The sea has parted forming a wall of water on both sides and a commanding voice booms, “You may paaasss.” That’s how I have always pictured the scene as the ancient Israelites marched, en mass, through the red sea on their way out of Egypt. I imagine Moses at the helm, smiling triumphantly, exuberantly and perhaps a little relievedly as his magic staff actually accomplished what God had told him it would: Let my people go!
Yet, according to the book of Exodus, the Israelites were none too sure about things, Red Sea parting or not:
As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” ~ Exodus 11:10-12
“Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die?” Ironically, this was the phrase that overtook me as I encountered the actual desert for the first time. The Sahara of North Africa was stark, dry, and barren; sand upon sand as far as the eye could see.
I had been looking forward to this family excursion for months. The trip was planned, a guide secured, preparations made, clothing purchased, and accommodations booked. All was made ready for our travel to Morocco. This day’s journey was the trip’s crown jewel: riding camels through the desert to a campsite where we would spend the night in tents under the expanse of a night sky, completely unspoiled by ambient light of any humankind. We would be alone with the stars in the desert. What bliss…
But first, the desert. Just mounting my camel was a bit harrowing as she lurched forward and then backward to achieve her standing, but as the guide led our small family group toward the dunes, I settled into the clippety-clop rhythm of my ride. I even loosened my death grip on the saddle slightly as we started up the first dune.
The setting was like nothing I’d ever seen. It was the purest expression of two complimentary colors: an infinity in grains of carmelized sand piled against an inestimable expanse of sky blue. The line separating them as if a kindergartner had drawn it with a crayon. The scene was miraculous, both breathtakingly beautiful and ominously frightening. Fear and awe all at once.
No greenery. No trees. No water. Only sprigs of dried grasses. Hardly a sign of life of any kind. And we were setting out into it. All I could think was: Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? Those Israelites had a point. Just imagine being led away from everything you ever knew, all supply, all solace, and all resources into a promised land that looked anything but promising. My judgment of those Israelites was premature. I forgive them their doubt.
And yet, the awe and beauty was palpable in its simplicity, quiet, and tranquility as we upped and downed the dunes. Silent movement. Slow trudging progress toward… How did our guide know which way to go with no landmarks and no visual cues? Everything looked exactly the same to me. The occasional brave pebble rolled downward, displaced by our camels’ hooves, but a brief gust of sultry wind would wipe away the footsteps and remove all evidence that we were here.
We had placed our well-being in the hands of our guide, a mere teenager. He was a member of a nomadic tribe whose family had lived and loved this land for generations. He didn’t speak our language and we didn’t speak his. Still, we let ourselves be guided and came to trust our sturdy rides – up and over, out and around, over and back, side hill and downhill – as one does the mule who carries you along the switchbacks overlooking the Grand Canyon. They don’t often lose people on these trips, I told myself.
When the campsite came within view, I confess I exhaled a relieved sigh. Light was growing dimmer and all of me could use a rest. It had cooled off from the daytime 105 degrees to an evening “low” in the upper 90’s. As evening fell and stars appeared overhead, we trudged up the nearby dune to get a closer look. Laying back and resting on the fine, dry Sahara sand, we looked up at the stars – the same ones that overlooked all the earth’s inhabitants and the very same that accompanied the ancient Israelites; these still they twinkled down at us. I was completely entranced.
The miraculous always astounds me. With reverence, we set off to see and understand and experience on holy ground. Then we come before God in complete awe and He reminds us of his promise to Abraham and his son Isaac, and through them, to us.
“I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.” ~ Genesis 22:17
Now, it seems odd that the Lord spoke of the sand on the seashore to a people in the desert. Perhaps, he had in mind to part the sea.
We don’t want to hear it! And we certainly don’t want to see pictures of it!
That’s what my friends who are digging out of Blizzard 2016 are telling me. And I don’t blame them. There they are, buried in nearly three feet of snow, and here I am sitting pretty in the Florida sunshine. Keep it to yourself they say, we’ve got a situation.
So… No more photos. No more Facebook posts. I’m censoring my sharing, lest it be seen as teasing or taunting or, at least, insensitive to their hardship – which I don’t know and certainly am not experiencing. Who could blame them for feeling a bit of resentment toward their friend who is living in luxury while they toil and fend for themselves?
Makes me wonder about the Biblical Joseph who, while his brothers are experiencing famine, lives in plenty in the house of his Egyptian master. Of course, the brothers were unaware their little bro had survived their attempted homicide, so they probably didn’t give that a second thought.
Then there was Moses, separated from his people and raised in Pharaoh’s palace. That probably wouldn’t have played well had his fellow Jews – enslaved by their harsh Egyptian task masters – gotten wind of their boy Moses’ eating delicacies and enjoying royal privilege.
And then there was Jesus, come to walk among us and be one of us – to know our hardship and pain intimately, to experience our sorrow and disappointment, and to suffer with us. God knew that His ministry and message would not have rung true in any other way.
“Really, I have been watching from heaven and I have seen what you have been experiencing. True, where I come from there’s no pain and suffering, but I’ve been watching yours and I can relate. I’ve been reading all your Facebook posts and watching all your videos. I feel really bad for you. It’s agonizing watching you do all that shoveling. …”
No, there is just something about being there. Walking among, shoveling alongside, warming hands together while sipping hot chocolate and telling stories of the day.
So, friends at home, it may sound strange, but the land of luxurious sun feels a bit lonely these days. Comfortable, yes, but remote and not quite right, as if I should be doing something more to hold up my end of the bargain. I guess Joseph and Moses had to figure that out.
Jesus just knew. Thank God for that.
The whole burning bush incident has always interested me. Moses there beyond the wilderness, his attention drawn aside by this shrub in flames, who goes to investigate only to hear the voice of God. And what does God say but, “Come no closer! Remove those sandals, you’re standing on Holy ground.” And there Moses is, standing before God, barefooted.
Yesterday’s Upper Room author, a pastor from Tennessee, gets credit for inspiring what I am thinking next. The title of his meditation: Sheep Don’t Wear Shoes. Now, true to my nature, I didn’t completely agree with what he wrote (…that sheep don’t have to remove their shoes, their feet are naked before God already, so to speak, and so they draw close). I’m not sure our footwear creates such an insurmountable barrier, but leave it to God to show me something about my sandals. I change out of them into the cleats I wear to work. When I do I am standing on Holy ground.
I am a fitness coach who works with young athletes – mostly on the soccer field. In these summer and early fall days it is warm, so I drive to my worksite wearing my sandals. But when I arrive, I take them off to change into my cleats. I usually offer a whispered prayer of my hopes for a good session or for God to be glorified in my teaching. Or I just give it all to Him in thanks that I can be there at all. (A year and a half ago I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be.) All these prayers seem hollow, constructed by me. Perhaps because they’re in my head and heart, not in my hands and feet.
But yesterday, I made my change from sandals to cleats my prayer. As I removed my sandals, I stood for a moment on the asphalt of the parking lot and thought, “this is Holy ground.” It is a place where I have turned aside to offer what God has planted in me. (I was not any more certain of what was to happen next. I am imagining Moses and I may be kindred spirits here.) Then I laced up my cleats with careful intention. I was putting on the foot-armor of God.
The sessions were fun and I believe fruitful. But as our time ran short, dark, blue-gray storm clouds gathered overhead. The girls didn’t notice, but I kept watch. And as we completed our final activity I spotted a flash in the distance. “That’s it. We’re done. There’s lightning.”
The parents and kids scurried to gather their balls and water and take off their pinnies. We thanked and bid each other quick ‘see ya next weeks.’ I looked at my watch. It was exactly, 7:00. Closing time for the session. By 7:03 all the kids were safely in their cars and on their way home. So was I. That is the beauty and majesty of treading lightly and intentionally on holy ground, it bids us come and then sends us safely along the way home.