When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, ‘If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness towards the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt prepared for battle. And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had required a solemn oath of the Israelites, saying, ‘God will surely take notice of you, and then you must carry my bones with you from here.’ They set out from Succoth, and camped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.
Then the Lord said to Moses: ‘Tell the Israelites to turn back and camp in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon; you shall camp opposite it, by the sea. Pharaoh will say of the Israelites, “They are wandering aimlessly in the land; the wilderness has closed in on them.” I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, so that I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army; and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.’ And they did so.-- Exodus 13:17 - 14:4
We live in a world that seems to demand that we know where we are at all times. It’s not enough anymore to rely on AAA maps or someone’s direction to go down this road and turn right at the willow tree. No, we have to have specific instructions like how many miles, turn right or left, which side of the street is it on, or whether we really are wherever we're going when the gadget says “destination on left, 200 feet.” Cars have built-in GPS –connected screens and smart phones have map apps that can direct us to the corner drugstore or a similar corner drugstore on the other side of the country. If we lack smart phones or smart cars, we can still buy gizmos that use a satellite to mark where we are and, based on the address we select, tell us how to get there, turn by turn. Sometimes the devices work well and sometimes they don’t, but it’s all an effort to keep us focused on where we are and where we’re going. Then, of course, there is the Social Media where all our friends can know where we are at any given time along with lots of people we don’t know but who are friends of friends and who really don't care that we're in the local Starbucks or heading for a featured recreation event. It's about getting somewhere by the most direct route, the fastest way or the way with the least amount of traffic to contend with.
Imagine being in a wilderness with no road signs, no cement or asphalt roadway, no white and yellow lines (with or without little reflectors), no printed maps or glowing GPS screens, no stores or houses around. Add to that not even knowing where the final destination is. Immediately it is an uncomfortable place, a place where “lost” seems to have a whole new dimension. Where are we? Good question. I’ll bet the Israelites said that more than once on their exodus from Egypt. And I'll bet a lot of kids (and probably a number of adults too) were saying, "Are we there yet? Are we there yet?"
As the crow flies, it's just shy of 245 miles from Cairo to Jerusalem, cities representing a general start and finish line for the exodus. The distance they had to travel wasn't all that great and could have been covered in a matter of days or even a few weeks. What God had in mind, though, was a very long way home, time to give the generation that had been born and lived in Egypt all their lives time to be gathered to their forefathers. God also had a plan to further reinforce to Pharaoh that God's people weren't folks to be messed. To make sure everything went as planned, God set two pillars in the sky, one of clouds for daytime and fire at night, to keep the Israelites on the move in a seemingly random and aimless fashion. Undoubtedly there were planned rest stops along the way, probably sometimes lasting months at a time, so a journey of a few hundred miles stretched to forty years.
In our world, we seem to have to be constantly on the move. When we are born, our parents probably have a plan in mind for us: school from pre-K through college, marriage, family, great job that pays big bucks, long and happy life. Unfortunately, that doesn't always play out in the real world. We sometimes lurch from event to event, sometimes wandering aimlessly through life without knowing precisely where we are or where we're going. All we know is where we've been. Most of us don't have a built-in GPS when it comes to making choices or steering a straight course without unforeseen challenges and setbacks.
A kind of commonality between us and the Israelites during the exodus is that we carry the bones of the past with us as we journey. They brought the bones of Joseph with them; we carry the bones of damaged relationships, lost dreams, remembered hurts and unacknowledged sins. We don't have any clear idea where we're going any more than they did, but, like them, we have to keep moving. We may stop somewhere for a while, to catch our breaths, to recharge our energies, to gain some perspective perhaps, but eventually we have to be on the move again and hopefully we've got a presence in front of us to keep us moving in the right direction. And the bones go with us.
We need direction. We need purpose. We need a lot of things including a sense of where we are in space and time, where we've been, what we've learned. We need the gumption to pick ourselves up one time more than we fall down, and we need to look around us for the pillars of cloud and fire that God puts in front of us to keep us on course. It may not be actual clouds or fire but maybe the fire of passion for doing something that will benefit others or a cloud of promise when we need a little rain in our wilderness. We probably could use a dose of sensitivity to the opportunities presented to us and a conscious choosing to go just another mile into the journey toward the unknown instead of clinging obsessively to the present and the familiar.
God's not going to leave us rudderless, any more than God left the Israelites in the wilderness with the bones of Joseph. We've got prayer, we've got scripture, we've got community, we've got common sense and we have reason. Most of all, we have God as our pillar. Keeping our eyes on God should help keep us on course and headed home, even if it is the long way around. Besides, the longer route is usually a lot more scenic than the freeway!
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 26, 2014, under the title "Going home by the long way."