In my journey of faith, if I’m honest, I’ve always wanted to get somewhere. As a teenager, I thought I had God figured out. Sure, I could continue to grow in my understanding of God but all the major puzzle pieces were in place and no tectonic shifts were going to take place. That felt like a destination, like I had arrived. And boy did it feel good.
Once I had to let go of things like inerrancy, a literal reading of Genesis 1-3, and a moralistic reading of the Bible, it felt like a freefall.
And believe me, I had to let those things go. I didn’t want to. Based on all that I had learned, those things were just no longer tenable for me, no longer compelling. And I grieved the loss. The loss of feeling secure. The loss of feeling in control. The loss of feeling like I had arrived.
And so, I quickly went to work building toward a new destination. Maybe the faith tradition of my youth wasn’t right, but that just meant I needed to pick myself up by my biblical bootstraps and get to work finding out what was the right way. But every time I felt like I had arrived, new holes would develop and the ship would start sinking again. The questions were getting more unanswerable and the certainty I once felt, more elusive.
Let’s take a step back. Like way back to the beginning of Israel’s story. According to the biblical account, Israel was called out of slavery and oppression to set up a new social order where through the Israelites all the families of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12:2; 28:13-14).
God calls Israel out of Egypt and marches them to the Promised Land, which was described as “a land flowing with milk & honey” and a place where God will see Israel as a treasured possession and will give Israel “praise, fame, and high honor” (Deut 26:18-19)
The challenge of course, is that if you keep reading in the story, it’s never utopia. The vision of Israel as a blessed city on a hill, a light to the surrounding nations, never really became a reality. What seemed like a reachable destination as the Israelites entered the Promised Land quickly became a mirage, something that can be seen when it is far off but seems to evaporate when it is right in front of you.
Enter Walter Brueggemann’s book Journey to the Common Good.
He brilliantly points out that Israel escapes oppression in Egypt just to become the oppressors in Jerusalem. The very thing they were running from was the thing they became.
This book helped me to see that arriving at a destination is what we want because certainty and security provide safety for us. But in the history of certainty and security, rarely does it bode well for other people.
Once we feel like we “have it,” once we feel we understand God, we start to do whatever we can to remain feeling safe and certain. We begin to manipulate our understanding of God to keep what feels so good to us.
And so, I have begun to think that the best place for me, and for the other people I interact with, is the desert.
It’s accepting that I may never arrive at certainty in my understanding of God or the ultimate meaning of life.
And accepting that not only is that inevitable as a human being with limited understanding, but it’s also preferred to keep me in the most open and loving place I can be, without the need to defend my territory, my castle of safety I had built for myself.
We all know the best place to be isn’t in Egypt. But perhaps it isn’t in Jerusalem either. Maybe it’s coming together to walk the desert in community, all of us following and trusting that mysterious pillar of smoke and fire that is often guiding us but never telling us where we’re going (Exod. 13:21-22).