An Invitation to Find Ourselves

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The Beginning of the Book of Exodus:

1These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: 2Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah, Issachar, Zebulon, and Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. 5The total number of people born to Jacob was seventy. Joseph was already in Egypt. 6Then Joseph died, and all his brothers, and that whole generation, 7but the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong so that the land was filled with them. 8Now a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. 9He said to his people, "Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we are. 10Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land. 11Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor, 12but the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks upon the Israelites, 14and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.

The book of Exodus begins by naming the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob to be with his son Joseph. Then Joseph died, we are told, and all his brothers in that whole generation of the Israelites were fruitful and prolific. They multiplied and grew exceedingly strong so that the land was filled with them. Our text begins after the death of the Pharaoh who favored Joseph, who had made him a prince in his house and who had welcomed the Israelites as part of Egypt.

Now, we read, a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. The people for a generation have been experiencing safety and security, sanctuary and success, but now their prosperity is felt as a threat to the new king who sets out to subdue them, make them subservient and remove them as a threat. What the people do not know or have forgotten until this new king arises is that they are in bondage and have unwittingly become comfortable and complacent far from their true home. In short time, they have settled down and forgotten, no longer sure from whence they had come or who they are.

The new Pharaoh takes the throne. As Jayber Crow says in a Wendell Berry novel by the same name, a moment of truth or revelation or turning in life comes when you suddenly see things where your vision has until then failed you. It is as though I had been covered all over for a moment by a beautiful shawl and a cat had caught a raveling, and in a moment pulled it all the way. The unraveling happens in moments like September 11 or when Enron collapses or sexual abuse erupts in the church or the doctor says it's cancer or she says I'm leaving. Wendell Berry describes how it is as if the world suddenly, quietly, fell away from me, leaving me standing in the air alone with my heart hollowed out with longing in need of what I did not have.

A new king arises and everything that is firm becomes uncertain, what is taken for granted isn't anymore. The ground melts, the world tilts, and nothing is ever the same again. In that awful week in September, the president said to us, "Adversity introduces us to ourselves." When the unraveling happens, we may not immediately know who we are, but we do suddenly discover in a new, dramatic, and sometimes frightening way, who we are not. When the foundations shake in our world, career, family, marriage, soul, there is the awful, even awesome, need to redefine ourselves, an opportunity to realize that we are more rather than less.

This new king of Egypt fears that the Israelites may become more numerous and powerful than the Egyptians. "Let us deal shrewdly with them," the king says, and he calls the midwives who he tells to kill all the male babies born to the Jewish women. The midwives, who we read fear God more than the king, instead let the male children live. The king tries again, ordering that every boy that is born to the Hebrews should be thrown into the Nile, which sets the stage, of course, for the child hidden in the papyrus basket placed in the reeds of the river bank, where the king's daughter finds and saves him.

Out of the fearful violence of the new king, the future Moses is born to grow up in the royal palace. Into the midst of the darkness of what has become persecution, a Moses arises who will set the people free from captivity and ultimately show them the long way through the wilderness to home and to themselves.

Reynolds Price has long been an acclaimed and accomplished man of letters. In 1984 a large cancer was discovered in his spinal cord that led him through surgery and radiation, ending in paralysis from the waist down. It has also been the occasion of what he describes in his book titled As a Whole New Life. He wrote this book because, he says, "I needed to read some story that paralleled at whatever distance my unfolding bafflement, some honest report from a similar war with a final list of hard facts learned and offered unvarnished. Offering useful instruction in how to absorb the staggering but not quite lethal blow of a fist that ends your former life and offers you nothing by way of a new life that you can begin to think of wanting." Price writes how when it happens, your mate, your children, your friends at work, anyone who knew or loved you in your old life, will be hard at work in the fierce endeavor to revive your old self, the self they recall with love and respect. Their motives are frequently admirable and at times that effort counts for a lot. They prove that you are valued and wanted at least, but again their care is often a break on the way you must go. At the crucial juncture when you turn toward the future, they'll likely have little help to offer. More likely, they'll stall you in the effort to learn who you need to be now and how to be him or her tomorrow or Monday at the latest.

"The kindest thing anyone could have done for me once I finished five weeks of radiation," he writes, "would have been to look me square in the eye and say clearly, 'Reynolds Price is dead. Who will you be now? Who can you be and how can you get there double time?'" What he needed most to hear, Reynolds Price writes, were the words "Come back to life whoever you'll be."

When the new king arises, it is a catastrophe. At the end of an era for marriage, when a relationship that meant everything becomes a nightmare, when a career collapses or dream dies or hope gets broken, it's what Price describes as "literally an upended life with all the parts strewn and some of the most urgent parts lost for good within and without. But if I were called on to value honestly my present life beside my past, the years from 1933 till 1984 against the years after," he writes, "I'd have to say that despite an enjoyable 50-year start, these recent years since the full catastrophe have gone still better. They've brought more in and sent more out, more love and care, more knowledge and patience."

It is only after the new king arises in Egypt that the Israelites begin to find out where they are and later who they are and where they are meant to be. The new king is the occasion for the heartache and misery, destruction and death that also give birth to a Moses who initiates the struggle of liberation and who takes the first step toward the sea and through the wilderness and toward the river on the other side of which they will meet themselves. Their passage through the deep waters and wilderness trek of 40 years is punctuated with anger at Moses who has deprived them of what they now only remember as the comforts and joys of what was slavery.

The tale mirrors another story about another babe born as well in the midst of another oppression and similar violence. It tells again of how at the darkest hour of the longest night the liberating hope, this time named Jesus, is waiting to be born. It questions not whether or if so how the stories really happen but, rather, if they are true, if they are yearning to be true for us when the new king arises and the foundations tremble and all we have and are is suddenly at risk.

Years ago when I was traveling in Israel, I met a Jew from Chicago who had dedicated his life to the Zionist cause and whose home was a kibbutz in the desert. When his passion and militancy in that armed camp were questioned, he told a midrash on Moses at the Red Sea. He described for us Moses leading the people homeward only to suddenly be confronted ahead by the deep sea waters and behind him by the fierce armies of Pharaoh. Moses is poised between the devil and the deep blue sea. "It was," he says, "when Moses' big toe touches the water that the sea parts and slavery is left behind. The moral or teaching of the tale," he told us, "was do not stand on the river bank praying for miracles." Like Jesus, intent upon abundant life for his followers, the call is to step over old boundaries, risk the unknown, and to brave the darkness for the sake of new life.

Only a few weeks after their kidnapped baby boy was found dead, Anne Morrow Lindbergh writes in her diary, Hour of Lead, Hour of Gold: "what I am saying is not simply the old Puritan truism that suffering teaches. I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise. To suffering," she writes, "must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness and the willingness to remain vulnerable." If the circumstances are right, suffering can teach and can lead to rebirth.

New kings are forever arising and bringing carnage to our world between us and within us. We have no need to seek out or search for such moments of suffering and loss. The question isn't whether they will happen or not but, rather, what we do with that desperate moment when it is ours. Mourning comes easy; understanding, patience, and love are a bit harder. But openness and the willingness to remain vulnerable? Anne Morrow Lindbergh reminds us that more is required than closing down and vowing to never let it happen again, building walls to hide behind, burying our heart where it can never again be touched and violated. Such may be the wilderness temptations whenever suffering happens.

The ultimate challenge to us, however, as it was for those who accompanied Moses to the sea, may be finally to step into the deep water and brave the darkness in search of that person we are waiting to become rather than cursing the shadows and clinging sadly to what was.

Let us pray.

Be with us, Lord God of Moses and Jesus, when new kings arise and our comfortable Egypts collapse, come apart, unravel, become opportunities to discover in new ways who we are and where our true home waits. Be patient with us when we confuse bondage with security and enjoy slavery to what is less. Make us brave when the darkness comes and grant us the courage to search for the more that awaits us. Amen.

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