Deuteronomy 1:19-40 ‘Staying the course’

Reflection by Anne Stewart

Those who have travelled with kids in the car will remember how, before too long, one of them will ask are we there yet?  It marks an ending doesn’t it!  The end of peace in the car.  The end of patience. The end of harmony.  And, you just know that it’s going to go all downhill from that point on.  If you have had young people in your bubbles over the past couple of weeks, then you probably have heard the odd grumble or two, as well.  Of course, it’s not just young people!  “I’m over this”, has been said a few times in our house.  Normally we long for a bit more time at home, but it seems to be that when you can’t get out, you find that you really need to.  We always seem to want the very thing that we can’t have, strange creatures that we are.  The Israelites grumbled in their tents because, like us, they didn’t know where they were going, or when they would get there.  They were scared of the unknown.  

One of our three young people has never been easy to feed.  They like what they like but have always been very hesitant about trying something new.  Whenever I have tried to widen the food repertoire the question has always been, ‘but what if I don’t like it?’ and my reply has been, you guessed it, ‘But what if you do, you won’t know till you try it’.  I’ve always understood the reticence to be about fear of the unknown.    Most of us fear what we don’t know but how we deal with this will be played out in a variety of different ways.

The Israelites in the wilderness had short memories, and I would argue that they were a little short on trust as well.  I have tried never to trick our young one into trying new foods, or to hide food within a dish so they eat it without knowing.  As tempting as that has been, I knew I had to grow the trust in order for them to reduce the fear of the unknown.   The Israelites short memories meant that they very quickly forgot what God had done for them in the past.  Their liberation from the oppressive rule of the Egyptians, and the provision during their time wandering in the wilderness had all faded from their memories because they couldn’t get their heads out of the present and the fear that they were feeling in it.  They forgot that God, out of love and care for them, travelled ahead of them, and prepared the way (vs 30).  God had been down that road of possibilities and had an idea of what was ahead.  Hadn’t they had safe passage through the Red Sea because God had guided Moses from ahead?  This going ahead is known in some circles as prevenient grace.  Prevenient means to come before, or to anticipate.  There is undeserved favour ahead, and in faith we are to journey into it trustfully.  A mature faith will know that despite this, life is still not always easy.  Challenges still come at us that have to be negotiated.  Maybe it’s easier to understand the concept of grace ahead than it is to trust in it sufficiently to live calmly into it.  It would seem that the Israelites forgot that God goes ahead almost as soon as they hit the first hurdle.  They so quickly faltered and lost their faith in what they couldn’t see.  How many hurdles do we encounter before we too do something similar? 

As I was reflecting on this, I was reminded of our Paralympians who have been giving their all over the past couple of weeks.  These characters have all had to negotiate a whole raft of significant hurdles simply to get to where they are.  You have to admire the guts and determination they have to have.  Most of us, without significant injuries or disabilities, couldn’t even make it to the start line.  But these characters start from a place in which most of us would give up, and they push on through extraordinary challenges.  But they have developed what is needed to live through the difficulties and gain the endurance they need to push past their limitations.  The Book of Deuteronomy, which our story of Moses for today comes from, has been likened to a speech, a long pep-talk from Moses to the people, where he challenges the next generation of God’s people to be different. He offers them a new chance, to respond to the challenges with love and obedience.    I hadn’t thought of Moses as a coach before, but that title seems to fit his role rather well!

Part of what was freaking the Israelites out was that they knew from the scouts who had gone on ahead that they were journeying toward a land where other gods were worshipped.  They had been in such a place before, and they remembered that that had not gone well.  Moses was trying to prepare them for this by reminding them that ‘The Lord is their God, the Lord alone.  Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, soul and strength.’ (ch6:4,5)   He wanted them to get it right so they could know God’s blessing and not God’s curses.  We don’t use the language of blessings and curses so much these days, but we know what it means for Moses to want the best for God’s people.  Moses wanted them to have the relationship with God that he had; to know the God that he knew and to love and trust in this God as he did.

His pep-talk is a real plea to the people to ‘stay on track’.   Hang in there even if it looks weird.  Hold the course even if you can’t see where it will lead you.  Of course, to do this you have to believe in something, you have to at least trust the coach, you have to make a commitment to something or to a course of action.  One of the criticisms I often hear of younger people, is that they don’t have the same sense of commitment that those who went before them had.  I’m not so sure of that.  I am not sure it’s always a lack of commitment and wonder if it’s more a lack of the belief that comes before to inspire the commitment.  Younger people still exhibit passion for causes they believe in, like environmental issues, and racial issues.  In fact, I would say they are much better on these two issues than my generation are.  The younger ones give me great hope for the future because of how seriously they take them.  Most of their exasperation stems from what looks like the apparent lack of care taken of those who have gone before them.  They don’t want to live as we did.  They can’t see the promised land ahead by going that way.  They don’t want big corporates getting richer at the expense of those who are pushed aside.  They don’t want more for some so there is less for others.  They don’t want plastic overused so that our marine life is strangled into extinction.  They don’t want systems and practices that abuse the environment we depend on, through practices and systems that are all take and no care.  None of these things are good for creation, none of these things take us to the better place flowing with milk and honey.

We are so fortunate that our faith provides a good foundation to rest on.  We have a long story of life with God on which to rely and to be resourced by.  Stories after stories of God leading us to green pastures and still waters.  Stories of God’s provision along the way.  Stories of liberation into a new and better way.  Stories that tell us of God’s promises to us, rainbows that come after rain.  Alongside these we have stories of humanity in rebellion; humanity thinking it knows best; and humanity giving into the way of fear.  Humanity afraid and impatient, forgetting it’s past story and losing trust and faith.  The reality is that none of us know what is ahead, except that at some point this earthly journey will be done.  We know we have a finite time here yet knowing that does not, or should not, stop us living.  We choose life and make the best of it, knowing that it will end even though we know not when or how.  We are always journeying into the unknown, that’s why we need to be learning from the past while we relish the present, and trust God’s big story. 

This big story of God and us matters to us.  We hear it and we have become shaped by it.  We live into it and it lives in us.  I was hearing again recently someone tell of her experience of finding her way into The Village, some years back.  She talked of how her sense of belonging brought her to a place of believing.  It’s a great story.  It’s about the grace of a welcoming community, us providing a place where anyone can come and rest until they are ready to find their way into a faith life that makes sense to them.  A place where we hold a big story that doesn’t give us the right to expect anything from those finding their way before we make a space for them.  That welcoming space is something we are all called to be committed to crafting.  We have something precious to welcome them into; a big story of God at work that we are all part of.  We know that as God went ahead and prepared a place for us, so too God is preparing the way for them.  Like the Israelites, we might give in to the occasional grumble in our tents, but we know the power of loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and strength, and what it means to be held by this God who wants only the best for us.   Surely, that makes every day a day full of promise and hope!  And maybe that, right there, is the answer to the kids in the car, wondering if we are there yet!  Yes, we’re there because the welcome is prepared and waiting for us before we get started.  Every day is full of grace.