A Wilderness People in the Promised Land

The wilderness experience for the Hebrew children represents a troubling place. It is hostile terrain, and the basic necessities for survival are not present. There is a growing crisis that grows out of a fear of perishing. For Israel the wilderness represents a place of dislocation and the unfamiliar. It represents the very real threat for their life.

Perhaps the collective memory of the people had forgotten the brutality and violence of slavery. Now the present pangs of hunger outweigh the bitter case of an enslaved past. The wilderness also becomes a place to locate the congregation's crisis of faith. The wilderness is the place--the crisis flashpoint between Egypt and the Promised Land.

How ironic! The people who now feel threatened and abandoned have forgotten how Mighty Yahweh brought them out of Egypt. Now they complain and express their rage, not to God, but to God's servant Moses. Had they forgotten the God who brought them out? Their complaints make no mention of Yahweh at all. They focus their energies against Moses and Aaron. How often it is that those who elect to serve God by serving his children bear the brunt of the community's fear pain, and anger.

This is a sobering reminder for all of us that servant leaders of God often catch the dickens all along the way of their service.

Not only does God provide in this story, we are told he provides abundantly. In addition to the bread and meat, he gives an extra provision so that the portion for the sixth day includes enough for the seventh day. God's grace is more than sufficient.

Scripture tells us that Israel will soon learn that their wilderness is not empty, but is inhabited by the powerful presence of an all-powerful God. In the wilderness in the midst of their concern for survival, God will provide and give the people what they need for life. It is God who steps in to provide the gifts of life--the manna and the bread from heaven. How good it is to know always that God's grace is sufficient to fill any need, to satisfy any hunger or thirst. In the midst of their fear, anxiety and doubt, God does not reprimand. God provides.

I want to look at this Exodus passage from a slightly different angle. Although the children of Israel had not yet reached the Promised Land, I want to consider how a wilderness people with a wilderness perspective can impact the Promised Land experience. Many of us are bewildered by today's times. We are terrified by diseases for which there are no cures. We are disappointed and frustrated by the wars and violence in the Middle East, Africa, and even within our own borders. We ask ourselves, "When will it end?" Or even, if it will end. Our own private and collective fears seem to be acted out in increasingly violent and volatile ways. Our public discourse about everything from education to immigration to justice and human rights is diminished and tainted by the vitriol, cynicism, and mean spiritedness that comes from virtually every direction. In spite of our great abundance in this land of plenty, in this land of promise, our fears and anger--yes, even our lack of faith--causes us to act as if we are in a vast wilderness. And we are in a vast wilderness of despair and desperation. We are the wilderness people in the Promised Land.

At a time when celebrity sound-bite culture seems to rule the day, important social and policy matters and even faith issues take a back seat to what's trending on Twitter or the latest selfie that's gone viral. Our attention spans and willingness to spend any quality time has become for too many of us diminished to the length of a text message or a comment on Facebook.

Herein lies a paradox. America, a great land of promise--if not the Promised Land--is unfulfilled by a people with a wilderness mentality. God has supplied the bread and the manna, yet our nation acts as if we are living in a great wilderness. We hoard our abundance, consume more than we could possibly ever need, and distance ourselves from the least-of-these in our midst. We purport a mythical, rugged individualism that denies the realities of our history. White privilege is the given and its assent rarely questioned. The lasting impact of racism and slavery is dismissed as no longer relevant. After all, we do have an African-American president and Oprah Winfrey.

As I try to decipher the tremendous challenges of civility in our churches and in our current politics and public discourse, I often think that the rage in our body politic is related to the fear that abounds in our country. It is that fear that causes us to be the wilderness people. Like the Hebrew children, we survive bondage and slavery by God's grace; but our behavior as a community and as a people of God often belies a sense of promise that our present circumstance provides. We hunger, but not for the bread of life. We thirst, but not for the living water. We are still bewildered and still confused. How can this happen in this great land of promise in our Promised Land? I think our wilderness mentality represents the way in which we complain about the lack--not of food--but the lack of acquisitions. We hunger for more things, not the Living Water that enlivens our spirit.

Our wilderness mentality has become the new slavery. This new slavery hungers for neither food nor for freedom. The new slavery is that in which the master is our own self-centered and self-absorbed way of seeing the world. Our preoccupation with ourselves represents that new form of slavery. I believe our dilemma is one of not being faithful to God.

Proverbs 29:18 tells us that where there is no vision the people perish. I want to add that where there is no faith in God, the people perish. If you don't know God, you perish and we are perishing all the day long. Not for bread, not for water, but for lack of God in our lives.

But how could this happen? How could this happen in this land of plenty? I believe this struggle in the wilderness is the result of evil in our midst, a profound and powerful evil that produces systemic ways to keep us as slaves. This is particularly troubling to me when I see that many of the very tools that were used to help liberate African-Americans in this country have now become the weapons to produce the new slavery. Education was once a tool for the building of a self-sustaining African-American community. Now it seems to be a tool for the new slavery. Our children are mis-educated and not properly prepared for a life of contribution. New technologies, like the selfie if we're not careful, can become a new tool for slavery. Our preoccupation with ourselves leaves no room for God and consequently creates a wilderness mentality even in this land of plenty.

In previous generations, education was a vehicle for community empowerment, and it helped all of our future generations prepare themselves for self-sufficiency. And many of our ancestors, even though they themselves were not educated, saw education and faith as a means to a new freedom. They sang spirituals that testified to the oneness of humanity and the redemptive power of God. Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel? Then why not every man?

But I believe that our present musical culture no longer represents the aspiration of a people. Art is no longer art but purely a commodity to serve the interests of the market place. The irony of our times is that our forbearers--many who were not educated--saw to it that their children were educated so that the community could be transformed. Yet another irony is in the arena of the arts. We don't often think of arts education in the schools in connection with the growing prison industrial complex in this country. Yet I believe there is a correlation between disabling art students and their sense of creativity, discipline, and independence, and the rise of our young people in the privatized prison industrial complex. Take the creative spirit out of the children; make them think that all they can do is create beats and rhymes or play basketball. Make them stop challenging the world with their creativity and create art that acquiesces to the stereotypes and the low expectations of the status quo. When art does not empower, when schools do not educate, when students are not enabled, they become primed for a life of dependency and even prison. We are a wilderness people in the Promised Land. Our creativity is not for our own freedom and liberation; rather, we are becoming amazingly adept at consuming the most degrading and poisonous products about ourselves within the African-American community.

This is wilderness behavior, the behavior fitting of a people who are still enslaved. This is the new slavery. We've always been a creative people, and our art and our expression, our songs and our faith, have also been acts of liberation. When the slave codes in the South prohibited the African captives from playing their African instruments on the plantation, they played the sticks and the bones and the spoons. They even played their own bodies like a drum. In every generation we have been creating and creative in a way that was life-affirming. But perhaps for the first time in our history in this country, we have stopped creating for our own life and spiritual uplift. Now our creative purpose seems to be driven by a materialism like we've never seen before.

We as a people should be concerned that we act like we don't have anything when, in fact, God has provided us with everything. Isn't this the message of Exodus? We seem driven by what we lack rather than living in gratitude for what we have. We've stopped protesting and accept brutality of our world as a given--intractable and unchangeable. How many more of our children will die over a pair of expensive sneakers? This is wilderness behavior.

Dr. King reminds us that an individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity. The wilderness can be a place of forgetting God and finding God, of denying God and affirming God. Jesus' encounter with the devil in the wilderness tells us that evil often appeals to our most basic instincts, our hunger for power and for things.

My fervent prayer is that we give up being people of the wilderness and become the people of promise. We can affirm the love of God wherever we are. Amen.