Let All that Breathes Praise the Lord

Exuberant music must have filled temple worship.

Jan_van_Eyck_-_The_Ghent_Altarpiece_-_Singing_Angels_(detail)_-_WGA07642

The angelic choir from Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, ca 1430.

If we are to believe the Old Testament psalms, exuberant music must have filled the air during temple worship.

Psalm 33, for example, issues its call to worship with these words:

Rejoice in the LORD, O you righteous.

            Praise befits the upright.

Praise the LORD with the lyre;

            make melody to him with the harp of ten strings.

Sing to him a new song;

            play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.(Psalm 33:1-3)

Psalm 150 mentions the array of musical instruments that were used: trumpets, lutes, harps, tambourines, strings, pipes, and cymbals. Other psalms (e.g., Psalms 4795108,  150) bear witness that people joined in with singing, shouting, clapping, and dance. What an amazing sound must have arisen from the temple’s courts.

I am particularly struck by the mention of dance, something usually absent from Christian worship today. We must keep in mind that the people did not sit in pews when they came to worship at the temple. They would have stood in the temple courts and walked around during the sacrifices.

As the music mounted, I can well imagine that the people would have spontaneously begun to sway and move with the rhythms. We are even told that King David broke into ecstatic dance as a liturgical procession carried the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:14-15).

In fact, I wonder if temple worship did not resemble more what happens in exuberant African-American worship services than in most of the churches I attend where worshippers sit motionless and rigid in hard, wooden pews.  African-American choirs sway and move in rhythm as they lift their voices in song.

A few other Protestant groups have also been noted for their physical movement in worship. It is the reason the Shakers got their name. Outsiders were struck by their practice of rhythmical movement in their worship times.

Today charismatic Christians sometimes revive the practice of dance. I once attended a charismatic Roman Catholic wedding. At the end of the ceremony, the bride and groom did not race down the aisle as at most weddings I attend. Instead they led the congregation in a joyful dance weaving up and down the church’s three aisles. Most of the congregation stood in bewilderment. A few joined them, including myself. I thought their dance expressed the joy of the ceremony we had just witnessed.

Outside of Christian circles liturgical dance has often formed part of worship. One thinks of the circle dances performed by native Americans or by African tribal cultures.

Were Reformation reforms truly reforms?

During the Reformation church leaders of the Reformed tradition insisted that all practices of worship should have explicit scriptural sanction. It is the reason that Reformed congregations limited all singing in the church to the singing of metrical psalms. When hymn writers like Isaac Watts began to compose fresh, new hymns, many Reformed congregations were scandalized. They saw no place for “human songs” in divine worship.

I find it curious that with their insistence that all worship practices have scriptural warrant that Reformed church leaders never approved of the use of dance in worship. It certainly had scriptural warrant too, if we listen carefully to the psalms.

Probably that was because the Reformed tradition put such a premium on the service of the Word. Worship was centered around the reading of Scripture and its explication through the sermon. It was worship geared to the ear, not the feet. As a result, Reformed worship became very wordy and non-physical.

Though the Reformers may have thought they were purifying worship, in my opinion they were, in fact, impoverishing worship. They left no place for the body and the senses in worship. For me that comes across as a great loss, not an improvement.

I, therefore, welcome the return of exuberant music and dance into Christian worship. By temperament I gravitate to the majestic music of J.S. Bach, George Frideric Handel, and Wolfgang Mozart. (Their music, too, can be exuberant. Just listen to the Sanctus in Bach’s B-Minor Mass and you cannot help let your soul soar.)

But I also appreciate the role that rock bands, folk music, and jazz can play in worship today. They too are a way for people to praise the Lord in voices and styles expressive of who they are.

So in a time when many congregations fight battles over worship styles and music, I say, Let exuberance flourish. That is one message of the psalms. Let all who have breath praise the Lord!

Added Note:With all that I have just written about the role music, clapping, and dance played in temple worship, there is also some evidence in the psalms and elsewhere in the Old Testament that periods of silence may have been a part of temple worship, too. Whether Psalm 62 is the voice of an individual or a group may be debatable, but Habakkuk 2:20 seems to be a very explicit reference to a role that silence played in the temple service:

But the LORD is in his holy temple;

                        let all the earth keep silence before him!

Worship today may need times for silence just as much as it needs times of joyful exuberance. We can think of silence and exuberance as the yin and yang of Christian worship.

Advertisements

Words, Words, Words

A psalm theme: The power of human language to do good and to do evil.

In the musical “My Fair Lady” there is a scene about three-quarters of the way through the play. A British aristocrat named Freddy Eynsford-Hill has fallen in love with Eliza Doolittle. He launches into a passionate love song to her.

She abruptly interrupts him, screaming (in lovely musical notes, of course):

Words, words, words, words.

I’m so sick of words.

I get words all the day, first from him and now from you…

If you are in love, show me.

 Those lyrics came to mind when I was recently reading Psalms 12and 15. We live in a society drowning in words. Words on TV, words in advertising, words in news media, words in political debate, words on Twitter and in e-mails, and constant daily conversations.

What Psalms 12 and 15 do is remind us of the power of those words, whatever our intent in speaking them. For example, Psalm 12 raises this lament about the unrighteous and their malevolent use of language:

They utter lies to each other;
    with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.

May the Lord cut off all flattering lips,
    the tongue that makes great boasts….(Psalm 12:2-3)

On the other hand, words also have beneficent power. Psalm 15 bears witness to that when it praises:

Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
    and speak the truth from their heart;
who do not slander with their tongue,
    and do no evil to their friends,
    nor take up a reproach against their neighbors….(Psalm 15:2-3)

When we read these sentiments, we should keep in mind that in ancient Israelite society the psalmists would have been thinking not primarily of the written word (important as it is), but of spoken words. Ancient societies were predominately oral societies.

That fact adds to the power of the psalmists’ assertions. When we speak, we communicate not only through the words we choose, but also through our pitch and tone of voice. The simple words “Don’t touch that” can be said matter of factly. Or they can be filled with a sense of menace depending upon the tone of voice we use.

The power of oratory

That’s why I think oratory has been such a powerful medium of communication through most of human history. It has been said, for example, that in classical times when Cicero had finished speaking, people said, “How well he spoke.” But when Demosthenes, the greatest orator of ancient Greece and the bitter opponent of King Philip of Macedon, finished speaking, people said, “Let’s march.” His words provoked action.

We saw the same thing happen in the 20thcentury with the oratory of Winston Churchill. In 1940 many people thought that it was inevitable that Great Britain would fall to the armies of Nazi Germany. It was just a matter of time.

They were wrong. Why? One reason is the bravery of the British Spitfire pilots. Another was the power of Churchill’s oratory. His words gave backbone to British morale. His words proved in the end powerful guns indeed.

We all know as well the power of oratory to be incredibly destructive. Oratory has the power to unleash forces of hate and violence that can wreak havoc with the lives of people and the peace of nations.

We need only turn again to World War II for the most revealing example. Would there have even been a war if it were not for the powerful oratory of Adolph Hitler? His words played a key role in unleashing the forces of hatred and genocide that marked that long conflict.

Other psalms decry the wicked engaging in violence and murder. But what Psalm 12 does is make clear that what precedes such violence is malicious and deceitful speech.

Biblical wisdom for Americans

This is an important message that I believe all Americans need to take to heart. We take great pride in our First Amendment right to free speech. That is a precious freedom. If we as a society are to establish wise policies that support the well-being and prosperity of all our citizens, we must ensure that the voices of all citizens are heard.

We also need to remember that our right of free speech carries with it a heavy responsibility if we are not to let our words destroy us. We can do great harm by deceitful, hateful, and intemperate speech. How many marriages or families have been torn apart by an argument that got out of hand or by an insult that was said in high anger?

We are seeing a lot of angry, intemperate speech in our society today, spoken not only by politicians, but also by ordinary citizens. That speech, wherever it comes from, works to deepen distrust among us.

As a result, too many of us, I believe, are beginning to question that we can ever know the truth. In John’s gospel account of the trial of Jesus before the Roman governor, we hear Pilate ask cynically, “What is truth?” (John 18:38) He apparently thinks it is impossible to know the truth. One hears similar sentiments today when we hear a politician say on TV that truth isn’t truth.

So if we cannot know the truth, how do we resolve conflicts? By naked power. Whoever is strongest gets the privilege of defining truth. This is something post-modernism constantly asserts.

I think, however, we need to be cautious if we buy into such an assertion. If we act as if all truth claims are simply disguised power plays, then I believe we are planting dragon seeds. We must not be surprised then when dragons begin to roam our society.

When Faith Doesn’t Stick

Transmitting one faith to the next generation is always a chancy endeavor.

The Bible gives us precious few details about the family of Moses. We know his wife’s name is Zipporah. She is the daughter of a priest of Midian that Moses meets in the Sinai desert. They have two sons. Their names are Gershom and Eliezer.

We know they did not succeed their father as leader of the people of Israel. That fell to a family outsider, Joshua. Also in a short genealogical reference in 1 Chronicles 23:15-17, we learn that Gershom had a son named Shebuel, and Eliezer a son named Rehabiah. But that is the last we hear anything about Moses’ descendants, with one exception.

In the Book of Judges we encounter one more mention of another grandson of Moses. His name is Jonathan. The brief mention is a curious one.

Unsettled life in Israel during the era of the judges

The era of the judges in Israel was an unsettled one. The Israelites had entered the land of Canaan after their 40-year trek through the wilderness. They begin to take possession of the land. That process, however, comes across as a fluid and unsettled. Tribal boundaries were not yet fully delineated.

The religious life of Israel was also fluid and unsettled. The Biblical text suggests that adherence to the aniconic (prohibiting images) monotheism of the Sinai covenant was not yet firmly established everywhere. Israelites frequently adopted religious practices as well as the gods of the Canaanites. Syncretism was more properly the order of the day.

The migration of the tribe of Dan

Chapter 18 gives us a window into both of these realities. We read there an account of the migration of the Hebrew tribe of Dan, which seeks out a new patrimony on the northern border of Canaan. There they attack a peaceful people living in a town named Laish. They slaughter the residents, burn the city, and rebuild it as their own. They rename it Dan.

Storm god on bull

Image of a Canaanite storm god aside a bull.

It’s a rather grim story. The Danites come across as murderous bullies. This witnesses to the widespread violence of this era in Israelite history.

On the route to their raid, the Danites invade the homestead of a man named Micah. There they rob him of a cast-metal idol along with some other religious objects. They also give the free-lance Levite priest who serves as Micah’s chaplain an offer he can’t refuse. They carry both to their new city, where they set up the idol in a shrine for themselves and appoint the Levite as priest.

In verses 30-31 we learn that Micah’s chaplain is Jonathan, Moses’ grandson. The text then says that Jonathan and his descendants continue as priests at Dan for several hundred years.

This stray mention startles us. Moses’ grandson and his descendants have been set up as priests to serve a graven image.* One wonders how the Danites justified their action. It is possible that they did not see this idol as a rejection of the worship of the God of Israel. They may have just been following in the same mindset as the Israelites did in the exodus story when they set up the golden calf at Mount Sinai and worship it as a material representation of God. But were they not falling into the same deviance that those earlier Israelites had fallen into?

They also co-opt a member of the family of Moses in the process, just as the earlier Israelites had co-opted Aaron, Moses’ brother, to make the image for them.

One also wonders how the Moses of the Torah would have reacted if he had lived to see this development. We read in Exodus 32 the rage that Moses showed when the Israelites under Aaron had erected a golden calf at Mount Sinai and made it the object of their worship. It was a serious breach of the covenant, for it violated the very first two commandments of the Ten Commandments. Surely Moses would not have been tolerant of this violation of the covenant by his grandson.**

How do we account for Jonathan’s deviance from his grandfather’s way?

I call it a curious story because a reader of the Bible does not expect to find that a grandson of Moses would be skirting on the edge of his grandfather’s strict monotheism. How do we account for this?

One answer might be that the historical reality of early Israel was different from the picture we get in the Torah. Israel’s monotheism may not have been as settled in the beginning as the Torah suggests. Judges may give a more accurate picture.

But the story of Jonathan may also reflect a common reality in the life of faith. Transmitting one’s faith to future generations is never a sure thing. Even the spiritual stature of Moses could not guarantee that his descendants would continue to walk in the pathway of his faith.

This can be a consoling thought to all parents and grandparents who have watched their children or grandchildren abandon the faith in which they were raised or choose to walk a religious path far different from that they were taught. History offers many examples of when the process of faith transmission fails.

_______________

* We get the sense that the author recounts this fact because the shrine at Dan later became a shrine/temple that rivaled the temple in Jerusalem. As a result the Danite shrine has a reputation in the Old Testament as a site of illegitimate worship.

** That a member of Moses’ family should have been connected with this deviant worship center at Dan may have caused something of a scandal for those who wrote and compiled the Old Testament. Maybe that is why in the ancient manuscripts, Jonathan is sometimes said to be a grandson of Moses and sometimes a grandson of Manasseh. Also when we read the mention of Gershom and his sons in 1 Chronicles 23:15-16, we do not find Jonathan listed. Was Jonathan omitted from the genealogical reference deliberately?

 

Blessed Rules

Rules can guard the sacredness of ordinary life.

road-sign-us-yield

Reading the Acts of the Apostles can be exhilarating. We get an inspiring picture of life in the infant church. Christians gathered for joyful times of prayer, instruction, and fellowship. Financial resources were pooled into a common fund. The apostles went about healing, with some dramatic results.

We admire this picture of early church life. Since then many Christians have aspired to recreate it. Back in the early 1970s, I once visited a charismatic Catholic community in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was trying to replicate life in a Christian community modeled on the infant church of Acts. Among other things, when they corresponded with other like-minded communities, they modeled their letters on the style of Pauline epistles.

The shock of the Pastoral Epistles

With this Acts model of church life in our minds, it can feel like a real downer to read the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), as I have been doing recently. We don’t find here the kind of spiritual sky-diving we find in Acts.

We find instead churches that feel so commonplace. The author (whether Paul or one of his disciples) seems consumed not with spiritual fireworks, but with ordinary, day-to-day issues like:

  • praying for those in civic authority, even if they are pagans,
  • choosing right leaders for the congregation,
  • caring for the churches’ widows and dependents,
  • ensuring the teaching of correct doctrine,
  • avoiding the allure of money,
  • being diligent in the public reading of Scripture, teaching, and exhorting.
  • living a godly life.

At one point the author even advises Timothy to drink some wine rather than water. It seems that Timothy has a somewhat temperamental stomach. We don’t expect such a commonplace concern to be on the mind of an apostle.

As we read these letters, we can feel like we are in the world of our own churches. Life in a local congregation can often feel less than spiritually elevating. We live with the imperfect task of finding right pastoral leadership. Churches struggle with raising the funds that finance their operations. Disputes arise among church members. Sometimes they are so severe that a church splits. Members can burn out after too much volunteer service. And we can be very critical when sermons don’t rise to our high standards.

Maybe this is why many Protestant Biblical scholars have detected in the Pastoral Epistles the beginning stage of the catholicization of the church. In the Pastorals we seem to be on the road to church life governed by rules, policies, and regulations. All this will ultimately be codified in the massive corpus of canon law. Where has the spontaneity and spiritual vitality of Acts gone?

Taking a positive view on the Pastorals

I do not hold to such a negative view of the Pastorals. As many young people in the 1960s who flocked into hippie communes learned, it is not easy to maintain a community in perpetual, ungoverned spontaneity.

The demands of everyday life begin to intrude. People acting spontaneously find that their spontaneous actions start to come into conflict with the spontaneous actions of others in the community. If the wellbeing of the community as well as the sanity of individuals are to be preserved, some rules governing behavior must be adopted.

This is just as true of congregations as it was of the ‘60s communes. I think it was inevitable that the infant churches would come to need the Pastoral Epistles. They needed their emerging rules, structure, and regulations if the spiritual wellbeing of the community as well as of all its individual members was to be respected, honored, and nurtured. The sacredness of their ordinary life needed to be protected.

The best motivation for these rules was to nurture the kind of love and service to which Christ calls his church. Within the boundaries of those rules, policies, and regulations, the life of love might be given a chance to flourish.*

Learning to respect the goodness of rules

This was brought home to me a few years ago by an incident in the presbytery where I serve. I chaired a presbytery committee that had the task of nominating candidates for various offices in the presbytery’s structure. In one case we had two candidates for one office that we were considering. One was white; the other African American.

We decided to nominate the white man because we thought him the best qualified. The African American challenged our decision, wondering aloud if we had let racial bias affect our decision. I decided to have lunch with him and talk over his concern.

He asked if we had followed all our rules in making the decision. Why, I asked, was it so important to him that we follow the rules punctiliously? I will never forget his answer. He said, “For African Americans, abiding by the rules strictly is the only way we can assure there is a level playing field for us.”

His comment has forever changed how I look at the place of rules, policies, and regulations in the life of the communities in which I participate, including churches. At their best, they are needed to ensure that community life is fair and nurturing to all who form a part of it. They are the servants of Christ’s call to love one another. I now dodge the rules with a lot less alacrity.

When rules need to be broken

This is not to deny that many rules and regulations are not servants of love, but agents of oppression. Every community, including churches, can go overboard with structure and law to the point that we stifle the demands of love and compassion as well as the energies of spontaneity and initiative.

There is Biblical warrant for this viewpoint. The gospels tell the storyof a time when Jesus and his disciples are walking beside a wheat field on a Sabbath. Because they are hungry, some of the disciples pick and eat some of the ripe wheat grains.

The Pharisees charged Jesus and his disciples with breaking the rules for keeping the sabbath. Jesus responds to their criticism by saying,The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.(Mark 2:27) For Jesus, there are times when the rules can be and may need to be broken for the sake of love and compassion in meeting human needs.

This is why the life of faith is full of risk. It is sometimes not clear cut when we need to abide by the rules for the sake of love, respect, and compassion, when order takes precedence over violation, and when the demands of love call for breaking the rules, for violations of the law. For the breaking of the rules can have serious consequences for the rule-breaker regardless of his or her benevolent motives.

But it is certainly not wise or spiritually mature to simply regard rules, policies, and regulations as impediments as we live out our Christian calling to love and compassion. That I think is one of the contributions the Pastoral Epistles make to the New Testament’s picture of life in the church. Let us have ardor but let us also have order in a healthy balance.

_________________

* In my opinion one of the best exemplars of this point is the Rule of St. Benedict, which has governed much of Western monastic life for 1,500. Benedict writes with the heart of a pastor caring lovingly for the wellbeing of the whole flock. We should not limit the wisdom of Benedict to just monastic communities. I recently attended a presbytery meeting where a candidate for ordination talked about how she drew inspiration and guidance from Benedict for her upcoming pastoral ministry.

Revealing Verbs

The verbs in a Biblical story disclose the character of the actors.

Rape_of_Tamar_-_Le_Seur

The Rape of Tamar, by the French artist Eustache Le Sueur, ca. 1640

Anyone who reads my blog regularly knows that I put great value on a close reading of the Biblical text. I like to pay attention to the words that writers use to tell their story. Their choice opens up new perspectives on a familiar story.

One of the most brutal stories in the Bible is the story of the rape of Tamar, the daughter of King David (2 Samuel 13). She is raped by her half-brother Ammon. The rape unleashes catastrophic consequences on the house of David. In the process David almost loses his throne.

Christian Century magazine has recently published an article by Anna Carter Florence, in which she focuses on the verbs used in the story to disclose the power dynamics at work in the rape. It is a brilliant example of a close reading of the Biblical text. I want to commend it to you for your reading. It will be worth your while.

Jesus Comes to His Hometown

When Jesus visits Nazareth, his neighbors don’t know what to make of him. 

p0000000469

The gospels (Matthew 13:53-58, Mark 6:1-6, Luke 4:14-30) tell us that after his baptism, Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth. Here everyone must have known Jesus. He after all had grown up among them. He had probably played with the other Nazareth children as a child. He had undoubtedly provided his carpentry services to the village residents.

But the visit does not end in any celebration of a hometown boy who has done good. Instead the villagers drive him out of town and even try to kill him. It is a grim story of rejection.

Father Eric Hollas, a monk at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, takes up this gospel story and extracts from it a very thoughtful sermon. I want to commend it to you for your reading. He titles it Are We Citizens of Nazareth? It gives a very contemporary and practical take upon the Biblical story.

Father Hollas writes a blog called A Monk’s Chronicle. I find it nourishing reading. You may want to check it out.

He is also a talented photographer. So every blog posting comes with a selection of his photographs, taken during his frequent travels. If you delight in stunning views of ecclesiastical architecture or of landscapes and gardens or of close-ups of flowers and paintings, you might find them as much of a delight as I do.

Welcome the Wilderness

When the Israelites leave Egypt, they take the long route to Canaan for some very good reasons.

IMG_0864

Former monk cells carved into the volcanic rock of the Cappadocian wilderness of Turkey.

Exodus 13:17-18 tells us that when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, God did not permit them to take the shortest route to Canaan. That way would have been the road that followed the Mediterranean coast into the Gaza region of Canaan. The trip would have taken only weeks.

Exodus anachronistically calls this road the way of the Philistines. It was the historic route that travelers, merchants, and armies followed in making the trek from Egypt to Syria and beyond. It was therefore heavily guarded by Egyptian garrisons.

Exodus tells us that God was afraid the newly freed Israelites would come into conflict with one of these armed camps and lose heart. They might just then return to Egypt. Instead God directs them into a more roundabout route through the heart of the Sinai wilderness. The journey to Canaan ends up taking 40 years.

I think, however, the Biblical text gives only one part of God’s rationale in making this change of course. There is much more going on in those 40 years than just avoiding skirmishes with Egyptian troops.

The Wilderness as a Place of Testing

For one, the Israelites have just been freed from slavery in Egypt. They have experienced a totally unexpected liberation, thanks to an unbelievable act of God’s grace. But now who is this God who has set them free? What is his character? Can he be trusted always to be for them?

The Israelites need time and experience to come to know this God who has called them. So the years of wandering in the wilderness become a time of testing, as Israel tests God to see if God will provide for them and guide them. There will be much wavering along the way. It takes time, truly a lot of time, to come to have a deep trust in this God.

In a similar way, God does not fully know who this people are whom he has just liberated from Egypt. Will they trust him? Will they follow his guidance? Or will they fight him and vex him?

Over the 40 years God will learn much about this people. He will learn that they are a mixed bag of faith and fear. One day they will covenant with God and promise to have no other god before them. The next day they will give way to anxiety and grumble about God and Moses. On occasion they will even break their promises and flirt with other gods.

In the first years of any marriage, a husband and wife are engaged in a process of coming to know each other more deeply. Will this deeper knowledge lead to greater commitment or to new alienation? Will they be able to love each other despite the flaws and failures they find in each other?

In a comparable way God and Israel are coming to know each other during those long 40 years in the desert. This process of coming to know each other takes on more intimacy because in the desert the people are deprived of the many distractions that go with urban life in a city or with rural life in a settled agricultural community. In an environment of deprivation, the partners must deal directly with each other.

Understanding this about the 40 years of wilderness wandering gives insight into the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ temptation after his baptism (Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13). The texts say this time of temptation was 40 days long. It took place in the wilderness.

The gospel writers are clearly looking backwards at the exodus story. Just as Israel faced a time of testing in the desert, so must Jesus as he makes an exodus journey in his own life. Can God count on Jesus or not? Can Jesus count on his heavenly Father? Only a time of testing will demonstrate.

The Wilderness as the Place of Nation-Building

There is, I believe, a second important reason why Israel must spend 40 years in the wilderness.

When the Israelites fled Egypt, they experienced the giddy exuberance of a long-desired freedom from oppression. You hear their giddiness in the joyful song that Moses and the Israelites sing in Exodus 15.

But this mass of freed slaves is still just a disorganized rabble. The Israelites need a national structure that will give them an identity and a stability that will enable the work of national development to proceed. Without some organizing focus, this rabble will fly in all directions and dissipate as a people.

God clearly understands this need. He sets out to give Israel this organizing focus through the covenant established at Mount Sinai. In its wake come two important gifts. The gift of torah law will give structure to Israel’s corporate life. The gift of the tabernacle and priesthood will give it a focus for its worship.

With these gifts God begins the hard work of replacing a slave’s mindset with the mindset of a people who can confidently take responsibility for their life under God’s rule. In short, this is the task of nation building, a necessary task after any revolution.

As we Americans should especially know, nation building is not a quick and easy task. It takes time and constant vigilance. It is especially challenging to change a people’s mindset. But without that change, the risk of the people surrendering their freedom and returning to the patterns of Egyptian oppression is very high.

With freedom also comes anxiety. Too many people find the pain of anxiety so high that they will willingly surrender that freedom to someone who will relieve them of that pain.  Israel will prove just as vulnerable to that temptation as have been many peoples in history since.

The 40 years Israel spends in the wilderness constitute a noble effort to accomplish this important change of mindset. In the terms of Christian spirituality, we call that change conversion.

The result is decidedly mixed. When Israel finally enters Canaan, it will fall prey over and over again to the appeal of an Egyptian pattern of living. Yet Israel will never completely forget its calling. Its prophets will repeatedly remind the Israelites of what a converted life looks like. And Israel will seek to reform over and over again.

The Wilderness as Model for Our Spiritual Journey

Here is the power of the exodus story as a model of the spiritual journey for anyone who sincerely seeks to engage in that journey. The journey may begin with baptism or an emotional altar call response or simply a serious though rational decision for God. But however the journey begins, the start is just that, a start. The spiritual journey of conversion always remains a journey. And for all of us it takes a lifetime and then beyond to complete.

If we are serious about this journey, the exodus story tells us that periods of living in the desert are necessary stages on that journey. Those experiences deprive us of the distractions of ordinary, daily life. We can then concentrate our attention on the Lord and our life with him. In the process we hope to experience that deeper conversion of life to which the Lord calls us.

This is why the early monastic movement began in the Egyptian, Syrian, and Anatolian wilderness. The first monks fled the Greco-Roman cities for the desert exactly to escape the distractions of city life so they could concentrate their energies on their spiritual growth and maturation. In their desert cells and communities, the monks sought to become deeply converted men and women. Once that conversion was advanced, some might safely return to life in the city, there to live and serve without succumbing to a Egyptian mindset.

Though many people may not explicitly realize it, it is why spiritual retreats hold such appeal. When we go on retreat, we are returning in a sense to the desert to refocus our lives free of the distractions of our daily living. Most retreats are short in duration and so may not lead to any deep conversion. But they still give us a taste of the blessing of detachment.

This is also I believe the appeal of contemplative prayer for many people today. As we enter into the silence of contemplative prayer, we too experience a kind of return to the desert, a spiritual desert where we seek to be free of our distracting thoughts, emotions, and verbosity so we can simply be with the Lord and come to know him as he knows us.

So let us welcome the wilderness experiences in our lives. They bring their own special blessings.