Finding the Art in Everything

12 March, 2011

I is for Israelites

No one tells you that freedom first feels like death.

I met with my spiritual director this week and confessed that I want to go home every day. And I have wanted to turn around and go home nearly every day since I got here. Those of you who get postcards from me don't really get ones that say that. But I do. I drive around, taking in the beauty of Marin, and still saying aloud to myself, "I want my old life back." I am weary, lonely, lost, and worried. I miss my cute apartment, my space, my family, my friends, my job, my security, my spaniel, the familiarity, the comfort in a way that bears down on me like a physical weight. And while I know my "old life" is impossible to retrieve, it's the only name I can put on the relief I crave.

When I explained this to my spiritual director, he said, "I bet you're asking God, 'Did you bring me out here to die?!?'"

YES! That's exactly what I was wondering. Did God bring me here to die?!?

He smiled and showed me that this is not the first time God has heard that question. The Israelites asked it too.

It's a fool's errand to seek the specific place in Exodus where that happens: They ask it of God an embarrassing number of times, and when God's astounding miracles are shamefully recent. They ask it right before God opens the Red Sea, and a week after eating the meat and bread he provides in the desert.

I can see why they do this. Did God bring them there to die? If the answer is no, then why are these circumstances surprisingly brutal? If the answer is is yes, then that idea is unacceptable. We'd prefer Egypt, thanks.

But the answer is yes, and preferring Egypt, in light of God's mercy, is the unacceptable thing.

Paul suggests that this pain is not the pain of abandonment, but the pain of something else:

[8] We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; [9] persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; [10] always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. [11] For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. [12] So death is at work in us, but life in you...[16] So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. [17] For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, [18] as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:8-18 ESV)

C.S. Lewis writes my favorite explanation for what might be going on here:

"The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self--all your wishes and precautions--to Christ.

"Christ says 'Give me All. I don't want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half measures are any good. I don't want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. I don't want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked--the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: My own will shall become yours.'...

"When I was a child I often had toothache, and I knew that if I went to my mother she would give me something which would deaden the pain for that night and let me get to sleep. But I did not go to my mother--at least not till the pain became very bad. And the reason I did not go was this. I did not doubt she would give me the aspirin; but I knew she would also do something else. I could not get what I wanted out of her without getting something more, which I did not want. I wanted immediate relief from pain, but I could not get it without having my teeth set permanently right. And I knew those dentists; I knew they started fiddling about with all sorts of other teeth which had not yet begun to ache. They would not let sleeping dogs lie. If you gave them an inch they would take a mile.

"Now, if I may put it that way, our Lord is like the dentists. If you give Him an inch, He will take a mile. Dozens of people go to Him to be cured of some one particular sin which they are ashamed of... or which is obviously spoiling daily life (like bad temper or drunkenness). Well, He will cure it alright: but He will not stop there. That may be all you ask; but if once you call Him in, He will give you the full treatment. That is why He warned people to 'count the cost' before becoming Christians. 'Make no mistake,' He says, 'If you let me, I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in My hands, that is what you are in for. Nothing less or other than that.'

"'Whatever suffering it may cost you in your earthly life... whatever it cost Me, I will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfect--until my Father can say without reservation that He is well pleased with you, as He said He was well pleased with me. This I can do and will do. But I will not do anything less.'

"The goal toward which He is beginning to guide you is absolute perfection; and no power in the whole universe, except you yourself, can prevent Him from taking you to that goal. That is what you are in for. And it is very important to realize that. If we do not, then we are very likely to start pulling back and resisting Him after a certain point. I think that many of us, when Christ has enabled us to overcome one or two sins that were an obvious nuisance, are inclined to feel (though we do not put it into words) that we are now good enough. He has done all we wanted Him to do. And we should be obliged if He would now leave us alone.

"But this is the fatal mistake... The question is not what we intended ourselves to be, but what He intended us to be when He made us....

"Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you know that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of--throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself!"

I am starting to see that all I can see right now is the pain of this work. I am not capable of perceiving the meaning of all this in my mind and body, but I can wait for the grace of God in my spirit.

The Israelites complain because they, too, are buried by their own distress. They are hemmed in by the mountains, the sea, and the Egyptian army where surely death is imminent. They are on the verge of starvation and dehydration, and Moses tells them, "The Lord will fight for you; you need only be still...In the evening you will know that it was the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, and in the morning you will see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your grumbling against him."

These circumstances--the Israelites and mine--are clear examples of enforced dependence on God, and the Israelites had to rely on God's provision every day for 40 years just to survive.

For the millennia, God has treated his people in this way. It's not brutality; it's mercy.

And we see from the Israelites that we need only be still to see oceans opened and food at our feet.

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