy.  Not the newly liberated slaves.  Not Moses.  Nobody.  Not only that, but Pharaoh has been afflicted with second thoughts as the scope of his humiliation becomes apparent.  He sends his army after the rabble.  This is not a ‘bring them back alive’ mission.  Pharaoh has been shamed and is out for revenge.  But the army commanders are just as surprised as the Israelites at this turn of events, and as they crest the last hill and see the camp spread out along the shore, they wonder at the stupidity of whoever is leading this horde.

When the Israelites see the Egyptians: terror, pandemonium.  And who can blame them.  These people do not know how to swim, and the world’s most powerful army is coming after them.  And there is no way out.

Moses of course receives the brunt of their terror.  ‘Do something!’ they cry.  To which he can only respond by crying out to God, ‘Do something!’

It’s at this point that God, the Persuasive Presence, does something.  Just as the Egyptian army comes within bowshot of the Israelites, something happens, the effect of which is to put the Egyptian army into darkness and confusion, and the Israelites into shelter and light.  And then God tells Moses to go forward, to lead the Israelites straight into the sea.  This of course makes no sense.  But as Moses puts his staff into the water, a path appears, wide enough for him, and as others follow, wide enough for them, too.  And it’s dry ground, with water billowing up on either side. 


The whole mass of Israelites turns and watches with mouths agape. Even they know this is not something that is supposed to happen, a violation of the rules of nature as they understood them.  And when it is their turn, they too pick up what they have and step by step walk in and through the sea.  And up and out on the other side.  At which point, God has decided that it is the Egyptians turn.  They too see the divided sea, the path through the middle, and their quarry scrambling up the other side.  And so they too participate in this miracle.  Only things begin to go awry. They encounter mud.  The wheels of their chariots get stuck and come off.  And just as it collectively dawns on everyone from commander to foot soldier that this is not a good idea, the walls of water behave like water once again and crash over the armored heads of pharaoh’s vaunted army.  And just like that they are lost.


The Israelites would go on to have further adventures and would prove not to have very good memories.  But I have been struck by the phrase, used by a psalmist hundreds of years later as he/she was reflecting on this event, ‘Your path led through the sea’.  ‘We were following You,’ he seems to say, ‘but the way You led us brought us to the very end of our ability to cope, our capacity to survive.  We found ourselves face to face with the sea to our front, and the Egyptian army to our back.  And we don’t know how to swim.’

I can relate.  I thought I was following the Persuasive Presence, taking care to do the right thing, being vulnerable about my sins and shortcomings, getting the help that I needed.  But my challenges have gotten worse and worse.  I’ve sought help, gotten counsel, done what I could, to no avail.  I have been walking this path and it has led me to this place. The armies of what feels like certain destruction are breathing down my neck, and as I break through the forest I run across the beach and come face to face with the sea.  I never dreamed I would be standing in this place.  I will not deny that I am afraid, and that I do not know what happens next.  And I am tempted to say, as the Israelites did, ‘Did you lead me out of Egypt just so my dead body might fall here in this blasted wilderness?’  Oh, and I don’t know how to swim.

Elder Paisios of Mount Athos (1924-1994) once said, ‘In the darkness God sees us more clearly.’

I so want to be able to sing¸ ‘Your path led through the sea, Your way through the mighty waters.’  But I am still on this side of all of that.  And I will not deny that time feels like it’s running out. And I no longer pretend to know how this will all end.