|Image from a stunning collection by Clare Benson|
This reflection draws from all of Exodus...
but especially Exodus 1:6-22
And the Hebrew people are delivered from slavery in Egypt to…?
No, not the Promised Land. Not just yet, anyway.
First, the wilderness.
What’s the point of the wilderness? What is God up to? What is the reason for the wilderness? In the story of the exodus, the story that defines a people and a God, the actual exodus - as in the leaving itself - is never separated from the wilderness. The wandering in the wilderness is somehow part of the deliverance.
There is this word that came up for me around this story, Liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning "a threshold"). Originally studied as a middle part of a rite of passage, "a liminal place is defined as “a psychological, neurological, or metaphysical subjective state, conscious or unconscious, of being on the "threshold" of or between two different existential planes.”
...It refers to in-between situations and conditions that are characterized by the dislocation of established structures, the reversal of hierarchies, and uncertainty regarding the continuity of tradition and future outcomes”.
So I am intrigued by the wilderness, this “in between” they get delivered to. This threshold.
When Andy and I graduated from seminary I was awarded the “Parish Pulpit Fellowship” for excellence in preaching and commitment to parish ministry. What it basically meant was that some anonymous donors were awarding us $21,000 to travel and study, to supplement what I had learned in seminary with a broader, experiential education utterly of my own choosing.
So we packed up everything we owned into a 15 x15 storage unit, surrendered our apartment, forwarded our mail to a PO box, put our student loans on hold, and filled a few bags with just a tad more than we could carry and essentially dropped off the grid for six months.
We traveled around the whole world, heading west. Beginning in Fiji and Hawaii, we stopped off in Australia for three months, and then progressed through Egypt and Israel to Europe, where we bounced around from country to country, currency to currency, language to language with nothing but the packs on our backs for two months, ending in Britain, and eventually returning to Southern California via New York City. When we left for the trip we had been married just over a year.
But here’s the thing – it sounds really exciting, and it was, at times. At other times it was incredibly boring. We were living on a shoestring and spending 24 hours a day, seven days a week with each other. We had no bills to pay, or errands to run, no communities we belonged to, no family, no friends, no expectations on us whatsoever, and at times the time seemed to stretch on forever. The adrenaline withdrawal in those first four weeks was nearly enough to drive me mad.
Not only was the experience foreign to anything we had ever known, and without all the normal things of a normal life, we were living in true liminality. The season of life we had been living in was concluded, and our future had not yet unfolded. Nothing awaited us when we returned- we did not have a home or jobs to come back to, and all of our friends had graduated when we did and moved away to start their new lives elsewhere.
The life we had known as students with part time jobs and full time studying and a breakneck pace had come to a screeching halt when we boarded that plane. And what would greet us upon our return remained a mystery.
But some things happened in that liminal space. Parts of me that had died before I left were let go, and the space opened up within me to see myself in a new way, to be redefined, reoriented, rearranged.
After the exhilaration of Fiji and Hawaii, we landed in a flat in Melbourne, Australia for a couple of months. While we were there Andy was working on his second graduate degree, so he was studying 7 hours a day and I was alone to occupy my time in a strange city with no connections or routines. Having been through a painful and difficult time in the months before our trip, I didn’t trust God much when we set out on this journey. And now, when I wasn’t distracted by sightseeing or spouse, I was stuck alone with God for hours and hours every day.
I would walk through parks and sit in a coffee shop called “Lana’s” with my journal and vent my jittery anxiety and restlessness until I was settled enough to sit still. And then I would feel open and alert.
I can still remember the feel of the air on the streets of Melbourne, and the sound of the streetcars and the smell of the eucalyptus trees. I was awake. Present. Coming back into myself, meeting God again.
And on that trip, in our extended liminal state, Andy and I learned a ton about living with each other. We learned how to share. We learned how an introvert and an extrovert can coexist; how to respect each other’s space, and how to find space for ourselves in unfamiliar terrain. We learned how to budget, down to the penny, how to keep track of expenses and juggle plane tickets and train tickets and meals on a set amount that needed to stretch the globe.
We discovered that most of our fights happened when we went too long without food, and that anger is often directly triggered by hunger and fatigue. Without alarm clocks or obligations, we learned our own and one another’s sleep rhythms, and our most productive times of day, and we discovered just how much capacity we each had for adventure and ancient ruins before we’d need a big mac and internet cafe. We learned who was better with the map and who was better with the train timetables and how to tell each other over someone’s head with just a look that no, this hostel is probably not where we want to stay and yes, I’m right behind you if you bolt for the door right now.
Through sea sickness and homesickness and heartsickness and tons of laughter and a few tears and lots and lots of walking side by side we learned things about life together in relationship that would have taken us years to figure out if the lessons were diluted with jobs and friends and schedules and bills and all the joys and struggles of ordinary life. But in this intense liminality they were melded into us our being, and our being with each other, deeply and wordlessly, simply by the heat of constant proximity and duration.
And when we came home, without really knowing how I got there, I knew who I was and where I was going. It was on this trip that I knew I was going to come back and be a minister. And we knew we would both surrender our hodge podge religious backgrounds and become Presbyterian. And Andy knew he’d do a Ph.D. and go on to teach. It took us all of 18 hours from the time our plane touched down to find an apartment and sign a lease. And by the end of the weekend we were moved in and filling out applications, so eager we were to begin the next phase of our lives.
Now granted, we were not in a “wilderness” –as it is often described - I have known in my life times of suffering and loss, wondering where God is and what could possibly be the meaning of this. This had been a time of healing and rebuilding for me, not one of tearing down. And there are lots of ways to explore the wilderness as just that, as the Dark Night of the Soul and the place of loss. But I am fascinated, at this telling of the story, by the wilderness as a liminal place, by its function as a threshold, an in-between spot, where both tearing down and building up occur. And how often God’s movement of us from slavery to freedom, for whatever reason, involves wilderness.
In order to be the people of God, the Hebrews have to stop being the people of Pharaoh. You can take the people out of bondage to oppression, fear and mistrust, but it might take a wilderness to take the bondage to oppression, fear and mistrust out of the people. That is to say, just because God saves them doesn’t mean they are suddenly fundamentally different. The wilderness is filled with complaining and fear. The urge to self-preservation is intense, the lack of cohesion and unity is palpable, and the distrust of God and Moses incessant.
So here they are, in this in-between place, for 40 years. Letting go of the old, not yet ready to step into the new – existing between two existential planes- their identity in suspension, the death of all they’ve known behind them and the future yet unborn. They are no longer slaves. They are not yet free.
The wilderness is their detox, their reset button, their school of identity and purpose. They need to meet God again. They need to meet themselves again.
The people are going to have to get to know God out here where it is just them and God, face to face, for an extended period of time without any distractions, good or bad. Who they are and where they go from here depends on this. They cannot live as free people in a promised land if they carry their slavery within. They must rely on God, and come to trust in God’s love and care for them, God’s relentless FOR-them-ness, God’s promise to be a different kind of Lord than the Lord they have known in Egypt.
The wilderness is the place where there is complete dissolution of order as they have known it – and bad as it had been, at least it was order! But in the process, the new structures are being constructed within them that they do not yet realize.
And later on, they will look back and decide that this time – as hard as it was, as disorienting and uncomfortable and confusing as it was, was the most formative experience of their entire corporate existence. That all of who they are and how they live together came from this time.
And even more, this time defined for them who God is. No longer is God “the God of your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”. Now God is “I AM the God who delivered you out of the land of Egypt,” The God who will continue to care for them, even in the times when the promises seem hard to see and they feel all but forgotten.
And then, throughout the rest of scripture and through Jewish history the story of God’s provision in the wilderness became, especially during the exile, a source of great hope and identity. It defined them as a people cared for by God, and taught them how to be this people with each other. And it reintroduced them to God who is steadfast, even when we can’t see the way. God who provides when it all looks hopeless. God who leads us and never lets us go, even when we doubt and question and test. Remembering this story that defined and shaped them sustained them through future times of struggle, hopelessness and the unknown.
Who is God? Who are we? Who am I? Those are the questions that God’s story continues to explore, answering them in different ways as the story changes. But when our liminal stages come, – whether huge, drop off the grid-type wilderness experiences, or small, ordinary ones like the school ending or jobs beginning or new circumstances arriving on the scene - these are the questions that get front and center treatment. “Who am I? Who are we? Who is God?” echo all throughout the thresholds and in-betweens.
And most especially when it feels like we’re not going anywhere, when we’ve lost a sense of purpose, and what used to be is impossible to return to, (and even if it wasn’t that great we long for it because it was familiar), and what’s ahead is undefined and intimidating, but mostly we’re sick of feeling like we’re treading water and going nowhere -
You’re on a threshold. You’re in between. Something is dying and something new is being born. Something is being worked out of you to prepare you for what you’re meant to be and do.
The real struggle and challenge and promise and invitation of the wilderness is trust. Trust in the steadfast love of the God who is leading you. Trust that you will not lose yourself forever. Trust that you are being held in the purpose of God, and that on the other side of this you will be changed.
And even when you don’t feel trusting, and you can’t really say you know God is there, (for THIS part of the journey anyway), you’re not in charge and you can’t just step out of the wilderness when you feel like it. So settle in for however long a haul it turns out to be with the God who is relentlessly FOR you.
And don’t be scared to dwell for a time in the questions of the liminal state, for they are ultimately a gift:
Who is God?
Who are we?
Who are you?